Thunder Thornton’s Unlikely Cycle
Bob Toth | On 27, Apr 2020
With no baseball on the field across the country, our options are limited for sports content in our lives. With that in mind, here is another story unearthed in the Did The Tribe Win Last Night archives to help pass the pandemic times. – BT
This story was first published on April 23, 2016, by Bob Toth.
The Indians had dropped their sixth game in nine efforts and the first of a four-game series in Boston against the Red Sox, just over two-thirds of the way through the opening month of the season. Cleveland first baseman Andre Thornton was in his second season with the club after bouncing around four different National League organizations over the previous ten-plus years in professional baseball.
The Philadelphia Phillies signed Thornton in 1967 as an amateur free agent, but dealt him to Atlanta in 1972 after reaching the Triple-A level. The Braves moved him to Chicago in a May 1973 trade and the Cubs did similar in May of 1976, sending him to the Montreal Expos after a tough start to his fourth year on the shores of Lake Michigan. Following that season, the worst of his first four in the Majors, he was traded to Cleveland for pitcher Jackie Brown.
While he had had some good results in a couple of big league seasons, Thornton was coming off of a .194 season at the plate when the Indians acquired him. Despite the decline in his production, general manager Phil Seghi thought Thornton still had 25-homer potential.
In his first season in town, he proved Seghi right as he hit .263 with 28 homers and 70 RBI while playing in 131 games. Already, the trade was looking like a steal, but Thornton’s name would go down in the Indians’ history books with an historic April effort in 1978, accomplishing something done just five other times in team history. In that particular game, the 28-year-old hit for the cycle.
It was Saturday, April 22, 1978, as the Indians and Red Sox met at Fenway Park for the second game of their series in a 2:07 PM first pitch. Don Zimmer had his Boston club off to a 9-3 start, while the Indians were scuffling again for manager Jeff Torborg in his first full season of work for Cleveland.
Thornton was playing first base and hitting cleanup in Torborg’s lineup, one which burst out of the gates and gave their starter, Rick Wise, a nice lead to work with. Thornton was just a little over six months removed from losing his wife and young daughter in a tragic accident in a snowstorm the previous October and was hitting with mixed results at the plate in the early going (he had three homers and seven RBI but was hitting just .207 at first pitch).
Facing Allen Ripley, Paul Dade singled and Johnny Grubb walked before Buddy Bell drove in a run with a single to center. Both base hits extended respective hitting streaks to ten straight games. Thornton singled home Grubb and after Larvell Blanks drove both base runners in with a double, Ripley exited the game without retiring a batter for righty Bob Stanley. Rick Manning scored the fifth run of the inning with a groundout, scoring Blanks.
After turning over the lineup in the first, Thornton was due up fourth in the second and got his chance after Bell kept the inning alive with a single to short. “Thunder”, much better known for the pop in his bat than the speed in his wheels, sent a triple to center off of Stanley to score Bell and make it a 6-0 game. The perceived hardest leg of the cycle, and certainly the toughest part for a player of Thornton’s build, was already out of the way two innings into the day’s contest.
Thornton lifted a fly to center in the fifth in his third at bat of the game. Meanwhile, Wise had motored through the Red Sox lineup until a bump in the road in the sixth, when three straight one-out singles got their first run on the board.
Jim Wright came in from the bullpen for Boston in the sixth and had faced the minimum (after a Duane Kuiper caught stealing) when Thornton stepped into the box in the seventh with two down. Against his third different pitcher in four at bats on the afternoon, Thornton lived up to his nickname with a monstrous shot that cleared the Green Monster in left, landing in the screen above the wall in what should have been the final plate appearance of the day for the Indians slugger.
Working with a 7-1 lead heading into the eighth, the Indians offense erupted again against the Boston bullpen. Willie Horton led off the inning with a homer and after a single from Ron Pruitt, a walk from Manning, and a single from Kuiper, Thornton was assured at least one more chance to hit and attain history.
Dade reached on a throwing error at third to knock in Manning with the tenth run of the day and put runners on the corners for Grubb against new reliever Tom Burgmeier. Grubb greeted him with a blast; the three-run shot to deep left made it a 13-1 ball game. After Bell grounded out to second for the first out of the inning, Thornton stepped in, knowing that he needed just a double to hit for the cycle.
Burgmeier kept the pressure on, putting Thornton down two strikes in the count. Thunder prevailed, however, as he doubled off of the warning track in center, giving him his fourth hit of the day against his fourth different pitcher faced and the rarely accomplished feat of a cycle, becoming the sixth to do so in franchise history and the first since Tony Horton in 1970.
“When Burgmeier got two strikes on me, I didn’t think about it any more,” Thornton was quoted about his cycle in The Plain Dealer’s April 23, 1978, edition.
After entering the game with a .207 average and just six hits on the year to his credit, Thornton concluded his Saturday with a much-improved .294 mark after his 4-for-5 day at the plate. He did not dwell on the feat in the locker room, instead turning his attention to the team’s efforts in the blowout.
“It’s always nice when the team performs well. Everybody’s happy,” said Thornton. “We know we’ve got a long way to go. Not many people think much about us.”
The ’78 season didn’t leave much else to cheer about for the Tribe. The team went 69-90 and finished sixth in the American League East. Those Red Sox (99-64) finished one game in back of the New York Yankees before the hated pinstripers knocked off the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games in the World Series.
“Thunder” was the player to watch, providing the bulk of the firepower in an otherwise punchless lineup. He hit .262, drew 93 walks for a .377 on-base percentage, and chipped in 22 doubles (third-best on the club behind Bell and Manning with 27). His 33 homers for the season were nearly double that of catcher Gary Alexander (17). Only three Indians would exceed six homers (joined by Grubb’s 14). Thornton’s 105 RBI were 43 more than the next closest player on the roster.
The pitching staff fared little better. Wise went 9-19. Rick Waits led the staff with a 13-15 record and 3.20 ERA. Mike Paxton was 12-11 with a 3.86 ERA. After that, the numbers got ugly, including the 2-3, 7.89 ERA contribution from Wayne Garland, in the second year of a disastrous and ill-advised ten-year contract.
Thornton’s name was added to a fairly recognizable group to hit cycles before him in Cleveland franchise history. Bill Bradley had the first on September 24, 1903. It took nearly 30 years for it to be matched, this time by Earl Averill on August 17, 1933. The delay was much less the third time around as Odell Hale accomplished his on July 12, 1938. Larry Doby hit one on June 4, 1952, after nearly 14 cycle-less years. It took more than 18 for Horton, the team’s first baseman, to hit his on July 2, 1970, shortly before his breakdown ended his career.
“Thunder” played the rest of his career in a Cleveland uniform, finishing with 214 homers as an Indian. His days as a first baseman did not last long, as he transitioned to designated hitter for the bulk of his playing time in the 1980’s after dealing with complications from a knee surgery that cost him extensive time at the beginning of the decade and the addition of Mike Hargrove to the ball club. Thornton’s final season was 1987, when he began the year getting regular work at DH, but started just seven games from May on. He played his final MLB game on August 31, 1987, pinch-hitting for Mel Hall in the ninth inning and striking out in a 7-2 Indians win.
Thornton was the last Indians player to hit for a cycle until August 14, 2003. Travis Hafner, a player who very much like Thornton was known for the bat and not for the wheels, ended the 25-year drought at the Metrodome with a triple in his final at bat to clinch it. Surprisingly, the team has had two more occurrences in the last four years, with Rajai Davis doing so in 2016 and Jake Bauers following suit in 2019.
Photo: Cleveland Memory Project