Early August in a nearly empty stadium with two bad teams going head-to-head isn’t exactly the setting you’d expect for a memorable performance. But Doug Ault provided it anyway.
When the Toronto Blue Jays came to Cleveland to face the Indians for a mid-week series on August 4th, 1980, the two teams were a combined 32 games out of first place. Doug Ault was in the last year of an unremarkable career but he still had something left.
Ault Rakes by the Lake
Ault entered the series hitting .196 in limited action; In 25 games, he had amassed ten hits and ten strikeouts. The Jays were losing 11-3 in the 8th inning when he stepped in with a man aboard against Sid Monge. Ault took a pitch over the boards in left field for his first home run of the season. It made the score 11-5 and that’s how it ended. A meaningless homer to everyone but Ault.
Two days later he was the starting first baseman in the 3rd game of the series, and in the 7th inning he homered again. This shot was off Rick Waits with the Jays trailing 2-0 and Barry Bonnell on first. After a 10-52 start to the season, Ault was now two for his last three with two dingers and he wasn’t finished yet.
The next day he faced Monge again. With a man on again. In the late innings again. He smoked a two-run homer to left again. In the four game series, he was 3-4 with three homers and six RBI. He wouldn’t hit another home run in his career.
Not the First Time
Ault made home run history once before in an Jays uniform. In the first inning of Toronto’s home opener in 1977, Doug Ault hit the first home run in Blue Jays history. The shot came off Ken Brett, and as an encore he took Brett deep again in his next at-bat.
It wasn’t quite ideal baseball weather that April day in Toronto. Temps were in the 30s and there was snow falling, but Ault didn’t care. “It was like winning the World Series,” Ault told the Toronto Globe and Mail later. “I tell you, if it had been snowing all year, I might have hit 50 home runs.”
Ault retired after the 1980 season and spent time in the Jays organization as a minor league manager. Beset with personal problems, he committed suicide in 2004. He was just 54 years old.
If there was a Futures Game in 1980 he would have been a headliner.
Karl Pagel was a can’t miss star. He was a high draft pick of the Chicago Cubs in 1976 and absolutely tore up the minor leagues. He hit .344 in AA in 1977 with 28 homers and 104 RBI and was named the MVP of the Texas League. He followed that up by hitting another 23 homers in AAA in 1978 and earning a cup of coffee with the Cubs where he went hitless in two at-bats.
Despite playing on a last-place team, Pagel led the American Association in homers (39) and RBI (123) in 1979, besting future big leaguers like Kevin Bass, Keith Moreland and Harold Baines. He earned minor league Player of the Year honors and a shot in the outfield for a mediocre Cubs team in 1980 seemed like a lock. The Wrigley Field faithful must have been salivating over the prospect of Pagel and Dave Kingman launching home runs out of the Friendly Confines.
But while Kingman and Pagel may have combined to hit 80 or more homers, they also would have made up one of the worst defensive outfields in the big leagues and the Cubs brass knew it.
“He’s not a good outfielder,” AAA Wichita Manager Jack Hiatt told the Chicago Tribune. “His future is at first base.”
That was a problem because Bill Buckner was locked in at first base for the Cubs and he wasn’t high on Pagel’s defense either.
“I can’t see Pagel and Kingman in the same outfield,” he said.
So despite proving he had nothing left to prove in AAA, Pagel was sent back to Wichita to begin 1980 where he struggled at the plate and then injured his shoulder and his back. He tried to stay optimistic, but it was difficult.
“This is one of the lowest times I ever had, he told the Tribune. “I was so close to making it. I said in the spring that I would rather sit on the Cubs bench than come back here (AAA) but the Cubs made the right move.”
Midway through the 1980 season, Pagel was dealt to the Cleveland Indians, which seemed like an even better fit. He could serve as a DH and send baseballs flying all over ballparks in the American League. Pencil Pagel and Charboneau into the middle of the Cleveland lineup for the rest of the decade.
But 1980 came and went and Pagel never made an appearance with the Indians. He hit .272 with 20 homers for AAA Charleston in 1981 and earned a September callup with the Indians.
On September 15th, Pagel pinch hit for Mike Fishlin with two outs in the bottom of the 9th against Dennis Martinez and hit his first big league homer. Unfortunately it was also his only homer. He finished his major league career in 1983 with Cleveland after playing in a total of 48 games.
Was he the perfect example of a AAAA player? One too good for AAA but not good enough for the big leagues? Possibly. It’s also possible he never got a shot to prove himself. He had a total of just 56 at-bats over five seasons and most of those were as a pinch-hitter or late-inning replacement.
Pagel isn’t unique. There are lots of guys who had great minor league careers and couldn’t put it together at the big league level and those stories always fascinate me. It just goes to show how difficult the game really is.
But in the spring of 1980, there was a glimmer of hope and it came courtesy of an injury to one of their best players.
During spring training, first baseman Andre Thornton, who led the team in home runs in 1979 with 26, tore cartilage in his right knee. The injury eventually required surgery and would keep Thornton out of the lineup for the entire season. Losing your top power threat is never good, but in some ways it made manager Dave Garcia’s job a bit easier because there was a 24 year-old kid who had never played above AA making a name for himself at Indians camp in Palm Springs.
