Legends of the Precipitous Fall: Joe Charboneau
When I was a 9-year old living in Fayetteville, NC, I started collecting baseball and football cards in a big way. At that age I really had no concept of my collection having any sort of value. Nope, I was just interested in completing sets.
For the advanced collector, marking a card is pure sacrilege. But I would take a pen to those checklist cards and mark off each new addition to the set I was putting together. In doing so, players like Bake McBride became important to me. He was the last card I needed to finish off the 1980 Topps baseball set.
I can’t tell you how many packs of baseball and football cards I bought at the Quick Mart in my neighborhood. That crappy convenience store was my conduit to the hobby. Between the suicide sodas (that’s mixing every flavor available at the fountain dispenser) and the packs of cards I bought, I probably single handedly kept that place in business.
That’s until I came across the Yadkin Road Flea Market. Imagine a long storage facility building and you’ve pretty much got an idea of what this place looked like. It was a no frills operation filled with tables of crap…except for one very special booth belonging to a guy who called himself Generous Geoff.
Geoff was a hippy who sold everything collectible: toys, vintage records, coins, and sports cards. Underneath his glass display case were hundreds of old cards going all the way back to the 50’s.
It wasn’t his older mint condition cards that turned him into an icon in my eyes the very first time I met him. It was the fact that when I asked if he had that ‘80 Topps Bake McBride card I needed to finish the set, he pulled one out and GAVE IT TO ME. ”On the house, dude,” he said.
The card was worth about three cents, but it might as well have been a gold bar in my hands. And Geoff just handed it over to me. Looking back, I didn’t realize just how out of place he was in a military town like Fayetteville. He had a definite Tommy Chong vibe that I didn’t quite get because I was still a few years away from seeing “Up In Smoke.”
This was the guy who taught me that a collection could be valuable. After meeting Geoff I never dared mark a card, even a checklist.
Instead of tie dye t-shirts, he wore jerseys of every Cleveland sports team. That’s where he was originally from, and his loyalty to the Browns, Cavs and Indians was unwavering. After my dad would abandon me at his booth, Geoff would regale me with stories of Campy Russell, Rocky Colavito and Brian Sipe.
But when I met him, the Cleveland athlete that Geoff was most consumed with was an Indians rookie named “Super Joe” Charboneau. And I don’t blame you one bit if you’ve never heard of Charboneau. His all too brief three year long stint in the Majors ended nearly three decades ago.
In those days it was pretty damn tough being a Cleveland sports fan. During the decade of the 70’s, the NFL’s Browns were 0-2 in their playoff appearances. The NBA’s Cavs did push through to the Eastern Conference finals in ‘76 but faded fast as the decade closed. However, the Indians were the worst of the lot.
From 1970 to 1979, the franchise averaged 74 wins and never finished higher than fourth. Heck, it would be 1994 (following a move to the AL Central) before the Indians would finish higher than fourth. No wonder this was the team used in the flick “Major League.”
So for a franchise this downtrodden, a dynamic figure like Charboneau was truly a shot in the arm. Few rookies outside of Fidrych and Valenzuela have ever captivtated a city the way he did back in 1980. Hell, there was actually a “Go Joe Charboneau” song recorded about the guy. People were that crazy about him, Generous Geoff included.
In his second Major League at bat Super Joe hit an opposite field home run off of Dave Frost (yes, DAVE FROST was the Opening Day starter that year for California). His legend grew in June when he hit a ball into the third deck of Yankee Stadium…something only Jimmie Foxx and Frank Howard had previously accomplished.
Without much support around him (Andre Thornton didn’t play that year), Charboneau ended up batting .289 on the season with 23 homers and 87 RBI’s. He easily outdistanced Boston’s Dave Stapleton in the AL Rookie of the Year race. Cleveland fans were already picturing his eventual Hall of Fame enshrinement.
Alas, that wouldn’t come to pass. The following spring Charboneau hurt his back sliding head first into second base. He was limited to 48 games with the Indians in 1981, and his average barely cleared the Mendoza Line.
I remember Geoff trying to keep the faith as he helped me finish off the ‘81 Topps set, one that included Charboneau’s rookie card. “He’ll be back and better than ever!,” he told me one day as he pointed at the four Charboneau rookies he had in his case. For the record, Geoff gave me one of those, too, and that was when the card meant something.
Charboneau did come back for the 1982 campaign, but another injury followed by another surgery ended his playing career. He was out of the big leagues just three years after bursting onto the scene.
He tried to make a comeback, catching on with the Pittsburgh farm system in 1984 and then several independent teams after that. But his ailing back never would allow him to make it back to the Show.
In the summer of ‘83, I did my usual drill one Saturday, letting my dad sift through tables of junk while I walked over to Geoff’s booth. When I walked up, he broke it to me that he was packing up his operation and moving to New Orleans to be closer to his ailing sister. It was literally his last day at the Yadkin Road Flea Market.
Needless to say, I was pretty damn stunned. Who the hell else would tell me Campy Russell stories? He told me he was hoping I’d come around that day. “I won’t be able to carry all this stuff to New Orleans, dude,” as he handed me a shoebox and winked.
Inside the box were dozens of cards going back to the 50’s, including some cards from the ‘56 Topps football set that I’d always stared at when they were in his display case. It was one hell of a gesture that really was above and beyond the call of duty.
I picked my jaw up and thanked him profusely. He smiled and said, “I’m keeping the Charboneaus for myself, though.”