Joe Charboneau is the leading candidate for American League Rookie of the Year and the biggest thing in Cleveland since Rocky Colavito
September 07, 1980

Who's the newest guy in town?
Go Joe Charboneau.
Turns the ball park upside down.
Go Joe Charboneau.

Go Joe Charboneau is now No. 4 on the 45s chart in Cleveland. The song, by a group called Section 36, is a pitchy rather than catchy little tune that recalls Alley Oop, both in beat and in the way it sets music back to the Stone Age. People are buying the record because Joe Charboneau, Super Joe Charboneau, is No. 1 in the hearts of Indian fans this season. Not since the Rock—Rocky Colavito to the outside world—has a baseball player captivated the city as Charboneau has.

Another hot seller in Cleveland is the Super Joe poster, which shows Charboneau in a Western hat and a cape with something called The Spot pasted to his bare chest. Don't ask. There is also an official Joe Charboneau fan club, Dale Gallagher, 16, president. Charboneau even has his own piece of Cleveland Stadium, Section 36, of course, which is adjacent to the left-field foul pole.

Through Sunday, the 25-year-old, righthand-hitting outfielder was batting .291 and leading both the resurgent Indians and all major league rookies in home runs (21), RBIs (78) and column inches (countless). Last week alone his home runs helped win three games.

The town first received word of Charboneau during spring training, where sportswriters kept unearthing stories about this big (6'2", 200 pounds), strong kid who was tearing the proverbial cover off the ball. "I thought I'd found Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo., you know, Joe Hardy from Damn Yankees" says Terry Pluto of the Plain Dealer, the first writer to call him Super Joe and the one who has written the most about him.

The tales dealt with Charboneau's prodigious strength, his imperviousness to pain and the wonderful things he could do with a beer bottle. In his wild-oats days in Santa Clara, Calif., Charboneau used to earn a little money by boxing bare-knuckled in boxcars and warehouses for gamblers. He got $25 for winning and $15 for losing, less $5 in either case to the matchmakers. "I lost more than I won," says Charboneau, who also had his nose broken three times. Once he tried to fix it himself with a pair of pliers, and another time a doctor had to remove all the cartilage in his nose. This enables Charboneau to drink beer through his schnozz, either by direct pour or with six strong sniffs through a straw.

Charboneau also remembers being stabbed three times in fights with local migrant workers. He closed one of the wounds with fishing line. He once got drunk enough to have himself tattooed, on an arm, but after sobering up, he cut the tattoo out with a razor. If you don't believe it, he will show you the scar. In the minor leagues, Charboneau couldn't afford some dental work, so he cut around the offending tooth with a razor and pulled it out with a vise grip. He is so strong he can open the twist-off cap on a bottle of beer with the muscles of his left forearm.

What's more, he is a direct descendant of a legend, Toussaint Charbonneau, who, along with his Indian wife, Sacagawea, guided Lewis and Clark on the second leg of their expedition.

Who do we appreciate?
Go Joe Charboneau.
Fits right in with the other eight?
Go Joe Charboneau.

Tall as they are, the stories are true. At least Charboneau says they are true, and if Lewis and Clark believed Toussaint, then we can believe Joe. Actually, these tales don't quite fit Charboneau. He's really just a good-natured fellow who likes people and loves baseball. He never denies anyone an autograph and goes to church every Sunday. He dotes on his 11-month-old son, Tyson, who not only walks but also claps for his father. Joe has taken up rug hooking with his wife, Cindi, even though he still doesn't know how to knot a necktie because he never had to before. His real ambition is to work with handicapped children.

Says Joe Nossek, an Indians coach and Charboneau's close friend, "The first time I met him, I felt like I'd known him all my life. He's got a quick smile, and he's sensitive to other people's feelings. He's willing to give his time, and that's one of the reasons for his popularity around this town. Sure, the stories about him help, but it's good that people get to know both sides of him."

