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75 Years and Counting: The story of the ‘77 Cleveland Indians

Maybe this is why we don’t sign free agents

Cleveland Indians v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

After the abolishing of the reserve clause, certain players became eligible to have teams bid for the rights to their services, ushering in the era of the free agent. The practice has become so commonplace now that it’s hard to imagine that there was once an era where if you signed with a team you were there until they decided you weren’t. The first major free agent in Cleveland baseball history was a pitcher by the name of Wayne Garland. Garland was 25 years old and coming of a fantastic season that saw him win 20 games and post a sub 3 ERA. Cleveland, not exactly a destination city for big time talent in these days, offered Garland a contract that nobody at the time could refuse. 10 yrs, $2.3 million. That’s not 2.3 mil per year, that’s over the life of the contract. This is less than the league minimum salary today but in 1977 that was a massive amount of money to offer a free agent. Garland and his agent obviously jumped at the chance to sign, and he became a Cleveland Indian. Who cared that he had only had one good year so far, the Indians just got their new ace to pair with Dennis Eckerlsley. Time to start printing the world series t shirts!

Garland would have a solid debut season in Cleveland posting a 3.60 ERA and a 110 ERA+. Unfortunately his solid pitching didn’t translate into much team success as he finished with a league leading 19 losses. 1977 would be Garland’s only good season in Cleveland as he would battle injuries his entire tenure there and didn’t finish out his 10 year contract. Perhaps his failures are what has led to the free agent averse front office we have today? Probably a stretch, but who knows right?

The ‘77 season was also the first that saw slugger Andre Thonrton in a Cleveland Uniform. Thornton was a fan favorite, a power hitter and by all accounts an incredible human being who overcame a great deal of tragedy during his career (more on that in a future article). Thornton would be the lone bright spots in some otherwise putrid lineups during his time in Cleveland, but he showed up every day and was the model of consistency until his retirement in 1987.

Unfortunately no season would be complete without at least one promising young player’s career getting derailed by some freak incident. Rick Manning exited midway through a game after sliding awkwardly into second base on June 4th, 1977. X-Rays later revealed he had fractured a vertebra. The injury should have ended his season but he did return for limited action later in the year. Perhaps he rushed his recovery because Manning was never quite the same player, according to many observers he just didn’t have the same speed or twitch that he did pre-injury. Ironically it was this injury that led to him staying with Dennis and Denise Eckersley during his rehab and becoming romantically involved with Eckersley’s wife. But more on that tomorrow.

The ‘77 Indians were a pretty bad team, they never really gained any traction and stumbled to a 71-90 record, firing manager Frank Robinson midway through the year. 1977 would be another in a series of mediocre seasons that became emblematic of Cleveland baseball in the 1970’s.

Anyway, I’ll see you tomorrow for our breakdown of the 1978 Cleveland Indians.