1995 AL MVP: Belle Had Better Numbers, but Vaughn Won on Personality

The Indians of the 1990s won a lot: five straight American League Central Division titles, 100 games in a shortened season in 1995, a Rookie of the Year and All-Star Game MVP (both Sandy Alomar Jr., in 1990 and 1997), and two pennants.

But they’ve become known for what they DIDN’T win. Both World Series trips ended with losses. While they had one Rookie of the Year, two other Indians players – Kenny Lofton and Manny Ramirez – finished second in their respective rookie years, and both went on to far better careers than the winners.

And in 1995, in a vote that’s still talked about today, Albert Belle finished a close second in American League MVP voting to slugging Red Sox first baseman Mo Vaughn.

The vote was tight – the closest in 16 years. Of the 28 ballots – two from each American League city at the time – Vaughn got 12 first place votes and 12 second place votes. Belle got 11 first place votes and 10 second-place votes. In fact, if Vaughn had gotten one fewer first place vote, Belle would have been the MVP.

Belle, quite simply, might have had the best offensive season in Indians history – and a shortened one at that, with 144 games after coming back from a players’ strike. He was the first player in major league history with 50 home runs and 50 doubles, hit .317, and tied with Vaughn for the league lead with 126 RBI.

Vaughn had a good season, helping to lead the Red Sox to the American League East title. He batted .300 with 39 home runs. According to a New York Times analysis at the time, 41 of Vaughn’s RBIs came with two out, and 32 either tied the score or gave the Red Sox the lead. He hit .338 with runners in scoring position, and .600 with the bases loaded.

And that was one of the reasons given for Vaughn winning the award: it’s MOST VALUABLE player, not best. Some argued that Vaughn’s numbers were more important to his team than Belle’s were to his. Buster Olney, writing for the Baltimore Sun, said, “Without Vaughn, the Red Sox would not have won the AL East. Had Belle suffered through a subpar year, the Indians still would’ve won the Central by 15-20 games.”  (Although in Wins Above Replacement – a stat that was more than a decade away from being used – Belle vastly outpaced Vaughn, 7.2 to 3.9)

But there was another reason cited for Vaughn winning the award. Put simply, Albert Belle was a jerk.

By this point in his career, he’d already gone through rehab once for alcohol, charged the mound twice, been accused of corking his bat, been thrown out of the College World Series for going after a fan in the stands, and threw a ball at another fan in Cleveland who was heckling him. And that was just the stuff we knew about. The stories about him smashing Kenny Lofton’s boombox and taking a bat to the clubhouse thermostat came later, after he was no longer our SOB.

“Mo The Man helped push Mo The Slugger across this particular finish line,” said Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe.

“I feel sorry for Belle, and not just because his temper cost him the MVP award from the baseball writers,” said the Plain Dealer’s Bill Livingston. “I feel sorry for a man who is so joyless when he created so much happiness for this city.”

Olney, one of the writers who voted for the award, said he put Vaughn first on the ballot and Belle second, based partly on personality.

“If you believe that personality was a major factor in the AL MVP voting announced last week, you are absolutely correct.

“If you believe that part of the reason Boston Red Sox first baseman Mo Vaughn won the voting is that he’s a good guy, you are absolutely correct.

“If you believe that a major reason Cleveland Indians left fielder Albert Belle lost is that he’s a jerk, you are absolutely correct.”

Vaughn, accepting the award at a youth center he founded, said, “It’s not just numbers. It’s important to have character.” When The Plain Dealer called Albert Belle for comment, he hung up. Years later, he acknowledged that his relationship with the media affected voting. “It had everything to do with it,” he said. “It should have been the greatest landslide in MVP history.”

That fall, the Indians and Red Sox met in the American League Division Series, a new round of playoffs added after each league split into three divisions. The Indians swept the Red Sox.

As 1996 dawned, relations between Vaughn and the Red Sox had strained, as the slugger, who made $2.275 million in his MVP season, sought a $6 million paycheck. The Red Sox countered with a $4.25 million offer and it went to arbitration. The Indians and Belle were having similar problems, but you’d never know it from the season. The Tribe won 99 games and Belle drove in a league-leading 148 runs to go with a .311 average and 48 home runs. But free agency loomed, and he wanted more than the Indians could give him. He signed a five-year, $55 million deal with the White Sox, making him the highest-paid player in the major leagues (although he never played postseason baseball again).

Ultimately, Vaughn left Boston as well, signing with the Angels following the 1998 season. Ironically, one of the people the Red Sox pursued was Albert Belle, who opted out of his contract in Chicago (he signed with the Orioles in what is still regarded as one of the worst free agent contracts in the team’s history).

Vaughn spent three years in Anaheim before being dealt to the New York Mets. Ironically, these days, Vaughn spends more time in Cleveland than Belle does. Vaughn, a successful businessman, owns a trucking company in Solon.

Photo: Getty Images

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