One of the most feared sluggers of the ’90s, Albert Belle was also one of the most feared athletes, period. His surly nature and frequent run-ins with the press and other intruders to his universe drew unfavorable comparisons to ex-heavyweight champion and ex-con Sonny Liston. That surliness toward reporters more than likely cost him the 1995 MVP award, which he lost by just eight points to Mo Vaughn despite posting far superior numbers.
Belle’s career started off slowly, largely because of a drinking problem that forced him to miss most of the 1990 season. But the Indians and GM John Hart sensed greatness and stuck with the troubled outfielder. They were rewarded with Ruthian seasons in 1995-96, when Belle narrowly missed becoming the first player since the Bambino to mount back-to-back 50-homer seasons.
But Belle’s reputation will likely always be sullied by his litany of churlish behavior, which includes once drilling a baseball into the chest of a fan who taunted him about his drinking problem. In 1994 he served a seven-game suspension for using a corked bat. Prior to Game 3 of the 1995 World Series, he cursed — and then chased — NBC TV reporter Hannah Storm from the dugout, drawing a $50,000 fine. On Halloween 1995, he tried to run down some kids in his Jeep after they egged his condo. In April 1996, he threw a ball at a photographer who designed to take a pre-game photograph of him. On May 31, he was fined $25,000 and suspended for three games when he nearly decapitated diminutive Milwaukee second baseman Fernando Vina while trying to break up a double play. Days earlier, he had rebuffed a fan who tried to return one of his home run balls by reportedly telling him, “I’m not trading you (bleep).”
Belle’s two years in Chicago were no less turbulent. In 1997, he smashed the thermostat in the White Sox locker room when his teammates tried to turn up the temperature. He spent his first Kids’ Day autograph session in Chicago reading the Chicago Sun-Times in the clubhouse. (“At least it was the right paper,” the Sun-Times reported the following day.) Earlier in the season, he had admitted losing $40,000 by gambling on sports. In June, he cursed out a reporter who was simply standing behind the cage during batting practice. In 1998, he was accused of domestic battery on the same day he was named AL Player of the Week for the second week in a row.
Before Belle started ringing up records in Cleveland, he was doing it in Louisiana for LSU. Then known as Joey (his given name; “Albert” was adopted after completing alcohol rehab in 1990) Belle set school career records in all the major power categories, but his behavior resulted in a post-season suspension that forced him to miss the College World Series. Despite some concern about Belle’s attitude around the league (“If you pick Belle in any round, you’re fired,” Atlanta Braves GM Bobby Cox announced to his staff) he was selected in the second round by the Cleveland Indians.
Once in the majors, he improved in each succeeding season. In 1991, he led the Indians with 28 homers. The following year, he teamed with Carlos Baerga to give the Tribe its first pair of 100-plus RBI sluggers since Al Rosen and Larry Doby in 1954. In 1993, he led the league in RBI for the first time. And in 1994, he emerged as a legitimate Triple Crown threat, batting .357 with 36 home runs and 101 RBI in just 106 games when the players’ strike cancelled the remainder of the season.
Although the residue of the strike cut eighteen games off the 1995 schedule, Belle became the first player in major league history to hit 50 doubles and 50 home runs in the same season and only the eighth to register 100-plus extra base hits. He tied Ruth’s record of most home runs in one month in September with 17 and set a major-league record with 31 home runs in two months, breaking a mark held by Ruth and Roger Maris. To boot, he equaled a major-leauge record with five home runs in two days. Belle also led the AL in home runs (50), RBI (126), total bases (377), runs (121), doubles (52), slugging percentage (.690), and extra base hits with 103.
Despite dominating the league offensively and leading the Indians to their first World Series berth since 1954, he lost the AL MVP vote to Vaughn, a decision which further embittered him towards the media. “I don’t even think Mo Vaughn should be MVP of the Red Sox,” an angry Belle told a reporter. “I think it should be Tim Wakefield.”
While his power numbers dropped slightly in 1996 (Belle managed a paltry 89 extra-base hits) he still belted 48 homers and upped his RBI count to 148. The total led the league for the second straight year and was the most in the AL since Ted Williams and Vern Stephens each drove in 159 in 1949.
