Indians

Tribe Legends of the Spring: 1981’s Larry Littleton

AP Photo
AP Photo

You occasionally hear it from a ball player, in making light of his shortcomings: “I must not have been too bad, to have gotten the chance to fail that many times.” As he could note, Cy Young lost more career games than any pitcher in major league history, yet is lauded as the top pitcher of all time. Reggie Jackson is a Hall of Famer (and currently boasts the 20th highest first-ballot vote percentage ever)- and also struck out more times than anyone. Jim Thome ranks second on that career list, and his statue proudly adorns the grounds of Progressive Field.

Consider the difference between a foul and a fair ball. We typically don’t ridicule a batter for hitting foul balls. We may, in fact, praise him for battling the pitcher. Putting the ball in play ends the at bat, however, and usually with an undesired result. But hey, it was hit better than if that same ball had not been fair, right? Doesn’t it seem ironic that it’s looked upon less favorably than all those foul balls?

Likewise, regarding the thousands of ballplayers who have ever played in the minor leagues, we don’t disparage them for their lack of success, relative to those who made it to the big leagues. Hey, they’re doing their best. Good for them. But, if an effective minor league player breaks into the majors, and doesn’t produce? He’s a stiff. And, if his shortcomings can be placed in an historic context? He invites derision.

***

By the end of 1980, the Indians had established themselves as a solid albeit .500 type of team. Some pieces were in place: Len Barker and converted reliever Dan Spillner had just won a combined 35 games. Designated-hitter “Super Joe” Charboneau was the reigning American League Rookie of the Year on the strength of hitting .289/23/87. Miguel Dilone was the left fielder, coming off of an eye-popping .341 batting average, 61 stolen base season.

So, 1981 held promise for a team ready to take the next step. Several Indians figured to fully recover from illness and/or injury, including ace John Denny, slugger Andre Thornton, center fielder Rick Manning, second baseman Duane Kuiper, and shortstop Tom Veryzer. The Tribe had also acquired starter and eventual Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven in a December trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates. 1
Larry Littleton
An unheralded addition to the major league roster for the 1981 season was outfielder Larry Littleton.

Littleton had enjoyed a note-worthy baseball career at the University of Georgia. After bumping around the minor leagues for a few years, the Cleveland Indians acquired him in a late 1979 deal that sent promising pitcher Larry Anderson to the Pirates.

During spring training in 1981, as Charboneau attempted a head first slide on a wet infield, his body coming to an abrupt halt; unfortunately, his legs bent over his head, over-extending his back. He was hobbled (and while nobody knew it at the time, he would never be the same hitter).

Meanwhile, Larry Littleton was having a strong camp. He’d typically struggled at the plate in the spring, but not this year. He connected for a two-run home run on March 25. By the time he repeated the feat on April 6 (along with two other hits), his average had soared to .489. The entire team’s average was a blistering .340. Littleton would soon learn he’d made the major league roster!

1981 began well for the Tribe. After losing three of their first four games, they won eight of nine and by the time the calendar flipped to May, they found themselves a game and a half up in their division.

Larry Littleton’s first big league appearance came on April 12th. Pinch-hitting for Rick Manning late in the game with the Tribe facing a five run deficit, he grounded out to shortstop. He appeared in nine of the Indians’ twelve April games, with his first start coming on April 20th. The 4-3 Indians were in Kansas City, and fans were treated to a terrific pitching matchup: Denny vs. Paul Splittorff. The offensive heroes for the Tribe were Thornton, who homered, and Mike Hargrove. Littleton went 0-for-3 in the 4-2 Indians victory, bringing him to 0-for-6 on the season. He finally reached base for the first time in a 10-2 win over the Chicago White Sox on May 1st, on a walk.

Blyleven
Littleton’s name made the newspaper headlines on May 6th. Regrettably. Blyleven was working on a no-hitter against the Toronto Blue Jays.2 As was becoming common by now, Manager Dave Garcia inserted Littleton into left field in the ninth inning. He replaced Charboneau, for his defense. The decision seemed sound; “Super Joe” had even committed an error earlier in the game. Lloyd Moseby was the leadoff batter in the ninth, and cracked a line drive – right at Larry Littleton. The defensive replacement lost the ball in the lights at Exhibition Stadium; the ball struck his glove and caromed far enough to allow Moseby to reach second base for a double.

Blyleven: “Littleton apologized, and I told him not to worry about it, those things happen. What else could I say? I felt sorry for the guy. He tried. Sometimes we as pitchers tend to forget about all the great plays that are made behind us. You have to take the good with the bad.”

Unfortunately, after Blyleven retired the next two batters, George Bell pinch hit for future Boston Celtic Danny Ainge. Bell hit a good curve ball – again to left field – for a solid single. No-hitter gone; shutout gone. Blyleven picked up the complete game, 4-1 win, and the Tribe remained in first place.

Larry Littleton’s third start came on May 10th, with the first-place Indians visiting Minnesota. Wayne Garland versus the Twins’ Jerry Koosman. Catcher Bo Diaz had led off the fifth inning of the scoreless game with a double. Second baseman Dave Rosello had singled him to third. Veryzer had singled home Diaz, and right fielder Alan Bannister had singled to load the bases with nobody out.

