While the Cleveland Indians were within striking distance of winning the 2016 World Series, it was all for naught. The first entry into the History of the Game series covered the Chicago Cubs. And what better place to continue our series than with the Cleveland Indians. They put up a strong 2016 season and are off to a great start in 2017. But how did they get here? Let’s take an in-depth look at the history of the Indians, starting in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
From Humble Beginnings (1900-1920)
Baseball had long been a tradition in Cleveland since the mid 1850s. But the origins of the Cleveland Indians date much later, beginning at the turn of the century. After the Grand Rapids Rustlers moved to Cleveland in 1900, the changed their name to the Cleveland Lake Shores. Soon after their league changed it’s name from the Western League to the American League and established itself as a competing Major League, and the Lake Shores became the Cleveland Blue Birds. But baseball in Cleveland was in its infancy, and was already facing dire financial troubles.
But after acquiring Napoleon “Nap” Lajoie from the A’s in 1902, the Blue Birds began to see record crowds. Lajoie anchored some strong Blue Bird lineups until he was sold back to the A’s in 1915, signaling a major shift in the organization. Shoeless Joe Jackson was also shown the door in 1915, being traded halfway through the season to compensate for owner Charles Somers’ poor business ventures. But the moves never paid off for Somers, and he sold the team in 1916 to James C. Dunn. Under new ownership, manager Lee Fohl would make some moves that would drastically impact the Indians fortunes.
It was Fohl who acquired pitchers Stan Coveleski and Jim Bagby to go along with outfielder Tris Speaker in 1915 to form the nucleus of Cleveland’s first championship roster. Speaker took the reigns as player-manager in 1919 and quickly led the Indians to glory. The 1920 season would be the banner year for the young ball club, reaching their first World Series. But to get there, the Indians had to rely on one of the most infamous scandals in baseball history.
With Cleveland and Chicago neck and neck for first place, the Chicago Black Sox scandal came to the forefront. With eight Black Sox players benched for the season, Cleveland cruised to the playoffs. They handled the Brooklyn Robins soundly in the World Series, claiming the title 5-2.
Valleys and a Mountain (1921-1949)
Even with the Indians dominance in the 1920 World Series, it would be short lived. The Yankees were on the rise, led by slugger Babe Ruth. The Indians would fall to the bottom of the pack, and by the 1930s were a perennial bottom feeder. But 1936 brought new hope to a disheartened fan base. A 17 year old from Iowa would carry the hopes of a franchise on his shoulders. Bob Feller came to the Indians with a dominant fastball, and put it to good use. Feller would lead the league in strikeouts from 1938-1941, providing Cleveland with a true ace. He would combine with Ken Keltner, Mel Harder and Lou Boudreau to lead the Indians to one game of the pennant in 1940. But dissension in the clubhouse led to the Indians downfall.
Change would come under the ownership of Bill Veek. Veek headed an investment group that would purchase the Indians in 1946. He would quickly change the fortunes of the franchise, moving them to Cleveland Municipal Stadium to take advantage of a massive fan base. Veek would also make baseball history, signing the first African American player in the American League. Larry Doby was signed in 1947 amid much controversy. But Doby would be vital to the Indians in 1948, posting a .301 batting average that season. He would also be joined by another Negro League player that season, Satchel Paige.
The 42 year old Page dominated in his time with the Indians that season, going 6-1 with a 2.48 ERA. Doby and Page helped lead Cleveland back to the World Series, beating the Boston Red Sox in a one game playoff to reach the World Series. They would best the Boston Braves 4-2 in the series to win their first World Series title since 1920. But after Veek sold the team in 1949, the Indians would again find themselves out of the playoff picture for years to come.
Treading Water (1950-1993)
After several changes in ownership, the Indians would put it all together in 1954. Doby and Feller were still effective players in 1954, and were supported by players like Minnie Minoso, Bobby Avila and Earl Wynn. The talented core would make baseball history, posting a 111-43 record in 1954. Their .721 winning percentage is still the best ever in the American League. But a record season wasn’t enough to bring Cleveland its third championship. The New York Giants would make quick work of the Indians in the World Series, supported by Willie Mays’ over the shoulder catch in Game 1 of the series. The team would hold onto most of it’s talent until the 1960s, when time would eventually catch up to the Indians star players.
The 1960s-1990s were lean years for Indians fans, able to finish only fourth or better seven times in a span of over 30 years. The 1960s would be defined by one trade, a curse that would follow them for years. Skipper Frank Lane earned a reputation for pulling off numerous trades, but none so defining like his trade of Rocky Colavito to the Detroit Tigers. The Curse of Rocky Colavito would haunt the Indians for years, long after both Lane and Colavito moved on from the Indians. But the 1960s did provide some bright spots for fans, with Indians pitchers setting new strikeout records in the decade.
The 1970s would prove to be about the same for the Indians. Poor trades continued, with future stars like Dennis Eckersley and Graig Nettles all making the trip out of Cleveland. But there were two moments that defined the 1970s for the Indians. Frank Robinson was brought on to be the first African American manager in Major League Baseball history in 1975, and Cleveland experienced a night unlike any other. In an attempt to drum up more fans, the Indians implemented the ill-fated 10 Cent Beer Night. The Indians had to forfeit their contest against the Texas Rangers that night, but gained one of the most memorable events in sports history.
The 1980s brought more hardships for Indians fans, but little did they know, brighter times were just ahead.
A Triumphant Return (1994-Present)
The return to glory began in the early 1990s with, oddly enough, a series of trades. After numerous horrible trades, the Indians pulled of some excellent trades. Sandy Alomar Jr., Kenny Lofton and Carlos Baerga were brought in to Cleveland, and made an immediate impact. After not winning the AL Pennant since 1954, the Indians made it back to the World Series, but were bested by the Atlanta Braves. Their success continued for the remainder of the 1990s and into the 2000s. But after Mark Shapiro took over in 2001, the Indians began to rebuild.
After trading away aging veterans, the Indians moves began to pay off in 2005 as they bested everyone’s expectations and finished the season 93-69. They were lead by C.C. Sabathia and Grady Sizemore. But after competing in 2006 and 2007, the Indians began to fall out of contention in 2008. Shapiro would again begin to rebuild, landing the Indians future starters like Michael Brantley, Justin Masterson and Carlos Carrasco. But the Indians would have to wait until 2013 for their rebuild to start showing dividends. Terry Francona was named the manager for the 2013 season, and the Indians began to return to their dominant form.
The Indians made it to the 2013 AL Wild Card game, but were ousted by the Tampa Bay Rays. It wouldn’t be until 2016 when they would return to the playoffs. But as many Indians fans can tell you, it was worth the wait. The Indians lost the 2016 World Series to the Chicago Cubs, but are set for the foreseeable future. With young stars like Francisco Lindor supported by Corey Kluber, Carlos Santana and Edwin Encarnacion, the Indians will be in contention for years to come.
“From Our Haus to Yours”