Best season: 1980, 131 games, .289 batting average, 23 home runs, 87 RBI
Indians career: 201 games, .266 avg., 29 home runs, 114 RBI
There was a book written about him, even a song, all of which should have thrilled Joe Charboneau, then a 25-five-year-old outfielder who won the American League Rookie of the Year award and was living his boyhood dream.
But, “To tell you the truth,” Charboneau said as he reflected on his brief major-league career, “all that stuff embarrassed me . . . the nickname, the book, the song, the stories. I just wanted to play ball; I wasn’t interested in a lot of publicity.”
As it turned out, the career of “Super Joe”—as he came to be known to fans of the Indians—flamed out almost as quickly as it peaked. And peak it did. He batted .289 with 23 homers and 87 RBI in 1980. Then injuries that required back operations in 1981 and 1982 all but ended his career.
“After I hurt my back the first time, I never got rid of the pain, and I never got my swing back.
“I still have pain, though not as bad as when I played. I can only run maybe half speed, else my back will go out. I don’t swing a bat. If I took a round in the batting cage, it would really hurt. I can play golf, but it’s painful and I have to limp around the course.”
Ah, but back in 1980, before he lost his swing and his power, Super Joe really was super, although, if he had a choice, it would have been that the nickname had never been coined.
“I was never a big fan of that Super Joe stuff,” said the one-time Super Joe. “In fact, I was kind of surprised the first time I heard it.”
A book, titled Super Joe: The Life and Legend of Joe Charboneau, followed. It was co-written by sportswriters Burt Graeff and Terry Pluto, who covered the Indians for the Cleveland Press (now defunct) and the Cleveland Plain Dealer, respectively.
Charboneau said the book is an “easy read with plenty of fun stuff in it, though a lot of the stories are only minimally true, some are greatly exaggerated, and others were never true to begin with.”
Charboneau attributes their source to “buddies of mine who came in from California, got to drinking beer with some of the writers, and made up a lot of stuff.”
Among the anecdotes: Charboneau opened beer bottles with his eye socket, ate cigarettes, drank beer with a straw through his nose, and once pulled an aching tooth and fixed his broken nose with a pair of pliers—and a shot of whiskey.
“It was all crazy stuff, but the truth is, I did get a lot of play from them. Every city I went to, the stories got bigger and bigger, and even different,” he said.
“But I never brought them up, or encouraged the guys to write those things, and I really don’t want to even talk about them now.”
There also was a song that started with the lyrics, “Who’s the newest guy in town? / Go Joe Charboneau. / Turns the ballpark upside down. / Go Joe Charboneau. / Who’s the one to keep our hopes alive, straight from seventh to the pennant drive? / Raise your glass, let out a cheer for Cleveland’s Rookie of the Year!”
Charboneau and his wife, Cynthia, whom he married in 1977, make their home in North Ridgeville, Ohio. They raised two children, a son, Tyson, born in 1979, and a daughter, Dannon, born in 1981.
Charboneau signed with the Philadelphia Phillies, who selected him in the second round of the secondary phase of the 1976 amateur draft. He received a $5,000 signing bonus in 1976, and his peak salary was $33,000 in 1981, in the wake of his “super” year.
“But, honest to God,” Charboneau said, “I didn’t play for the money. Not ever. Maybe that was dumb on my part because I had a family, but I loved to play baseball and I wanted to make the big leagues. The paycheck was just a bonus, really.”
His Rookie of the Year season began when an injury sidelined Andre Thornton, making it possible for Charboneau to crack the starting lineup on April 11, 1980 in a 10-2 loss to California. He went 3-for-3, with a home run, launching the legend of Super Joe.
The highlight of the season came on June 28 in an 11-10 loss to the Yankees in New York. Charboneau blasted a home run into the third deck of Yankee Stadium, reached previously by only two players, Hall of Famer Jimmie Foxx and Frank Howard.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” said Charboneau. “Tom Underwood, a left-hander, was pitching for the Yankees. It was the first time I ever faced him, and I got ahead in the count, 3-and-1, and looked for a fastball in, which I got. I swung, and I never hit a ball better.
“As I was going around second base, I looked up to where the ball landed and thought to myself that I’d probably never hit another ball like that again. And I never did. It was a once-in-a-lifetime swing. Later they told me it was one of the three longest home runs ever hit in Yankee Stadium. Imagine that! Yankee Stadium, the ‘House that Ruth built.’
“The whole thing was unbelievable. It seemed like the ball carried forever.” The memory of it does for Charboneau.
Super Joe was super until the final three weeks of the season, when he got hurt. “It was something with my pelvis, and I didn’t play anymore.” He finished with 453 at-bats and 131 hits, of which 23 were homers. He won the rookie award easily, out-polling six other candidates. Charboneau was named on 102 ballots, more than doubling the 40 votes received by runner-up Dave Stapleton, an outfielder for Boston.
Unfortunately—for Charboneau and the Indians—his glory days ended when the season ended, ultimately attributable, he believes, to his back injuries.
“I realized early on that I probably didn’t have as much talent as a lot of other guys and I had to play harder, which may be the reason I got hurt. I wasn’t really a good outfielder; I didn’t have a good arm, and I didn’t steal a lot of bases. So I had to play harder, which I did. I played as hard as I could.”
It was the following spring training, 1981, that Charboneau hurt his back sliding into second base head first. “It had rained that morning, and I basically kind of stuck in the dirt,” he said. “My legs kicked back over my head, and I knew I did something. I had a lot of pain, and foolishly I continued to play. But I didn’t have the same swing, and I never got it back.”
After 48 games with the Indians in 1981, Charboneau was hitting .210 with four homers and 18 RBI, and was demoted to Class AAA Charleston, West Virginia, where he wasn’t much better.
When the season ended, Charboneau underwent the first of two operations on his back. He played only 22 games in 1982 and hurt his back again, this time running to first base, and had more surgery the following August. For all practical purposes his career was finished.
Charboneau was back in spring training with the Indians in 1983 but soon was returned to the minors for rehabilitation, which wasn’t successful. He was released.
“I refused to let it end my career. I kept trying to get back to the big leagues,” he said. But that didn’t happen.
Charboneau did get a trial with Class AAA Hawaii in the Pittsburgh farm system, but it didn’t last long. Later he played for several independent teams in the United States and one in Europe, even a couple of semi-pro teams. Finally, in 2000, Super Joe gave up and took his last swing as a professional.
Charboneau coached for several teams in the independent Frontier League, and also, since 1991 he has operated “Joe Charboneau Baseball” in Twinsburg, Ohio, giving lessons and doing coaching clinics.
“Sure, I have a lot of regrets, but no complaints about anybody, and no bitterness. I always knew an injury could happen and, for me, it did. Somebody wrote an article about me in 1980, and I said all I really wanted to do was stay healthy. But I didn’t.”
And so ended—for Charboneau, the Indians, and their fans, much too soon—the legend of Super Joe.^ top
Excerpted from the book Whatever Happened to Super Joe?, copyright © Russell Schneider. All rights reserved.
This excerpt may not be used in any form for commercial purposes without the written permission of Gray & Company, Publishers.
by Russell Schneider
From the mid-1950s through the mid-1990s, the Cleveland Indians fielded teams that just couldn’t win. Yet each lousy team in those “bad old days” had its share of good guys, likeable and colorful young men who earned a . . . [ Read More ]
Russell Schneider was a sportswriter and columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer for 32 years. He covered the Indians daily from 1964 through 1977. He has written one book on the Cleveland Browns and . . . [ Read More ]