Adventure to Recover Belle’s Corked Bat was Chapter in Bizarre Baseball History
Vince Guerrieri | On 18, Jul 2019
With a history that stretches back to 1901, the Indians have been involved in some bizarre moments in the sport’s history.
They were part of an experiment to use orange baseballs. Their manager once got in a fight with a player from the team’s Triple-A affiliate during an exhibition game. An owner buried the pennant in center field after the team was mathematically eliminated the following year. And of course, who can forget the notorious 10-cent beer night?
But in my estimation, no moment matches for sheer weirdness what happened 25 years ago this week at Comiskey Park.
The Indians met the White Sox for what had become a clash of the titans in the new American League Central Division. The Tribe, playing their first year in a new ballpark, had found themselves in another unusual location: First place. They held a lead as much as five games in June, but by the time the All-Star break came around at the beginning of the week, they were tied with the Pale Hose for the division lead. The Indians started the second half against the White Sox in Chicago, and dropped the first game of a four-game series to fall a game back. They won the next day, and they were tied again.
In the first inning, with one on and one out and the Tribe leading 1-0 as Albert Belle stepped to the plate, White Sox manager Gene Lamont challenged Belle’s bat, saying it was corked, in violation of MLB rules (bats are supposed to be made of nothing but solid wood). The bat was confiscated by umpire Dave Phillips for further investigation, and taken to the umpires’ locker room.
Belle took another bat and promptly grounded into a fielder’s choice. There was a problem, though: The bat was corked. In fact, all of Belle’s bats at the time were corked. Faced with the prospect of losing their best hitter to suspension in the heat of a division race, the Indians took the bold step of stealing the bat back.
The clubhouse contained a drop ceiling, and pitcher Jason Grimsley, at 6-3 and 180 pounds, believed he could snake his way through like Bruce Willis in “Die Hard” and recover the stolen bat. And he did just that, shimmying along the top of the cinder-block walls with a replacement bat and a flashlight in his mouth in a cloak-and-dagger mission worthy of “Mission Impossible,” which at that point was still only a TV series. (The first installment of the Tom Cruise movie series wouldn’t come out until 1996.)
It appeared he had committed the perfect crime – and the Indians won to boot to take a one-game lead in the division. But almost instantly, umpires realized something was up. There were telltale signs that ceiling tiles had been moved, and bits of insulation were found on the floor. “It was definitely a break-in,” Phillips said, noting that Belle’s smooth bat had been replaced by a Paul Sorrento model that had was definitely more weatherbeaten.
MLB head of security Kevin Hallinan, who had previously worked as an FBI agent investigating organized crime, came to Chicago and the umpires’ locker room was dusted for prints. “This is bizarre,” American League Supervisor of Umpires Marty Springstead said in the Chicago Tribune. “In 31 years, you think you’ve seen it all but you haven’t.”
The Tribune said that three members of the Indians’ traveling team – not players – were “principal suspects,” and a fan from Shaker Heights was also mentioned. Grimsley ultimately came clean about his role five years later in an interview with the New York Times. Like Red at the end of “The Shawshank Redemption,” they didn’t kick up a whole lot of fuss for Grimsley, who got a round of golf with Belle as his payoff.
By then, Belle was with the Orioles, and had already done his time for the incident. MLB ordered the return of the bat, which was taken to the league office where it was X-Rayed and sawed in half. It was, in fact, corked, and Belle was given a 10-game suspension (reduced to seven on appeal). In the end, it was a moot point. The season ended abruptly in August due to a players strike, with the Indians a game behind the White Sox in the division race.