The rich 116-year history of Cleveland Indians baseball has brought about many memorable moments witnessed by Tribe fans of all generations.
Among those moments are 14 no-hitters, good for seventh most by a major league franchise. One of them was thrown by a man who would revolutionize the role of the closing pitcher, making it what it is today. He is also one of two players ever to have both a 20-win season and a 50-save season on his resume. His name? Dennis Eckersley.
During a May 1977 game, before a crowd of 13,400 at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, the 22-year old Eckersley blanked the California Angels en route to a 1-0 victory. Later that year, he would make the first of six eventual appearances in baseball’s Midsummer Classic, finishing the year with 14 wins and a solid 3.53 ERA. Less than a year later, Eckersley would no longer be on the team.
Getting the Call
On June 6, 1972, the California native received a telephone call informing him that he had been drafted by the Cleveland Indians. In a 2014 interview with SBNation’s Jason Lukehart, Eckersley recalled yelling “Noooo!” upon hearing the news as he had hoped to play for either the Giants or the Dodgers. Ultimately, he had a change of heart. “It was the greatest thing to ever happen to me, because it was a quicker way to the big leagues. It only took me a couple of years to get there.”
Three years later, at age 20, Eckersley completed his rookie campaign, going 13-7 with a 2.60 ERA across 34 appearances (24 starts). He followed that up with a 13-12 record in 1976, striking out 200 batters and posting a 3.53 ERA. At the conclusion of the ’77 season, in which he threw a no-hitter and made the All-Star team, Cleveland knew that they had something special in “Eck”. Unfortunately, the love affair was short-lived.
During a game in 1977, Cleveland Indians center fielder Rick Manning injured his back sliding into second base. After the injury, Eckersley and his wife, Denise, allowed Manning to stay at their home while he recovered. It was during this period that Manning and Denise began to have an affair. As detailed in author Terry Pluto’s book The Curse of Rocky Colavito, Tribe brass became aware of the situation and wanted to avoid an awkward ordeal.
Some in the front office also believed that Eckersley’s pitching motion could lead to long-term arm trouble, and that Manning had the potential to become a star after his recovery. General Manager Phil Seghi made his decision. On March 30, 1978, he traded Eckersley to the Boston Red Sox. In return, the Indians acquired Ted Cox, Bo Diaz, Mike Paxton, and Rick Wise.
A Hall-of-Fame Career
The deal immediately paid off for Boston. In 1978, his first with his new club, Eckersley won twenty games. He continued to play for the Red Sox until a 1984 trade sent him to the Cubs for Bill Buckner.
In 1987, he joined the Oakland Athletics and revolutionized the closer’s role, saving 33 games or more every season from 1988 to 1993. After winning a World Series in 1989, Eckersley posted 48 saves with a mind-blowing 0.61 ERA in 1990. Two years later, he saved 51 games, winning both the American League MVP and Cy Young Awards.
He continued to pitch until 1998, retiring with 197 victories and 390 saves. Eckersley was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2004, his first year of eligibility. He currently works as a color commentator for the Red Sox.
Rick Manning never became the player the Indians had hoped for. Following several mediocre seasons, he was traded to Milwaukee in 1983 and retired in 1987 at age 32.
Of the four players the Cleveland Indians acquired from Boston, three (Paxton, Wise, and Cox) were out of baseball by 1982. Bo Diaz turned in an All-Star campaign for Cleveland in 1981 before being dealt to Philadelphia the following winter.