One day in March of 1980, an odd story appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The Cleveland Indians baseball players had been walking out of a hotel in Mexico City. They were in town for an exhibition game. A baseball fan came rushing at them, waving a Bic pen. He may or may not have asked for an autograph; there was significant disagreement about that later.
What is known for sure is that he stabbed the pen into the side of a young player, opening a four-inch wound. Other players, led by minor league pitcher Tom Brennan, grabbed the guy, held him down, and they all waited for an ambulance and the police. The ambulance arrived 50 minutes later and took the injured player to the hospital. The police arrived 20 minutes after that and arrested the man.
The man was fined 50 pesos and released.
The player was treated and released. He played in a game two days later.
“Hell,” that player said, “I’ve been stabbed lots of times.”
That was our introduction to Super Joe Charboneau.
* * *
I had lots of heroes when I was a kid. Duane Kuiper — as I’ve written many times — was my hero. But so was Buddy Bell. Brian Sipe. Evel Knievel was a hero. The Six Million Dollar Man was a hero. Kate Jackson was a hero. Superman was a hero. My first crush was probably Isis, who you might remember from the wildly underappreciated 1970s documentary The Secrets of Isis.*
*It’s possible, looking back, that Isis was not actually a documentary but instead a kids’ series starring an actress named Joanna Cameron. But I’m pretty sure it was real.
Even among the comic book characters and sports legends, Super Joe stood out. Maybe that’s because he was a little bit of both.
Joe Charboneau, from his earliest days, was a daredevil. We all know some. I don’t mean daredevil in the Evel Knievel, jump over 23 busses in a motorcycle sense of the word. No, think of the friend who wanted to jump off the top of the garage, the friend who wanted to see who could hold their breath the longest, the friend who hung on to the firecracker for the longest time before throwing it away. Thus was Joe Charboneau. He was one of those anxious and desperate souls who took on dares, no matter how ridiculous, no matter how reckless, no matter how dangerous.
This was what led him to drink beer through his nose.
This was what led him to set one of his many broken noses using a pair of pliers.
This was what led him to try — TRY — to swallow an egg whole. Hey, the snake did it on TV.
Super Joe wasn’t a snake, and he almost choked to death trying the egg thing, but almost choking to death was part of the deal. He was one of those people born to rebel. He didn’t like school. He couldn’t concentrate. His parents divorced when he was a teen. He needed to test boundaries, push limits, live on the brink, just feel stuff.
“Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?“
— The Wild One
Charboneau wasn’t a natural baseball player; he was strong and athletic and naturally violent, but in my mind, his baseball career began the way it began for Danny Zuko in Grease. Zuko was looking for a sport, he punched somebody, and the athletic director shouted, “He’s a hitter!” That seemed to me to be the Joe Charboneau path, too. He was unnoticed out of high school, but then he went to West Valley College in Northern California, and he found — perhaps even to his own surprise — that he could hit the hell out of a baseball. He hit .373 his first year, was taken in the sixth round of the January draft, went back to school, hit more, and was taken in the second round by the Philadelphia Phillies.
They sent him to Spartanburg, S.C., where he hit .298 with power.
And the very next year, because this is the story of Super Joe, he quit baseball and took a job as a stocker in an electrical supplies company.
The Phillies just didn’t get him. Couldn’t get him. This was a guy who boxed bare-knuckled to make a few bucks (or just for the thrills). This was a guy who drank beer through his nose to win bets (or just for the thrills). This was a guy who quit baseball and didn’t seem bothered at all by it; he didn’t LOVE baseball in the way that the guardians of the game want players to love it. He liked it fine. But it didn’t define him. He wouldn’t let it define him. He’d be just as happy working at a Toys R Us.
The Phillies did talk him into coming back in 1978; they told him he could play in nearby Visalia, even though that was a Minnesota Twins minor league team. Charboneau led the California League with a .350 average. He slugged .549 too, with 35 doubles and 18 homers, and he walked more than he struck out. The guy really was a hitter. And he was still a wild man.
