July 15, 1994: Albert Belle's corked bat leads to suspension
The 1994 major-league season brought about two significant changes with regard to the makeup of each league’s standings. Since 1969, the National and American Leagues had used a two-division format, one East and one West, to accommodate the burgeoning expansion in the big leagues. The NL and the AL had both grown by four teams since the AL began to swell in 1961.
The Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins entered the NL in 1993, making the count 14 teams in each league. Realignment to three divisions in each league had been discussed for a few years. In 1994 those conversations yielded results, as a new Central Division was added.
The second modification went hand-in hand with the new division configuration. The additional division created a third champion and also made it necessary to add a wild-card team. Postseason slots were now doubled and now many clubs had a path to the playoffs with fewer obstacles. This format had been used by the NFL for many seasons, beginning in 1970.
For Cleveland, the new alignment gave the Tribe some hope for a postseason berth. After years of futility, the Indians were now in a weight class that suited them with teams they could compete against: Milwaukee, Chicago, Kansas City, and Minnesota. Gone were the days of immediate doom, conceding defeat to the powerful Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles, and the Toronto Blue Jays in their old home in the East Division.
The White Sox had more success than Cleveland, but not much. They finished on top of the West in 1983 and 1993. But in both cases they were sent packing when they were eliminated in the League Championship Series to Baltimore and Toronto, respectively.
As the second half of the 1994 season began, the teams were separated by mere percentage points in the AL Central standings. Cleveland (51-33, .607) was a smidgen ahead of the Chisox (52-34 .605). Both teams boasted powerful lineups and adequate pitching staffs to make their case as the favorite to finish atop the division.
Cleveland opened the second half of the 1994 season with a four-game set against Chicago at Comiskey Park. The White Sox took the opener, as Alex Fernandez beat Charles Nagy. Chicago spotted Cleveland a three-run lead, but scored two runs in each of the fifth, seventh, and eighth innings to claim the win. Tim Raines and Robin Ventura combined to go 6-for-8 at the plate with three RBIs. The victory gave the White Sox their ninth straight win over the Indians at their home park. Cleveland had not won a game at Comiskey since September 9, 1992.
The pitching machup for the second game was Mark Clark (10-3, 3.71 ERA) for Cleveland and Jack McDowell (7-7, 4.42 ERA) for Chicago. Cleveland had acquired Clark from St. Louis the previous year, and he was used as a starter and out of the bullpen by manager Mike Hargrove. This season Clark was part of the starting rotation. McDowell, known as “Black Jack” to many, was the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner. He was tops in the league in wins (22-10, 3.37 ERA), leading the White Sox to their first division crown in 10 seasons. McDowell was pitching better of late, posting a 5-1 record in his last 10 starts in 1994.
Kenny Lofton led off the top of the first inning and got aboard when he bunted down the third-base line for a single. He stole second base, his 46th steal of the season. Omar Vizquel sacrificed Lofton to third. He scored when Carlos Baerga singled to center field to give the Indians the early 1-0 lead.
As Albert Belle stepped into the batter’s box, Chicago manager Gene Lamont approached home plate. Lamont requested that home-plate umpire Dave Phillips inspect the bat; Lamont suspected it was illegal. Phillips, who was the umpire crew chief, examined the bat with first-base umpire Joe Brinkman. “I didn’t see anything wrong with the bat,” Phillips said. “But we’ll check it and send it on to (American League President) Dr. Bobby Brown. He has asked us to send it to him.”1
“I don’t know if Gene was trying to play mind games with Albert or what,” Hargrove said. “Davey Phillips said he checked the bat and didn’t see anything wrong, but he had to keep the bat regardless. If Gene got some information from somewhere, I think it’s erroneous.”2
“That’s bull@#@#$,” Belle said.3 The slugger took another bat out of the bat rack and grounded into a fielder’s choice.
Unbeknownst to the 38,686 in attendance at the ballpark, as well as the players, umpires, and ground crew, the real drama was unfolding beyond the action on the diamond. Hargrove was in the dugout with his head in his hands, and Indians relief pitcher Jason Grimsley asked bench coach Buddy Bell what was wrong. Bell told Grimsley there was a good chance that the bat was corked. Grimsley told Bell he thought he could climb through the duct work at Comiskey Park, and get the bat back. Bell mentioned to Hargrove who gave Grimsley the “thumbs up.”4
It was a good possibility that all of Belle’s bats were corked. So Grimsley took with him a Paul Sorrento model to switch with the confiscated bat. Grimsley entered through the ceiling of the visiting manager’s office and crawled through the duct work to get to the umpires dressing room. It was not an easy venture for the 6-foot-3 pitcher to manage in an enclosed area. “It was pretty hairy up there,” Grimsley said.5
Eventually he crawled to where he thought the umpires’ room was. “There was a groundskeeper in there, sitting in there on a couch,” Grimsley said. “I put the tile back down, but he had to know. Thank goodness he didn’t say anything.”6 When he found his destination, Grimsley dropped into the room and made the switch. '”My heart was going 1,000 miles an hour,” he said. “And in I went. I just rolled the dice. A crapshoot.”7
The Indians increased their lead to 2-0 in the top of the third. With one out, Lofton walked and stole second base. Vizquel also walked and Baerga followed with a single to plate Lofton for his second RBI.
Cleveland scored its third run in the top of the fifth. With two away, Baerga and Belle reached base on consecutive singles. Eddie Murray doubled home Baerga and the Tribe led, 3-1.
The White Sox sliced a run off the lead in the bottom of the seventh. Julio Franco singled and Ventura walked. Darrin Jackson sacrificed the runners up a base and Franco scored when Lance Johnson grounded to second base.
The score remained 3-2 and that is how it ended up. Both Clark and McDowell pitched well enough to get the win. Clark went 8⅓ innings with five strikeouts and two walks. He improved to 11-3. Jeff Russell came in to record the last two outs in the ninth inning and earned his 14th save. McDowell struck out nine and walked three in 8⅔ innings of work. His record dropped to 7-8.
After the game, the umpires knew right away that there was some something amiss when they saw the Sorrento bat. Major League Baseball investigated the incident and the Indians coughed up the bat to security personnel from MLB. Grimsley’s part in the heist was not known until several years later.
The bat was x-rayed and then sawed open. It was discovered that indeed there was a circle of cork in the fat part of the bat. Belle was given a 10-day suspension, which he appealed. Eventually, it was lowered to seven days.
The two clubs played a four-game set in Cleveland the following weekend. But the series yielded the same result, a split. When the season was halted on August 12 by the players strike, Chicago held a one-game lead over Cleveland. The White Sox had gone 7-5 against Cleveland in 1994.
The author accessed Baseball-Reference.com for box scores/play-by-play information (baseball-reference.com/boxes/CHA/CHA199407150.shtml) and other data, as well as Retrosheet (retrosheet.org/boxesetc/1994/B07150CHA1994.htm).
1 Paul Hoynes, “Clark Cools White Sox; Indians Hold on for Win”, Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 16, 1994: 1D.
4 Lindsey Fultin, “Batgate: The Crazy Story of Albert Belle’s Corked Bat,” Fox Sports Ohio, December 30, 2014. https://foxsports.com/ohio/story/albert-belle-corked-bat-jason-grimsley-....
5 Buster Olney, “Yankee Ends a Real Corker of a Mystery,” New York Times, April 11, 1999: 28.