Dennis Eckersley’s stay in Cleveland was curiously short, but in his three seasons with the Indians, he gave the club glimpses of what ultimately became a Hall of Fame career.
Eckersley entered the pro game in 1972 when the Indians drafted the Washington Union High School (Fremont, California) in the third round of the June amateur draft. The 17-year-old stayed fairly close to home early on, reporting to the team’s Reno, Nevada, affiliate in the California League. He made 12 appearances there in 1972 and 31 more in 1973, including a 15-strikeout performance in eight innings in a particularly dominant outing. Between seasons, he married his high school sweetheart, Denise, whom he had met during their freshmen year of high school at Washington High.
At the age of 19, Eckersley moved on to San Antonio, pitching in the Double-A Texas League while showing steady improvement in his numbers. He was the top vote getter for the Texas League All-Star Game after a 13-3 start and was named the league’s pitcher of the year. It was enough to catch the eye of the Indians’ front office, which brought him to spring camp in 1975 with a chance to win a job.
The young budding star arrived early to spring training and pitched well (outside of some control issues) and claimed a spot in the team’s bullpen, aided by a trip to the disabled list for reliever Fred Beene due to a pulled muscle in his back. Fellow rookie Jim Kern joined him on the nine-man pitching staff.
Manager Frank Robinson, who had said throughout the spring that he did not envision the career starter Eckersley breaking camp with the club in the bullpen, felt that he had the stuff to make the adjustment.
“I think of Eckersley mostly as a short reliever and Kern as a long man. We won’t need a fourth starter until about April 29,” the first-time manager shared of the situation in the April 5, 1975, edition of The Plain Dealer. “When we get to that point of the season, I’ll decide who will start from among Dick Bosman, Don Hood, Kern and Eckersley.”
Eck shined in his new role. He made eleven straight appearances to open his big league career without giving up an earned run (a span of 14 1/3 innings) and earned a win and two saves. His chance to start finally arrived late in May, when the club traded a pair of starters to the Oakland Athletics (Bosman and Jim Perry), creating plenty of opportunities in the rotation for the hard-throwing right-hander. On May 25 in the first game of a doubleheader with the World Champion A’s against his former staff mate Perry, he excelled in memorable fashion, firing a complete game three-hit shutout to blank his future club.
Eckersley remained in the rotation for the rest of the season. He gave up just one run in a complete game in his next outing and struck out a career-high ten on June 21 in a loss to Milwaukee. He replicated that feat on July 26 in Detroit, throwing a seven-hitter to earn his seventh win of the campaign. From August 19 to September 16, he made six straight quality starts before losing his final two games to finish the year with a 13-7 record with a 2.60 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP.
Despite a so-so camp in 1976, Eckersley was named the club’s Opening Day starter against Detroit. He lasted just eight outs in his season debut and did not retire a batter in his second start of the year, but he did turn things around in his final two April outings, throwing 15 scoreless innings with a complete game shutout of Oakland on the 23rd. At the end of the month, the couple’s first child was born. He suffered a bit of a sophomoric slump mid-year, as walks, hits, and runs all started to pile up on him and, after the All-Star break, he was moved to the bullpen to get himself back together. After a couple of weeks in relief, he came back with a vengeance, striking out 12 in his return to the rotation on July 30 before a ten-inning, complete game three-hit shutout of Boston on August 3. He made six straight quality starts back as a starter, including 13 Ks against Detroit on August 8, a career-high 14 against Texas in a loss on August 13, and 12 more on August 23 in a victory over Kansas City. From July 30 to October 2, he went 8-4 with a 2.29 ERA to salvage his second season on the big league rubber with a 13-12 record and a 3.43 ERA.
Eckersley opened the 1977 season at the top of the Tribe rotation again for Robinson. He made a couple of strong April starts around a clunker against the New York Yankees on April 24, when he allowed eight runs in five and one-third innings. Things progressed gradually in May as he did better to keep the runs off of the board. Towards the tail end of the month, he pitched a career-high 12 innings in a complete game victory over Seattle, allowing just a run on five hits for his fourth win of the year.
Five days later, he had his date with history. In a 7:30 PM local start on May 30, the Indians faced off with Robinson’s former club, the California Angels, and the 8-1 Frank Tanana at Cleveland Stadium. Eckersley worked a quick first, working around a two-out walk by three-hitter Tony Solaita. The Indians gave him a run of support in the bottom half as Jim Norris scored Duane Kuiper after his one-out triple with a suicide squeeze.
