Luis Tiant: Cleveland Indians, Ponce Lions, and Caracas Lions (Part II)

Luis Tiant, a RHP, is best known for winning Games One and Four, 1975 World Series, versus Cincinnati, and a Game Six no-decision, a historic 6-3, 12-inning win for Boston, on Carlton Fisk’s three-run HR at Fenway Park. Boston was 0-4 in games Tiant did not start, and 3-0 in contests he started. How did Tiant become a New England celebrity in his mid-30s, after critics said he was “washed-up” by age 30? Part I ended with Tiant’s 15-1 season for Class AAA Portland Beavers, Pacific Coast League, managed by Johnny Lipon. Part II picks up with Tiant’s AL debut for the Cleveland Indians, July 19, 1964, at Yankee Stadium, and concludes with his December 10, 1969 multi-player trade to the Minnesota Twins. Tiant’s SABR bio by Mark Armour, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/2212deaf, is a good source on his entire career.

Cleveland Indians, 1964

Tiant arrived at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, July 18, 1964, to join Cleveland teammates including LHP Sam McDowell; two fellow Cubans, RHP Pedro Ramos, and catcher Joe Azcue; OF Vic Davalillo (from Venezuela); and, Panamanian Chico Salmón. McDowell and Tiant were penciled in by Birdie Tebbetts to start the first and second games of a Sunday, July 19 twin-bill. Whitey Ford (12-2) took the mound for New York, after the Yankees won Game One. Tiant outpitched Ford, in blanking New York, 3-0; allowing three hits; fanning 11; and walking four. Cleveland’s line-up was Davalillo (CF), Al Smith (RF), Leon Wagner (LF), Bob Chance (1B), Azcue catching, Larry Brown (SS), Salmón (2B), Billy Moran (3B) and Tiant. Tony Kubek, first batter facing Tiant, fanned. Mickey Mantle, Bobby Richardson and Elston Howard were not in Yogi Berra’s line-up, but Richardson did pinch-hit for Hal Reniff. The Yankee line-up was Kubek (SS), Phil Linz (2B), Héctor López (LF), Roger Maris (RF), Tom Tresh (CF), Joe Pepitone (1B), John Blanchard catching, Clete Boyer (3B) and Ford. Dick Howser replaced Salmón, for defensive purposes, and played SS; Brown moved to 2B. Ralph Terry was the third and final Yankee pitcher. He and Reniff pitched two scoreless innings each; Ford gave up three runs, including Wagner’s fifth-inning HR. Cleveland was 39-50 after this win, and 40-33 the rest of 1964, in finishing sixth, 79-83, 20 games behind the first-place (99-63) Yankees.

Tiant won his first start at home, July 24, versus Boston (6-1), and eight of his next 12 decisions to finish with a 10-4 record, 2.83 ERA, 105 strikeouts and 47 walks, in 127 innings. He completed nine of 16 starts, with three SHO. Félix Mantilla, his 1961-62 Caguas teammate in Puerto Rico, hit the first MLB HR off Tiant, July 24, 1964, top of the third. Frank Malzone, Boston’s 3B, remembered a “young Tiant” as someone with “good and dominating stuff.”

On September 5, 1964, Cleveland traded RHP Pedro Ramos to the Yankees for $75,000 and two players to be named later (RHP Ralph Terry and LHP Bud Daley). Terry told the author this was common practice for the Yankees, who won the 1964 AL pennant by one game over the White Sox, and two games over the Orioles. “I was not pitching well [in 1964],” said Terry. “Without Ramos [21 strikeouts in 21.2 innings, zero walks, eight saves, 1.25 ERA], we [Yankees] do not win the pennant.” When Ramos said good-bye to Tiant, in the visitor’s clubhouse at Comiskey Park, he was probably wearing cowboy boots-cowboy apparel. “We called Ramos El Vaquero (The Cowboy),” said José “Palillo” Santiago, who pitched for the 1964 Kansas City A’s at the time of this trade. “There was a camaraderie between Caribbean players from Puerto Rico, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Panamá…”

