The fellow Cleveland still calls Super Joe, a slightly larger than life and almost terminally flaky Rookie of the Year with the 1980 Indians, cut slightly across the grain two years ago, when it looked like he’d be facing charges stemming from a bar fight. His job as the head of baseball for North Ridgeville, Ohio’s parks and recreation department seemed in jeopardy. Then, the charges were dropped, when a woman Charboneau was accused of striking admitted she’d given him a push and he’d struck her entirely by accident.
From just about any account, you’d think something like that would be the blow that finally pushed the one-time toast of Cleveland—who’s dealt with miscarriage, his wife’s long decline from multiple sclerosis, the near-loss of their home, and, of course, his height-to-depth brief playing career—over the edge. Not so, apparently. About the only thing that might do that job would be a push out of a flying airplane. Except that, one way or another, Charboneau would probably find a way to land on his feet, bloodied but unbowed. With a can of laughing gas at the ready.
Baseball has never lacked for flaky one-hit wonders. (Or, no-hit wonders, in the case of rookie pitchers Bobo Holloman in 1952 and Bo Belinsky in 1962.) Players who shoot big out of the chute or not long afterward, establish themselves as prime talents and prime-time personalities, and fall harder than an elephant from a skyscraper right when they’ve established their plate, field, or mound prowess. And, are remembered long after the uniform was doffed or torn off, whether or not they write Ball Four—as did Jim Bouton, one-time pitching phenom and full-time wit done in by arm trouble, slowly and painfully.
Just ask Mark (The Bird) Fidrych, if you could. He flew across the 1976 radar with a Rookie of the Year campaign as dazzling as it was entertaining. He was a pitching phenomenon and a prankish personality who talked to baseballs, manicured the mound, gave his teammates exuberant whacks on the can after plays that saved his games, and was crazy in the ways everyone adores. The following spring, he injured his knee in spring training, returned too soon, fouled his shoulder, and was doomed when it turned out to be a rotator cuff shredding nobody could discern until he was just about at the end of yet another comeback bid. (His third-to-last major league game, a 1980 start against the Indians, saw Fidrych removed after opening the game surrendering a base hit and plunking the next batter while second base was stolen; Charboneau contributed a sacrifice fly later in the game.) That was no phony outpouring of grief when Fidrych was killed three years ago, when a dump truck he was servicing collapsed atop him.
Charboneau almost made Fidrych resemble a stiff priss. While Fidrych was struggling with yet another comeback try in 1980, Charboneau—plucked from the Phillies’ system, where he was made available because the Phillies were said to be edgy about his temperament—was making the Indians when respected and steady outfielder Andre Thornton tore up a knee, taking him out for the season. Even before he made the Indians his cheerful candor, even about his harsh childhood (his parents divorced when he was nine, leaving his mother to work as a switchboard operator to support seven children; they moved frequently to keep their rents down), even about a few exploits that might churn weak stomachs otherwise, made him a celebrity.
His first game before the home fans (the Tribe opened on the road that season) made him a living legend: he pulled up a triple short of hitting for the cycle before a packed Municipal Stadium crowd. The slender kid with the corkscrewed hair and the eye socket for a corkscrew—the legend of Charboneau opening a bottle of beer with his eye socket is only one of Cleveland’s top ten baseball legends, so it might seem—could hit. “I was really surprised about how the fans cheered me,” he told a reporter. “I also know that some of the other guys on the team were wondering, ‘Why are they all excited about him? What did he do? He just got here.’ I was thinking those same things myself.”
Nobody crafted a local hit single about The Bird. “Go, Go, Joe Charboneau” reached number three on the Cleveland singles chart that summer. Not even Rocky Colavito, whose Cleveland popularity two decades earlier would be rivaled only by Charboneau’s in 1980—ever inspired that.
Thornton himself would hit it on the proverbial money when he analysed Charboneau’s unlikely, instant popularity, which lasted all year long as he swatted line drives and fence flyers alike, to the sportswriter who tagged him Super Joe Charboneau in the first place, the Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s Terry Pluto.
“Joe fit the image in many fans’ minds of what an athlete should be,” said Thornton, an excellent player whose retiring personality probably did more than his race (Thornton is black) to keep him from becoming a Charboneau-like icon. “They don’t want him to be too smart, but they want him to be a little eccentric . . . they would like the guy to be someone they could laugh about, someone whose personality entertains them. That was Joe. He had all the wild stories. He came from the wrong side of the tracks . . . He could hit a baseball. He probably didn’t know why he could hit it, but he could hit it.”
“He was a legitimate Rookie of the Year,” said Herb Score, once a streaking (and record-setting) young Indian star—until a liner to the face and, the following year, a faulty mechanical response to an elbow tear fractured his pitching career—then a longtime, beloved Indians broadcaster. “He had the tools to be an excellent hitter for a long time.”
