After many twists and turns, Cabell’s baseball career still rolls along

Playing third base, Enos Cabell takes a throw as Oakland's Rickey Hend

In this game from 1982, Enos Cabell takes a throw as Oakland’s Rickey Henderson slides into third.

Enos Cabell can be found at most home games in Houston, quietly watching his former team play. Cabell spent more than half of his 15-year major league career with the Astros in their bright, multi-color uniforms. He’s still very popular with fans in the city.

But Cabell isn’t watching the Astros just for fun, he’s employed by the team as a special assistant to the general manager. At 66, Cabell is still earning a paycheck from the game of baseball and he loves every minute of it, especially considering the twists and turns he’s experienced.

The first time Enos Cabell earned a baseball paycheck was in 1968 when the Orioles signed him to a modest contract after he’d failed to be selected in the amateur draft. Cabell was a lean, long-legged, slim-waisted 19-year old infielder out of the Los Angeles sandlots. He’d been a standout for Gardena High School and played two seasons for Los Angeles Harbor College. Cabell was unfazed about being undrafted, he was accustomed to being overlooked. Scouts from UCLA and USC had cast their eyes on him during his high school days but passed. In his own family he was just one of many talented athletes.

The Orioles were a well-stocked farm system and they assigned Cabell to their rookie team at Bluefield (WV) in the Appalachian League. The teenager proved to be a dandy in his first foray against pro pitching, hitting .374 with 10 home runs and 43 RBIs in 69 games. He showed his speed and ability to spark the offense, stealing 17 bases and scoring 62 runs. He showed determination and leapfrogged other more heralded prospects, and by 1972 he was at the O’s top minor league stop, Rochester (NY) in the International League.

As a young player matriculating through the Baltimore system in the early 1970s, the concern with Cabell was not whether he could hit or run, it was where to play him in the field. He was originally a first baseman but in his early years as a pro he developed bad habits with his footwork and too often he tossed the ball away on throws across the diamond. In one season he committed 26 errors in 114 games at first base. The Orioles also used him at third base, where Cabell was a little more successful with the glove. However, his path to a starting job in the big leagues was blocked like a brick wall by first baseman Boog Powell and third baseman Brooks Robinson. Ironically, considering his defensive struggles in the minors, Cabell earned the nickname “Big E,” which was not in reference to his fielding.

After brief cups of coffee with the Orioles at the tail end of the season the previous two years, Cabell made the club out of spring training in 1974. Now 24 years old, Cabell found himself in the dugout with iconic Baltimore manager Earl Weaver, a short, foul-mouthed man who had little use for coddling rookies or talking to players at all. As a result, Cabell fell under the wings of veterans Tommy Davis and Elrod Hendricks, two african american players who showed him how to handle himself in the big leagues. That first year, Weaver used Cabell as a sort of “Swiss Army Knife,” playing the rookie at five positions as well as designated hitter. Cabell got his first taste of pennant fever that summer, and he played a role in helping the team capture the AL East crown. On August 29th Weaver inserted him into the lineup at first in place of the injured Powell. For the next ten games Cabell was in the starting lineup at either first or right field and the Orioles won every game, sealing the division. Cabell had five two-hit games during the streak.

Powell was back for the playoffs and Cabell only saw minimal action in the ALCS as the Orioles were eliminated by the A’s. However, the disappointment of the postseason was just the first phase of Cabell’s offseason. At the winter meetings in December the O’s traded Cabell to the Astros for Lee May. The deal was an effort to replace the aging Powell at first with May, a legitimate slugger known as “The Big Bopper.”

Initially, Cabell was upset about the trade to Houston, which at that time was not considered a favorable franchise to play for. The Astros played their home games in the gigantic Astrodome under a roof and on artificial turf. To most players it didn’t feel like baseball. Suddenly Cabell was on a struggling team after being on the perennial-contending Orioles. But his arrival coincided with a golden era of Astros baseball.

Unfortunately for Cabell, the manager of the Astros wasn’t sure what to do with him. Preston Gomez was a baseball lifer from Cuba who played his only big league season in 1944. He’d been a minor league manager for decades before suffering as the skipper of the expansion Padres from 1969-72, losing 309 games in his three full seasons in San Diego. Gomez loved stars and a set lineup, the problem was he didn’t have nine stars with Houston and he wasn’t sure where or how to play Cabell. Luckily for Big E, after the team struggled in 1975, Gomez was fired in August and replaced by Bill Virdon, a man who would impact Cabell’s career tremendously.

In 1976, Virdon named Cabell his starting third baseman, and Enos showed his appreciation by playing his butt off. He hit .273 in 144 games with 85 runs scored, 7 triples, 43 runs batted in, and 35 stolen bases. Almost as important as his performance that season was the way Cabell won over the fans in Houston. With his wide smile andall-out effort on the diamond, Cabell was adopted as a fan favorite. The next four years in Houston would be some of the best of Cabell’s career.

In ’77, Cabell scored 101 runs and set career-highs in almost every offensive category, including 36 doubles, 16 home runs, and 42 stolen bases. The Astros were an exciting team, featuring Cesar Cedeno, Bob Watson, Jose Cruz, and Terry Puhl. On the pitching side they boasted baseball’s most intimidating force, the 6’8 J.R. Richard, as well as hot-tempered Joaquin Andujar, and pitching stalwarts Joe Niekro and Ken Forsch. Good times were in store for the ballclub.

