Max Alvis

This article was written by Joseph Wancho

Like many other ball clubs, the Cleveland Indians opened spring training in 1963 with some question marks at various positions. One issue was third base, where no incumbent was in line to win the job. During the offseason, Cleveland traded Bubba Phillips, who had manned the hot corner for the previous three seasons, to Detroit. Woodie Held, the starting shortstop from 1959-1962, was being moved over to third base. Held carried a big bat that would be needed in the Tribe lineup. His competition for the starting job was heralded rookie Max Alvis. The 5’11” right-handed hitting Texan had some “pop” in his bat. Alvis was a late-season call up to the varsity in September 1962. He started 12 games, but he needed more playing time to determine if he was ready for the show, considering that Alvis batted only .216 without a home run in his abbreviated first season.

At the end of spring training in 1963, Tribe manager Birdie Tebbetts picked the youngster Alvis to be the starter and Held was moved to second base. In the first game of the season at Minnesota, Alvis hit a solo home run in the fourth inning off of Twins starter Camilo Pascual. In the seventh inning, he doubled to left field and scored on a homer by Held. Unfortunately, Alvis also committed two errors, though neither affected the scoring, and the Indians opened the season with a 5-4 win. “I’m not a power hitter,” said Alvis, “but I am going to hit a few out. I didn’t think the ball would carry that far. I thought it was a good line drive that would hit the fence. When I learned it went over I tingled all over. This was a great way to start.”1

Tebbetts predicted that each position player on the Indians would slug at least 20 homers and 20 more off the bench for at least 180 home runs as a team.2 But the Indians fell a bit short of that mark with 169, and only Alvis and Fred Whitfield would top 20 homers for Cleveland. At times, Alvis was thrust into the cleanup spot in the lineup and it was a heavy burden to place on a rookie of a team that did not score many runs (635) and hit only .239. However, Alvis was one of the few bright spots for the Tribe.

Roy Maxwell Alvis was born on February 2, 1938 in Jasper, Texas, located about 130 miles northeast of Houston. He was one of four children born to Leroy and Ola Mae Alvis. Leroy worked as a court reporter for the First District Court in Jasper. “My dad chewed tobacco right in the courtroom,” recalled Max. “He would look up from his shorthand and let ‘er go. He’d come home at night and put his lawn chair in the backyard and read the paper and chew.”3

By Alvis’ own admission, he claims to have been an “okay athlete” at Jasper High School. He played some semipro baseball at Spring Hill, Louisiana, drawing some interest from major league scouts. But Alvis was not interested; instead he enrolled at the University of Texas. He was a dual-sport star at Texas. His sophomore year, he was the starting halfback and linebacker on the football team that was coached by the legendary coach Darrell Royal. Although Alvis did not carry the football much, he was more noted for his blocking and tackling ability. On the baseball diamond, Alvis manned the hot corner and led the Southwest Conference in hitting with a .403 average. Perhaps Alvis was ready to join the big leagues now. “There is a distinct possibility of him signing with someone,” said Royal, “and if he does, it will hurt us badly.”4

Royal’s fears, and those of Texas baseball coach Bibb Falk, that Alvis would leave Texas to pursue a professional baseball career were realized in the summer of 1958. Cleveland scout Bobby Goff signed Alvis to a contract with Class A Reading of the Eastern League. The contract also included a $40,000 bonus, which was to be paid out over a period of five years. “I think he’s got all the tools to make a big league ball player,” said Goff. 5

Alvis was to report to the Indians’ minor league camp in Daytona, Florida, the following spring. But first, he exchanged ‘I do’s’ with his high school sweetheart, the former Frances Mae Eddy on August 23, 1958. They had two sons, Max, Jr. and David.

Instead of Class A Reading, it was Class D Selma of the Alabama-Florida League where Alvis got his start in professional baseball. Although he was a skilled batsman, it was Alvis’ defense that was sorely lacking. “I always kidded Max about playing in Selma in 1959,” said Indians teammate Larry Brown. “We were the left side of the infield. I played short, he was at third and we combined for 87 errors that year, yet we made the Alabama-Florida League All-Star teams. I made 43 errors, Max had 44. At third, Max had a real gun. He’d fire that ball across the infield and scatter the people sitting in the stands behind first base. But you could tell Max was going to be a good player.”6 Alvis was succinct in his fielding mishaps in the minor leagues: “The do-or-die plays didn’t bother me too much” said Alvis, “but routine grounders gave me trouble.”7

Brown was right about Alvis being a good player. Although Alvis’ defense and throwing did not improve when he played for Class AAA Salt Lake (1961-‘62) of the Pacific Coast League, his hitting could not be overlooked. In 1962, Alvis led the team with 25 homers and 35 doubles and was second with 91 RBI and a .319 batting average. He earned a call-up to Cleveland, making his debut on September 11, 1962, starting at third base in Cleveland and playing the full game during a 3-0 win against the Washington Senators

