Early 1980 wasn’t a particularly fun time in Cleveland.
Parts of the city were still smoldering wreckage from a mob war. Mills were closing and industry was drying up. The city was coming out of default.
Sports were little better. The Indians were mired in mediocrity, the Browns were a year away from the infamous Red Right 88 and Ted Stepien was trying to prove he could run a professional basketball team into the ground.
But as thoughts turned to Indians spring training, Plain Dealer sportswriter Terry Pluto offered a prophecy about an outfielder in the team’s farm system, saying on January 6, 1980, “You’ll be reading quite a bit about him in the next few months.”
Pluto was talking about Joe Charboneau, an outfielder who’d won minor league batting titles in the previous two seasons. His fielding was nothing to write home about, but his bat was powerful enough that Gabe Paul was willing to let Bobby Bonds go because of Charboneau.
Philadelphia, on the other hand, was willing to let Charboneau go for Cardell Camper. The Phillies drafted Charboneau, who could diplomatically be described as a character. The stories around him were equal parts Paul Bunyan and Damon Runyon, about a man who ate cigarettes, lost so much cartilage in his nose as a ham-and-egg boxer that he could drink beer through his nose and could open a beer bottle with his eyelid (he said he only did that once, but the story followed him around for years).
Charboneau was on the 40-man roster for the Indians in spring training, but having spent the previous year in Double-A, it was anticipated he’d end up with the Tribe’s Triple-A affiliate in Tacoma. Although he showed up trimmed down to spring training, his fate with the team was questionable after he was stabbed with a pen before an exhibition game in Mexico City. He appeared to be none the worse for wear, saying, “I’ve been stabbed lots of times.”
Fate intervened again a month later, this time in Charboneau’s favor. Andre Thornton had to get knee surgery, so Mike Hargrove was moved from the outfield to first base, and Charboneau became the Indians’ left fielder. “If they let me play, I’ll win Rookie of the Year,” he said.
Charboneau took Cleveland by storm. He homered in his major league debut, and in front of a packed house at the Indians’ home opener, he fell a triple shy of the cycle as the Tribe walloped the Blue Jays, 8-1. By the middle of the season, he was a full-fledged phenomenon, acquiring the nickname “Super Joe” and even getting his own song.
He spent the last month of the season on the bench with a nagging groin injury, but ended the year with a .289 average, leading American League rookies with 23 home runs and 89 RBIs. He had done his part to live up to his promise as the Indians’ best shot at a Rookie of the Year since Chris Chambliss a decade earlier – even if some people were averse to voting for him since he’d spent so much time as a designated hitter because of that groin injury.
Finally, in December, the results came out: Super Joe was the Indians’ third Rookie of the Year, after Herb Score and Chambliss. “I was pretty pleased with my season,” he said in the Plain Dealer. “But I see where I could have done a lot better. I felt I should have batted .300. That’s one of my goals for next year. I would also like to drive in 100 runs and score 100 runs. I don’t worry about homers. They’ll come.”
They never would again at Cleveland Stadium. He injured his back in spring training the following year, and by July, was down in the minors. He only played 70 more games in the major leagues.
Super Joe got a little silver screen immortality as one of the New York Knights in “The Natural.” And although he grew up in California, after his Rookie of the Year season, he said he wanted to stay in Cleveland – and he’s still in the area. After several years as a coach for the Lake Erie Crushers, he spent last year as the manager of the Lorain County Ironmen of the Great Lakes Collegiate Summer League.