Carew’s quick rise disproved one doubter

Hard to believe that one of Major League Baseball’s purest hitters didn’t make his high school varsity team as a senior. The baseball coach at New York’s George Washington High School cut and told the aspiring ballplayer that he wasn’t good enough.

Three years later Rod Carew was putting on a Minnesota Twins uniform to appear in his first major league game on April 11, 1967.

Carew did more than disprove that high school coach. He continued on an amazing journey that took him from Panama to New York and eventually to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Working to Play

Carew’s life journey has been distinct. His mother Olga Teoma gave birth to him while traveling on a racially-segregated train in the Panama Canal Zone in 1945. His mother immigrated with her children to New York when he was 14 years old.

Arriving as an immigrant in the early 1960s was challenging. Carew had to learn a new language and adjust to a new culture as a teenager.

As part of an immigrant family he had two responsibilities: school and work to help his family financially. This meant not a lot of time for the game he loved playing as a child in Panama.

The emphasis on school and work translated in Carew taking a different approach to baseball. He didn’t try out for the high school team until his senior year. After he was cut, he decided to turn play into work.

Carew joined a semi-pro team, the Bronx Cavaliers. The team paid the teenager to play baseball. While playing with the Cavaliers he caught the eye of a Minnesota Twins scout.

A Quick Study

Shortly after graduating high school in June 1964, Carew signed with the Twins.

The Twins assigned him to Melbourne, Fla., in the Cocoa Rookie League. Having lived his first 14 years in Panama, racial segregation was not totally unfamiliar. Even more, Carew was determined to persevere.

Carew proved a quick study when it came to hitting. He earned promotions from Rookie League and Florida Instructional League in 1964 to Class A ball in the Florida State League in 1965. Moved to the Carolina League in 1966, Carew batted .292.

Carew hit so well some observers saw him as a natural, a pure hitter. He also proved in the minors that he could be a significant offensive weapon by using his speed and baseball intelligence to get on base, steal bases and score runs.

In 1967 he made the huge jump from Class A to the majors, earning a starting spot on the Twins out of spring training.

Natural Born Hitter

The 21-year old rookie was penciled into Minnesota’s starting lineup at second base for their April 11 opener.

Fortunately for Carew, acclimating to the big leagues was made easier since the Twins already had several Latinos who were established starters. His double-play partner was Cuban Zoilo Versalles, recipient of the 1965 American League Most Valuable Player award and a two-time All-Star.

The Twins’ outfield had Venezuelan Cesar Tovar patrolling center field and Cuban Tony Oliva in right. Oliva was a godsend for Carew. Their relationship would flourish into one of Latino brotherhood.

“Here I am a rookie and he was a guy that’s a big star, and he took me as his roommate. We roomed for 11 years. … I learned so much from him, how to care for myself on the field, off the field, taught me how to tie my first tie, all that stuff,” Carew said.

Passing the Test

Minnesota opened the 1967 season in Baltimore, facing the Orioles pitcher Dave McNally before a crowd of 39,812 at Memorial Stadium.

Oliva and Carew were the only Twins to enjoy success that afternoon, each collecting two hits.

A two-time batting champ, one could have expected that from Oliva. But a rookie hitting against a tough left-hander like McNally was surprising.

Slotted sixth in the Twins batting order, Carew came up swinging. He singled in his first at-bat against McNally in the top of the second. He singled again in the eighth as the Twins tried to mount a two-out rally. The rally fell short, and the Twins suffered a 6-3 defeat.

Carew passed his opening test even as the Twins lost. He didn’t stop hitting. He batted .292 as a rookie and earned several accolades. He was selected to the All-Star Game as a rookie—his first of 18 consecutive All-Star selections. At season’s end, he was voted American League Rookie of the Year.

Carew built on his rookie success. His 91 strikeouts that season would be a career high. Carew, a lifetime .328 hitter who collected 3,053 hits, won six AL batting titles, including during his MVP season of 1977 when he batted .388 and reached double digits in doubles, triples, home runs, and stolen bases.

Hall of Fame voters recognized what that high school coach did not. The guy born in Panama and raised in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood could play. Carew was voted into the Hall in his first year of eligibility in 1990.

Featured Image: Bettmann