When Don Carlsen was moving up baseball’s development ladder to the major leagues, the routine practice in the clubhouses wasn’t the wrapping of pitcher’s arms and shoulders in ice. Pitchers of today get the ice treatment every time they pitch. There were other differences too. Carlsen pitched at a time when starting pitchers were expected to pitch a complete game no matter what the number of innings. He once went the distance in a 15-inning game and that was in spring training. “If you were in the bullpen in those days, it meant you weren’t good enough to be a starter,” explained Carlsen.
His life after baseball has taken some turns. The right turns have included a career in handball that led to induction into that sport’s national Hall of Fame. He coached young people in baseball because he had a passion to help them find their way. He joined with other former baseball players and athletes in a mission to explain the dangers of alcohol abuse to young people and elders alike. However, one of the wrong turns was his own bout with alcohol.
Carlsen came out of Denver’s East High School and the Duffy’s Drinks summer American Legion baseball program in 1944. His signature on a contract with the Chicago Cubs as a shortstop earned a $1,000 signing bonus. Carlsen’s baseball career wasn’t long in duration. He was with the Cubs briefly in 1948 and pitched for Pittsburgh in 1951 and 1952. He won two of six decisions for the Pirates.
By the time he made it to the majors, Carlsen felt he already was going downhill as a pitcher. While pitching in 1949, he felt something “pop” in his right elbow. Surgery followed and he missed the 1950 season. “I could throw pretty hard and that’s why they moved me to the mound,” said Carlsen. “After the operation, I was a better pitcher, but I couldn’t throw as hard. We didn’t have the gun in those days, but I could throw in the high 90s. I went up too fast and tried to throw too hard.”
While he learned his baseball in Denver, there was another part of Carlsen’s life at the time that maybe accounted for his compassion for others. World War II was under way and everyone still felt the affects of the Great Depression. “We moved about a half dozen times when I was in elementary school.” Carlsen remembered. “I know how I felt, I always was shy and I needed a friend.” Carlsen has not hesitated being a friend for others. “I wish I had played more baseball than I did, because it would have made me more effective today,” explained Carlsen. “Young people listen to stars when they talk.”
Carlsen, who once helped Bill Reed with the radio broadcasts of Denver Bears games, still talks of his sport. “Players today are bigger, stronger, and they do everything better,” noted Carlsen. “But I think the stars of yesterday would still be the stars today.”
Carlsen tells about a time in his life that wasn’t pleasant. It was 1987 and it involved his son Jackie Carlsen. “I found out I had a problem,” remembered Carlsen. “Jackie talked to me for 10 or 15 minutes early one morning. I didn’t hear all of it. But I heard him say, ‘Dad, you’re hurting other people’.”
That conversation and the support of his wife, Gwen, started Carlsen’s climb away from addiction. Then there was another battle confronting Carlsen…cancer. It wasn’t easy.
For inspiration, Carlsen remembered a comment he once heard delivered by baseball legend Branch Rickey.
Rickey’s comment: “To the extent that you believe in your excuses will determine how successful you’ll be.”
Carlsen passed away on September 23, 2002.
I could throw pretty hard and that’s why they moved me to the mound.