Carew is a Zonian and was born to a Panamanian mother on a train in the town of Gatún, which, at that time, was in the Panama Canal Zone. The train was racially segregated; white passengers were given the better forward cars, while non-whites, like Carew's mother, were forced to ride in the rearward cars. When she went into labor, the conductor Charles Williams stopped the train to find a physician. Traveling on the train was Dr. Rodney Cline, who delivered the baby. In appreciation for this, Mrs. Carew named the boy Rodney Cline Carew.
At age 14, Carew and his family immigrated to the United States and settled in the Washington Heights section of the borough of Manhattan, New York City. Although Carew attended George Washington High School, which MLB star Manny Ramirez also attended, he never played baseball for the high school team. Instead, Carew played semi-pro baseball for the Bronx Cavaliers, which is where he was discovered by Minnesota Twins' scout, Monroe Katz (whose son, Steve, played with Carew on the Cavaliers). Katz then recommended Carew to another Twins' scout, Herb Stein, who along with Katz signed Carew to an amateur free agent contract (at the Stella D'Oro Restaurant in the Bronx) on June 24, 1964.
Starting his minor league career, Carew was assigned to play second base with the Melbourne (FL) Twins in the Cocoa Rookie League and hit .325 over the final 37 games of the season. Promoted to the Single-A Orlando Twins in the Florida State League the following season, Carew hit .303 with 20 doubles, eight triples and one home run. Carew spent the 1966 season back at Single-A, but this time with the Wilson Tobs in the Carolina League.
Carew won the American League (AL) Rookie of the Year award in 1967 and was elected to the first of 18 consecutive All-Star game appearances. Carew stole home seven times in the 1969 season to lead the majors, just missing Ty Cobb's Major League record of eight and the most in the major leagues since Pete Reiser stole seven for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946. In 1972, Carew led the AL in batting, hitting .318; he had no home runs for the only time in his career. This was the first time since 1918, when Zack Wheat won the National League batting championship, that a player won the batting title with no home runs.
In 1975, Carew won his fourth consecutive AL batting title. He joined Ty Cobb as the only players to lead the major leagues in batting average for three consecutive seasons. Seeing time predominantly at second base early in his career, Carew moved to first base in September 1975 and stayed there for the rest of his career. In the 1977 season, Carew batted .388, which was the highest since Boston'sTed Williams hit .406 in 1941; he won the 1977 AL Most Valuable Player (MVP) Award. He had finished in the top 15 in AL MVP voting in every season between 1972 and 1976. In the summer of 1977, Carew appeared on the cover of Time with the caption "Baseball's Best Hitter". He won two more batting titles in 1977 and 1978, hitting .388 and .333.
Though Carew did not win a batting title after 1978, he hit between .305 and .339 from 1979 to 1983. In 1982, Carew broke his hand early in the season. Newspaper reports characterized him as swinging one-handed that season due to pain, but he put together a 25-game hitting streak at one point in the season. He played in 138 games that year and hit .319. The Angels went to the playoffs in 1982, which was Carew's fourth and final appearance in postseason play. The team lost a five-game series (three games to two) to the Milwaukee Brewers. Carew played in all five games, but he hit .176 (three hits in 17 at-bats).
On August 4, 1985, Carew joined an elite group of ballplayers when he got his 3,000th base hit against Minnesota Twins left-hander Frank Viola at the former Anaheim Stadium. The 1985 season was his last. After the season, Rod Carew was granted free agency, after the Angels declined to offer him a new contract, but he received no offers from other teams. Carew suspected that baseball owners were colluding to keep him (and other players) from signing. On January 10, 1995, nearly a decade after his forced retirement, arbitrator Thomas Roberts ruled that the owners had violated the rules of baseball's second collusion agreement. Carew was awarded damages equivalent to what he would have likely received in 1986: $782,035.71. Carew finished his career with 3,053 hits and a lifetime batting average of .328.