And the Phillies still didn’t get him. Weeks after the season ended, they dumped Charboneau in a trade to Cleveland for 26-year-old minor league pitcher Cardell Camper, who had just gone 6-8 with a 7.40 ERA in Portland. You got the sense that Philadelphia didn’t care who they got back. They’d had enough of Super Joe.
* * *
Let me introduce a concept here, one I like to call “The counterfeit hope of lousy teams.” It’s a subtle concept, but here’s the basic idea: Even the worst teams have what you might loosely call “a strength.” Even the worst teams have what you might loosely call “a star.” Even the worst teams have what you might loosely call, “top 10 prospects.”
This is simple math. Someone has to lead your team in RBIs, in tackles, in goals, in points.
No matter how bad you are, you have to do SOMETHING right.
The 1962 Mets drew the most walks. The 2017 Cleveland Browns had a Top 10 defense against the run. The horrendous Phoenix Suns the last couple of years still had Devin Booker putting up big numbers.
The counterfeit hope comes when teams start believing too much in these strengths that aren’t really strengths.
In 1980, the Cleveland Indians went into the season SURE that their strength was their outfield. They had centerfielder Rick Manning, a homegrown talent who had won a Gold Glove and was — in Cleveland, anyway — often considered to be a poor man’s Fred Lynn.*
*Manning — and I did love him — was not any kind of Fred Lynn.
A year earlier, they had acquired left fielder Mike Hargrove, who in 100 games with the Tribe had hit .325/.433/.500.
And in the offseason, they went out and got Jorge Orta, a one-time All-Star second baseman who Tribe scouts felt certain could make a nice and easy transition to right field.
Hargrove. Manning. Orta.
Pennant, here we come.
“I hope those guys can play 162 games each this year,” Cleveland manager Dave Garcia told the press.
This is the point, the heart of the counterfeit hope theory: The Tribe didn’t just END UP with those three as an outfield. They honestly seemed to believe that Hargrove-Orta-Manning represented a strength, a core to build around. There was zero chance, absolutely zero, that the three could COMBINE to hit 30 homers or steal 30 bases or play anything resembling average big league defense.
And yet, because of the counterfeit hope of lousy teams, this actual, real headline appeared during spring training in 1980.
Charboneau Gives Tribe Big Problem
Yes, that’s right. Super Joe Charboneau had come to the Tribe, and in his first year in Class AA he again led a minor league in hitting; this time it was the Southern League. Super Joe hit .352/.422/.597. Then he went to spring training and nobody could get him out. It was a gift that had fallen out of the sky. The Indians had been mired in mediocrity for two decades. They had been bottom-five in attendance for years. Here was the first exciting thing that had happened to the team in forever.
And Cleveland saw it as a “big problem” because he might take time away from Jorge Orta.
It really wasn’t easy being a Cleveland baseball fan back then.
* * *
Well, the team might not have gotten it, but we fans did. Instantly. Charboneau played his first game in Cleveland on April 19, 1980. In his first home plate appearance, he drew a walk and was caught stealing. We’d gotten used to such things. The Tribe had started the year on a six-game road trip, and Super Joe hit .200 with a homer. No team in baseball history was as proficient at getting caught stealing as those Cleveland teams of the 1970s. Through the whole decade, they were successful on just 53% of their stolen base attempts, far and away the worst percentage in baseball, and that included such comical numbers as.
— Buddy Bell was 24 for 72 on stolen base attempts.
— Duane Kuiper was 49 for 114.
— In 1977, John Lowenstein — who was actually quite fast — was 1 for 9 in stolen base attempts.
But in Super Joe’s second home at-bat, he doubled. We gave him a standing ovation. His third time up, he homered. We gave him a standing ovation. His fourth time up, he cranked an RBI single. We stood for Super Joe one more time.
“Boy, that was exciting!” suddenly converted Dave Garcia said after the game. “If he keeps hitting like that, he’s going to have this town in the palm of his hand.”