On September 13, Tiant started versus the White Sox, who countered with LHP Juan “Terín” Pizarro. They had faced each other in Game Seven, semi-finals, between Santurce (Pizarro) and Caguas (Tiant), January 29, 1962, a 1-0 win for Pizarro. This time, Tiant prevailed, 5-4. (The 86-61 White Sox then won 12 of their final 15 games.) Ramos saved three New York wins in a four-game series at Cleveland, back-to-back twin-bills, September 22-23. Tiant lost the second game (September 23), after relieving McDowell in the tenth, and giving up a game-winning HR to Elston Howard. One week later, Tiant blanked Boston in his last 1964 Cleveland start. His 10 wins in less than a half-season were impressive. Teammate Jack Kralick (12-7, 3.21 ERA) made the 1964 AL All-Star Team, but McDowell (11-6, 2.70 ERA) did not. Tiant’s 10-4, 2.83 ERA was earned in two months and two weeks, post-1964 All Star break.

Ponce Lions, 1964-65

Johnny Lipon was a firm believer in winter ball. Once the Ponce Lions hired Lipon as their 1964-65 manager, he convinced Cleveland’s management to reinforce Ponce with four pitchers—Tiant, Sonny Siebert, Steve Hargan, Floyd Weaver—and three position players: Duke Sims, Bob Chance and Tommie Agee. (Two Ponce imports from other organizations were Danny Cater and Walter Bond.) Ponce’s native players included IF Horace Clarke and RHP Al McBean from the U.S. Virgin Islands (like Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory); 1B Chago Rosario, IF Edwin Pacheco, plus pitchers Luis de León, Rudy Hernández and Ramón Jusino. Ponce (28-42) finished last, six-team league, behind Santurce (41-28), Arecibo (38-32), Mayagüez (36-34), San Juan (34-36) and Caguas (32-37). Lipon did his best, but this was a very competitive league.

Tiant (5-6, 3.43 ERA) started 15 games; completed five; and threw one SHO. His 102.2 innings led the team; he fanned 73 and walked 36. Siebert (5-5) and McBean (5-5) tied Tiant for most Ponce wins. Mayagüez’s Denny McLain (12-4) tied Arecibo’s Mike Cuellar (12-4) for most league wins. Cuellar’s 2.06 ERA was fourth-best; McLain’s 2.08 ERA, fifth-best. Santurce’s Fred Talbot (1.30) had the league’s lowest ERA, followed by San Juan’s Palillo Santiago (1.66) and Santurce’s George Brunet (1.75). Pizarro won nine for Santurce, as did San Juan’s Ed Connolly; future Cooperstown Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins had eight wins for Caguas. McLain (126) and teammate Joe Sparma (96) were one-two in strikeouts, with Marcelino López (Caguas) and San Juan’s Tommie Sisk tied with 95; and Brunet, next with 94. The author was 10 years old at the time, and avidly followed this league from a Santurce neighborhood. He attended games with his father at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, named after Puerto Rico’s first big-leaguer. Talbot considered himself the league’s best pitcher, having improved his curveball, but Mayagüez fans claimed McLain was the top hurler, and Arecibo fans pointed to Cuellar. Tiant faced the league’s top hitters, including the top six, batting AVG chase: Lou Johnson, Santurce, .345; Jim Northrup, Mayagüez, .332; Don Buford, San Juan, .319; Willie Horton, Mayagüez, .306; Alex Johnson, Caguas, .301, and Santurce’s Marvin Staehle, .301, one of the author’s favorite players. Arecibo OF Carlos Bernier, age 37, led the league with eight triples, and was the same height (5’8”) to Staehle. Tiant listed at 6’0,” 180 pounds, in various sources, was closer to 200 pounds by the end of 1965. From April 1964 through January 1965, with Portland (PCL), Cleveland, and Ponce, he pitched in 51 games; started 46; completed 27; had a composite 30-11 record, and threw 366.1 innings.

Cleveland Indians, 1965-67

L to R: Tiant, Ralph Terry, Jack Kralick, and Sam McDowell, in 1965.
Photo credit: Pinterest (saved by Leigh Apperstein).

