Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 29
Bob Toth | On 28, Feb 2018
While the offseason has been historically slow and the winter has crawled along at an even slower pace, we at Did The Tribe Win Last Night look ahead to the warmer days of the 2018 season by remembering Tribe players past and present.
Countdown to Opening Day – 29 days
A little change of scenery can sometimes do some good. For former Indians slugger Andre Thornton, it was a trade to Cleveland in 1976 that reignited his struggling pro baseball career.
Thornton signed with the Philadelphia Phillies in August of 1967. He would spend nearly five years in their organization before he was dealt to Atlanta, but he would be a member of the Braves farm system for less than a year before he was on the move again, traded to the Chicago Cubs for Joe Pepitone.
He found a home in Chicago, spending time with their Triple-A affiliate in Wichita before getting the call to the Majors in July of 1973. He hit .200 in 17 games scattered over the final two months of the season.
Thornton got a longer look in 1974, hitting .261 in 107 games with 16 doubles, four triples, ten homers, and 46 RBI. He followed it up with his best season to date, slashing .293/.428/.516 with career bests across the board. He hit 21 doubles and 18 homers, drove in 60, and drew 88 walks.
Things changed the following season, when he slumped early. Through 27 games with the Cubs, he was hitting just .200 and had actually drawn more walks (20) than he had hits (17). Chicago flipped him to the Montreal Expos, nearly three years to the day that they acquired him, in exchange for Larry Biittner and Steve Renko. Joining his fourth organization in four years, Thornton still scuffled at the plate. He played in 69 games for the Expos, hitting .191 with a .304 on-base percentage with five doubles, nine homers, and 24 RBI.
In the offseason following a .194 season at the dish, he was dealt to the Indians for pitcher Jackie Brown.
At the time of the acquisition, Tribe GM Phil Seghi thought that Thornton’s struggles were just a temporary problem and that he still had 25-homer potential in him. He had topped the 20-mark three straight seasons in the minors from 1971 to 1973, but his MLB high was 18 when he relocated to the cavernous Cleveland Stadium.
Seghi’s intuition would prove to be right. Thornton spent nearly half of the 1977 season hitting in the cleanup spot and cleaned up as the Tribe’s primary first baseman, making up for a .210 average in the first half with a .297 mark after the All-Star break. He hit .286 at home and .287 off of righties and finished the year with a .263/.378/.527 slash with 20 doubles, five triples, 28 homers, and 70 RBI.
The first baseman played in 145 games in his second season with Cleveland and expanded on his previous production, hitting .262 with a .377 on-base percentage with 22 doubles, 33 homers, and 105 RBI. On April 22nd of that season, he became just the sixth player in Indians history to hit for the cycle. He added another 31 doubles, 26 homers, and 93 RBI in 1979, but the club remained stuck in the bottom half of the American League East, even after their 81-80 record served as a 12-game improvement over the previous year’s mark.
“I think it was frustrating for all of us that we didn’t play better or have the ability to compete at the level that we wanted to,” Thornton shared with Did The Tribe Win Last Night in a 2014 interview when talking of Indians teams that finished over .500 just three times during his stay. “I think that we were all a little disappointed in that. But you play where you’re given the opportunity to play and you do the best that you can.”
A pair of spring training injuries would cost Thornton significant playing time in 1980 and 1981. A right knee injury in camp in 1980 required surgery and then a follow up procedure to clean up cartilage damage ended his season before he could take the field. The next year, he broke his hand when hit by a pitch and, coupled with the strike, he was limited to just 69 games while serving as the team’s designated hitter (during his absence in 1980 and parts of 1981, he had been replaced at first base by Mike Hargrove, who had been acquired from the San Diego Padres during the 1979 season).
Thornton bounced back in a big way in 1982 – he hit 32 homers and set new career-highs with 116 RBI and 109 walks. He was named to his first All-Star Game, conveniently held in his one-time home in Montreal, and his return to form earned him The Sporting News’ Comeback Player of the Year award.
“Certainly, if you’re a full-time DH, your focus is going to be centralized on hitting and focusing on what you need to do from that position,” Thornton shared with Did The Tribe Win about his adjustment that year moving from a regular first baseman to designated hitter. “You have to look at it just like any other position on the field. Everybody has a responsibility. Your responsibility as a DH is to try to drive in runs.”
He remained a big part of the lineup over the next few years and continued to drive in runs. He made a second All-Star team and won the only Silver Slugger Award of his career in 1984. His 14-year playing career came to a close in 1987, when the 38-year-old played in just 36 games for the disappointing Sports Illustrated cover jinx club, one filled with young talent and big name veterans that failed to collectively produce for managers Pat Corrales and Doc Edwards.
Thornton finished his career as one of the more prolific right-handed power hitters that the Indians franchise had ever employed. He amassed 214 homers in his ten years on the field with Cleveland and, over the course of his entire career, he drew more walks (876) than strikeouts (851).
“I believe that when I came up the culture of the game was different,” said Thornton. “A strikeout was considered to be something unproductive. If you were a young player trying to come up in the late 60’s or early 70’s and you struck out a lot you probably were not going to be on a Major League team.”
Many years have passed since Thornton thundered the lumber on the Cleveland lake shore, but the city remains a big part of who he is.
“It’s a wonderful place to live and I think it’s a wonderful city,” Thornton shared. “My family was raised here – in terms of our sons. We live in the area now and Northeast Ohio has a lot to offer.
“You always want to be able to give back to an area that you live in.”
At that time, Thornton was a member of the board of the Cleveland Council on World Affairs, The Cleveland Zoological Society, and the Cuyahoga Community College Fund; was involved with The First Tee of Cleveland Program and Leadership Cleveland; and served on the Board of Trustees for Nyack College. To this day, he remains president and CEO of ASW Global, a supply chain company located in Mogadore, Ohio.
In 2007, “Thunder” was elected to the Indians’ Hall of Fame, permanently placing the beloved and bespectacled slugger in his well-deserved home among other Cleveland legends.
Other notable 29’s in Tribe history: Bibb Falk (1931), Sam Rice (1934), Russ Christopher (1948), Satchel Paige (1948-49), Jack McDowell (1996-97), Mark Whiten (1999-2000), Josh Barfield (2007-09), Juan Diaz (the last to wear it in 2012).