He already did. There were two local punk Cleveland musicians in the crowd that day — Don Kriss and Stan Bloch (Bloch was in a punk band called The Baloneyheads). They drank a lot of beer and cheered on Super Joe and, inspired by what they saw, wrote a song. Well, it’s sort of a song.
Who’s the newest guy in town?
Go Joe Charboneau!
Turns the ballpark upside down
Go Joe Charboneau!
Go Joe Charboneau would be the summer song on the radio in Cleveland, Ohio. See, we needed Super Joe, needed him more than he could ever know. The city was dying; even as a 13-year-old, I understood that. More than 175,000 people — almost one-quarter of the city’s population — had fled Cleveland in the 1970s. In 1978, Cleveland became the first city since the Great Depression to default on its loans; in the mind of a kid this meant that the whole city had gone bankrupt. Smoke billowed into the Cleveland sky. Potholes shook us to the bone. The reason we even have an Earth Day is that the Cuyahoga River caught fire. And no Cleveland team had won a title since the early 1960s, before I was born.
These were desperate times. Every other day, it seemed, Cleveland had some cringe-worthy new slogan designed to make the city seem better.
New York’s the Big Apple, but Cleveland’s a plum.
The best things in life are right here in Cleveland.
We’re a big-league city (with Little Leagues too!)
Cleveland’s a great place to live
We so badly needed Super Joe.
And Super Joe was there for us. He hit .354 in his first month in the big leagues. And then he went into a slump and Cleveland benched him, because of course they did. They announced that he would hit only against lefties, even though Charboneau insisted that he didn’t actually like hitting against lefties. Well, they couldn’t just play Charboneau, not when they had veteran DH Cliff Johnson hitting .230.
Eventually — and I do mean EVENTUALLY — Cleveland traded away Johnson and gave Charboneau the DH slot, and he started hitting again. By July 3, his average was up to .307. Then he went into another little slump, which obviously led Dave Garcia to bench him again.
This led to one of the funniest moments of the year. Duane Kuiper was injured, and he went to Browns’ training camp just to hang around. Then he showed up at head coach Sam Rutigliano’s press conference.
“Yes,” Rutigliano said, pointing at Kuiper.
“Do you think Charboneau should be playing?” Kuiper asked without skipping a beat.
Rutigliano smiled and said something nice about Garcia because Rutigliano is a nice man like that.
Charboneau did get hot again, smashing two home runs in a game in Seattle’s Kingdome, hitting .359 over a two-week span in late July and early August, and placing himself in position to become Cleveland’s first Rookie of the Year since Chris Chambliss in 1971. But more than that, much more, he had become a legend to us Cleveland kids, an explosion of joy. Nothing was more fun than playing the “Didja Know Super Joe” game, which we did all the time.
Didja know Super Joe has broken his nose 20 times?
Didja know Super Joe opened a beer bottle with hie eye socket?
Didja know Super Joe sold frogs to raise money for his first pair of spikes?
Didja know Super Joe once tried (unsuccessfully) to eat a shot glass?
Didja know Super Joe used to eat cigarettes to win bets?
Didja know Super Joe was once knocked down nine times in a bare-knuckle boxing match?
Didja know Super Joe won that fight?
At that point, his baseball playing was really beside the point. It’s funny, looking back at the stories, you see how tame most of Charboneau’s quotes were and how so-so his season turned out. Charboneau won Rookie of the Year, much to our overwhelming delight, but it was a terrible decision. Britt Burns had 7.0 WAR, for crying out loud. Burns threw 238 innings with 143 ERA+ and 11 complete games. But we didn’t give a damn about Britt Burns (nor did anyone else; he got just four first-place votes) and Super Joe ran away with it. The papers reported that he had promised his wife that he would win the award. So that was nice.