Through 2013, Carew still holds many places on the Twins all-time franchise lists including: the highest career batting average (.334), the second highest on-base percentage (.393; tied with Buddy Myer), fourth highest in intentional walks (99), and fifth in hits (2,085) and stolen bases (271). He also holds many places in Angels franchise history including highest career on-base percentage (.393), the second highest batting average (.314), and sixth highest in both intentional walks (45) and sacrifice hits (60). Carew's career total of 17 steals of home ties him for 17th on the all-time MLB list with former New York Giant MVP Larry Doyle and fellow Hall of Famer Eddie Collins.
During the 1960s, Carew served a six-year commitment in the United States Marine Corps Reserve as a combat engineer. He later said that his military experience helped him in his baseball career. Carew said, "When I joined the Marine Corps, it was a life-changing event for me because I learned about discipline. When I first came up to the big leagues in 1967, I was a little bit of a hot-head. But after two weeks of war games every summer, I realized that baseball was not do-or-die. That kind of discipline made me the player I became."
There is no evidence that Carew ever formally converted to Judaism, although he wore a chai necklace during his playing days. His first wife, Marilynn Levy, is Jewish and he was a member of Temple Beth Shalom  in Santa Ana, California. Their three daughters were raised in the Jewish tradition and had their Bat Mitzvahs there. When one daughter, Michelle, died at age 18 services were held at Beth Shalom, and she was buried in the family plot at the United Hebrew Brotherhood Cemetery in Richfield, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis where Rod Carew played for the Minnesota Twins.
A 1976 article written in Esquire magazine was one of the first publications to assert Rod Carew was Jewish. Sportswriter Harry Stein released his "All-Time All-Star Argument Starter" article which consisted of five different ethnic-based baseball teams. Carew was erroneously named the second baseman on Stein's All-Jewish team. A 2007 Salon article named Carew one of the 18 best Jewish ballplayers of all time; the article clarified that Carew was not Jewish but commended him for raising his children in the faith and for marrying Levy in spite of death threats he received.
Another source propagating the story is the 1994 song, "The Chanukah Song", written and performed by entertainer Adam Sandler, in which he lists famous Jews of the 20th century: "...O.J. Simpson... not a Jew! But guess who is: Hall of Famer Rod Carew! He converted!". Carew later wrote Sandler and explained the situation, adding that Carew thought the song was "pretty funny". Sandler later deleted Carew from future versions of the song, although the original version still gets the most airplay. However Neil Diamond later mentioned the ballplayer in his version of "The Chanukah Song".
Carew moved to the community of Anaheim Hills, California while playing with the Angels and remained there after his retirement. Carew was hired as the Angels hitting coach on November 5, 1991 and served in a similar capacity with the Milwaukee Brewers. He is credited with helping develop young hitters like Garret Anderson, Jim Edmonds, and Tim Salmon. Carew has also worked at various times as a minor league and spring training hitting and base running coach for the Twins and serves as an international youth baseball instructor for Major League Baseball.
Rod married second wife Rhonda in December 2001 and she has two children, Cheyenne and Devon. Devout Christians, the family attends Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. On January 19, 2004, Panama City's National Stadium was renamed "Rod Carew Stadium". In 2005, Carew was named the second baseman on the Major League Baseball Latino Legends Team.
In September 1995, Carew's youngest daughter from his first marriage, Michelle, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a relatively rare leukemia for a young person. Doctors wanted to perform a bone marrow transplant, but Michelle's rare ethnic heritage complicated the search for a matching donor; her father was black with West Indian and Panamanian roots and her mother was of Russian-Jewish ancestry. Carew pleaded for those of similar ethnic background to come forward. When no matching bone marrow donor was found, an umbilical cord blood transplant was performed in March 1996. Michelle died on April 17, 1996 at the age of 18. A statue of her has been installed in Angel Stadium of Anaheim.
Carew began using chewing tobacco in 1964 and was a regular user up to 1992, when a cancerous growth in his mouth was discovered and removed. The years of use had severely damaged his teeth and gums, and Carew has spent a reported $100,000 in restorative dental work.