“We can’t keep him out the way he’s playing,” said Garcia.” The kid is doing a job and we’re going to give him a shot at it. He’s earned it.”
Joe Charboneau began his career in the Phillies organization, but didn’t fit the way the Phillies thought a ballplayer should conduct himself. In 1976, he hit .298 for the Phillies Class A Spartanburg team and advanced to the Carolina League in 1977 with Peninsula. But after starting the season 3 for 17 at the plate, he found himself on the bench and on the outs with manager Jim Snyder and the organization. Fed up, Charboneau decided to leave the team and return home. But he was coaxed back and in 1978 the Phillies loaned him to the Minnesota Twins, who assigned him to Visalia in the California League. Given a chance to play regularly, Charbonneau responded with a .350 batting average, 18 home runs and 116 RBI.
Following the ’78 season, Charboneau was dealt to Cleveland for pitcher Cardell Camper. With his new organization, Charboneau won the batting title, hitting .352 with 21 homers and 78 RBI with the Indians’ AA club in Chattanooga, and set his sights on the big leagues.
When Thornton went down, the Indians moved Mike Hargrove from left field to first base and made Charboneau an everyday player. He responded by homering on Opening Day on the road against the Angels. But when the Tribe returned to Cleveland for their home opener he immediately gained the affection of Indians fans.
In front of nearly 62,000 fans at Municipal Stadium, Charboneau went 3-3 with a home run and drove in two as the Indians beat Toronto 8-1. The legend of “Super Joe” was born and it grew with each home run. But the stories of his exploits off the field gained him additional notoriety.
Charboneau participated in bare-fisted fights in boxcars as a teenager in Santa Clara, California. He suffered multiple broken noses, one of which he set by himself using a pair of pliers. The broken noses also resulted in lost cartilage, which allowed Joe to drink beer through his nose, always a useful skill. In the minor leagues he supposedly performed his own dental work using a razor blade and a pair of vice grips, cut out an ill-conceived tattoo with a razor blade, opened beer bottles with his eye socket, had a pet alligator that almost ate a teammates kitten, and stitched himself back together after another fight using fishing wire. He was also known to eat lit cigarettes. You know, just the normal stuff all of us do on occasion.
Perhaps the most bizarre incident came during spring training when the Indians were playing a series of exhibition games in Mexico City. Charboneau and two teammates were waiting outside the hotel for the team bus when a man approached them and asked Joe where he was from. Joe responded that he was from California. The man then took a pen knife and stabbed Charboneau. The knife went about four inches into the left side of Charboneau’s chest and struck a rib. Charboneau’s teammates subdued the man and the police arrived. About 45 minutes later, an ambulance showed up to take Charboneau to the hospital where the wound was stitched up. His assailant, Oscar Billalobos Martinez, was tried and fined 50 pesos. “That’s $2.27 for stabbing a person,” said Charboneau.
A LOVE AFFAIR
A band called Section 36 released a song called, Go Joe Charboneau. It was horrible, but it was about Super Joe and it climbed the charts on the local radio stations, eventually reaching No. 3 in Cleveland.
“Who’s the newest guy in town? Go Joe Charboneau.
Turns the ballpark upside down. Go Joe Charboneau.
Who do we appreciate? Go Joe Charboneau.
Fits right in with the other eight? Go Joe Charboneau.
Who’s the one to keep our hopes alive? Go Joe Charboneau.
Straight from the 7th to the pennant drive? Go Joe Charboneau.
Raise your glass, let out a cheer. Go Joe Charboneau.
For Cleveland’s Rookie of the Year. Go Joe Charboneau.”
A May slump landed him on the bench, but he eventually worked his way back into the lineup and hit .326 with three homers in June. A late-season injury robbed him of playing time and the debate for the Rookie of the Year in the American League heated up.
In Chicago, Tony LaRussa lobbied hard for one of his pitchers, Britt Burns. “If that kid’s not Rookie of the Year, there’s no such thing,” LaRussa told The Sporting News. “There’s no way Charboneau had a better year.”
In Boston, Red Sox manager Don Zimmer made a case for second baseman Dave Stapleton. “The guy in Cleveland is going to be tough to beat because he hits more home runs,” said Zimmer. “There’s much more action at second base and it’s a much tougher position to play than the outfield. Charboneau plays left and is a designated hitter, but my guy has to be right there.”
Peter Gammons indicated he thought Blue Jays second baseman Damaso Garcia might be the leading candidate in his September 6thSporting News column.
The fans had their say as well. In a September 27th letter to the editor in The Sporting News, one fan pled Super Joe’s case. “Charboneau is exciting and people are talking about him. How many people are talking about Garcia and Stapleton?”
IT DIDN’T LAST
In the end, Charboneau finished the season batting .289 with 23 homers and 87 RBI. Those numbers were enough to win the Rookie of the Year award in a landslide. The award, coupled with his huge popularity in Cleveland allowed him to triple his salary to $90,000 in 1981.
Unfortunately, a Spring Training back injury derailed his season in ’81 and he never recovered. After his magical rookie season, Charboneau would hit just six home runs over the next two years and retired in 1984 after a few comeback attempts. He holds the record for fewest games played in the Major Leagues by a Rookie of the Year, with just 201.