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75 Years and Counting Part XXII: The Story of the 1970 Cleveland Indians

Promising young stars derailed

Pete Rose Sliding in All-Star Game

*Just as a heads up this article references some pretty substantial mental health topics including references to attempted suicide, which may be distressing for some readers. We want to emphasize the importance of prioritizing your mental health and well-being. If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or feelings, please seek support from a mental health professional or a trusted person in your life. Additionally, consider contacting the suicide and crisis lifeline by dialing 988.

In past entries I’ve talked at length about the ebb and flow of a baseball season, the hot and cold stretches, the flashes of brilliance, and the pits of despair. The 1970 season didn’t have much of that at all. The 1970 Indians got off to a sow start of 16-27 through may and June then played .500 ball the rest of the way. There was no pennant race, and very little that was interesting about the ups and downs of the season. The real stories were in the burgeoning young stars that Cleveland was developing, and how they were derailed as quickly as they’d arrived.

Ray Fosse was the first draft pick in the history of the franchise after going 7th overall in the inaugural MLB Amateur draft in 1965. Some have alleged that the Indians were considering two catchers, Fosse and a highschooler from Oklahoma named Johnny Bench. Regardless of our perspectives now, the consensus opinion among scouts was that Fosse was the better prospect. While everyone now knows that Bench would go on to become arguably the greatest catcher in the history of major league baseball, it looked like the Indians had actually gotten their guy in Fosse. It’s certainly true that Bench had blossomed into a superstar by 1970, smacking 45 home runs en route to an MVP season, but he’d already played 4 MLB seasons by then, Fosse had been blocked by an established catching platoon of Duke Sims and Joe Azcue and had been a .300 hitter while playing elite defense at the AAA level for 2 years while waiting his turn. Once he got his first chance to take the reins as an every day catcher, he took off.

By the time the All Star game rolled around Fosse was hitting .313 with 16 home runs and was riding a 23 game hitting streak when he was chosen as a reserve for the American League All Star team by Earl Weaver. With Pete Rose standing on second, Jim Hickman hit a single up the middle, a perfect throw was made to home plate and Fosse had rose out by a mile. Rather than sliding head first or giving himself up (it was an exhibition game for crying out lout) Rose barreled into Fosse, separating and fracturing Fosse’s shoulder. While Fosse, an incredibly tough player, would return to action fairly quickly, the bones in his shoulder healed incorrectly and left him in near constant pain for the remainder of his playing career. He would still go on to win the AL Gold Glove award and finish the season with a .297 average, but his power had been completely sapped. On pace for a 30 home run season, Fosse only hit 2 the rest of the season. In fact, he’d only eclipse double digits two more times the rest of his career. The Indians finally had a new star to hang their hopes on, but just as quickly as he arrived, he was derailed.

Fosse wouldn’t be the only promising young player whose future in Cleveland would be cut short. First baseman Tony Horton, who had been their most promising young power threat, had been struggling with extreme anxiety and deteriorating mental health. There’s a famous clip involving Horton that you can see below, but the clip hardly tells the whole story. Horton was facing Steve Hamilton, a journeyman reliever for the Yankees famous for an eephus pitch he called the “Folly floater.” Horton took a mighty hack at the first one and fouled it back into the seats behind home plate. Horton demanded that Hamilton throw him a second one, Hamilton obliged. Horton hit it foul again, this time though it stayed in the park and catcher Thurman Munson came down with it for the out.

Horton was taunted relentlessly by Cleveland fans, booed constantly, and dealt with an increasingly hostile press. There was a promotion known as “banner day” where fans could bring homemade signs to the park, and were eligible to win prizes for the most creative ones. One of the signs that got the most attention was one that simply read “HORTON STINKS,” fans cheered as it was carried around the stands. Little did they know that Horton had attempted suicide only the day before, after pulling himself from the lineup midway through the second game of a double header on August 28th.

Much has been made of what caused Horton’s mental health struggles. Many have attributed it to an extreme perfectionism, and an extreme fear of failure. No amount of success was ever enough to convince him that he wasn’t failing. Rich Rollins is quoted in “The Curse of Rocky Colavito” as saying “I’d heard of guys taking batting practice til their hands bled, I never saw it until Tony.” Little did anyone know at the time that August 28th 1970 would be the last day that Horton spent as a baseball player. The newspapers commented relentlessly on his absence from the team, framing his non participation in spring training as a contract holdout, fans turned on him even further. Tony is still alive, living in California and had a very successful career in banking, to this day he refuses to even discuss the game of baseball, he needed to separate himself entirely from the game and apparently found that in doing so his mental state improved drastically. I would highly recommend SABR’s piece on Horton for further reading.

To wrap up, I did want to talk about the draft very briefly. The Indians had the first overall pick in the entire draft after finishing with the worst record in baseball the year prior. They used that selection on first baseman Chris Chambliss out of UCLA. Chambliss would have a solid MLB Career with over 2100 hits and 27.6 WAR as well as the AL ROTY award in 1971. Unfortunately Cleveland would trade him to the Yankees where he’d have the best years of his career.

Join us tomorrow as we break down the 1971 season.