The tools, but not the back. The following spring, after signing a $75,000 contract for 1981, Charboneau slid so hard into second base he ruptured a disc in his back. One doctor told him as much; the Indians demanded a second opinion, which contradicted the first diagnosis. Sensitive to his contract and to those who might accuse him of jaking it, Charboneau tried to play through it.
“But anyone who saw Charboneau knew one of two things,” Pluto would remember. “A. There was something seriously wrong with his back. B. He was walking around with an ironing board for a spine.” Which made Charboneau C. the answer to a trivia question: Name the only Rookie of the Year to end up in the minors the following year. Which outranks poor Bobo Holloman, whose rookie no-hitter—in his first major league start, yet—was followed by pitching inconsistent enough that he would be farmed out before the same season was over.
Perhaps some of Charboneau’s cheerful insanity was learning to laugh in the face of tremendous sorrow. Aside from his childhood, Charboneau’s daughter would have to have a kidney removed in her infancy, and his wife—once a scholarship swimmer, who suffered a miscarriage during her husband’s early minor league seasons—would be stricken young with multiple sclerosis, sapping her gradually until she would be almost entirely wheelchair bound by 2009. Charboneau from the beginning has emphasised family ties keeping him and his in one piece regardless.
During the 1981 baseball strike, Charboneau made some personal appearances and played some softball trying to stay in playing shape. By August, the Indians sent him down to Charleston. It was Charboneau’s idea in part; he wanted to play his way back to full strength, and he hadn’t been getting much playing time in Cleveland with the back issues. In the offseason, he underwent surgery to remove three ruptured back disks. He had a deceptively lively 1982 spring but ended up asking to return to the minors again, this time to AA Chattanooga, where he’d first felt as though he had a legitimate shot. A wrist injury left him to be the team’s first base coach. Starting 1983 at Buffalo (AA), another Indian farm, the Tribe released him.
He gave it one more try when the Pirates signed him for 1984. After spending the year in their farm system and being ticketed for another minor league season out of spring training 1985, Charboneau suffered an ankle fracture. It might not have mattered. As one of his minor league managers told a newspaper in 1983, players with three missing back disks have little body torque in their swings. No wonder Charboneau could barely hit the ball out of the infield after 1981.
When he left baseball, Charboneau moved between Buffalo (as a bar host and bouncer) and Arizona (as a liquor salesman), but he returned to the Cleveland area in 1990, set up a since-sold batting school, and began making his way as a privately-engaged batting instructor, for individuals or even minor league teams. (One of his specialties is helping young players adjust from aluminum to wood bat swinging.) He’s done some baseball card shows and appearances for the Major League Baseball Alumni Association. He acknowledges his bipolarity; he has given up drinking; his wife, Cindi, lives with their daughter, a registered nurse who can care for her more professionally than Charboneau can. (Their son is a tattoo and body piercing expert; the Charboneaus are also grandparents.)
His last known appearance in a major league uniform, other than Indians’ Old-Timers’ Days, was fictitious: he got to play one of Robert Redford’s New York Knights teammates in The Natural. Cruelly fitting, that. For one season, Charboneau was a line drive-hitting Roy Hobbs. Or close enough thereto. So it seemed, at times.
It’s still tempting to feel sorry for him even now over what might have been. Charboneau himself must be tempted to the thought once in the proverbial blue moon. (He once said he kept only one piece of video from his big year: the swing that made him only the third player in history to reach the third deck of the former Yankee Stadium with a home run. The first two: Jimmie Foxx and Frank Howard.) Until you hear him talk about Cleveland and its meaning to his life. “I love Cleveland,” he told Pluto in 2009. “The city and the fans have been great to me and my family. I’m always thankful for the one good, healthy year. And I’d tell those guys in camp with the Indians to make the most of it right now—you never know how long it will last.”
Only his baseball career didn’t last. Charboneau himself, somehow, does. It’s tempting here to insert the cliche about all those superbrat superstars who think the world ought to genuflect before them and who might learn a few lessons from someone such as Charboneau, who had it made until his back and ankle told him another story. (He once revealed he had about twenty surgical screws in his body thanks to his injuries.) And held onto the story that really mattered.
“People tell me that I was unlucky,” Herb Score once said. “Me? Unlucky? I started with a great team in the Indians and played under a great manager in Al Lopez. Then I went from the field to the broadcasting booth at the age of thirty, and thirty years later I’m still doing the games. If you ask me, that’s not unlucky. That’s a guy who has been in the right place at the right time.”
Charboneau has a similar absence of bitterness.
“How could I live up to Super Joe?” he asked, over a decade after the fall began. “But then I realised the fans liked it and thought it was fun, so I found I enjoyed it. I’m almost forty now, and 1980 was a long time ago. I really only had the one year, but so many people still remember, and I get to make a lot of personal appearances and do some radio and TV. That’s the nicest part, that people still remember.”
Which may be the real reason Cleveland still calls him Super Joe.