Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 9: Catching Up With Buddy Bell
Steve Eby | On 26, Mar 2016
As Did The Tribe Win Last Night helps fans count down the days until the Indians retake the field in an official Major League game, we look back at some of the players who wore the Cleveland jersey with pride.
Countdown to Opening Day – 9 days
For a young boy, not much could be cooler than having your dad play Major League Baseball. For a father, not much could be cooler than having your son play in the Big Leagues either.
Former Indian Buddy Bell is just one of four people in history to know what both are like.
In 1995, when Buddy’s son David Bell played in his first Major League game for the Tribe, Bell became the second player in history to be the middle leg of a grandfather/father/son trio to play in the Major Leagues (his father, Gus Bell, was a four-time All-Star outfielder for the Cincinnati Reds and played for the Pirates, Mets, and Braves during a 15-year career). Only Bob Boone, with his father Ray Boone and son Bret Boone, accomplished the feat faster, while just the families of Jerry Hairston and Joe Coleman have followed since.
In 2000, Buddy’s other son, Mike Bell, played for the Cincinnati Reds to become the fourth in the Bell family to play ball at the highest level. Just Boone (also with former Indian Aaron Boone) and Hairston (with Jerry Hairston Jr. and current White Sox minor league outfielder Scott Hairston) can make the claim to be on that exclusive list with a dad and two sons to play in the Majors as well.
So the question is which is the best and most rewarding? To grow up as a kid in a Major League clubhouse while your dad played ball, to make it to the Major Leagues yourself, or to have two sons achieve their lifelong goals and follow in your footsteps at the same time?
“My sons, for sure,” a confident Bell said. “First of all, having sons and daughters is the best thing I’ve ever done. Just having those two playing in the Big Leagues and having them experience that – knew that was a goal of theirs – was incredible.”
The experiences of watching your sons play with everything on the line wasn’t all rainbows and candy canes, however.
“My dad always told me that the greatest and the worst experiences that I would ever have was going to be watching my sons play sports,” Bell said of the nerves that went along with it.
As it turns out, having a Major League father at your disposal is as beneficial as it sounds. When asked of the best advice his father ever gave him, Bell’s answer was clear.
“He always stressed how important it was to be a good teammate,” Bell said. “You can’t really concern yourself with the hits, wins and things like that. Other than working hard, you just should concern yourself with the people around you. It was really important for him to let me know how to be a guy you could depend on every single day. I tried to do that every day.”
Bell worked hard enough to get drafted in the 1969 amateur draft, although not getting taken until the 16th round was a bit of a disappointment at the time. A Major League debut by April 1972, however, made that tough pill a little easier to swallow.
“That particular day, I was a little bit disappointed,” Bell said of draft day. “I didn’t get drafted until the 16th round and I thought that I would go a little bit earlier than that. It was a great day other than the fact that I didn’t get taken earlier. I ended up making it to the Big Leagues when I was 20 anyways, so it really didn’t matter.”
The team that he was drafted by and promoted quickly to was the Indians, who were right in the middle of a four-decade playoff drought. Bell was promoted and donned a #9 jersey for his first season, although he switched to his classic #25 during the 1973 season. No matter the number on his back, however, the Indians were glad to have the steady Bell on their side.
“As it turned out, I couldn’t have been drafted by a better team,” Bell reflected. “They treated me so well. I was really fortunate that I had some really good coaches and players around me. We never had very good teams, but we had some really good players that I learned a lot from.”
What stood out for Bell more than anything during his Cleveland tenure was the people that he got to deal with day-to-day.
“Just going to the ballpark every day was special for me,” Bell said. “I just remember all the people. Even the cops and the ushers. Some of my closest friends were the guys in the clubhouse like (Trainer) Jimmy Warfield and (Clubhouse Manager) Cy Buynak. All of my memories are just associated with the people I met here. The fans were always great to me too.”
Those fans of Cleveland didn’t take long to appreciate a player like Bell, who was as hard-nosed and gritty as a player could come.
“I always felt like I played the game right,” Bell said. “I played hard and I hustled. The fans that came out to see us deserved that. We may not have always done great as a team, but it wasn’t because of the effort.”
Bell appreciated the fans of Cleveland, the opportunity that the Indians gave him, and even the part of the organization that most players hated…the Stadium.
“They all talked bad about the ballpark on the lake,” Bell said with a laugh, “but I thought that was the best place in the world.”
Bell became an everyday starter in the outfield during the ’72 season and then switched to his primary spot at third base the next year. It was during the 1973 campaign that Bell broke out, making his first All-Star Game while hitting .268 with 14 home runs.
“I remember being a nervous wreck. I was only 21 or so,” Bell said of his first of five Midsummer Classics. “The group of Hall of Famers around me was impressive. I wish I had understood it more at the time.”
The ’73 All-Star Game was the only that Bell would make as a member of the Indians, but he had his most memorable moment in that particular contest.
“I got a triple in the All-Star Game against another guy who grew up in Cincinnati, Claude Osteen,” the southwestern Ohio native Bell said. “It was awesome. But, I never really based my career on the All-Star Games or Gold Gloves…none of that stuff was a big highlight or anything. What stood out to me was lockering between Thurman Munson and Brooks Robinson. That was a real thrill for me.”
