Armed with that memorable Fu Manchu mustache, Luis Tiant pitched only two years for the Yankees, but it seemed like a much longer stretch of seasons, four or five at least. Curiously, he will forever be embedded in my memory as a Yankee, more so than any other team, perhaps because of those horrendously humorous hot dog commercials he used to make. I’ll also remember those newspaper images of a shirtless Tiant smoking a cigar while soaking himself in a hot tub. (According to eyewitnesses, Tiant also used to take cigars into the shower with him. I wonder how he kept those cigars from being doused.) Tiant always seemed to have something in his hand, whether it was a hot dog, a cigar, or a baseball.
When Tiant made his major league debut for the Cleveland Indians in 1964, he fulfilled a dream of playing in the big leagues, a goal that inspired him more than most; he felt particularly motivated after his equally talented father was denied major league entry because of the darkened color of his skin. Luis Tiant, Sr. was a respected left-hander who forged a representative career in the old Negro Leagues during the summers and the Cuban League during the winters. Fiercely competitive and armed with a torturous herky jerky delivery, the elder Tiant deserved a bigger stage, but the shameful wall of segregation kept him from ever achieving his own major league dream.
As a rookie in 1964, the junior Tiant proved that he belonged in the big leagues. Pumping fastballs with his potent right arm, Tiant won 10 of 14 decisions and posted a 2.83 ERA. The following year, he hurled three shutouts and became a fulltime member of the Cleveland rotation. Tiant remained a solid No. 2 starter for the Indians until 1968, when he vaulted himself into the elite class of American League pitchers. Achieving one of his first tastes of national stardom, Tiant was featured on the cover of The Sporting News, the renowned “Bible of Baseball.” Although the summer of ’68 became known as the “Year of the Pitcher,” Tiant’s numbers transcended the context of the era. Tiant spun a league-leading ERA of 1.60 and held opposing hitters to a .168 batting average, while allowing just under 5.3 hits per game. Even in the dead ball era, which was not all that different from the season of 1968, those numbers would have remained impressive.
Not coincidentally, the ‘68 season also marked the unveiling of El Tiante’s unique set of deliveries. Debuting the new motion against the California Angels, he first began to use his trademark pirouette windup, replete with exaggerated hesitations, body spins, and bobblehead movements. Tiant began to incorporate the strange delivery more and more often, making it a regular part of his already diverse pitching repertoire. On days when his fastball and various breaking balls lacked their usual snap, an innovative Tiant found himself turning to an even wider array of his unusual wind-ups and deliveries, fully replete with spinning torso, head-turning bobs, and assorted other machinations.
Though it’s hard to say with any certainty, Tiant’s unusual motion may have also contributed to an injury that nearly ended his career. After being traded to the Minnesota Twins–as part of the deal that sent future Yankee Graig Nettles to Cleveland–and starting the 1970 season with six consecutive wins, Tiant broke his shoulder blade while making a late May start against the Milwaukee Brewers. According to Tiant, the doctor claimed that he had never seen such an injury experienced by a pitcher; in fact, the doctor had examined only a broken shoulder blade suffered by a javelin thrower during a long career dealing with athletes. Missing most of the summer while recovering from the unusual injury, Tiant returned to the Twins in August, lost three of his four remaining decisions, and then struggled so badly in the spring of 1971 that he drew his unconditional release.
Only three seasons removed from a 21-win season, Tiant was now out of baseball. In April, the Atlanta Braves agreed to give Tiant a shot, but only with a minor league contract. The minor league tryout lasted about a month, ending with Tiant’s release; he never made an appearance for the Braves. With two releases by two different organizations in the same season, Tiant’s career bordered on the edge of oblivion.
With the vultures circling around his seemingly damaged right arm, Tiant received a last-chance opportunity with the Boston Red Sox, who agreed to give him a minor league deal in May. For an organization often criticized for its inability to develop pitching, the signing of Tiant would represent the deal—and the steal—of the decade. Within a month, Tiant found himself back in the major leagues. Though he won only one of eight decisions, he showed the Red Sox enough to warrant a roster spot in 1972. That year Tiant made a stunning comeback, leading the league with a 1.91 ERA while spinning a half-dozen shutouts.
By 1976, Tiant had accumulated three 20-win seasons for the Sox. Long since removed from being a power pitcher and actually a bit past his prime in 1975, he reached the pinnacle of his fame by tossing a shutout and a complete game in two of his World Series starts. In Game Four, he treated a nationwide fan base to a first-hand display of his on-the-mound gymnastics. “He jiggles his glove,” Carlton Fisk told Ron Fimrite of Sports Illustrated, beginning a description of one of Tiant’s patented wind-ups. “He throws back his head, shakes his leg, twists around, and all of a sudden, here comes the ball.”
By Fisk’s estimation, Tiant featured 20 different pitches as part of his complete repertoire. He threw the four standard pitches—fastball, curve, slider, and change-up—but with four variations on each pitch based on differing arm angles—over the top, three-quarters, and sidearm. And then, as Fisk proceeded to explain, there were six different speeds for both the Tiant curve ball and the Tiant change.
Tiant exhibited some decline in his game in 1977 and ‘78, but pitched well enough to draw free agent interest from the Red Sox’ principal rivals, the Yankees. Underestimating his popularity in the clubhouse, the Red Sox failed to make an aggressive offer. With George Steinbrenner and GM Cedric Tallis calling the shots, the Yankees signed Tiant to a two-year contract, with the bonus of a ten-year deal in which Tiant would serve as a scout. The willingness to give him the two-year pitching deal raised some eyebrows in baseball circles because of Tiant’s age, which was reported to be 38 but rumored to be several years older.
El Tiante justified the deal in his first season with New York. While the Yankees suffered through an injury-ravaged, tragedy-wracked season, Tiant delivered reasonably good return on his contract. He won 13 of 21 decisions, sported a 3.91 ERA, and emerged as the team’s No. 2 starter behind Ron Guidry.
The Yankees improved considerably in 1980, but Tiant’s pitching showed significant slippage. His ERA rose almost a run to 4.89, his won-loss record fell below .500, and he fell out of the postseason rotation. Tiant did not pitch at all in the LCS, instead watching his team lose a trio of stunning games to the underdog Royals. Now at least 40 years old and clearly tumbling downhill, Tiant found no interest from the Yankees. Settling for a minor league contract from the Pittsburgh Pirates, Tiant started the season with the Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast League, pitched a minor league-no-hitter, and eventually worked his way back to the big leagues with the Pirates. From there, he put in time with the Mexican League, again clawed his way back to the majors, this time with the Angels, but then watched his major league career come to a close with the end of the 1982 season.
While many pitchers of his era relied on the intimidation that accompanied a blazing fastball or a crackling overhand curve, Tiant embraced the elements of slyness, trickery, and deception in bringing batters to their knees. And while other pitchers were more dominant, it was that melodramatic motion and grab-bag assortment of creative pitches that made Tiant the most entertaining moundsman of the era. Perhaps that’s why I remember Tiant so vividly from the 1979 and 1980 seasons, his only two campaigns in the Bronx. The man had a way of making an impression, whether it was with bad hot dog commercials, cigars in the clubhouse, or the most distinctive delivery of his era.
Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.