Prior to the 1929 season, Indians owner Alva Bradley demonstrated that he wasn’t shy about spending money. Gordon Cobbledick estimated that the Indians spent $250,000 on players leading up to Opening Day.
Of that total, 20 percent went to the purchase of Earl Averill’s contract. And he made a splash of his own in his major league debut 89 years ago this week.
Earl Averill was a native of Snohomish, Washington, and worked to attract the attention of the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League. They bit, and after some seasoning with their affiliated team in Bellingham, Washington, Averill was soon patrolling center field at Recreation Park. In August 1928, Averill’s contract was sold to the Indians for $40,000 and two players (were the players not satisfactory, the Indians would pay the Seals an additional $5,000 per player).
Averill held out briefly for a share of the sale price, not an uncommon move in those days. Indians General Manager Billy Evans smoothed things over with the Seals (who were in the thick of a pennant race and in no position to bargain), and Averill made his debut at League Park on April 16, 1929, a chilly day for the Indians opener against the Detroit Tigers.
Indians manager Roger Peckinpaugh penciled Averill into the third spot in the lineup, and when he made his debut at bat, with two outs and nobody on in the bottom of the first, with the Tigers already leading 1-0, he received polite applause from the crowd of 15,000, no doubt from the reputation that came with his high price.
Averill took the first pitch for a strike, and fouled off the second, using his 44-ounce club. Down 0-2 in the count, Averill caught an offering and sent it over the 40-foot fence in right field by a good six feet, landing on Lexington Avenue. He’d homered in his first at-bat, one of only two Hall of Famers to do so (and the only position player in Cooperstown; the other was pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm – for the only home run of his career).
Averill went back to the dugout and asked Peckinpaugh who the pitcher was he’d just taken deep. Peck told him it was Earl Whitehill and Averill said, “Yeah? I’ve heard of him.”
The Indians needed that solo home run – and every other run they scored that day – for a 5-4 win over the Tigers. It was the only hit Averill had that day, but he might have saved a run with his glove in the sixth inning. With two outs and Dale Alexander on first, Marty McManus hit a worm-burner to center field. Averill made a sliding catch to end the inning.
The next day, he went 3-for-5 against the Tigers, hitting another home run, this time off George Uhle, and by that summer, he was already being compared to Tris Speaker – another center fielder who came to the Indians with a $50,000 price tag.
But unlike Speaker, Averill never won a World Series. His only appearance in the Fall Classic came in 1940. By then, he was with Detroit. Back problems curtailed his productivity, and the Tribe dealt him to the Tigers in 1939. In the offseason after his appearance in the 1940 World Series, he was released by Detroit, and latched on briefly with the Boston Braves before being released on April 29, 1941.
Averill returned to Washington and bought a flower shop – “You can get him more excited talking about the home life of jonquils than Lefty Grove’s fastball,” said Cleveland Press Sports Editor Stuart Bell – and lived out his years not far from where he was born.
There was one more way in which his path diverted from the Gray Eagle. Speaker was an almost foregone conclusion as a Hall of Fame inductee, voted in in 1937. But Averill had to wait until 1975 – eight years before his death – when he was inducted by the Veterans Committee.
“I could have gotten in sooner,” Averill said. “But it’s sure better late than never.”
Photo: Boston Public Library