Eckersley struck out Bobby Bonds before getting a pair of fly ball outs in the second and added his third K of the game in the third, striking out Terry Humphrey between a grounder back to the mound by Bobby Grich and a fly out to center by Gil Flores. Eckersley recorded another strikeout to start the fourth, setting down Jerry Remy to open the inning before two fly outs, and struck out Don Baylor for the second out in a perfect fifth. Grich and Humphrey were frozen looking in the sixth before Flores flied to right as Eckersley had retired 18 of the first 19 with no batter reaching safely via hit.
Tanana had been nearly as spectacular against the Tribe bats. After the Kuiper first inning single, he allowed a one-out walk and a single in the second before escaping with a double play ball. Another twin killing erased a single by Rico Carty in the fourth before a stretch of eight straight set down by the right-hander.
The Tribe’s right-hander continued to handle his own business. He retired the side in order again in the seventh, striking out Solaita between flyouts. Bonds reached in the eighth, the first Angel to do so since the first, as he scampered to first on a strikeout on a wild pitch slider by Eckersley. Baylor promptly grounded to short for the 6-4-3 inning killer (although even Eckersley admitted after the game that he felt Bonds reached second safely on the hit-and-run) and Dave Chalk struck out for Eckersley’s tenth strikeout of the game.
Tanana allowed a single in the seventh to Bruce Bochte before getting his third double play of the night as the Angels went around the horn. Buddy Bell flied out in the bottom of the eight and Paul Dade struck out before batterymate Ray Fosse flied to Joe Rudi in left.
As Eckersley ran out to the mound with three more outs standing in his way to history, Rudi, who was trotting in from left, planted a kiss on the ball, gave Eckersley a smile, and tossed the ball to him in some attempt to rattle the pitcher or to give the Angels a little extra luck. It did not work out for the Angels, as Eckersley struck out Grich on a 2-2 offering and got pinch-hitter Willie Aikens to fly out to left. After missing with his first pitch to Flores, he came back with a pair of called strikes before the Angels’ center fielder checked his swing but was rung up by umpire Bill Deegan for the final out.
Eckersley knew that he had a no-hitter going from the “fifth or sixth inning” and he expected that no player would talk about it per tradition, but Kuiper kept “kidding me” until he “just told him to shut up, though I knew [Kuiper] was just trying to keep me loose.”
“I’d come in, sit down about the middle of the bench, put on my jacket, take off my cap, go to the water fountain, take a drink, spit out a mouthful of water, go back to the middle of the bench, sit down, and put my cap back on,” Eckersley shared in the May 31, 1977, edition of The Plain Dealer about his superstitious approach to things. “I made sure I did it exactly the same way every inning so as to not change my luck. I had a real good feeling for a no-hitter along about the fifth inning, though I knew I needed a lot of luck. You always need luck to get a no-hitter. Then, along about the seventh inning, I started to get some chills. Maybe it was because of the way the fans were cheering, I don’t know. But it didn’t affect me…it didn’t hurt me. I wouldn’t let anything stop me if I had anything to say about it.”
The nine hitless innings gave Eckersley a stretch of 16 2/3 such innings dating into his previous dozen inning gem against Seattle (well within striking distance of the then-American League record of 23). The 22-year-old received a bonus of $3,500 for his claim of history and Fosse got $1,500 for calling his half of the effort. It ended the team’s no-hit drought just short of three years; Bosman pitched the last on July 19, 1974, against the A’s.
Eckersley nearly nabbed that AL record in his next start, facing the Mariners again. He retired the first nine in order before walking a pair in a hitless fourth. An error in the fifth allowed a third runner to reach, but through five, he was unhittable to extend that streak to 21 2/3 innings. Pitching with a comfortable 6-0 lead in the sixth, he moved his hitless span to 22 1/3 before Ruppert Jones ended it with a solo shot to right, leaving him two outs removed from matching AL history. It was the only hit that he allowed in six innings of work that night.
Eckersley scuffled with the long ball over the next few months, but still found himself representing the Indians in that season’s All-Star Game. He added another remarkable performance to his career’s work on August 12 in game one of a double dip with Milwaukee, throwing a complete game one-hit shutout after allowing just a two-out triple in the first to Cecil Cooper.
The season as a whole for the Tribe fell short of expectations, as a year after finishing with an 81-78 record, they fell to 71-90. Manager Robinson was dismissed 57 games into the slate (with a 26-31 record) and was replaced by Jeff Torborg, who finished the campaign 45-59. Eckersley, with his third season under his belt, went 14-13 with a 3.53 ERA.
