The Cleveland Fan on Facebook

The Cleveland Fan on Twitter
Indians Indians Archive Tribe Game Vault: 4/19/80. Super Joe Charboneau- A Legend is Born
Written by Greg Popelka

Greg Popelka

joe charboneau closeup stanceBy now, the excitement was building. 60,000-plus Indians fans had converged upon Cleveland Stadium; the mountain of concrete and bricks looked and sounded great when it was mostly full. During games like the one on the following day- a Sunday, no less- the feel from the 60,000-plus empty seats was more like that of a huge, cold, damp old barn.

Opening Day was always a prized ticket, though, and this home opener would have brought the natives out in force without the added intrigue. Sure, the Tribe had started the season with a 1-5 road trip and were already trailing by a couple games in the standings. The team was horrible. Everyone but the bright-eyed kids who had not been beaten down by the teams of the 1970s pretty much knew that.

The Indians of the 70s featured a fine farm system that produced waves of good prospects. Unfortunately, many of those players were dealt as the financially strapped ballclub tried to stay afloat. Generally, Cleveland traded quality for quantity- and cash. Occasionally, a rival general manager would later lament that they’d offered a better package of players- that apparently the cash was the key.

So to the uninformed, the 1980 season held little promise. But regardless of the tale told by the ticket sales receipts, Tribe fans always are engaged. They may be (rightly) skeptical of short-term success, but they care. Deeply.

When spring training began, much of the lineup was set. The outfield featured LF Mike Hargrove, CF Rick Manning and RF Jorge Orta. Cliff Johnson was to be the designated hitter. The infield was manned by 3B Toby Harrah, SS Tom Veryzer, 2B Duane Kuiper and 1B Andre Thornton. The catcher was Ron Hassey. But someone else was bursting on the scene, catching the eye of observers.

Joe Charboneau, a minor leaguer who had had a choppy career thus far, was a hitting machine from day one. He began withjoe charboneau pose w bat seven straight base hits during intrasquad play. As Plain Dealer reporter Terry Pluto would note later, the Cleveland media was hyping the young ballplayer even before the first exhibition game. He continued to hit, and the stories began to circulate: he could open beer bottles with his eye socket. Or with the inside of his elbow. He’d fought in box cars for gamblers near where he grew up in Santa Clara, California. He’d ‘fixed’ his broken nose with pliers. A lasting legacy of his busted cartilage was his ability to ‘drink’ beer through a straw that he’d insert in his nose. He’d also been stabbed several times over the years.

Who knows whether some of the stories were true. It began to not really matter much. Here is a choice nugget: he was reportedly a direct descendant of Toussaint Charboneau, the French-Canadian husband of Sacagawea. This was the couple that guided Lewis and Clark for a time, during their exploration of the American west when Thomas Jefferson was president.

What mattered was Charboneau was extremely good-natured, quick with a smile and always willing to sign an autograph. And the hitting-the-cover-off-the-ball thing did not hurt one bit.

Cleveland fans were already abuzz when the news from south of the border was relayed by the Tribe’s beat reporters. While the team was in Mexico City to play an exhibition game, a crazed ‘fan’ approached Charboneau near the team’s hotel, and offered a pen. He asked if the player was from the United States. When Charboneau said yes, the ‘fan’ turned assailant, stabbing him in the left hip with the pen. Charboneau and the man fell to the ground together, and teammates rushed to his aid. The man removed the pen and then tried to stick Charboneau in the eye, saying he hated Americans and would do it again. The man would be fined 50 pesos for the attack by Mexico City authorities (around two dollars). Charboneau recovered quickly.

joe charboneau stanceJoe Charboneau continued to hit through the spring. He was fast becoming a huge favorite of the media- Pluto has been credited with giving him the nickname, Super Joe. And suddenly, the roster began to open up for the young slugger: first Johnson hurt his hand, and then at the end of camp, Thornton suffered a serious knee injury. Super Joe was going north with the team.

Starting with the season opener at California, Mike Hargrove was moved to first base in place of Thornton. Charboneau was inserted in left field. He hit an opposite-field home run in his second at bat.

He later admitted he was nervous, and that he really wanted to get a hit because he heard that they’d give you the ball.

When the home opener arrived, the home crowd was ready for their chance to greet Super Joe. He received a lengthy ovation during introductions, which he said puzzled him since he had not really earned it.