"I don't do that crazy stuff anymore," says Charboneau. "Not since I got married and we had Tyson. I'm just like everybody else." Well, not quite. While everybody else had to have a Lacoste shirt, Charboneau had to have the alligator. That was two years ago, when he bought the gator as a birthday present to himself. It was two feet long and nasty, and Joe and Cindi would go out at night to catch crickets to keep it happy. When the alligator went after a kitten, though, the Charboneaus gave it to a teammate. As for his beer tricks, nowadays Joe performs those only for close friends.

Things seem to have a way of happening to Charboneau. Last spring when the Indians were in Mexico City for a series of exhibition games, Joe was approached for an autograph by a bearded man, one Oscar Martinez, who asked him where he was from. When Joe said, "California," the man plunged his pen into Joe's left side. The four-inch wound wasn't serious, and the man, who turned out to have a hatred of Americans, was fined the equivalent of $2.27 and released. Joe wasn't particularly upset; he just wondered if the Bic was still writing. The other day while driving to the park in his beloved 1952 Chevy pickup, Joe discovered that his brakes were out, and narrowly missed colliding with a new Cadillac.

Charboneau's road to Cleveland wasn't exactly the Interstate. He was the fifth of seven kids of Kathleen and Arthur Charboneau, who divorced when Joe was very young. Kathleen remembers that Joe loved baseball so much that he slept with his glove under his pillow—in fact, he sometimes still does—and sold frogs at 25¬¨¬®¬¨¢ apiece to pay for a pair of baseball shoes. He wasn't what you would call a great player at Buchser High School and, in fact, the scout who first noticed and eventually signed him, Eddie Bockman of the Phillies, was looking at another kid on the team, Steve Bartkowski, now the Atlanta Falcons' quarterback. The Phillies drafted Charboneau after his second year at West Valley Junior College in Saratoga, Calif. and sent him to Spartanburg in the Western Carolina League, where he batted .298 as a part-time player. In the off-season he married Cindi Engle, a synchronized-swimming star whom he had met at a Fourth of July picnic in California a few years earlier.

In 1977 Charboneau was only batting .172 and sitting on the bench for Peninsula in the Carolina League when he asked the Phillies to send him back to Spartanburg. They refused, and Joe quit baseball. He took a job back home as a stock clerk for an electronics firm, played a little softball and lifted weights. When the year was over, Bockman talked him into giving it another try. Then, in February, the Phillies sent him a new contract and Charboneau was so happy he just went to his room for a while and held a bat in his hand. He spent that season close to home in Visalia and set a California League record with a .350 average while driving in 116 runs. At the winter meetings that year the Phillies in their infinite wisdom decided to trade Charboneau to Cleveland for Pitcher Cardell Camper, whom they then released.

Charboneau spent last year with Chattanooga in the Double A Southern League, where he batted .352, his second consecutive league record. Despite missing a month of the season because of a groin pull, he hit 21 homers and had 78 RBIs. Even though he was on the Indians' spring-training roster, both Charboneau and the club assumed he would spend the year at Tacoma in Triple A. "I even had an apartment reserved in Tacoma," he says. But fate intervened in the form of knee surgery for First Baseman Andre Thornton. The Indians decided to move Mike Hargrove to first and give Charboneau an opportunity in left. His size and muscle had already caught the team's attention; his back is so broad that his last name fits comfortably on his uniform without ending up under the armpits. He was special in other ways, too. "Almost immediately, I realized there was something about him," says Nossek. "He emanated greatness. I really think he was born to be great."

In his first game Charboneau homered his second time up. A week later in the home opener he went 3 for 3 with a double and a home run and got a two-minute standing ovation. "I was excited," says Charboneau, "but it didn't really sink in what the ovation meant. I don't think it's sunk in yet."

Who's the one to keep our hopes alive?
Go Joe Charboneau.
Straight from 7th to the pennant drive?
Go Joe Charboneau.