Bell continued to put up steady offensive numbers for the next several seasons for the Tribe, but what made him stand out more than anything was his defense. Bell’s string of six consecutive Gold Glove’s didn’t start until after his tenure in Cleveland was over, but his defense remained steady throughout his time on the lakefront as well.
Bell was dealt to the Texas Rangers after the 1978 season in a widely unpopular move that brought Toby Harrah, a three-time All-Star, to Cleveland. Bell was likely the most popular player the Indians had had since Rocky Colavito and was so loved amongst the Cleveland fans that there had been a “Bell Fan Club” of over 500 people that dissolved after his departure.
“It was ironic that I was traded for one of my best friends in baseball, Toby Harrah,” shared Bell. “Toby actually became a coach for me in Detroit and Colorado.”
Although Bell went on to have the best years of his career with the Rangers – six Gold Gloves, four All-Star Games and a Silver Slugger award – Bell never wanted to leave Cleveland even though his relationship with the front office had grown rocky.
“I hated it. I hated it. I hated leaving,” Bell said vehemently. “I understood the circumstances and I knew I had to…my situation that I had with the front office at the time wasn’t great. We had lost and I think people thought I wore out my welcome – they kind of wore out their welcome with me, too.”
Looking back on his career, baseball history probably remembers Bell’s eight great seasons with Texas and considers him a lifelong Ranger, but for Bell the answer is not quite so clear.
“It’s a great question because I have different feelings about both organizations. The upbringing that the Indians provided me is something that I’ll never forget.”
After becoming a star with in Arlington, Bell was traded and played three and a half seasons in Cincinnati with his hometown Reds. Another deal in June of 1988 sent Bell to Houston and he signed a free agent deal to go back to Texas for his final season in 1989.
Bell finished his career with a .279 batting average, 201 home runs and 1,106 RBI to go along with his six Gold Gloves. His Jaffe WAR Score System (JAWS) score of 53.2 ranks him as the 15th best third baseman of all-time, well ahead of Hall of Famers Jimmy Collins (45.8), John McGraw (42.3), Deacon White (35.7), George Kell (32.6), Pie Traynor (31.0) and Freddie Lindstrom (27.3). The average JAWS of the 13 Hall of Fame third basemen is 55.1. Bell received just 1.7% of the Hall of Fame vote in 1995, far less than the 5% necessary to remain on the ballot.
Since retiring, Bell has not strayed far from the game that he loves.
“I’ve been in baseball ever since retiring,” Bell said. “After 18 years I figured that I’d want to go home and spend time with the kids, but after a couple of months I realized that I’d like to stay in the game somehow.”
Just like his Major League career started, it was Cleveland that gave Bell his first shot at life after playing.
“It was the Indians who took me on as a part time instructor in 1990. Since then, I’ve either been coaching or a Farm Director and I’m an Assistant GM now [in Chicago]. Being in the game is all I really want to do.”
Bell eventually latched on as an assistant to Tribe manager Mike Hargrove as the Tribe made their impressive leap from the American League cellar to the World Series. Bell had one of the best seats in the dugout as the 1995 Indians finally took Bell to the postseason.
“I talk to Jim Thome about this all the time,” Bell said of the 1995 Tribe. “That group was unbelievable. It used to piss me off sometimes that they would wait until the fourth or fifth inning before they’d even start. They knew they were that good. They were the best team I’ve ever been around and it’s not even close.”
It is obvious even two decades later that the Cleveland group of the mid-90’s continues to hold a special place in Bell’s heart.
“When you’re a coach you get so involved with the players. Whatever they do, you almost feel like you’re doing it,” Bell said. “Seeing guys like Jimmy Thome evolve into the Hall of Fame talents that they became was one of the highlights of my coaching career, for sure.”
In addition to watching the likes of Thome, Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton and Omar Vizquel, Bell also got to watch a bit of family history as his son, David, made his Major League debut that season with his dad in the dugout.
“Being in the dugout that day was the best and the worst thing because I was nervous as hell,” Bell said. “It being at the Big League level made it that much worse. It was a lot easier having him on your team instead of playing against him, though.”
Both Bell’s careers took them away from Cleveland in or after 1995, as David was traded midseason for pitcher Ken Hill and Buddy was hired to be the manager of the Detroit Tigers for 1996, but their professional paths would cross again soon. Eventually, David was brought back to Cleveland in 1998 and would face his dad and the rest of the Tigers that summer.
“I managed against Dave and he had a great game in Jacobs Field. It was the first time I ever faced him. That was hard. I’d never want to do that again.”
Since leaving Detroit after 1998, Bell served as the Manager of the Colorado Rockies from 2000-02 and the Kansas City Royals from 2005-07. Currently, Bell works for the Chicago White Sox in a different capacity in the front office.
“I’m the Assistant General Manager and the Vice President of Player Development,” Bell said. “I’m sort of a utility guy. I travel with the team from time to time and I like that. I like being around the coaches and players. I also travel around the minor league system and check out our affiliates. My day is busy…I love the White Sox organization. I’ve been with them for a long time.”
Following the 2015 season, Minor League Baseball awarded him the eighth annual Sheldon “Chief” Bender Award, given for distinguished service by someone instrumental in player development.
Even though he is now with a division rival, Bell never forgets where both aspects of his professional career began.
“I have such a special place in my heart for the Indians organization.”