Tiant was 11-11, 3.53 ERA for the 1965 fifth-place Indians, with 30 starts, 11 relief outings, and 152 strikeouts-to-66 walks, in 196.1 innings, McDowell’s 325 strikeouts coupled with Siebert’s 191, helped Cleveland’s pitching staff post the most AL strikeouts for the second straight year. They also accomplished this, 1966-68, for a five-year run. Ralph Terry (11-6) pitched well for the 1965 Indians. Tiant completed one-third of his starts, below his career average of 38 percent. Per his SABR bio, Tiant was afflicted with a sore pitching arm in 1965. He showed up in 1966 spring having lost 20 pounds on the advice of his father. He started the 1966 season with three consecutive shutouts, broken on a long Frank Robinson homer, which left Memorial Stadium, the only time that was ever done. Tiant was assigned to the bullpen the second half of 1966, recording eight saves in 30 relief appearances.

Cleveland’s June 2, 1966 trade of Don McMahon and Lee Stange to Boston, for Dick “The Monster” Radatz, plus Radatz’s inconsistency with Cleveland, were key factors in Birdie Tebbetts assigning Tiant to the bullpen. Tiant led the AL with five SHO, in just 16 starts. His 2.79 ERA in 1966, 145 strikeouts-to-50 walks, 1.103 WHIP (Walks and Hits per Innings Pitched), were solid in 155 innings. Del Crandall, long-time Boston and Milwaukee Braves catcher (through 1963), was in his final big-league season in 1966. The author was unable to reach Crandall (who is age 90), but Bert Thiel—who turned 94 on May 4, 2020—told the author that he and Crandall “are the only ex-Boston Braves players still alive,” and “Crandall was helpful to all pitchers, youngsters and veterans, on pitching staffs.” The author assumes that Crandall, a 4x Gold Glove catcher in the NL, 1958-60 and 1962, was helpful to Tiant, in 1966. Tiant’s 1966 Cleveland contract for $13,000 was posted via an on-line auction in 2019.

Joe Adcock, an ex-Milwaukee Braves teammate of Crandall, managed Cleveland in 1967. Adcock inserted Tiant as his #3 starter, behind McDowell and Hargan, with Siebert and John O’Donoghue, #4 and #5. Tiant responded with 219 strikeouts in 213.2 innings, 9.2 per nine innings, slightly better than McDowell’s 9.0/nine innings (236 strikeouts/236.1 innings). Tiant, 12-9, started 29 times versus four relief efforts and two retroactive saves. His .571 W-L PCT mirrored his .571 MLB career W-L PCT. He completed nine games, 31 percent of starts. Cleveland teammate Vic Davalillo encouraged Tiant to reinforce the Caracas Lions (Leones).

Caracas Lions, 1966-67 and 1967-68

Tiant pitched for the Caracas Lions, following his 1966, 1967 and 1971 AL seasons. This kept him in better playing shape; his arm responded favorably to more work, due to his tendency to gain weight. Relief outings with Cleveland, 1965 and 1966, combined with starts, had adverse effects on his shoulder, but winter ball was a good tonic. Salaries in Venezuela, mid-1960s through early 1970s, with Caracas, were good due to a strong petro-based economy.

Of note is Tiant’s 157.1 regular-season innings for 1966-67 Caracas surpassed his 155 innings for 1966 Cleveland! He was 12-6 for 32-29 Caracas, with a 1.83 ERA, 142 strikeouts, 44 walks and 1.023 WHIP. Twenty of his 23 games were starts; he completed 11 of them. Valencia (32-30), LaGuaira (31-30), Lara (30-30), Magallanes (30-32) and Aragua (28-32) were within striking distance of Caracas. The Lions bested Lara, five games-to-one, in the semis; and LaGuaira, three games-to-two, in the finals. Four of his teammates were from Cuba: José Tartabull and three pitchers—Aurelio Monteagudo, Orlando Peña and Diego Segui. César Tovar and Vic Davalillo were outstanding native players aka Criollos. Tiant posted 1-0 and 2-0 records in the semis and finals, respectively, in completing three of four post-season starts. His semi-final ERA was 1.69, followed by a 2.25 ERA in the finals. Fellow Cuban Paul Casanova caught Tiant in the post-season, but not the regular season.