Rick Waits was the starting pitcher for the Tribe on that day in 1980. Waits was a solid lefthanded starter who was joined on that starting staff by ‘ace’ Dan Spillner, Len Barker, John Denny, and Bob Owchinko. (Go pull your Curse of Colavito book by Terry Pluto off the shelf for the humorous story involving Owchinko.) The Toronto Blue Jays weren’t much of a team, yet, having only been in existence for a few seasons.

Waits began the game by inducing a groundout to short by SS Alfredo Griffin. CF Rick Bosetti hit one to Veryzer as well, whose error put Bosetti at second base. 1B John Mayberry moved the runner with a groundout to first, before Waits rung up DH Otto Velez on a strikeout looking.

The Indians went fairly quietly in the first as well, against Toronto starter Jim Clancy. Mike Hargrove’s walk was all they could muster.

joe charboneau swingIn the second, Waits retired 3B Roy Howell on another strikeout looking before Harrah booted RF Barry Bonnell’s grounder. Unfazed, Waits proceeded to pick Bonnell off at first and finished the Jays off with a Damaso Garcia flyout to right.

With one out in the  bottom of the second, Joe Charboneau approached the plate. Another dramatic ovation ensued. Super Joe worked a walk. With Ron Hassey at the plate, Charboneau broke for second- but was gunned down by C Bob Davis while attempting to steal. Hassey lined out to left.

The Blue Jays broke through with a run off Waits in the third. Future NBA player and GM Danny Ainge led off the inning with a single to left. Davis followed with a single of his own, to right. Ainge moved to third. Waits controlled the damage by inducing Griffin to bounce into a 4-6-3 double play- Ainge scored, but that was it for Toronto as Bosetti flied out to right.

By the bottom of the fifth inning, the score remained 1-0 Toronto. The only offense since the third had been a double by Ainge. For the Tribe, Charboneau came up to bat with Orta on first. Super Joe delivered, doubling to left. Hassey then doubled as well, plating Orta and Charboneau. After a Kuiper walk, ex-Tribesman Tom Buskey relieved Clancy and did some damage control of his own: after a Veryzer bunt moved the runners, Buskey intentionally walked Manning. Harrah hit a sacrifice fly, but Buskey issued an intentional pass to Hargrove before striking out Cliff Johnson. 3-1 Tribe after five.

The Indians came to bat in the bottom of the sixth, still up by two. Orta was retired. Up came Charboneau. Super Joe crushed a home run off Buskey, thrilling the home crowd! After a couple more base hits, the Tribe was retired.

The Indians came up in the bottom of the seventh, ahead 4-1. Bailor Moore pitching for the Jays. After Harrah hit a foul flyout, Hargrove was hit by a pitch (if he wasn’t on your team, Hargrove was a thorn in your side). Johnson flew out to left. Orta walked, putting runners at first and second for Super Joe Charboneau. The excitement was electric, as the noise of the fans reached new levels. Charboneau came through again, sending a ball to left field for a single. Hargrove scored. 5-1 Tribe!

Waits was in control, inducing three groundouts and bringing the Tribe back to the dugout to hit for hopefully one last time. In their half of the eighth, the Tribe worked some two-out magic. Manning walked, Harrah singled to the left side, and Hargrove was up. He clobbered a Moore pitch for a 3-run homer.

joe charboneau accepts royWaits cruised in the ninth, collecting his first win of the season in a complete game effort… I don’t want to say ‘masterpiece’, but he was in control the whole way.

And Super Joe Charboneau gave the home fans what they had come to see. What a debut, answering the weeks of hype that preceded the game. The team would struggle once again in 1980, but the exciting newcomer had several highlights during that season. He won the American League Rookie of the Year award, and the love of the fans for Super Joe was mutual.

Injuries would already begin to derail Charboneau by September of his rookie season. A back injury the next spring appears to have been the most serious blow to his career; he slid head-first into second base but stuck in the muddy infield. His body didn’t slide much and the momentum of his legs carried them over his back. Charboneau heard a pop but continued to play. The back injury hindered his ability to swing and run. He attempted several comebacks but was unable to regain the ability he showed in 1980.

But that one season was enough. Enough that in Cleveland, the legend remains.

Thank you for reading. The black and white photo on the right is of Charboneau on the day he won the Rookie award. It is not a photo of Anderson Varejao.

Sources for this article include, Sports Illustrated, Baseball Digest, a bunch of Russell Scheider books such as The Cleveland Indians Encyclopedia and Whatever Happened to Super Joe? Also, various Plain Dealer articles by Terry Pluto.

 joe charboneau baseball digest


The TCF Forums