Cooperstown Confidential: Super Joe is still hereby Bruce Markusen
January 15, 2010
As someone who likes to profile some of baseball’s most colorful characters, I find that they often mellow after their retirements from the game, settled by a newfound calmness that comes with age. Joe Charboneau is apparently not one of those people.
Last week, Charboneau became involved in a barroom fight in North Ridgeville, Ill., the town where he runs the local parks and recreation baseball program. Details of the incident remain sketchy—as of this writing, no charges have been filed against either Charboneau or the other combatant—but it is just the latest in a long line of offbeat escapades for the man who experienced such a meteoric career in the major leagues.
Originally signed by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1976, Charboneau quit playing ball in his second minor league season because of a dispute with management. He took up slow-pitch softball for awhile before the Phillies decided to give him another opportunity. Charboneau took advantage of the second chance on the field, hitting well in the California League, but his affinity for barroom fights—a nasty habit that apparently continues to this day—convinced the Phils to trade him away. So the organization sent him packing to the Cleveland Indians organization.
As he did in the Phillies system, Charboneau showed that he could hit for both average and power. After hitting .352 at Double-A Chattanooga, the burly right-handed slugger earned a promotion to the Indians’ major league roster, but not before an eventful spring training. During a preseason trip to Mexico, a crazed fan jabbed him in the back with a ballpoint pen. The tip of the pen actually touched one of Charboneau’s ribs, but did not cause serious damage. (Remarkably, the fan was fined less than $3 by the local court system, hardly a bastion of North American justice.)
To Charboneau’s credit, the incident did not deter him in his rookie season. Splitting his time between left field and DH in 1980, Charboneau belted 23 home runs, slugged .488, and batted .289. Those numbers helped him earn the American League’s Rookie of the Year award.
Yet, the award did not become the story with Charboneau. His off-field persona overshadowed his on-field power and production. Nicknamed “Super Joe,” Charboneau became famous for his many unusual habits. Baseball fans in Cleveland quickly learned that Charboneau, as a youth, used to fight boxing matches in boxcars at the price of $25 a bout. As an adult, Super Joe had other tendencies, like opening beer bottles with his eye sockets, something that most humans would consider too painful—and dangerous. (After opening the bottle, he sometimes drank the beer through his nose, providing a fitting exclamation point to the achievement.)
He also ate cigarettes, another unsafe habit. On one occasion, he decided to rid himself of an unwanted tattoo, not by consulting a tattoo parlor, but by cutting it out himself with a razor blade. And in perhaps his most pain-inducing stunt, Charboneau once tried to repair his own broken nose with a pair of pliers. He apparently eased the pain with a few shots of whiskey, in his best attempt to recreate medical practices of the 1800s.
Charboneau’s exploits made him an immediate legend in the Cleveland area. Coupled with his hitting, they inspired the creation of the song, “Go Go Joe Charboneau.” The song, which rose to No. 3 on the Cleveland charts during the 1980 season, featured the following lyrics:
“Who’s the newest guy in town?
Go Joe Charboneau.
Turns the ballpark upside down.
Go Joe Charboneau.
Who’s the one to keep our hopes alive, straight from seventh to the pennant drive?
Raise your glass, let out a cheer for Cleveland’s Rookie of the Year!”
With the catchy (if not particularly lyrical) song in place, the legend of Joe Charboneau seemed ready to take off completely. Comparisons with Rocky Colavito, an Indians great from a previous generation, inevitably resulted. (The comparisons weren’t really fair; Colavito had more power and a far stronger defensive presence, with a cannon-like arm that played beautifully in right field.)
Unfortunately, Charboneau’s reckless ways seemed to foreshadow a short career. During spring training in 1981, Charboneau injured his back while sliding headfirst into a base. Hampered by the back ailment, he slumped so badly that the Indians sent him back to the minor leagues in midseason. Charboneau eventually underwent two operations, neither of which helped.
By 1983, Charboneau was playing for Cleveland’s Triple-A affiliate in Buffalo and struggling with a .200 batting average. Frustrated by the fans’ displeasure with him, he decided to give the hometown folks an “obscene salute.” No one thought it was appropriate or funny, except possibly Super Joe himself. The gesture angered Indians management, which gave him his release. Although the Pittsburgh Pirates offered him another chance in their system, his professional career soon ended, after only three truncated seasons in the major leagues.
Since his playing days, Charboneau has remained connected to baseball in peripheral ways, as a sports talk show host and independent minor league coach, in addition to his duties with the North Ridgeville parks department. It remains to be seen whether he will retain that job after his involvement in the recent brawl. He had maintained a relatively low public profile until the recent incident, with his Super Joe persona having given way to a more normal life as plain old Joseph Charboneau. Perhaps Super Joe has returned, for better or worse.
I suppose there is something intriguing, in a wild west sort of way, about a young man in his 20s becoming involved in barroom brawls. But when you’re in your 50s, and you’re still brawling like you were a 25-year-old, there is something disturbing, perhaps even pathetic about that. Maybe I’m wrong here; after all, we don’t know many of the details of last week’s incident, and perhaps Charboneau was merely acting in self-defense. I hope that’s the case. If not, Super Joe may have reached the stage of his life where he simply needs some help.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.