Joe Charboneau: Far-Out Phenom

This article was written by Jack Kavanagh

This article was published in the 1989 Baseball Research Journal


There are phenoms, and there are phenoms. Super Joe could drink beer through his nose and open bottles with his teeth – and, for a year, hit like blazes.

 

When a player blazes into view with an eye-catching performance, we call him a “phenom.” Great things are expected from him and, sometimes, they follow. Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, and Stan Musial were first hailed as “young phenoms.” As playing careers lengthen and a player who debuted as a “young phenom” becomes a steady star, he ceases being “a phenom.” The players we remember as phenoms are the ones who promised stardom but faded after streaking into prominence. They are like comets.

Some disappeared because their talents were inadequate; they had a weakness others discovered. Many were tragically cut down by an injury; some even by death. Others became victims of their own weaknesses.

The best known phenoms are familiar to many baseball fans. There was Louis Sockalexis, who shone for only half the 1897 season with the Cleveland Spiders but left a legacy: The team was later renamed Indians in his honor. There was Harry Agganis of the 1955 Red Sox, the celebrated “Golden Greek” who died of pneumonia just as he was becoming a star first baseman. There was Bob (Hurricane) Hazle, who helped the 1957 Braves win the National League pennant, then faded fast as a squall. There was Cub second baseman Ken Hubbs, the 1962 Rookie of the Year who died in a plane crash after his second season. And there was Mark (The Bird) Fidrych, who won 19 games for the 1976 Tigers and almost single-handedly reinvented the curtain call, only to succumb to arm trouble.

Oddly an even more recent phenom is slipping from memory. He deserves better because his may be the weirdest phenom story of all.

“Super Joe” Charboneau was a single-season phenom who fell from grace as colorfully as he zoomed to temporary stardom with the 1980 Cleveland Indians. When a player’s accomplishments are great enough to win Rookie-of-the-Year honors, and he provides writers and broadcasters volumes of bizarre publicity, he becomes a gold-plated phenom.

A signal that Charboneau’s off-beat antics were more than baseball management was willing to tolerate came when the Philadelphia Phillies virtually gave him away in 1978, even though he’d batted .350 in the California League.

The Indians closed their eyes to Joe’s eccentricities, preferring to see in him the second coming of Rocky Colavito. And what eccentricities! Writers told about such off-field activities as pulling out his own tooth with a pair of pliers, opening beer bottles with his eye socket, and removing an unwanted tattoo with a razor blade. Not to mention winning bets by eating lighted cigarettes, swallowing eggs in their shells, and downing glasses of beer through his nose.

Having led one minor league in batting in 1978, Charboneau moved up to the Southern Association, and topped that league, too, batting .352 for Chattanooga.

His batting alone would have drawn the press. Arriving at spring training in 1980, he hit as if he were still in Chattanooga. He gave interviews, demonstrated some of his clubhouse stunts, and made the starting lineup. When the team reached Cleveland, the city was ready for him. A rock group had turned out a record, “Go, Joe Charboneau,” which was played incessantly. The Cleveland Plain Dealer, dubbing him, “Super Joe,” made Charboneau a cover feature in their Sunday magazine. Other publications ran features about him. He hit a 500-foot shot off Tom Underwood at Yankee Stadium and seemed to bat best against the league’s best pitchers.  Joe’s hitting feats were written up daily. 

Despite a long slump, he finished with a .289 average, 23 home runs, and 87 runs batted in. These are fine marks for a first-year player only twenty-five years old. He was named American League Rookie Of The Year by the Baseball Writers’ Association and The Sporting News.

Joe Charboneau’s “rookie card” in the 1981 bubble-gum sets became a gilt-edged premium, bought up by collectors and dealers sure they had gotten in on the ground floor of an investment certainty. As Charboneau marched to Cooperstown, his first baseball card would increase in value many times. However, like most “penny stocks” shoestring investors buy, the Charboneau card today isn’t an investor’s dream. His career bubble burst like an over-chewed wad of Topps gum.

Super Joe was again the center of attention in spring training of 1981. This time it was for what he had done, not what he might do. He stopped telling about removing teeth and tattoos and consuming indigestibles. He concentrated on his batting. But now was no longer hitting.

Charboneau floundered. By mid-season he had been sent to Charleston of the International League, having hit only .210 in 48 games, with only four home runs. Disgruntled by his demotion, he hit .217 with Charleston, with no home runs in 14 games before heading home to California to ruminate on his change in fortune.

The Indians brought him to spring training again in 1982. This time the interviews focused on what went wrong and, as the 1982 season began, why they were still going wrong. Joe hit only .214 in 22 games, with a pair of home runs. He returned to Charleston and failed. Even dropped down to the scene of earlier glory, Chattanooga, Joe couldn’t hit. Another season was gone.

The next season found Joe Charboneau assigned to Cleveland’s Buffalo farm club, in the International League. All he got from this circumstance was an extra’s role in the Robert Redford movie, “The Natural.” The player who had once seemed a natural himself was suspended for a week for making obscene gestures to the Buffalo fans. They had jeered him for not running out a ground ball.

Joe could have claimed a back injury had pointed the fickle finger of fate at him. Instead, he gave the finger back to the fans and demanded to be released. Having rejected winter trade offers and an inquiry from Japan, the Indians now freed Joe to accept whatever offers came his way. None came.

Joe joined a local semi-pro team to keep in shape and played in a tournament that involved four games in a single day. His team won. When they tried to drink a toast after the final game, no one had brought a bottle opener. Not to worry; Joe opened the beer bottles with his teeth.

Eventually, Joe got an offer. It came from the San Jose Bees, hoping a return to the California League would restore Joe to greatness. The general manager, Harry Steve, scheduled a returning-hero welcome. When the plane landed, however, no passenger named Charboneau got off. Joe had returned to his wife and two children in Santa Clara. He might not have known the way to San Jose. More likely, he wanted to recover from his back injury first.

During the winter, doctors at Duke University Hospital removed two and a half discs from Joe’s back. The prognosis was that Joe would be lucky to walk, let alone run and swing a bat. Joe lost twenty-five pounds after the operation and waited for another chance. He is still waiting.

Looking back, the irrepressible Joe Charboneau pointed out how few athletes achieve as much as he did: just making the major leagues and having one starring season. “It took a good break to get there,” Joe said, “and a bad break to keep me from getting back.”

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