As Reggie Cleveland warmed up in the bullpen at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium on October 16, 1975, he had no idea that he was about to become the first Canadian pitcher to start a World Series game.
“No one told me that until years afterwards,” Cleveland told Brian Kendall for his 1995 book, Great Moments in Canadian Baseball. “It was probably just as well. I would’ve been even more nervous than I already was.”
The 27-year-old, Swift Current, Sask., native was about to start Game 5 of the 1975 Fall Classic that pitted the powerhouse Cincinnati Reds against the Canadian right-hander and the underdog Boston Red Sox. This World Series is most famous for the indelible image of Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk waving his walk-off home run fair in the 12th inning of Game 6, but before Pudge’s homer, Cleveland would have the opportunity to make some history of his own.
Acquired by the Red Sox from the St. Louis Cardinals on December 7, 1973, Cleveland posted a 12-14 record and a 4.31 ERA in 1974 and was equally underwhelming in the first half of the 1975 season. Fortunately, he found his form during the season’s second half, and in September, the burly righty went 4-0 with a 2.21 ERA.
Cleveland was used as a spot starter and reliever by the Red Sox. Not a particularly hard thrower, he relied on a mid-to-high-80s fastball, a slider and a curve. He finished the 1975 regular season with 13 wins, making him one of five Sox pitchers (Rick Wise (19), Luis Tiant (18), Bill Lee (17), Roger Moret (14)) to notch 13 or more victories.
Unbeknownst to him, Cleveland had already made history 11 days earlier when he started Game 2 of the American League Championship Series against the Oakland A’s to become the first Canadian pitcher to start a postseason game. In that contest, Cleveland served up a two-run homer to Reggie Jackson in the first inning, before limiting the A’s to one run in the ensuing four frames. He didn’t record a decision in the Red Sox 6-3 victory.
Despite his hot September and his ALCS start, media still questioned Red Sox manager Darrell Johnson’s decision to start Cleveland in Game 5 of the World Series. The Red Sox had just evened up the series and many thought left-hander Bill Lee, a 17-game winner during the regular season, should get the nod. But Johnson felt that Lee, who had started Game 2 and had been sidelined by shoulder soreness in September, was not ready.
“Reggie is the best available,” Johnson told reporters, according to Tom Adelman’s 2003 book, The Long Ball. “These guys are a great fastball-hitting team, but Reggie has a great slider and he can beat these guys if we get a few runs off Mr. [Don] Gullett.”
The Canadian right-hander had posted a 3.45 ERA in eight starts against the Reds while he was with Cardinals between 1971 and 1973 and Cleveland had already contributed 1-1/3 innings of hitless relief in Game 3.
The Red Sox scored a run in the top of the first inning of Game 5 when second baseman Denny Doyle tripled and Carl Yastrzemski drove him in with a sacrifice fly.
So with his shaggy blonde hair spilling out from under his cap, Cleveland took the mound with a lead in the bottom of the first inning and allowed singles to Pete Rose and Joe Morgan, but he escaped without allowing a run when left fielder Juan Beniquez tossed Rose out at the plate when he attempted to score on a fly ball by Johnny Bench.
Cleveland held the Big Red Machine scoreless until the bottom of the fourth when Tony Perez, who had been 0-for-15 in the series, strolled to the plate. The 6-foot-1 hurler had been working Perez away, but he decided to mix it up and throw a pitch inside. Unfortunately, he missed his location and his pitch traveled down the middle of the plate and Perez clubbed it over the left-centre field wall to tie the game.
After the Red Sox failed to score in the top of the fifth, Cleveland retired Dave Concepcion and Cesar Geronimo on ground balls and had two strikes on Reds pitcher Don Gullett before hanging a slider that Gullett rapped up the middle for a single. Rose followed with a long double to left field that scored Gullett. Cleveland settled down to retire Ken Griffey on a foul ball to end the inning, but the Reds now led 2-1.
The Red Sox could not tie the game in the top of the sixth, and Morgan walked to lead off the bottom of the inning for the Reds. However, if you watch Cleveland’s pitch sequence to Morgan, at least three of the balls could’ve been called strikes. Fisk and Cleveland both strongly voiced their displeasure to home plate umpire George Maloney. Morgan was one of the biggest base-stealing threats in the National League, and with Bench now at the plate, Cleveland threw over to first base 16 times during Bench’s at bat.
Bench finally hit a ground ball to second base that would’ve been a double play, but Sox infielder Denny Doyle was moving to cover second base and also lost the ball in Bench’s white jersey. Morgan rounded second and raced towards third. Rifle-armed right fielder Dwight Evans attempted to gun Morgan down and he overthrew third base, allowing Bench to advance to second.
Up to the plate walked Perez again. The Reds first baseman worked the count to 1-2 and hit a high pop up into foul territory near the Reds dugout. Fisk looked like he had a play on it and he leaped over the railing of the camera bay in pursuit, but he came up just short. For the following pitch, Fisk set up low and away, but Cleveland’s pitch sailed in high and inside and Perez belted it over the left-centre field fence for a three-run homer to make the score 5-1.
“The first time, I hit a hanging slider,” Perez told reporters of his two homers off of Cleveland that game. “The second time, a fastball inside. They’ve been keeping ball away from me. That was the first inside pitch I’ve seen in the series.”
Perez’s second home run knocked Cleveland out of the game. The normally easygoing Canadian yelled and gestured wildly at the home plate umpire as he was replaced by right-hander Jim Willoughby. The Red Sox went on to lose the game 6-2.
“I think I just must have been due for a bad game,” Cleveland later told Kendall about his Game 5 performance. “I’d been pitching so well for so long.”
The Red Sox evened the series on Fisk’s home run in Game 6, but lost the seventh and deciding game 4-3. Cleveland actually recorded the last out in the top of the ninth in relief in Game 7, but the Bosox couldn’t rally in the bottom of the inning.
The history-making Saskatchewan native pitched parts of three more seasons with the Red Sox before finishing his career with the Texas Rangers and Milwaukee Brewers. In all, he accumulated 105 wins, which ranks as the fourth most by a Canadian. For his efforts, he was elected to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 1986.
“That start in Cincinnati means more to me every passing year,” Cleveland told Kendall. “I just wish there had been a happier ending.”