One of the bright spots in 1963 for Alvis came on July 20, at Yankee Stadium. Alvis smacked his twelfth homer run, a solo shot off the left field foul pole, in the fourth inning off of Whitey Ford. The run put Cleveland in front by a 1-0 score. It was short-lived, as Joe Pepitone and Harry Bright each hit two-run homers to help give New York a 5-1 advantage. Ford, meanwhile, retired 15 straight Indians batters. With one out in the ninth inning, Ford had his sights on his eighth complete game, butut a walk to Willie Tasby and a single by Willie Kirkland brought Alvis to the plate. Alvis drove a ball 420 feet to left center that banged off the scoreboard, good for a triple and two RBI. Ford was removed from the game and replaced with Hal Reniff. Fred Whitfield hit a bloop single to center field to score Alvis and bring the Tribe to within one run, 5-4. Johnny Romano then singled to center field, but Reniff snuffed out any further opportunity for Cleveland, as he induced Al Luplow into a 1-6-3 double play.

For Alvis, it was a bittersweet day at the ballpark. Any day when a player could get a home run and a triple off of a pitcher the caliber of Ford would be gratifying, but the down side for Alvis was that he was not able to share the news with his father, who had passed away three years earlier. “I’ll never forget it,” said Alvis, “because my dad was a great Yankee fan and I wished that day he’d been alive to see what I did.”8

Alvis finished the 1963 season with a team-high 22 home runs, 32 doubles and 67 RBI. He also hit .274 and led A.L. third baseman in putouts (170), a category in which Alvis would also lead the league in three of the following four seasons. Alvis was selected as the 1963 Indians “Man of the Year” by the Cleveland chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America.

The next season, the Indians had completed a series in Minneapolis on June 25, and boarded a plane to fly to Boston. Alvis had a great game in the finale, going 2-for-3 with three runs, two RBI, a homer and a walk. But as the plane neared Boston, Alvis began to get a headache. “The headache kept getting worse and worse,” said Alvis. “It was really throbbing-a sharp pain in the back of my head.”9 He eventually called Cleveland trainer Wally Bock. Bock at first suspected, polio, and then maybe meningitis. Bock phoned Dr. Thomas Tierney, the Red Sox physician. Bock rushed Alvis to the hospital where he was diagnosed with spinal meningitis. “The doctor kept assuring me that they’d gotten to the meningitis in time and that I’d had a good reaction to the medicine,” said Alvis. “But still, you wonder what’s going to happen. Are they telling you the truth? Will you be paralyzed? Can you lead a normal life? I wondered if I’d ever see my wife and kids again, or pick up a baseball.”10

As it turned out, Alvis made a remarkable recovery and rejoined the Indians in early August, just six weeks after being hospitalized. But Alvis was clearly not the same player after the illness. “Max used to be strongest player on the team,” said teammate Vern Fuller. “Later, his skin color was different, more pale. He lost some of his muscle tone. He got tired much faster. He should have sat out the rest of the season.”11

Alvis enjoyed a strong first half of the 1965 season. He was hitting .276 with 15 home runs and 43 RBI at the break. Alvis was selected as a reserve for the American League in the All-Star Game, playing the last two innings after replacing Brooks Robinson

One of those 15 round-trippers brought home a victory for the Tribe. Tebbetts, who was one of the great characters in major league history, was in the middle of a hullabaloo in Minneapolis on June 9, 1965. Twins left-hander Jim Kaat was pitching into the ninth inning, with the Twins nursing a 1-0 lead. Kaat whiffed Chuck Hinton to begin the frame, and had a 2-1 count on Rocky Colavito. Tebbetts called time out and approached home plate umpire Bill Haller with a protest. Kaat’s sweatshirt, which he wore under his uniform, was illegal, Tebbetts contended, because it had a small hole in the left sleeve. Not one of the Cleveland batters registered a complaint during the game, but Haller upheld Tebbett’s’ argument, and Kaat retreated to the Minnesota dugout to have his sweatshirt sleeves trimmed above the hole. “I called Tebbetts a lot of names when he was standing at home plate,” said Twins skipper Sam Mele. “He probably is the only manager who would do something like that—wait nine innings to call it.”12 Play resumed with Kaat walking Colavito. Al Luplow ran for Colavito, but as it turned out, that maneuver proved unnecessary. Alvis homered on a 1-1 count to give the Tribe the 2-1 lead and ultimately, the win. “Alvis would have hit that pitch if I had been wearing ten sweatshirts,” said Kaat. “I wanted to throw a sinking fastball down low, make him hit into a double play. But I got the ball too high. It went right down Broadway.”13

For the next three seasons, Alvis was the Indians’ starting third baseman. He had a strong year in 1967, smacking 21 home runs and a driving in a career-high 70 runs. That year, Alvis led third basemen in the league in games played that season with 161 and in putouts (169). He was selected again as a reserve for the A.L. squad in the All Star Game, making it into the game as a pinch hitter in the 10th inning. On July 29, the Indians traded Colavito to the White Sox. Duke Sims said: “Max Alvis probably will win the most popular Indian contest by default with Rocky gone.”14 Alvis was again voted the Indians “Man of the Year” by the Cleveland writers.

The Indians finished in third place in the A.L. in 1968. They were led by a terrific pitching triumvirate of Luis Tiant, Sam McDowell and Sonny Siebert. Tiant won 21 games and led the league with a sparkling ERA of 1.60. McDowell led the league with 283 strikeouts and posted an ERA of 1.81.

All signs pointed to a successful year for the Tribe in 1969, as they even traded for Ken Harrelson to add punch to their offense. But Tiant led the league in losses with 20, and McDowell was the only Cleveland starter who posted a winning record. For Alvis, he was injured in a ballgame on May 24 against Seattle. He stumbled as he crossed first base in the ninth inning. It was believed to be a strain to his right knee. He was hitting .277 at the time, but sat out for a week. Alvis returned and continued to play until July 10, when his average plummeted to .225. It was decided that he would need surgery, and he was shut down for the rest of the season. Cleveland finished in last place in the newly formed A.L. East Division, 18 games behind the fifth place team and with the worst record in the American League.

Cleveland acquired Graig Nettles from Minnesota in the off season, who was part of a six-player deal with Tiant being the key player going to the Twins. Nettles, a left-handed batter, was twenty-five years old and a star in the making. It became apparent in spring training that he would be the new third baseman. With three days to go before the start of the 1970 season, Cleveland shipped Alvis to Milwaukee with outfielder Russ Snyder. In return, Milwaukee sent outfielder Roy Foster and infielder Frank Coggins and cash to the Indians.

Milwaukee used car magnate Bud Selig had purchased the Seattle Pilots and moved them to his hometown of Milwaukee. The Brewers, playing in their first season in 1970, even retained the same uniforms as the Pilots. Alvis started 24 games, mostly serving as a backup to Tommy Harper at third base. Alvis retired from baseball at the conclusion of the 1970 season. Max Alvis’ lifetime batting average during his nine-year career was .247. He totaled 111 home runs and 373 RBIs.

Alvis reflected on his illness, which derailed his career. “At the time I wasn’t concerned about the possibility of any after effects,” said Alvis. “I thought I was over and done with it. But in retrospect, I soon realized I didn’t have the same strength, the same stamina and the endurance I’d had before I got sick. I remember that I was constantly changing bats, thinking maybe I should go to one that was lighter, but it didn’t help.

“Before I got sick I worked hard and I wasn’t intimidated by anything. But when I came back I don’t really think I had the brute strength that I’d had, and I couldn’t regain it. (Meningitis) did something to my system. I never had any other effects that I know of, but I wasn’t as strong as I’d been before.”15

After his playing days, Alvis worked at the First National Bank of Jasper. He started as a loan officer, than worked his way up to vice president, and finally president. He was still a fan favorite at Indians fantasy camps and memorabilia shows. His son David was in the Indians minor league chain in the early 1980’s.

“Max was the kind of young player who, if you just put him out there and left him alone for ten years, the position would be his,” said McDowell. “He was the best-conditioned, most disciplined athlete on our team. If he was supposed to run fifty laps, Max would do sixty. He almost never drank, which made him the exception back then. He was probably the most decent person I met in baseball. It’s just a shame he got sick.”16

No doubt that many Tribe fans share the same sentiment as “Sudden Sam.”

Last revised: August 18, 2015

 

Notes

1 Hal Lebovitz, Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 10, 1963.

2 Ibid.

3 Myron Cope, Sport Magazine, August, 1965, p. 90.

4 Charles Burton, Dallas Morning News, July 28, 1958, section 2, p. 1.

5# Dallas Morning News, July 27, 1958, section 2, page 5.

6 Terry Pluto, The Curse of Rocky Colavito, Fireside, New York, NY, 1994, p. 116.

7 Myron Cope, Sport Magazine, August, 1965, p. 91.

8 Ibid.

9# Cope, p. 92

10 Ibid.

11 Pluto, p. 117.

12# Max Nichols, Sporting News, June 26, 1965, p. 9.

13 Ibid.

14 Rich Passan, Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 30, 1967, p. 2-C

15 Russell Schneider, Whatever Happened To Super Joe?, Gray and Company, Cleveland, OH, 2006, pp. 31-32

16 Pluto, p. 116.