At the start of the season nobody was thinking about a Cleveland pennant, but here it is September, and the club is five games over .500 and within shouting—well, singing—distance of first place. Managed by easygoing Dave Garcia, whose face could win best-in-show at Westminster, the team is composed almost entirely of players other teams didn't want, but they're having fun proving everybody wrong. The Indians will almost certainly have their best record since 1968, when they were 86-75, and possibly their best since 1959 (89-65). Outfielder Miguel Dilone is batting .345 and Len Barker will probably win 20 games. While Reliever Victor Cruz gets more effective with every meal, Hargrove, Outfielder Jorge Orta and Third Baseman Toby Harrah are helping Dilone give Cleveland the best on-base percentage in the American League. The fans are excited, although they're not exactly filling up Cleveland's time warp of a ball park. They defend to the death Charboneau's right to be Rookie of the Year, so don't bother to mention Chicago's rookie pitcher, Britt Burns.

The one knock against Charboneau as Rookie of the Year is that he's played 43 games as a DH. But that has more to do with a recurrence of his groin pull than with any defensive deficiency. Nossek worked wonders with both Orta and Charboneau, turning them into adequate outfielders. And Charboneau's batting figures are made even more remarkable by the fact that he's missed 18 games because Garcia has set him down at various times to keep him from slumping.

He has been booed by Cleveland fans just once. "I found it refreshing," Joe says. "I wondered when it would happen." The occasion was a doubleheader loss to Milwaukee in which he missed an attempted shoestring catch and failed to hustle after the ball. Shortstop Jerry Dybzinski had to retrieve it and the fans got on Charboneau's case.

Except for that instance, the affair between Charboneau and the Indian fans has been all love and kisses. "I really like Joe," says Dale Gallagher, who is a cheerleader at Valley Forge High besides being president of his fan club. "Every time I talk to him, he's in a really good mood, and he always cracks me up. People around here have really taken to him. We were looking for someone to fill the empty spot that's been here so long."

Raise your glass, let out a cheer.
Go Joe Charboneau.
For Cleveland's Rookie of the Year.
Go Joe Charboneau.

Last Friday night in Section 36, the guys were talking about Joe. "Nobody's brought this much excitement to Cleveland since Colavito," said Gary Heldt, a lifelong Indians fan who was born in 1954, the year of the last Cleveland pennant. Heldt introduced himself as a distant cousin of Woodie Held, the Indians' shortstop and second baseman from 1958 to 1964. "Charboneau's the impetus for the Indians teams of the future. He's got magnetism. I was in this bar one night, and he was there. The place is never packed, but because he was there, it was wall-to-wall people. I stood in line for two hours to get his autograph. If the guy doesn't get Rookie of the Year, it's a crime. What's Burns, huh? Eleven and 12. Big deal."

It was the fourth inning, and the Indians were trailing the White Sox 3-2. Charboneau came up to bat against Rich Dotson with a man on. From out in left-field, the guys could see Charboneau pluck a changeup and send home run No. 19 and RBIs Nos. 71 and 72 right next door into Section 37. They went berserk. Amid many and varied displays of hand-slapping, the guys began to chant, "Char-bo-neau, Char-bo-neau."

It had the sound of music.

PHOTOTONY TOMSICWith apologies to Dan Donnelly, nobody in Cleveland heats up Indian fans better than Charboneau, who wears a big hat even if he doesn't have a big head. PHOTOTONY TOMSICA DH and leftfielder, the muscular Charboneau is batting .291, with 21 home runs and 78 RBIs. PHOTOTONY TOMSICTyson is another Charboneau who's flying high these days. PHOTOTONY TOMSICThe Super Joe poster is a big seller in Cleveland. PHOTOTONY TOMSICCharboneau rides the Cleveland range in his '52 pickup. PHOTOTONY TOMSICGallagher leads the cheers for Joe's fan club.