1954 Cleveland Indians
111 – 43 (0.721)
Over five years after Jackie Robinson integrated the game in 1947, racist resistance to black ballplayers was still rampant across the major leagues. Ten of the sixteen major-league teams still had lily-white rosters in September 1953. Bill Veeck‘s Cleveland Indians were one of the most prominent exceptions. They had been the first American League club to sign a black ballplayer (Larry Doby) in July 1947, and continued to add more to their roster in the following years.
In some circles, Veeck’s willingness to sign black players was criticized. As historian Jules Tygiel later pointed out, “as the number of black Indians rose, some observers blamed the team’s failure to repeat its pennant success of 1948 to an excess of blacks.” But the 1954 edition, well-stocked with black stars, helped put the issue to rest by winning an American League-record 111 games. In the process, they finally usurped the New York Yankees; it would be only the first of two seasons manager Al Lopez finished ahead of the perennial pennant-winners. (Lopez, who finished second to the Bronx Bombers in all but one of his six years with the Tribe, beat them again with the White Sox in 1959.)
Cleveland won with teamwork, unity, and an unusual combination of pitching and power. Two of the best hitters in the lineup were black — slugger Larry Doby and leadoff man Al Smith — and knockdown pitches aimed at their heads had become commonplace. Doby had been hit nine times — and charged the mound twice) in the previous three years, over the same time period, Mickey Mantle hadn’t been touched. Smith would be hit an astounding 15 times in 1955. (Jewish slugger Al Rosen had also been hit frequently in 1950, tying black teammate Luke Easter with 10 plunks received.)
In an effort to protect their teammates, the Indian hurlers vowed to retaliate swiftly against any team who dared aim at their batters. According to Al Smith, staff ace Early Wynn set the tone in 1953 by announcing to the rest of the pitching staff, “we can’t score runs with these guys on the ground.” Ironically, Wynn (who was once quoted as saying he’d knock down his own grandmother if she got a hit off him) didn’t hit a single batter that season. But he was masterful at knocking them down.
With at least some semblance of protection, Doby went on to bash a league-high (and career-high) 32 home runs. Seven other players — including Smith — also reached double-digit home run totals as the Indians led the league with 156 round-trippers. Third baseman Al Rosen didn’t match his amazing numbers of a year before (he had been the first unanimous selection for MVP) but remained a key part of the Cleveland attack, hitting 24 home runs while maintaining a .300 batting average. Diminutive second baseman Bobby Avila hit a league-leading .341 and pounded 15 home runs. He also led the Indians with nine stolen bases; the Tribe’s thirty swipes tied the Giants for the majors’ lowest total.
After a mediocre start in April, the Indians got rolling with an eleven-game winning streak in May and soon found their way to first place in the AL. With the Yankees at their heels, the Indians’ playoff race began early. The Tribe was in top form in June and July, recording a 41-17 record, but the Yankees were even better, going 43-17. The Indians didn’t cement their lead over New York until they swept a key double-header against the Yanks at Municipal Stadium on September 12th behind sparkling pitching performances from Bob Lemon and Early Wynn.
Even though the Yankees scored more runs than the Tribe and had a higher batting and slugging averages to boot, the Indians outpaced the Bronx Bombers with their superior pitching. Their sublime pitching staff, one of the finest ever assembled, included four future Hall of Famers. Wynn and teammate Bob Lemon (whose spitball tied batters in knots) sported identical 2.72 ERAs and tied for the league lead with 23 wins apiece. Even though the staff’s average age was 30, they still had the lowest ERA in the league. They also boasted one of the most dominant bullpens in the American League, led by the rookie tandem of Don Mossi and Ray Narleski.
Finishing the season with 111 wins (eight more than the Yankees’ 103, the highest total of Casey Stengel‘s career) the Indians faced the New York Giants in the World Series, where what had been such a great season for the Cleveland crew came to an abrupt halt. In Game One, after Willie Mays made his famous over-the-shoulder catch of Vic Wertz‘s 460-foot blast to center field, Dusty Rhodes won the game in the tenth inning with a 260-foot pinch-hit home run down the right field line. Rhodes smacked another key homer in Game Two, and New York took games three and four easily as the bewildered Indians were swept by the triumphant Giants.