On September 21, 1981, Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Steve Carlton strikes out the 3,118th batter of his career to break Bob Gibson’s National League record for career strikeouts. Despite Carlton’s 10 shutout innings and 12 strikeouts, the Phillies lost the marathon game to the Montreal Expos in the 17th inning, 1-0.
Carlton, known to the baseball world as “Lefty,” began his major league career with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1965. The 6’4″ left-hander was an imposing presence on the mound and his slider, a fastball thrown with the fingers laid across one seam, was one of the most famous–and difficult to hit–pitches in baseball history. The Cardinals won back-to-back National League pennants in 1967 and 1968 behind Carlton’s stellar pitching, and after an impressive 20-9 campaign in 1971, he demanded a more lucrative contract. The team owners instead traded Carlton to Philadelphia, though they soon had cause to regret their decision. Carlton pitched one of the greatest seasons in National League history in 1972, going 27-10 on a team that won only 59 games in total, a major league record. In addition, his 27 wins, 310 strikeouts and 1.97 ERA won him the pitching triple crown and the first of four Cy Young Awards. After a slump in 1973, Carlton put together a string of dominant seasons, and was again awarded the Cy Young in 1977 and 1980, when he helped the Phillies to the organization’s first-ever World Series championship.
On September 21, 1981, the Phillies and Expos were engaged in a tight battle for the NL East title in a strike-shortened season. Carlton displayed his usual dominance, faltering only in the third inning when he allowed the Expos to load the bases before striking out Andre Dawson to retire the side. The strikeout was Carlton’s 3,118th, giving him the National League record for most career strikeouts. Carlton went on to strike out 10 more batters on the night, allowing no runs. The game continued in a scoreless tie until the 17th, when Dawson singled in the winning run. The game was the longest in the majors that year.
Carlton won his fourth Cy Young Award in 1982, his 17th season in the majors. He retired in 1988 with 4,136 career strikeouts and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994, his first year of eligibility.