Eckersley’s Tribe Debut Foreshadowed Brilliant Career, Just Not in Cleveland

41 years ago today, a 20-year-old rookie made his debut as a starting pitcher for the Indians.

He would go on to a Hall of Fame career, but not as a starter – and not with the Indians.

Dennis Eckersley was a third-round draft pick of the Indians in 1972. As 1975 dawned, he was sought after by the Orioles, who were working on trading Boog Powell to the Indians. Orioles GM Frank Cashen wanted Dave Duncan and a prospect, and Eckersley, along with outfielder Rick Manning, was mentioned by Cashen. In the end, the Indians gave up Duncan and minor-leaguer Alvin McGrew for Powell and Don Hood.

Eck went to spring training, and rookie manager Frank Robinson said the team might take a flier on the rookie in spot starts. By the time the team broke training, Robinson was singing a different tune, and Eckersley looked like a reasonable candidate for the starting rotation. But Eckersley spent the first month of the season in the bullpen, mostly out of need, while biding his time.

“It’s a cinch Dennis Eckersley will become a starter soon – as he should,” wrote Hal Lebovitz in the Plain Dealer. “But presently, his fast ball is needed in relief.”

Eckersley finally got his first start May 25, and it would be a tall order. He was pitching the first half of a doubleheader against the Athletics, the dynasty of the American League. With players like Reggie Jackson and Joe Rudi, and pitchers like Jim “Catfish” Hunter and Rollie Fingers, the A’s had won the previous three World Series and were leading the American League West (the Indians were at the bottom of the American League East that day).

Eckersley was brilliant, throwing a three-hit shutout of the Athletics and striking out six. The Athletics won the second game of the twin bill, with the win going to Dick Bosman, who’d been dealt to the A’s from Cleveland to make room for new starting pitchers like Eckersley.

It looked like the youth movement undertaken by the Indians’ Phil Seghi would reap benefits. “The feeling is that the brass made the right move in bringing in the new faces,” wrote Chuck Heaton. “It will be exciting to watch the development of (Rick) Manning along with Dennis Eckersley, Jim Kern, Eric Raich, Alan Ashby and others.”

Eckersley went 13-7 as a rookie for a fourth-place team, went 13-12 the following year, and 14-13 in 1977, including a Memorial Day no-hitter at Cleveland Stadium. But personal issues spilled over. Eckersley’s wife left him for Manning, and the Indians had to trade one of their young stars. They opted to deal Eckersley, sending him to Boston. He had two good years in Boston, and then his talents started to wane. After six and a half years in Boston, he was dealt to the Cubs – for Bill Buckner. Before the 1987 season started, he was traded to Oakland – the team he debuted against as a starter. He went back to the bullpen and reached the pinnacle of his career as a dominant closer, winning a Cy Young Award and an MVP award. By the time he retired in 1998, he had 197 wins – and 390 saves.

Photo: The Sporting News Collection

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