The Tribe was up 1-0, with Larry Littleton striding to the plate. He hit a screamer (yes, a screamer) to center fielder Mickey Hatcher – who made the catch. If that ball had eluded Hatcher, then perhaps the bases would have cleared. Still, the result was a sacrifice fly – the first RBI of Larry Littleton’s career. He finished the day 0-for-4 with the ribeye steak.

Which earned him another start the very next day, in Chicago. It would be another Blyleven win. Another oh-fer for Littleton, however.

On May 12th, Larry Littleton saw his name entered in the starting lineup for the third consecutive day. He finished 0-for-2 in the Indians’ loss. He did draw a walk in the sixth inning; eventually scoring on a ground ball double play by Thornton.
Len  Barker
May 15, 1981 would prove to be one of the most noteworthy dates in Cleveland Indians history, and Larry Littleton would play a role – without even entering the game. The 15-8, first place Indians were hosting the Blue Jays – the team Bert Blyleven had nearly thrown a no-hitter at just nine days earlier. This time, in a chilly, misty Cleveland Stadium, it was Lenny Barker’s turn to twirl a gem. He was perfect through eight innings.3 By the seventh or eighth inning, some of the Blue Jays were attempting to bunt to spoil the perfecto. Many of the 7,300 fans present spread out and rapped the wooden seats in unison: “LEN. NIE. LEN. NIE.”

As is the custom during a no-no, the entire team avoided Barker on the bench – even manager Dave Garcia. Garcia approached him before the ninth inning, and asked the pitcher if he wanted to switch Charboneau out for Littleton, for defense.

Barker: “I said to Dave, ‘If you take out Joe, take me out too.’ I remembered how Littleton screwed up Blyleven’s no-hitter. So Garcia didn’t take Joe out of the game, though he wouldn’t have gotten a chance to screw it up anyway. I got the first two batters, and then Ernie Whitt, a pinch hitter, was the last one. He hit a routine fly ball to center, and I knew it was over because Rick Manning was out there – not Littleton.”

Fans – those in the Stadium and those watching at home- were ecstatic over Barker’s perfect game. This type of thing never happened with the lowly Tribe. The celebration was reminiscent of that of the previous year’s USA Hockey ‘Miracle on Ice.’

Unfortunately, after June 10th, the 1981 major league baseball season was interrupted by the first midseason players’ strike ever in North America. The season was split into two segments, with the playoffs based on the winners of each segment. The Indians club would fade after the Barker no-hitter, and would be no better in the second half.

Larry Littleton’s Cleveland Indians career had lasted 45 days, as May 26th was his last day in a major league uniform. He’d started five games, including that three game stretch in mid-May. He’d finished with 27 plate appearances, registering 3 walks, 2 runs scored, and 1 run batted in. He’d batted .000, and his 0-for-23 earned him the ‘honor’ of having the most major league at bats ever by a non-pitcher without a hit.

Littleton had seen action in 26 of the team’s first 35 games, mostly as a defensive replacement in the outfield. His error percentage was spotless – the starting pitchers’ impressions notwithstanding.

And hey, he’d made a major league ball club. He wore the same uniform and graced the same ball field as Thornton, Hargrove, Blyleven and Barker. That’s a lot more than most of the rest of us can claim.

Sources include The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, Bill James and Rob Neyer; Tales From the Tribe Dugout, Russell Schneider; The Cleveland Indians Encyclopedia, Russell Schneider; “Littleton Content with a Cup of Coffee”, Kevin Yanik, MLB.com; The Deseret News, April 6, 1981; Wikipedia; baseball-reference.com.

  1. Blyleven and former top NL catcher Manny Sanguillen came to Cleveland for Victor Cruz, Rafael Vasquez and Bob Owchinko. []
  2. Blyleven’s main pitches during this era were his hard curve and fastball. His slow curve and overhand drop curve would develop in the future. []
  3. Barker’s main pitch was his fastball, but had such a great curve working that day that he threw 75% curveballs. []

  • mgbode

    Here’s hoping Tyler Naquin does better than Larry Littleton 🙂

  • MrCleaveland

    Nice job, Greg. I never realized that LL had gone hitless for his career. That’s a shame.

    Jeez, Barker’s quotes about Littleton were pretty brutal. You usually don’t hear a guy dissing a teammate like that.

    One thing about that strike-shortened season. When the league went on strike on June 12, the Tribe was in 6th place in the East (albeit with a .520 winning percentage). But the strike had been postponed at least once before then. On the original strike date, the Tribe had been in 1st place. So if the players had gone through with the strike then, the Tribe would have made the playoffs. But, of course, this is Cleveland.

  • Greg Popelka

    Wow!

    That game footage from Barker’s perfect game is really great. In the 1st 3 minutes there is Manning stroking a single and eventually scoring on a slide; plenty of Hargrove; Nev and Herb’s radio call; even Joe Tait in the booth, apparently getting a singing telegram. Wikipedia shows that Len Barker’s May 15 perfecto fell on Joe’s birthday!

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  • scripty

    Always amazing to hear Joe Tait on the Tribe call of that game.