As WFNY awaits obtaining a byline for Greg Popelka (but hopefully we will not be waiting for next year on it), please accept my apologies and do know that the content below is from him. Always great to have the history of Cleveland sports told by such a great narrator.
AWRIGHT BASEBALL, BREAK IT UP. Break it up. You could almost set your watch to the cycle of in-game fighting in major league baseball. Just when one bench-clearing brawl fades from the baseball highlights, another one appears like an algal bloom. It gets replayed over and over on television, and is repeatedly posted on social media. In reference to the commotion, baseball beat writers employ otherwise seldom-used words from the thesaurus. Melee. Donnybrook. Brouhaha. Fracas. Skirmish. 1
MLB observers like to say that baseball fights amount to no more than pushing and yelling. While often true, there have always been exceptions to this. We thought it would be fun to look at a few stories involving fighting, from the 1970s.
The unlikely common thread we’ll use to connect these anecdotes is Graig Nettles, who patrolled third base for the Tribe from 1970 through 1972. Interestingly, although Nettles wasn’t known for engaging in fisticuffs while he played for Cleveland, his actions in a fight while playing for New York are credited/blamed for inflaming the Yankee-Red Sox rivalry for decades: after body slamming Boston pitcher Bill Lee, 2 Lee arose with a look of malice on his face. Although temporarily unable to raise his left arm due to the body slam, Lee approached Nettles- who then blackened the pitcher’s eye with a punch. Lee’s career was derailed for years due to the arm injury. 3
Graig Nettles was a principal in two separate Cleveland Indians trades. One of them- perhaps both- were net losses for the Tribe. Each included characters who exhibited various degrees of involvement in fighting– sanctioned and non-sanctioned- in the 1970s.
December 10, 1969. The Minnesota Twins traded the young Nettles to the Indians along with outfielder Ted Uhlaender and pitcher Dean Chance, for pitchers Luis Tiant and Stan Williams.
Dean Chance had been a star pitcher for the Anaheim Angels through most of the 1960s. The Wooster, Ohio farm boy, whose repertoire included a sidearm delivery, won the Cy Young Award in 1964. 4 He also teamed up with fellow Angels pitcher Bo Belinsky to form a notorious playboy duo, as they hobnobbed with –and dated- Hollywood stars.
By the time Chance was traded by Minnesota to Cleveland, he’d developed other business interests. 5 At various points in his life, he dabbled in real estate, and headed up a carnival operation (and was a noted barker as well). He also broke into the professional boxing industry. The most notable boxer Chance managed was heavyweight Ernie Shavers.
Shavers had won the 1969 AAU heavyweight championship. As he describes it, he immediately began receiving telephone calls from Midwestern promoters. Charlie Harris, Blackie Gennaro, Don “The Bomb” Elbaum. And Dean Chance. 6 Shavers was warned by an advisor to be wary of Don Elbaum. The Bomb could teach a boxer a lot, but he was always clawing to survive and couldn’t be trusted with money.
Between being hired to distribute fight posters, and to sell tickets for boxing matches, Ernie Shavers did at first get swindled by Elbaum, and then took money back from him. He looked elsewhere for a boxing manager, settling on Gennaro and Chance.
Dean Chance had already promoted notable heavyweight Jerry Quarry, and had a light-heavyweight contender under contract. But Shavers had also noted that Chance and Elbaum were arch enemies. Chance brought Shavers along slowly, and guarded his interests. However, money man Gennaro was anxious to realize a profit, and he pressured Chance into cutting corners on training costs and other expenses.
Earnie Shavers’ pro career began well. He was winning bouts in short order while gaining experience, and Chance was billing him as the “Black Destroyer” who would crush the dreams of every “Great White Hope.” Chance did run into some trouble with the Cleveland Boxing Commission in 1972; he’d been accused of bribing a boxer into intentionally losing a fight. The Commission censured Chance, reaffirming that a manager of a fighter could not also be a boxing promoter.
By 1972, Don Elbaum bought into the Shavers/Chance/Gennaro team. In 1973, Dean Chance sold his interest in Earnie Shavers to native Clevelander Don King. King immediately exploited the frosty relationship between Shavers and Elbaum, with Elbaum eventually choosing to leave the arrangement without further compensation. Shavers would one day sign on again with Elbaum, during the most prominent years of his career.
Dean Chance’s baseball career had ended in 1971, and he passed away in the fall of 2015.
On Sunday, May 23, 1971, 19,000 fans attended a Yankees-Indians game at Municipal Stadium in Cleveland. The under-funded Tribe was predictably awful that season, but fireballer Sam McDowell was pitching. And these were the Yankees, after all (the “Horace Clarke” era Yankees, but still). McDowell and Steve Kline would each pitch a complete game.
With the score tied 1-1 in the bottom of the eighth inning, McDowell led off with a single to right field. Center fielder Ted Ford then hit into a force for the first out. As McDowell slid hard into second, his later claim was that New York shortstop Gene Michael kicked him with both feet (Michael’s take was that he was simply executing an evasive maneuver to avoid the runner). McDowell came up fighting, and they began wrestling near second base.
The benches cleared. The first player to arrive was first baseman John Ellis, who connected with multiple blows on McDowell. After a few moments, the umpires restored order. Since they could not determine who started the fight, there were no ejections from the game.
One of the interested observers of the furor was boxing promoter Don Elbaum. He told reporters he would arrange a Sam McDowell (6’6”, 220)/Gene Michael (6’2”, 185) bout at the Cleveland Arena that October- “if the Indians don’t get into the World Series.” The fight would be a four-round event, with $5,000 going to the winner and $2,500 to the loser.
