Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 3 – Earl Averill
Bob Toth | On 31, Mar 2017
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Former Indians center fielder Earl Averill may have gotten a late start to his Major League career, but it did not prevent him from putting together one of the better careers of any player to wear a Cleveland uniform on the baseball diamond, let alone the number three.
Averill broke into the professional baseball circuit in 1926 at the age of 23, starting a three-year stint with the San Francisco Seals in the Pacific Coast League after previously playing semi-pro ball. After three consistent seasons with the bat, showing both an ability to hit for high average and for power, the Indians purchased him from the minor league club for the lofty sum of $50,000.
When looking at the undersized 5’9” Averill, then-Indians owner Alva Bradley reportedly shared with Tribe general manager Billy Evans, “You paid all that money for a midget.” Evans replied, “Wait until you see him with his shirt off.”
Averill had worked as a logger in his hometown and fit the build, earning the nickname “The Rock” for his physique while swinging a 44-ounce bat. Proving it was money well spent, he homered in his first at bat for the Tribe as a 26-year-old rookie in 1929.
From that moment, Averill became a mainstay on an otherwise bad Indians team for the next decade, continuing to showcase his ability to hit for high average, power, and with a proficiency at driving in runs. In his rookie season in ’29, he appeared in 152 games and hit .332, slugging 43 doubles, 13 triples, and 18 homers while driving in 96 runs in a rookie effort that would have handily given him some attention on a Rookie of the Year balloting, had it existed in his era.
As the 1930s rolled in, he became a force to be reckoned with. Seven different times he finished a season with a batting average over .300 and five times had an on-base percentage over .400. Three times in that decade he exceeded 30 homers, including setting a career-high in homers with 32 in 1931 and matching it the next season. His 143 RBI in ’31 helped land him a fourth place finish in the AL MVP voting and he did the same the following season.
In 1935, it all nearly ended for the outfielder in the prime of his career. At an off day picnic with several teammates, the 33-year-old was playing with firecrackers. Averill threw one that did not go off…until he picked it up and it exploded. Flesh was torn off of his fingers and the palm of his right hand and he sustained burns to his forehead and to his chest.
“It looked bad,” teammate and picnic guest Mel Harder recalled in a story published in The Plain Dealer on August 7, 1996. “There was a lot of blood.”
He missed six weeks in what was to date the worst season of his career.
During his well-rounded 1936 season, he finished third in the AL MVP voting while leading all of baseball with 232 hits and 15 triples. He added 39 doubles, 28 homers, and 126 RBI while hitting .378 with a .438 on-base percentage. Back issues slowed him down during the 1937 season, beginning a gradual decline in the numbers of one of the game’s greats who played with a congenital defect in his back that would flare up on occasion.
His All-Star efforts were impressive against the best in the game. He was the only outfielder elected to each of the first six Midsummer Classics. He singled and drove in a run in a pinch-hit appearance in 1933. He was 2-for-4 with a double, a triple, and three RBI the following season. He did not play in the 1935 game at Cleveland Stadium while recovering from the fireworks injury and was hitless in the starting lineup in center the following season. His last All-Star hit came in another start in the 1937 exhibition and he may have ended the career of Dizzy Dean, who took a liner from Averill off of his toe. Dean tried to return from the injury too soon and it negatively affected his pitching delivery.
Averill was the starter in his final trip in 1938, when he was hitless in four at bats. The Indians held an Earl Averill day for him at the stadium that season, attended by 37,000 fans.
He started the 1939 season in an Indians uniform, his eleventh with the organization, but was traded in June to the Detroit Tigers for Harry Eisenstat and cash. His career was slowing down at that point, as he hit a career-low .264 combined on the season in 111 games. He appeared in 64 games for the Tigers the following year, hitting .280 with a notable decrease in his power numbers, and was released prior to the start of the 1941 season, but not before helping Detroit claim the AL pennant.
He signed on with the Boston Braves for the next season and played in just eight games for the club, hitting .118 with two singles and two RBI in 19 plate appearances and was released before the end of April, less than one month before his 39th birthday. The native of Snohomish, Washington, “The Earl of Snohomish” returned home to Washington state and finished his playing career with time with the minor league Seattle Rainiers in 1941 and later ran a motel for 20 years. His son, Earl Averill, Jr., reached the Majors in 1956 and played there until 1963 and at one time, like his father, was a member of the Indians.
Despite his small size, the elder Averill made his swing work for him. At the time of his retirement, Averill was the Indians’ all-time leader in homers (226), a record that stood for 55 years and could have been even higher had the left-handed hitter not played the majority of his career at League Park, with its right field wall just 290 feet away from home plate, but monstrous in height.
He made a career of using the wall to his advantage.
“When he hit the ball, it looked like a golf ball,” Harder shared in the same August 7, 1996, story. “He’d hit them in any park. League Park wasn’t that easy for homers because of the 40-foot wall. He hit a lot of liners against the wall that would have been homers somewhere else.”
He remains at the top of the list in many offensive categories still, as he is the all-time team leader in RBI with 1,084, triples with 121, runs scored with 1,154, and total bases with 3,200; is third with 377 doubles and 1,903 hits; fourth with 725 walks; and sixth with a .322 career average and .399 OBP.
After several failed bids to reach the Hall of Fame, the Veteran’s Committee elected him in 1975. The Indians honored him later that season by retiring his number three, one that had not been used on the field by a player since 1962. He was the third Indians player to receive such an honor, joining former teammates Bob Feller and Lou Boudreau.
Averill was married to his wife, Loette, for 62 years. He died in 1983 from pneumonia at the age of 81.