Chambliss Lived Up to his Rookie of the Year Potential, Just Not With the Indians
Vince Guerrieri | On 19, Nov 2015
As the 1971 season dawned, Chris Chambliss was touted as the Indians’ next hot prospect at first base.
Those predictions appeared true by the end of the season, as he was named the team’s first Rookie of the Year winner since Herb Score in 1957.
But while a host injuries ensured Score never lived up to his early potential as a player, Chambliss did.
Problem was, he did it in pinstripes.
Chris Chambliss was born in the last year the Indians won a World Series, on December 26, 1948. He was born in Dayton, but his father was a Navy chaplain, so the family moved regularly. He played high school baseball in Oceanside, California, and was thought of enough that the Reds burned draft picks on him in 1967 and 1968. He opted instead to go to Mira Costa Junior College in Oceanside, then to UCLA, where he led the Bruins in 1969 with 15 home runs and 45 RBIs.
Chambliss was drafted first overall by the Indians in January 1970 and he was supposed to go to Reno to play on the Indians’ Single-A team. But Ken Aspromonte, manager of the Tribe’s Triple-A farm team in Wichita, asked for him. “I took one look at him and knew I didn’t have anyone on the Wichita roster who was better,” Aspromonte said later. Chambliss lived up to the prediction, leading the league with a .342 batting average on the way to being named Rookie of the Year for the Aeros.
The following year, Chambliss – who was not a September callup in 1970 because of Army reserve commitments – was at Indians spring training. Manager Alvin Dark doubted that Chambliss would make the team out of spring training and diminished his league-leading batting average the year before, saying the American Association had been depleted by recent expansion (the majors had added four teams in 1969, and a total of eight since 1960).
Ken Harrelson was ensconced at first base for the Indians, and a leg injury sealed Chambliss’ fate. He went back to Wichita to recover – and to learn to play the outfield. Ultimately, Chambliss was added to the Indians roster on May 17 and made his debut 11 days later against the White Sox. Harrelson stumbled out of the gate, and was benched shortly before Chambliss was called up, hitting a paltry .191. His last game was June 20, 1971, essentially ceding first base to Chambliss.
And Dark, the manager who didn’t think Chambliss was that big a deal? He was fired at the end of July.
Chambliss hit safely in 14 of his first 15 games on the way to a .275 average, nine home runs and 48 RBIs. Chambliss made a clean sweep of rookie awards, becoming the Rookie Player of the Year for the Sporting News, getting named to the Rookie All-Star Team by Topps – both honors voted on by players – and the American League Rookie of the Year, voted on by the Baseball Writers Association of America. Chambliss received 11 of 24 votes, more than double the next candidate, Bill Parsons, who had five.
Aspromonte, Chambliss’ former manager in Wichita and fresh off being named the Indians’ new manager, said, “He’s going to become one of the top players in baseball. You haven’t seen all he can do yet.”
Indians President Gabe Paul was just as effusive. “I’m predicting that one of these years he’s going to be the Most Valuable Player,” he said. “He is the kind of kid who can do it.”
Chambliss never won the MVP award, but he was an important contributor to the Yankees’ success in the late 1970s – thanks to Paul, who left the Indians for the Bronx when Clevelander George Steinbrenner bought the Yankees. The Yankees made a blockbuster deal in April 1974, trading Fred Beene, Tom Buskey, Steve Kline and Fritz Peterson for Chambliss, Dick Tidrow and Cecil Upshaw.
After the 1979 season – and three pennants and two World Championships in the Bronx – Chambliss was dealt to the Blue Jays, who flipped him to Braves. He returned to New York as a hitting coach, and was activated briefly during the 1988 season by manager Billy Martin, who a decade earlier had said, “I can put Chambliss anywhere in the lineup and he’ll drive in 100 runs.” Chambliss’ last major league plate appearance came as a pinch hitter on May 8, 1988. He struck out.
But he remained on the Yankees’ bench as a hitting coach, on the staff for World Champions in 1996, 1998, 1999, and 2000.