Many suspected the fight was “all over but the shouting.” This was close to literally being true. The fight would never happen – although McDowell instructed reporters to let Elbaum know he was interested in winning the $5,000 (his Indians salary, by the way, was $72,000 that season; Michael’s Yankees salary was apparently somewhere around $50,000). Michael also was interested, of course. He maintained that McDowell never landed a punch. He said that in 1968, Indians first baseman Tony Horton did win that fight. 7
Back on Wednesday, May 8, 1968, the Indians were in New York. Steve Hargan vs. Bill Monbouquette. The Yankees had faded some from their recent greatness, but their lineup still boasted such notables as first baseman Mickey Mantle, third baseman Bobby Cox, and a promising young center fielder in Roy White. And shortstop Gene Michael. With the Yankees down 1-0 in the bottom of the fifth inning, Cox walked. Michael then singled, and when the thrown came to first base, Tony Horton applied the tag on Michael in a manner that he felt was far too aggressive. Michael and Horton traded punches. While the benches emptied, the fight ultimately remained limited to the two combatants. 8 Boxing promoter Don Elbaum offered to arrange a boxing match between Michael and Horton, but there was no interest on the part of either ball player.
November 27, 1972. The Cleveland Indians traded the Graig Nettles to the Yankees along with catcher Gerry Moses, for catcher-first baseman John Ellis, infielders Jerry Kenney and Rusty Torres, and outfielder Charlie Spikes.
John Ellis was the toughest badass who ever played for the Cleveland Indians.
Sure, the franchise has had its full share of hot heads, and guys who weren’t afraid to fight. None of them fought as often and won as thoroughly as Ellis. Ellis' personality was reserved most of the time, but when it was time to fight, he was said to have "that look." It was a look that frightened bar bouncers into calling the police.
In his first season with the Indians, Ellis became the first designated hitter in team history. 9 He spent three seasons with the Tribe, spending his final season in manager Frank Robinson’s dog house (he aligned with grumbling, bristling pitcher Gaylord Perry vs. the manager). He was like an old-school hockey player. To this day, Ellis understates his past anger, and his winning fights- or even of being a fighter.
Fritz Peterson, a teammate of Ellis’ in New York, Cleveland and Texas, has shared the scary skill of his catcher. He’s talked about how Ellis would wear a “Columbo”- style topcoat. He’d defy strangers, and when they called him on it, he’d wrap the coat around his arm so as not to get knifed. If a tough guy was baiting him into a fight, he’d punch the guy’s closest friend first, then pummel the instigator. He knew that in such a situation, the friend was likely to be the guy who had the advantage- so Ellis would just remove that threat, up front. He was known to take on – and beat up- entire gangs. 10
Peterson has also related the time that John Ellis suffered a compound fracture to his ankle while sliding, during his time with the Rangers. Ellis refused pain medication, even while it was getting reset. His toughness and determination won him the lifelong admiration and friendship of Rangers owner Brad Corbett.
After the 1971 fight involving Sam McDowell and Gene Michael, reporters approached John Ellis for a comment on his involvement. His response was that he’d never gotten into a fight before, and that he didn’t want to talk about it, and that it was just one of those things. There apparently was not an attempt to contact Ellis by Don Elbaum.
These days, John Ellis is a survivor of Hodgkin’s Disease. He’d lost family members to that type of cancer, and since he overcame that threat to his life, he’s devoted his efforts to cancer charities. His comment is that helping others is the meaning of life.
Thank you for reading. Sources included:
Detroit Free Press, May 25, 1971
Associated Press, May 9, 1968
Associated Press, May 22, 1971
River Avenue Blues, riveraveblues.com, An interview with former Yankee John Ellis
Earnie Shavers: Welcome to the Big Time, Earnie Shavers, Mike Fitzgerald, Marshall Terrill
Mickey Mantle is Going to Heaven, Fritz Peterson
The Life and Crimes of Don King: The Shame of Boxing in America, Jack Newfield
1 1 I enjoy the use of said words. They make me chuckle. I also like how sports writers tend to use the word “said” as a determiner.
2 2 Lee was a guy who pranced around on the mound, and was nearly universally disliked by ballplayers- including, apparently, many of his teammates. Also, he was a Cleveland hater, along the lines of say, Joakim Noah.
3 3 OK, that is enough of that- despite the major sports media’s apparent insistence that by igniting the current era of the Yankees- Red Sox rivalry, it should mean a great deal to any baseball fan.
4 4 At that time, there was only one Cy Young Award for both the American and National Leagues.
5 5 It was common for athletes to parlay their public personas into other business interests (even besides promoting products), especially since they did not collect large sports paychecks in those days.
6 6 Shavers says it was at this time that he received an anonymous call on behalf of George Foreman. Joe Frazier was preparing to headline an event in Houston, where Foreman was from.
They needed an opponent to face Foreman- and they needed him to lose to the celebrated winner of the 1968 Olympic heavyweight gold medal (who’d also waved the U.S. flag in the ring). Shavers declined, and the caller hung up. Foreman would win his debut fight, against Don Waldhelm- at Madison Square Garden, in New York City.
7 The Indians made McDowell the winner of that game, 2-1, on a two-out, ground ball RBI single off the bat of famed Indians flash in the pan, Gomer Hodge. This was one of the games that built his “legend.”
8 8 The Yankees won that game on a ninth inning RBI single.
9 9 Other one-time Indians who were clubs’ first DHs included Kurt Bevacqua for the Royals, Tom McCraw for the Angels, and Rico Carty for the Rangers.
10 10 Including several Texas Rangers, during Ten Cent Beer Night in Cleveland in 1974.