Luis Tiant’s brilliant career landed him on Hall of Fame ballot
Luis Tiant’s legend developed in the United States well after his 30th birthday. But for baseball fans in his native Cuba, Tiant was a hero from his earliest days as a professional.
A sizzling fastball, pinpoint control and a dogged spirit made fans around the globe fall in love with “El Tiante.”
“When I was a boy growing up in Cuba,” said Hall of Famer Tony Perez, who is just 18 months younger than Tiant, “Luis Tiant was a national hero.”
Tiant, who pitched for the Indians, Twins, Red Sox, Yankees, Pirates and Angels during 19 major league seasons, is one of 10 finalists on this year’s Golden Era ballot that will be considered by the committee on managers, umpires, executives and long-retired players at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. The 16-person committee will vote at baseball’s Winter Meetings in San Diego, Calif., and the results of the vote will be announced Dec. 8.
The 10 candidates on the Golden Era Committee ballot are: Dick Allen, Ken Boyer, Gil Hodges, Bob Howsam, Jim Kaat, Minnie Minoso, Tony Oliva, Billy Pierce, Maury Wills and Tiant. Any candidate who is named on at least 75 percent of all ballots cast will be inducted in the Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2015.
The Golden Era Committee consists of Hall of Famers Jim Bunning, Rod Carew, Pat Gillick, Fergie Jenkins, Al Kaline, Joe Morgan, Ozzie Smith and Don Sutton; baseball executives Jim Frey, David Glass, Roland Hemond, and Bob Watson; and veteran media members Steve Hirdt, Dick Kaegel, Phil Pepe and Tracy Ringolsby.
Born Nov. 23, 1940 in Marianao, Cuba, Tiant was the son of Luis Tiant Sr., a legendary left-handed pitcher in the Negro leagues and Cuban leagues from 1926-48. The junior Tiant also excelled on the diamond, quickly rising to all-star status in leagues in and around Havana during the late 1950s.
“When I was 17, I told my mother and father that I wanted to be a ballplayer,” Tiant said.
Tiant pitched in the Mexican League in the early 1960s before the Cleveland Indians signed him in 1961. After less than three seasons in the minor leagues – including part of the 1964 Pacific Coast League season when he was 15-1 in 17 games with Portland – Tiant made his big league debut with the Indians on July 19, 1964 – going 10-4 with a 2.83 earned-run average with the team that season.
Over the next three years, Tiant won 35 games as a swingman, leading the American League in shutouts in 1966 with five (including four in a row) while also saving eight games that season. In 1968, Tiant put all the pieces together, going 21-9 with a league-leading 1.60 ERA and AL-best nine shutouts, along with 264 strikeouts. He was named to the first of three AL All-Star teams.
It was in 1968 that Tiant perfected his signature delivery, turning away from home plate for much of his windup.
An injury-plagued 1969 resulted in a 9-20 record, and Cleveland traded Tiant to the Twins prior to the 1970 season. That year, Tiant was 7-3 with a 3.40 ERA, but a broken scapula sidelined him for most of the season. In Spring Training of 1971, the Twins released Tiant.
After a stint in the minor leagues that year, the Red Sox signed Tiant, and he went 1-7. But starting in 1972 at the age of 31, Tiant became one of the most beloved pitchers in Red Sox history, winning an average of 17 games a year from 1972-78. The cigar-smoking teddy bear of a right-hander quickly developed a reputation as one of the game’s top clutch pitchers.
“If a man put a gun to my head,” said former Red Sox manager Darrell Johnson, “and said I’m going to pull the trigger if you lose this game, I’d want Luis Tiant to pitch that game.”
Johnson and Tiant led the Red Sox to the postseason in 1975 for the first time in eight seasons, with Tiant pitching a three-hitter in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series against Oakland. Boston swept that series in three games, then squared off against the Reds in the World Series.
Tiant delivered a five-hit shutout in Game 1, then threw an incredible 163 pitches to win Game 4 by a score of 5-4. After three days of rain after Game 5, Tiant started Game 6 – a contest that would become legendary after Boston’s Carlton Fisk homered in the 12th inning to force Game 7. Tiant gutted his way through seven innings that night, allowing six runs.
The next night, Cincinnati won Game 7 to capture the World Series. Tiant’s status as a Boston hero, however, was secure.
“There was no extra pressure in big games,” Tiant said. “I enjoyed pitching in big games, and I never worried too much about it.”
Tiant left the Red Sox for the Yankees via free agency following the 1978 season, and after two seasons in the Bronx wrapped up his career with stints with the Pirates and the Angels. His final record: 229-172, with a 3.30 ERA, 187 complete games and 49 shutouts. He led the AL in ERA two times and in shutouts three times.
“When the chips are on the line,” said Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, “Luis Tiant is the greatest competitor I’ve ever seen.”
Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum