Tiant didn’t join the Red Sox until mid-career, but he became one of the most popular players in club history. A balding, overweight starter whose age was often estimated at several years higher that its “official” listing, Tiant spoke with a thick Cuban accent and would smoke cigars anywhere, including the clubhouse whirlpool and shower. He was a renowned locker-room prankster, but was serious on the mound, winning 20 games three times for Boston. He baffled hitters with a rocking, twisting windup and an assortment of release points that ranged from over-the-top to nearly underhand. Or as announcer, Curt Gowdy noted, “He comes everywhere except between his legs.”
Tiant’s father, Luis Tiant Sr., was one of Cuba’s greatest pitchers; former All-Star Bobby Avila signed the younger Luis to his first contract, for the 1959 Mexican League season. He set a Pacific Coast League record with a .938 winning percentage (15-1) in 1964 before joining the Indians in mid-season, and broke in with a four-hit shutout against the Yankees in his first major league start. He went 10-4 with a 2.83 ERA as a rookie in 1964, and in 1966 he pitched four consecutive shutouts. Tiant really broke through in 1968 after he altered his delivery so that he turned away from the plate during his motion, in effect creating a hesitation pitch. He led the American League with a 1.60 ERA, 9 shutouts, and 5.3 hits per nine innings while striking out more than a batter an inning, and finished 21-9. That July 3 he struck out 19 Twins in a ten-inning game, setting an American League record for games of that length. In his previous start he’d fanned 13 Red Sox, giving him a major league record 32 strikeouts in consecutive starts.
The Indians were overly protective of their newly hot property and ordered Tiant to skip his usual winter ball. The strategy backfired when he led the AL with 20 losses (while winning 9) and 129 walks in 1969. After the season Cleveland traded him with Stan Williams to the Twins for Graig Nettles, former Cy Young winner Dean Chance, Bob Miller, and Ted Uhlaender. Tiant started the 1970 season with six straight wins, but suffered a hairline fracture in his shoulder, missed June and July, and wasn’t the same when he came back. Minnesota released him at the end of spring training in 1971, and he signed with the Braves minor league Richmond club. He was cut a month later and rejoined Boston’s Louisville farm team. He made it back to the majors late that year, but went only 1-7.
Tiant was the Comeback Player of the Year in 1972 for a contending Boston Red Sox team. He captured his second ERA title with a 1.91 mark and was 15-6. He followed his 20-13 mark in 1973 by going 22-13 in 1974, with an AL-leading seven shutouts. After helping the Red Sox to the AL pennant in 1975 with an 18-14 mark (4.02 ERA) he got real national attention for the first time during postseason play. He beat the three-time World Champion A’s in the ALCS opener with a three-hitter, giving up only one unearned run, and followed with a five-hit shutout of the Reds to open the World Series. He also won Game Four, 5-4. Tiant got a hit in each game after batting once all season, and his adventuresome trips from base to base (he scored each time) while bundled in a warm-up jacket provided comic relief in an otherwise tense series. His accent (“Ees great to be weeth a weiner”) and his eccentric cigar puffing made him an immediate media favorite. He was rocked in Game Six, but left long before Carlton Fisk‘s 12th-inning homer ended what has been called the greatest game ever played.
Tiant won 20 for the last time in 1976 (21-12), but he was no longer the overpowering pitcher he once had been. For several years he had increasingly relied on deception, with masterful changes of speed to go with his wide variety of pitching motions. He pitched less, but he kept winning, going 12-8 and 13-8 in his last two years with the Red Sox. He signed with the Yankees as a free agent before the 1979 season and went 13-8, but was ineffective thereafter.