For a Brief Moment Joe Rudi Was an Indian; Was it Chicanery — or Revenge?

The Indians of the 1960s and 1970s were notable not just for being mediocre at best, but for seeing players they discovered move on to greener pastures.

The Yankees of the late 1970s included such former Tribe players as Lou Piniella, Chris Chambliss and Graig Nettles – a testament as much to the Indians’ ineptitude as to the front office set up by George Steinbrenner, a Cleveland native who was thwarted in his efforts to buy the Indians. When he was able to buy the Yankees, he brought with him former Tribe player Al Rosen and executive Gabe Paul.

But the first Major League Baseball dynasty of the 1970s, the Oakland Athletics (still the only team other than the Yankees to win three straight World Series) got key contributions from at least one former Indian: Joe Rudi, who was briefly part of the Indians farm system in what resembled nothing so much as a hostage negotiation – or possibly a con game.

Rudi grew up in Northern California, not far from Oakland, where the Athletics would end up in 1968. He was signed by the Athletics while they were still in Kansas City to a $15,000 bonus. The rules of the time stipulated that any player signed to a bonus of more than $4,000 had to be put on the major league roster, so Rudi began 1965 with the Athletics. Such players, designated “first-year players,” then had to clear waivers before being sent to the minor leagues. The Indians put in a claim on him, either as “retribution – or even collusion,” Russell Schneider wrote in the Plain Dealer.

The Indians had a player at the start of that season named Jim Rittwage, a Bedford Heights native scouted by Indians Hall of Famer Elmer Flick. The Indians signed Rittwage to a $25,000 bonus in 1964 — less than the Pirates offered, but he wanted to play for his hometown team. Rittwage was put on the Indians roster for 1965, also designated a first-year player, and he had to be put on waivers before he could be sent to the minor leagues. The Athletics claimed him in May – just a few days before the Indians claimed Rudi.

Rittwage was promptly sent to Birmingham, Alabama, where he played out the season in the Athletics organization. Rudi ended up with the Indians’ farm team in Dubuque, Iowa. Fifty-three years ago this week, the Indians and Athletics pulled the trigger on a trade, with outfielder Jim Landis going to Cleveland and backup catcher Phil Roof going to Kansas City. Rudi and Rittwage were throw-ins in the deal, each going to the club they were part of at the beginning of the season.

Did the Indians claim Rudi out of spite after Rittwage was claimed? Or was it an end-around to make the first-year players more maneuverable within the farm system?

“Neither Cleveland nor Kansas City broke a rule, technically speaking,” Schneider wrote that December. “And since everyone’s happy (there were no objections by the other 18 Major League teams), perhaps there’s no point in raking the coals.”

By 1970, Rudi was a regular player for the Athletics. He was named to three All-Star games and won three Gold Glove Awards.

Rittwage’s entire major league career consisted of eight games for the Indians in 1970.

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