1901 – Present
As an American League charter franchise, the Cleveland Indians have a rich heritage overshadowed by a drought that began prior to the first expansion. First called the Blues, then the Bronchos, Cleveland became the Naps when Nap Lajoie was acquired in 1902. Pitching was an early and consistent club focal point. Addie Jones posted Hall of Fame credentials, including a perfect game during the heated 1908 pennant race. His career was tragically shortened by tuberculosis.
A new era dawned when Tris Speaker was acquired by the newly named Indians. After second-place finishes in 1918 and 1919, Cleveland survived more tragedy to win its first pennant. Despite the loss of star shortstop Ray Chapman, killed by a Carl Mays pitch, the Indians outlasted the scandal-ridden White Sox and the Yankees to reach a memorable World Series featuring the first grand slam in Series history (Elmer Smith), first homer by a pitcher (30-game winner Jim Bagby), and the only unassisted triple play in championship annals (Bill Wambsganss), Cleveland topped Brooklyn five games to two.
The next 28 pennant-less years were highlighted by near-misses in 1921 and 1926 and the Crybabies incident of 1940. Four years earlier, Bob Feller burst on the scene to begin a legendary career. Teamed with pitchers Mel Harder and Johnny Allen, plus young shortstop Lou Boudreau, Cleveland was the team to beat in 1940. Still, discord between players and manager Ossie Vitt increased to the point that club members petitioned owner Alva Bradley to replace the unpopular skipper. Bradley refused, the Indians were labeled Crybabies, and Detroit rallied to the pennant when unknown Floyd Giebel beat Feller in the season’s final weekend.
The golden age of Cleveland baseball dawned on June 21, 1946, when Bill Veeck purchased the club from Bradley. Veeck made Larry Doby the first black to play in the American League in 1947. In 1948 he brought Negro League great Satchel Paige to the big leagues. Led by MVP player-manager Boudreau, the 1948 Indians topped the AL in batting average, fielding average, and ERA, and drew a record home attendance of over 2.6 million fans. They beat the Boston Red Sox in the first-ever AL pennant playoff, then turned back the Braves in the World Series, four games to two. Feller suffered both losses, despite a brilliant two-hitter in the first game. Cleveland remained a contender for the next decade.
Following three straight second-place finishes (1951-53) under new manager Al Lopez, Cleveland posted the winningest regular season in ML history (111) in 1954, then failed to win once in the World Series against the Giants. Further tragedy occurred in the late 1950s. Herb Score‘s brilliant early career was ruined by a line drive off Gil McDougal’s bat and by subsequent arm trouble. A young, contending club built by Frank Lane in 1959 was devastated by the most controversial trade in club history. Lane sent young, handsome home run champ Rocky Colavito to Detroit for batting champ Harvey Kuenn. Thirty years of frustration followed. Underfinanced ownership barely kept the club afloat. Rumors of a move to cities like New Orleans and Seattle were constant. What success there was usually came on the pitching mound. Sam McDowell was the AL Sandy Koufax, but alcoholism kept him from greater success. Luis Tiant was AL ERA king in the year of the pitcher (1968). Gaylord Perry, acquired in a trade for McDowell, was Cleveland’s first Cy Young Award winner (1972).
The Indians made Frank Robinson the majors’ first black manager in 1974. Players came and went, the best demanding trades or seeking free agency rather than playing for a non-contender with poor attendance in the ancient and cavernous stadium. As a renaissance in both Cleveland and baseball took shape in the late 1980s, financially solid ownership, in the person of brothers Richard and David Jacobs, took over in December 1986.