The 1967-68 Caracas Lions (37-23) had a staff ERA of 2.29, and 1.196 WHIP. Seguí (12-1, 1.43 ERA) was the co-ace, with Tiant (6-5, 1.34 ERA). Ron Klimkowski, a New York Yankees prospect, was 8-5, 2.78 ERA. Luis Peñalver was the team’s best native hurler. Tiant completed four of 13 starts, in 87 innings. Although Tiant was 1-3 in the post-season, his ERA was a miniscule 1.17, in 23 innings. The other Lions were a combined 6-0. Caracas won seven of 10 post-season games to repeat as league champs, but no Caribbean Series (Phase II) took place until February 1970. Regular season hitting stars for Caracas were Vic Davalillo (.395 AVG), Cookie Rojas (.320 AVG), Tartabull (.310 AVG), and Tovar (.294 AVG). Venezuelan Winter League stats are at http://www.pelotabinaria.com.ve/beisbol/mostrar.php?ID=tianlui001.

Cleveland Indians, 1968-69

Tiant’s best AL season was 1968, with a 21-9 record, league-leading 1.60 ERA, 186 ERA+, 8.5 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), 9.2 strikeouts per nine innings (264 strikeouts/258.1 innings), 19 CG in 32 starts, plus his first AL All-Star selection. His 5.3 hits allowed per nine innings broke Herb Score’s 1956 franchise record of 5.85 hits allowed/nine innings. Curiously, Bartolo Colón, aka “Big Sexy,” from the Dominican Republic, still holds Cleveland’s record by Caribbean-born pitchers of most strikeouts/nine innings, with 10.15 per nine innings in 2000 (212 strikeouts in 188 innings). Sam McDowell still has Cleveland’s all-time, single-season record of 10.71 strikeouts per nine innings, set in 1965, with 325 strikeouts in 273 innings. The 1968 Indians finished third in the AL, 86-75, under Alvin Dark, first-year manager.  Johnny Lipon was a Cleveland coach, and a blessing for Tiant. Some additional 1968 Tiant milestones:

  • Four consecutive SHO; only Don Drysdale, six in 1968; Bob Gibson, five in 1968; Orel Hershiser, five in 1988; and, Gaylord Perry, four in 1970, have recorded four plus consecutive SHO, in the post-expansion era (after 1960-AL; after 1961-NL).
  • Nineteen strikeouts, in 10 innings, versus the Minnesota Twins, July 3, 1968. Tiant is one of seven MLB pitchers with 18+ strikeouts in an extra-inning game. Nolan Ryan had 19 strikeouts in three extra-inning games (twice in 1974; once in 1977). Tom Cheney fanned 21 Baltimore Orioles hitters, pitching for Washington, September 12, 1962. Randy Johnson struck out 20 Cincinnati Reds batters, May 8, 2001, in nine innings, but the game lasted 11 innings. Warren Spahn (Boston Braves), Jim Maloney (Cincinnati Reds) and Chris Short (Philadelphia Phillies) all had 18 strikeouts in an extra-inning game.

A complete reversal took place in 1969, after Gabe Paul, Cleveland’s General Manager (GM), prohibited Tiant from pitching in Venezuela. “I would have had a ‘much better MLB career’ had the Cleveland Indians allowed him to pitch in Venezuela, 1968-69 winter,” said Tiant. “They [Cleveland] kept me from pitching winter ball, 1968-69; I was used to pitching in the winter…in [1969] spring training, was heavier and had shoulder problems.”

Tiant was 9-20 for 62-99 Cleveland, 1969 season. He only completed nine of 37 starts, 24.3 percent. His 156 strikeouts to a league-leading 129 walks, in 249.2 innings, were a sign something was amiss. Ditto for his 37 homers allowed, a league-high. This 9-20 season may be a factor in Tiant’s not being inducted in Cooperstown? Further analysis, later in this Tiant blog series, will articulate Tiant’s merits for induction, despite this sub-par season.

On December 10, 1969, Tiant and RHP Stan Williams were traded to the Minnesota Twins for Dean Chance, Bob Miller, Craig Nettles and Ted Uhlaender. Part III will begin with Tiant’s 1970 season for the Twins, AL West champions.

With deep appreciation to Luis Tiant, for his time and goodwill. Thanks to Johnny Lipon, José “Palillo” Santiago, Fred Talbot, Ralph Terry and Bert Thiel. Jorge Colón Delgado provided Tiant’s 1964-65 Ponce stats. Also to German J. Rivas for Tiant photo with Caracas Leones.

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