But like I say, even if he hadn’t won it, that wouldn’t have changed the way we felt about him. He could hit or slump, dye his hair or shave it off, it was all perfect. When you’re a kid, obsessions come and go without warning. For a while there in the 1970s, we spent half our time coming up with Welcome Back, Kotter “Up your nose with a rubber hose,” insults for each other.
In your ear with a chandelier!
In your face with a leather briefcase!
In your eyes with McDonald’s french fries!
Boy was that stupid. But it really mattered. Evel Knievel really mattered. Pony sneakers … Leif Garrett … Kiss My Grits … Valerie Bertinelli … they MATTERED. And in the summer of 1980, Super Joe mattered like that. I say this without even the slightest bit of exaggeration: He altered my life. I’m not sure how. But I just know that I’d be a slightly different person had it not been for Super Joe Charboneau.
And then he was gone, vanished, like a fad. I think that’s how I saw him — as a fad. But he wasn’t. Charboneau was a real person who came to camp in 1981 with the hopes of becoming a full-fledged star. “He’s a better hitter than he was even last year,” Dave Garcia gushed.
Then Charboneau was hit by a pitch. He gashed his ankle sliding into second. He threw out his back, too. Charboneau’s slump started early and never stopped; in mid-June, he was so outraged and felt so helpless that after an 0-for-3 performance in Anaheim, near where he grew up, he threw his bat 50 feet in the air and refused to run out a pop fly or ground ball.
“He’s not going to do that stuff here,” Dave Garcia told the press, and Garcia did what he was really good at: He benched Super Joe.
Then everybody went on strike.
By the time the players got back, Charboneau — who was hitting .208 with no power — was hurt and 11 pounds overweight and out of ideas. In mid-August, Cleveland sent him down to Charleston. Charboneau got 12 big-league at-bats the rest of the season. As soon as the year ended, Super Joe had back surgery for two herniated discs.
And that was it. There was a brief period in early 1982 when the Tribe thought Charboneau might be back (“He’s playing very good, and he’s in a good frame of mind,” said the apparently unfireable Dave Garcia in March), but he was finished. He got 63 big-league plate appearances that year, and kicked around for another couple of years in the minors.
By then, all of us who had loved Joe Charboneau so deeply had moved on to our next crush.
* * *
We met once. It seems like yesterday, but the calendar insists it was actually close to 25 years ago. Super Joe showed up in Cincinnati, along with a few Cleveland guys; they played a game against a few former Reds players, in what was called the “World Series of Dreams.” The title was a bit grandiose, admittedly, considering the quality of play. But it was 1994 after the real World Series had been canceled. Everyone was desperate for something good to feel about baseball.
Super Joe was almost 40, but still powerful. His muscles had muscles.
I began by asking about the time he could open beer bottles with his eye socket. In retrospect, I wish I had not done that. He wasn’t that guy anymore.
“Aw,” he told me, “there aren’t too many people who bring up that story of opening the bottle with my eye socket.”
Then I asked him how it felt just disappearing like that.
“At first, I missed it,” Super Joe told me when we met all those years ago. “I guess everybody does. But then I settled into everyday life. I enjoy being home. I enjoy spending time with my family. I like my life a lot better now.”
These days, Joe Charboneau is a Facebook friend. He’s 63 years old, and lives up in North Ridgeville, in the Greater Cleveland area. He has six grandchildren. He’s done some coaching, some broadcasting, some teaching. These days, he does some work for the Cleveland Indians, and he pops up now and again around town — he was there for the opening of the JACK Cleveland Casino, for example, and he usually plays in the Cleveland Legends softball game, and so on.
Thursday, while writing this, I checked in on Joe. He posted a photo of himself, circa 1982.
“Joe 1982,” he wrote. “Tell me this ain’t hot, who agrees???”
How can you not agree? Happy Thanksgiving to Super Joe Charboneau, who drank beer through his nose and hit line drives into the gap and fought with his bare knuckles and dyed his hair like a punk rocker and was happy to hear the cheers of the crowd but would have been just as happy working a real job. He got stabbed lots of times. But he always came back. He always came back.