Rumors began to swirl in the offseason that Eckersley was coveted by the Philadelphia Phillies and several AL teams, including New York, Kansas City, and Boston, but he was thought to be untouchable. Despite difficulties retiring left-handed hitters, some command and home run issues, an ability to be run on, and at least an organizational belief that his funky side-armed delivery could leave him susceptible to future injury, Eckersley’s name was continually mentioned. He and “best friend” Rick Manning (his teammate at Reno in 1972-73 and again in Cleveland from 1975-77) were thought to be part of a package considered between the Indians and Yankees for All-Star catcher Thurman Munson, who had publically requested a trade to bring him closer to his home in Canton (Munson died tragically on August 2, 1979, flying his plane, a hobby that he picked up to be able to be with family more often, on an off day back home after the Yankees’ road trip to Chicago concluded). Philadelphia’s offer before the interleague trading deadline was uncomfortably tilted in its favor and focused on Phillies catcher Bob Boone.
The Red Sox were in need of some rotation help with Luis Tiant on the shelf to start the year and the team felt that it was within striking distance in the AL East. The Indians were hoping at best to build on a bad 1977 season and were looking years into the future, likely beyond Eckersley’s time in town with his contract set to expire following the 1979 schedule. With just over a week to go until the start of the season, Eckersley and catcher Fred Kendall were swapped to Boston for pitchers Mike Paxton and Rick Wise, catcher Bo Diaz, and minor leaguer Ted Cox on March 30, 1978.
There were some at The Plain Dealer who felt that the Eckersley trade was a win for Cleveland and a huge gamble on Boston by dumping too many prospects. Cox, the International League’s player of the year in 1977, looked to be a .300 hitter in the making and Paxton was a young and promising arm. The cannon-armed Diaz was thought to be a superior defender to Kendall and had age on his side. It still seemed odd that the Tribe dealt a controlled and young pitcher with plenty of upside and on-the-field success away, rather than to try to build something around him (a theme for the Indians many times over the next 40 years).
Rumors of some risk for clubhouse discord later became a prevailing thought as the need for Eckersley to be removed from the club. Some “relationship issues” had sprung up, linked to Manning, and some feared it to be a probable issue moving forward. The team had signed the young center fielder, who had come up in the Indians farm system with Eckersley, to a five-year, $1.5 million deal in the offseason, while the pitcher’s contract was just in place for two more seasons. Eckersley’s relationship with wife Denise was the focal point, and the pitcher addressed the situation with The Plain Dealer’s sports editor Hal Lebovitz in February of 1979.
“It’s no secret in Cleveland. They’re not trying to hide it. Why should I?” Eckersley shared in discussing his September divorce from Denise and her subsequent relationship with his former teammate Manning. “I thought something was funny during spring training in Tucson, but I didn’t want to say anything because I was hoping to keep it together.”
Eckersley did not report any hard feelings towards Manning despite the circumstances. “We were best friends. How do you stop being a friend? That may be hard for people to understand, but who cares? Denise and I are good friends, too.
“If I ever get married again, I’ll tell you one thing, I’ll make the lady sign a contract,” he continued, acknowledging the financial hit that he took as a result of the divorce and the settlement that he paid “for the sake of” his three-year-old daughter. “If we split, that’s it. They won’t take my money again.”
Eckersley went 20-8 with a 2.99 ERA in 35 starts in his best single season as a starter in 1978 in his first season in Boston, finishing fourth in the AL Cy Young voting, while noting a significantly different environment and culture in the Red Sox clubhouse compared to the Indians’ one that was home for three tumultuous years. He signed a big contract extension with the Sox ahead of the 1979 season and he remained in Beantown nine starts in to the 1984 season before he was traded to the Chicago Cubs with Mike Brumley for Bill Buckner in a trade that haunted Boston for years to come.
Following the 1987 season and now 32 years old, his career trajectory took a key and somewhat unexpected turn when the Cubs traded him to Oakland for three minor leaguers. The A’s moved him into relief for all but two of his 525 appearances for the club over the next nine seasons, a chunk of Eckersley’s career which included four more All-Star trips (giving him six in total), a second place nod in the 1988 Cy Young voting, and claims to both the AL Cy Young and the AL MVP awards in 1992 (while essentially securing his future residence in Cooperstown as one of the top closers of his era). He ended his career with a pair of seasons in St. Louis in 1996 and 1997 before returning to Boston for 50 final games with the Red Sox in 1998 at the age of 43, capping a 24-year first-ballot Hall of Fame career.
Photo: Ron Kuntz Collection (Getty Images)