Chambliss Left Cleveland and Became All Star, Postseason Hero
By Craig Gifford
A central theme of the past few They Started Here features have revolved around players from the 1970s and 80s the Indians traded away in ill-conceived deals. This week’s final player to start his career in Cleveland is no different.
First baseman Chris Chambliss appeared set to be an Indian for many years. The Tribe made him the first overall pick of the 1970 amateur draft. Unlike some top selections who take several years to develop, Chambliss wasted little time in proving lofty expectations to be realistic.
He crushed the competition with Double-A Wichita through the 1970 season and spent 13 more games there in 1971 before the Indians called up their top prospect. He was an instant success in the majors. Nine home runs, 48 RBI and .275 batting average in his first big league season, earned Chambliss American League Rookie of the Year honors.
While not gaudy numbers, Chambliss continued to put up similarly solid statistics in his second and third seasons. At only 24, he was proving to be a consistent threat to hit double digit homers, knock in about 50 runs and bat a respectable .275 or better.
Then a rookie named Mike Hargrove came along in 1974. Like Chambliss, Hargrove played first base and was undeniably a better player. The Indians, looking to get Hargrove to first base on a regular basis, while adding pitching depth, dealt Chambliss to the Yankees early in the 1974 campaign.
The problem here is not that Cleveland traded Chambliss. Having Hargrove around certainly made Chambliss expendable. The issue was Cleveland received four little-known pitchers who did little to improve the club. Fred Beene, Tom Buskey, Steve Kline and Fritz Peterson were all gone from Cleveland within four years. Peterson won 14 games in 1975, his lone good year with the Indians. Buskey put up good numbers out of the pen for three seasons. That was all Cleveland had to show for dealing away a former Rookie of the Year.
In 1975, Chambliss batted over .300 for the first time in his career while collecting a then-best RBI total of 72. He and the Yankees were just warming up for big things to come.
The 1976-1978 seasons were the greatest three-year stretch for Chambliss as an individual player. It also happened to be New York’s infamous run of three consecutive pennants and World Series championships in 1977-78. The former Indian was a key contributor to those legendary teams, knocking 90 runs or more all three years. He hit 17 home runs in 1976 and 1977. His batting average those three seasons was between .274-.293. In 1976, Chambliss made his lone All-Star team, while snagging a Gold Glove in 1978.
In the 1976 American League Championship Series against Kansas City, Chambliss hit one of the game’s more memorable postseason home runs. A ninth-inning blast won Game Five and the ALCS for New York, lifting the Yankees to their first Fall Classic since 1964.
Imagine, a former number one pick was helping a team to the World Series. As was the case so many times in Cleveland history, back in the 1970s and 1980s, those top selections were usually helping somebody else by the time they hit their stride. Chambliss was no different.
Chambliss remained a very good player as he hit 30-years-old in 1979. That season he hit a then-career-high 18 homers to go with a .280 average. Hitting 30-years-old also brought a new address for Chambliss. The Yankees traded the first baseman to Atlanta in December, 1979.
For seven seasons, Chambliss toiled on some pretty forgettable Atlanta teams of the 1980s. However, it was to no fault of his. He continued to hit well. He had his best power seasons with 20 bombs in both 1982 and ’83.
After the two strong years, however, Chambliss began to fade. In three more years, he never again reached double digit homers or even 50 RBI. He did bat .311 as a part-time player in his final season of 1986. Chambliss did not play in 1987. The Yankees signed him in 1988 to give their former postseason hero a New York send off. He had one at bat, a strike out, in May that year.
Chambliss was not a Hall of Fame player, however, he ended with good numbers in a long 17-year career. His hit total reached 2,109, while he batted a fine .279 and a Rookie of the Year, an All-Star, a Gold Glove winner and three-time World Series champion. Those things are enough to make even an above-average player jealous. Sadly, only the first of those came with an Indians team that sent off another player much too soon.
Photo: Associated Press