In 1978, Cabell played in every game for Virdon, hitting .295 with 195 hits and 33 steals. Though the team’s finish in the standings was disappointing, Cabell earned attention by finishing 22nd in NL MVP voting. That season he was also named team MVP by the Astros.

Finally in 1980, Cabell and the Astros put it all together, winning their first division title. But it didn’t come easy, the team had to defeat the Dodgers in a one-game playoff to capture the division crown. In the playoffs they were matched up against the Phillies and the series turned out to be one of the most exciting in baseball history. Four of the five games went into extra innings and there were amazing comebacks on each side, but ultimately the Astros lost the final game at the Dome to the Phillies in ten innings. It proved to be the final game for Cabell as an Astro (for a while).

The Houston newspapers were filled with unhappy articles when it was announced that the Astros had dealt Cabell to the Giants at the winter meetings for left-handed pitcher Bob Knepper and outfielder Chris Bourjos. Fans were not happy either, they were losing their “Big E.”

In San Francisco in 1981, Cabell found third base occupied by Darrell Evans. Manager Frank Robinson used Cabell in a platoon arrangement with Dave Bergman. Ironically, all three would later play for the Tigers, though not all together. Cabell was never able to get his hitting stroke going in San Francisco and it didn’t help that the season was fractured by a players’ strike in late June for two months. When he was dealt to the Tigers in the offseason, Cabell welcomed the change of scenery, plus he looked forward to playing for legendary manager Sparky Anderson. But, Cabell’s time under Sparky would not prove to be pleasant.

When Sparky landed in Detroit in 1979 he assessed the situation and quickly flushed undesirable characters from his clubhouse. No one was exempt from his broom: All-Stars Ron LeFlore, Rusty Staub, Jason Thompson, and Steve Kemp were annexed in short order. “It’s my way or the highway,” Sparky explained.

Cabell spent two years under Sparky with the Tigers as a sort of “super utility man” but he bristled at not playing regularly. Anderson used him in rotation at first with Rick Leach and at third with the always trusty Tom Brookens. Cabell hit .311 in 1983 as the Tigers won 92 games and finished second. But Enos never felt comfortable with the Tigers playing for Anderson, who had nurtured the young players on the team, many of whom idolized him. Cabell was a veteran who just wanted to play 160 games every year. In the offseason he used his free agent status to sign a deal with the Astros. He was going back to Houston, a place he considered home.

Playing for Bob Lillis in Houston in ’84, Cabell was used exclusively at first base and he hit .310 in 127 games. Now 34 years old, Cabell’s legs were still long, but not as fast. His tenure back in Houston was short-lived however, and in the middle of the ’85 campaign the Astros swapped him to the Dodgers, who were looking for pennant insurance. Back in LA where he grew up, Cabell played well for Tommy Lasorda, a manager more to his liking. In two months of play for the Dodgers he hit .292 while filling in at third, first, left and right field. For the third time (with his third team) he found himself in the postseason, but once again he was on the losing side in the League Championship Series.

In September of ’85 attention was diverted a bit from the playing field when the so-called Pittsburgh Drug Trials made headlines. As a result of testimony from several players, Cabell was eventually implicated for association with drug dealers and criminal figures. During his tenure with the Astros and Giants, Cabell had purchased drugs from dealers in Pittsburgh. He and six others were suspended for the entire 1986 season, but after a deal was arranged in which they agreed to donate 10% of their salary t charity and perform public service, all seven players were allowed to play in 1986. Cabell served once again as a jack-of-all-trades for the Dodgers, but it proved to be his last season. Slowed by age and also stained by the drug controversy, Cabell was not approached by any teams in the offseason as a free agent.

In 15 major league season for the Orioles, Astros, Giants, Tigers, and Dodgers, Cabell played in 1,688 games and had 1,647 hits while scoring 753 runs. He batted .277 with 60 home runs and 239 stolen bases. As a player he was a line-drive hitter with good speed and the ability to play at first, third, and in either corner of the outfield.

With a dark cloud hovering over his departure from the game, Cabell returned to where he’d been most comfortable during his career – Houston. He opened a car dealership in the city and kept the dialogue open with his friends in baseball. Cabell also made it clear that he was sorry for his drug use and he made efforts to help others who had trouble with addiction. As a result of his earnest attitude and love of the game, Cabell was asked to return by the Astros in 1991 as a broadcaster, a role he filled for six years. In 1993 he was elected to the Astros Hall of Fame.

A successful business man, Cabell was named to the Board of Regents for Texas Southern University, and in 2001 he accepted his current position with the Astros in their front office as an assistant to the general manager. In that role he helps evaluate talent in the organization at both the major and minor league levels. His input has helped too: the Astros have one of the best farm systems in baseball.

As a baseball executive, Cabell has not shied away from sharing his opinions on issues in sports. He was widely quoted about teammate J.R. Richard, who died young, citing racism as one of the reasons the pitcher was treated with suspicion when he complained of being injured. Cabell has also called for increased minority hiring in key positions in the game.

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About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a web producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @thedanholmes or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.