Before the year was out, however, Belle shocked his adoring fans by signing a five-year, $55 million contract with the division rival White Sox. His first visit to Jacobs Field as a member of an opposing team prompted a shower of debris (including dollar bills and assorted coins) from the fans, an obscene gesture from Belle, and a fine from the league office. Adding fuel to the fire, Cleveland hosted the 1997 All-Star Game; Belle was named to the team but avoided all stadium events and was the only non-pitcher who didn’t play. I’ll save myself the hassle,” Belle told AL skipper Joe Torre. “Then I won’t have to deal with the village idiots for a few innings.” The controversy may have contributed to a 1997 season that was disappointing by Belle standards — .274, 30 homers, 116 RBI — although he did put together a career-high 27-game hitting streak, tying the club record set in 1936 by Hall of Famer Luke Appling.
After the turmoil and unmet expectations of 1997, Belle rebounded with a vengeance in 1998, re-establishing himself as one of the game’s most daunting offensive machines. Much like 1995, a lukewarm start to the season was followed by a torrid second half, and Belle finished the year batting .328 (his highest average in a full season) with 49 round-trippers and a career-high 152 RBI. He fell one extra-base hit shy of becoming the first player since Stan Musial in 1948 with 400 total bases and 100 extra-base hits in the same season.
Unhappy with the mediocrity of the White Sox after the season ended, Belle exercised a little-known clause in his contract that allowed him to become a free agent if he was not one of the three highest paid players in baseball after the second year of the deal. Belle fielded offers from the Red Sox and Yankees before settling on a five-year, $65 million dollar deal with Baltimore. Perhaps Belle’s childhood influenced his decision; his idols growing up were Jim Palmer and Eddie Murray.
After joining the Orioles, Belle promised a kindler, gentler Albert who would be more open to both fans and the press. The detente didn’t last long; it took just a few weeks of spring training before Belle, upset that reporters had run a story about him slamming bats in the clubhouse, imposed a media gag order on himself.
Although Belle thrilled his new fans with a three-run homer on Opening Day, the season quickly went downhill. The enthusiasm of the Baltimore faithful soon turned to acrimony as Belle suffered his traditional first-half slump and the Orioles plunged out of contention. At one June home game, Belle made an obscene gesture to heckling fans in the outfield bleachers. The incident so enraged owner Peter Angelos that he began investigating ways to void the no-trade clause in Belle’s contract.
Later in the season, Belle clashed with Ray Miller after the O’s skipper pulled him from a game for not hustling. Meanwhile, Belle maintained his media embargo, posting a sign above his locker saying that all questions for him should be directed to his website. Another sign posted in mid-July summed up Belle’s attitude towards Baltimore: “½ year down, 4½ years to go so don’t fight it and show me some love!!! AB.”
Still, a second-half batting surge put Belle in the company of baseball’s immortals. He finished the year with a .297 batting average, 37 home runs and 117 RBIs. While those numbers marked a significant decline from the previous year, they allowed him to join Hall of Famers Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx as the only players to hit 30 home runs and drive in 100 runs for at least eight consecutive seasons.
The beginning of the end for Belle came in the 2000 season, when he first learned about the injury that would claim his career. The right fielder had been playing in excruciating pain for some of the season, and finally missed 20 games in September with an inflamed bursa sac in his right hip. Doctors told him that he had a degenerative condition in the hip, and that at best he’d probably be limited to DH duty in 2001. In Belle’s final 65 games, the once-mighty slugger could only manage a .248 average, with six dingers and 42 RBIs. It ended his eight-year streak of 30+ homers, but he extended his RBI streak to nine straight years (he finished with 103 RBIs).
When 2001 spring training rolled around, the entire organization was hopeful. Belle had undergone treatment almost daily in the off-season, and was eager to reclaim the outfield job. But it soon became clear that his degenerative hip would not allow the Oriole to run, let alone play a full game. Even batting as the DH would have given the limping star too much pain, and Belle finally left the game of baseball.