Indians had Piniella, but Couldn’t Keep Him

Frank Lane has entered Cleveland sports infamy as the man who dealt away Rocky Colavito.

But when he was an assistant to the general manager in Baltimore, the Orioles traded for catcher Cam Carreon on March 10, 1966. Lane said the outfielder the Indians got in return resembled the Rock, “only he’s better looking.”

The “obscure” outfielder, as described by the Plain Dealer, was Lou Piniella. The Indians found him, but as so often was the case in the 1960s and 1970s, were unable to hold on to him.

Lou Piniella was born in 1943 in Tampa, Fla. After graduating from Jesuit High School, he attended the University of Tampa before being signed by the Indians as a free agent in 1962. As a youth, Piniella was a talented baseball player in PONY and Legion ball, and was also an all-American in basketball.

The Indians promptly lost Piniella in the first-year draft for the expansion Washington Senators, who in turn dealt him to the Orioles in 1964. Piniella appeared in four games for the O’s at the end of the season, going hitless in his lone plate appearance.

As the 1966 season dawned, the Orioles were in dire need of a catcher, since catcher Dick Brown had to undergo surgery for a brain tumor. He was expected to be gone for at least the season, but as it turned out, his baseball career was over, and the tumor eventually killed him, in 1970.

Piniella spent most of 1966 with the Indians’ Triple-A affiliate in Portland, and although he was invited to spring training in 1967, he didn’t make the team and played in the Pacific Coast League that year too. Piniella was invited once again to spring training in 1968, but getting just three hits in 15 plate appearances didn’t help his case, and he returned once again to Portland. Piniella was a late-season call-up for the Indians, but went hitless in five at-bats.

Plans were announced that year for another expansion of the major leagues, with teams coming to Seattle, Montreal, San Diego and Kansas City, and in an interview with the Plain Dealer’s Russell Schneider, Piniella hoped to be taken in the expansion draft. “The Indians have been putting me off for so long, I’m beginning to worry about my future,” Piniella said. Piniella also said that he’d never fit into manager Alvin Dark’s plans.

Piniella said there had been overtures from the Seattle group. Piniella had become a familiar figure in the Emerald City, which were also home to a Pacific Coast League team. And sure enough, in October 1968, Piniella was drafted by the new Seattle team, which would be called the Pilots.

But after spring training in 1969, Piniella was dealt to that year’s other American League expansion team, the Kansas City Royals. He went on to hit .282 in 135 games, good enough to be named the American League Rookie of the Year. Meanwhile, Dark, who had done great things for the Indians the year before, couldn’t handle being manager and general manager, and the team tumbled to last place, losing 99 games.

Piniella went on to a 15-year career, mostly with the Yankees, and an even longer career as a major league manager, leading the Reds to a world championship with a sweep over the Athletics in 1990, and taking Seattle – this time the Mariners – to four playoff appearances in the 1990s, including two against the Indians.

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