Well the 1978 season came with some shakeups at the top for the franchise. Owner Ted Bonda sold controlling stake in the club to Francis J. “Steve” O’Neill. Not sure how you derive “Steve” from Francis J, but I digress. O’Neill was part of the syndicate that helped purchase the Yankees alongside George Steinbrenner a few years prior. O’Neill, a graduate of Notre Dame, was a lifelong resident of the Cleveland area and had made his money in the trucking industry. He’d been a minority owner of the Indians in the 60’s but sold his stake when he helped Steinbrenner buy the Yankees. As I’m sure you know by the fact that we’re doing this series in the first place, he did not bring a championship to Cleveland. His biggest accomplishment as owner, from a baseball standpoint, was likely selling the team (through his estate as he’d passed in 1983) to the Jacobs’ brothers, who would at least get us to a World Series.
As far as the season itself it was more of the same, but somehow worse? That offseason they traded their rising star pitcher Dennis Eckersley alongside Fred Kendall to Boston for a package of Rick Wise, Mike Paxton, Ted Cox, and Bo Diaz. I’ll save you the time of going through everyone’s Baseball Reference pages, the Red Sox won the trade.
So why on earth would a team, desperate for young pitching to build around, trade their 23-year-old ace in the making? Let’s just say there was some drama.
When Rick Manning broke a vertebra sliding into second base midway through the ‘77 season he found himself spending a lot of time at the Eckersley’s house as he rehabbed his back. He and Dennis had been the best of friends by all account, at least to that point. That would all change in a hurry though as it would come out that while Manning was staying with the Eckersley’s he’d been having an affair with Dennis’ wife Denise. The two men couldn’t even be in a room with each other (understandably so) from that point on. The Indians had a choice to make, Eckersley or Manning? Today the choice seems simple, Eckersley is a hall of famer, Manning finished his career slightly above replacement level. At the time, however, there was at least an argument to be made to keep Manning. Injury aside, Manning was coming off a season that saw him win the Gold Glove in Centerfield while hitting .292 with a 117 OPS+. Plus defense with an above average bat was nothing to scoff at. Honestly it’d be a lot like arguing over whether to trade away Tanner Bibee or Steven Kwan today, I’d still pick Bibee, but I’d at least understand why someone would say Kwan.
Unfortunately, as they have so many times in the 75 years since their last WS, the Indians made the wrong choice. Manning stayed, and Eckersley was dealt for a package of players who never really panned out, at least not in any way that recuperated Eckersley’s value for the club.
With the drama around the trade hanging over the start of season, the Indians got off to a slow start and it got worse from there as they finished with a 69-90 record. They actually underperformed expectations with their -55 run differential suggesting they should have won closer to 75 games.
Their rotation missed Eckersley badly as Rick Waits was the only pitcher above 100 in ERA+. Their offense, on the other hand, was solid. Andre Thornton led the way with a monstrous year, hitting 33 home runs and knocking in 105 while slashing .262/.377/.516. It’s amazing to think that as good as Thornton was, he was only ever selected to two all star games. He’s the epitome of a really good player who was stuck on some very bad teams, but we’re glad he was here because his play represented one of the few bright spots in some otherwise bleak years. I’d take him in the 2023 lineup in a heartbeat.
That’s all for today! Join us tomorrow as we wrap up the 1970’s with the 1979 season!