On July 19, 1964, Tiant debuted in the major leagues for the Cleveland Indians with a four-single, 11 strikeout, 3–0 shutout victory against the defending AL Champion New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium. The losing pitcher was Whitey Ford. Tiant finished his rookie season with a 10–4 record, 105 strikeouts, and a 2.83 ERA in 19 games.
Tiant broke through in 1968, after he altered his delivery so that he turned away from home plate during his motion, in effect creating a hesitation pitch. According to Tiant, the new motion was a response to a drop in his velocity due to an shoulder blade injury. Twisting and turning his body into unthinkable positions, Tiant would spend more time looking at second base than he did the plate as he prepared to throw. In that season, he led the league in ERA (1.60), shutouts (nine, including four consecutive), hits per nine innings (a still-standing franchise record 5.30, which broke Herb Score‘s 5.85 in 1956 and would be a Major-League record low until Nolan Ryan gave up 5.26 hits/9 innings in 1972), strikeouts per nine innings (9.22), while finishing with a 21–9 mark. His four consecutive shutouts are matched by only four other pitchers in the 50-year expansion era, with Don Drysdale (six, 1968), Bob Gibson (five, 1968), Orel Hershiser (five, 1988) and Gaylord Perry (four, 1970) being the others. Beside this, opposing hitters batted just .168 off Tiant, a major league record, and on July 3 he struck out 19 Minnesota Twins in a ten-inning game, setting an American League record for games of that length. His 1.60 ERA in 1968 was the lowest in the American League since Walter Johnson‘s 1.49 mark during the dead-ball era in 1919, and was eclipsed that season only by National Leaguer (St. Louis Cardinals) Bob Gibson‘s 1.12—the lowest ever during the Live Ball Era. With Sam McDowell, Sonny Siebert, and others, the Indians staff led the AL in strikeouts for five consecutive years, including a record 1189 strikeouts in 1967, a record that would stand for thirty years.
After an injury-plagued season in 1969, Tiant was traded to the Minnesota Twins in a multi-player deal that brought fellow pitcher Dean Chance and third baseman Graig Nettles to the Indians. With Minnesota, Tiant began 1970 with six wins, but then he fractured his right scapula, essentially ending his season and, some felt, his career. He showed some promise in the 1971 spring training, but he was released.
He was quickly called back up to the majors, and despite struggling through 1971 with a 1–7 record and 4.88 ERA, he would soon become one of the greatest and most beloved pitchers in Red Sox history and an idol in Boston. Becoming known as El Tiante at Fenway Park, in 1972 Tiant regained his old form with a 15–6 record and led the league with a 1.91 ERA. He would win 20 games in 1973 and 22 in 1974.
Though hampered by back problems in 1975, he won 18 games for the American League Champion Red Sox, then excelled for Boston in the postseason. In the playoffs he defeated the three time defending World Champion Oakland Athletics, allowing only three hits in a 7–1 complete game victory, then opened the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. His father and mother, having been allowed to visit from Cuba under a special visa, were in Fenway Park that game to watch their son defeat The Big Red Machine in a 6–0 five-hit shutout. All six Red Sox runs were scored in the seventh inning; Tiant led off that inning (the designated hitter was not yet in use in World Series play) with a base hit off Don Gullett and eventually scored on Carl Yastrzemski‘s single for the first of those six runs.
Tiant won Game 4 as well (throwing 173 pitches in his second complete game in the series) and had a no-decision in Game 6, which has been called the greatest game ever played, after Carlton Fisk‘s dramatic game-winning walk-off home run in the 12th inning.
At the end of the 1978 season, Tiant signed as a free agent with the Yankees. Tiant compiled a 21–17 record in New York over two seasons from 1979–80. Just after signing with the Yankees, Tiant did a television commercial for Colonial Brand Yankee Franks. The commercial ended with Tiant, in his thick Cuban accent saying, “It’s great to be with a wiener (winner).” It was never made completely clear if he meant “wiener” or “winner.
He finished his career with two brief stints for the Pirates and Angels.
Smallthoughts: Old School Tuesday spotlights…El Tiante..Luis Tiant
|July 19, 1964, for the Cleveland Indians|
|Last MLB appearance|
|September 4, 1982, for the California Angels|
|Earned run average||3.30|
|Career highlights and awards|