Gary Bell was late for the glory. He debuted with the Cleveland Indians in 1958, one season removed from the best 10-year stretch in franchise history. From 1948 to 1957, the Tribe won at least 88 games nine times.
That doesn’t mean he didn’t enjoy himself. The right-hander was a hard thrower, and he lived life the same way. He won 121 games in 12 big-league seasons, and there were plenty of laughs to go with the strikeouts. Seventy-eight years old, he’s as gregarious today as he was in his playing days.
Bell talked about his time in Cleveland, including notable teammates, during a visit to Fenway Park last season.
David Laurila: You broke into the big leagues in 1958. What was baseball in Cleveland like at that time?
Gary Bell: Cheap. I was making $7,000 a year, which is a little different from now. Our team was pretty good. My first year, we finished third or fourth, but in 1959 we finished second and probably should have won it. That’s the year the White Sox beat us out. It would have been a nice World Series. The Dodgers played in the Coliseum, which held 100,000. We got 75,000 in Cleveland, so it would have been a huge payoff for those days, probably have been five or 10 grand.
DL: You had some notable teammates.
GB: When I came up, old, great pitchers like Bob Lemon and Mike Garcia were still there. I didn’t really learn from them, though. Back in those days, if you were a rookie you were nothing. They didn’t want to help you, because they were afraid you were going to take their job. Herb Score was there, as well.
DL: You also played with “Sudden Sam” McDowell and the younger version of Luis Tiant. Which of them threw harder?
GB: Tiant couldn’t come close to throwing as hard as McDowell. Luis had a lot of other stuff. Sam McDowell was a real talent, he just had a problem other than baseball. Sam had great stuff. He was a great pitcher with a great fastball and great curveball. He had everything. Luis claims he threw harder than he really did. He has lapses of memory some time. Heck, I threw harder than Tiant.
DL: Rocky Colavito was the hitting star.
GB: He was. Rocky was a great guy and a good friend of mine when we played together. I have some good memories of Rocky. He had four home runs one game, and I pitched that day. He could hit the ball a long way.
DL: What was Jimmy Piersall like?
GB: Piersall was Piersall, man. Jimmy was only there a few years, but he was a good player who could really go get ‘em in center field. He was as good as anybody with the glove. Jimmy was just a little off-center.
DL: You also played with Billy Martin. Was he everything the stories make him out to be?
GB: I think a lot of the bizarre things that happened to him were later on in his career, when he was managing. Billy and I got along great. I used to run with him a little bit.
DL: Was there more nightlife back in your day?
GB: I don’t know what these guys do nowadays. I do know that if I was making $10 million or $20 million, I could hide pretty easily. But in all the years I played, I never saw anybody smoking marijuana. I didn’t even know what cocaine was. There was some drinking going on, of course.
DL: What kind of career did you have?
GB: I should have had a lot better career than I did, and I’m not exactly sure why. Looking back, I’d do a lot of things differently, but it is what it is. I’m proud of the career I had.
I threw really hard and had pretty good stuff. A lot of times it depends on the team you’re with. I loved the Indians, but the Yankees in those days were just a powerhouse. If you play on a team like that, you win a lot more games.
DL: What were the crowds like in old Cleveland Municipal Stadium?
GB: A few times, there were 1,500 people in that place and you could hear them rattling around. But I also pitched in a [series] where the Yankees came into town and we got over 60,000 people on Friday and Saturday, and 70,000 for a Sunday doubleheader. Boy, you talk about a thrill. Mickey Mantle hit a three-run home run off me on Saturday, although we won that game in the ninth inning. The next day, I pitched against them again, in front of the 70,000, and struck him out. I remember kind of levitating off the mound.