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Cleveland Indians

A professional baseball team in the American League

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The Trouble Tribe

  • Nov 13, 2012
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There are times when I think the whole mythology of baseball is built on its curses. The Curse of the Bambino ran from 1918 to 2004. The Curse of Coogan's Bluff ran from 1954 to 2010. The Comiskey Curse had a solid run from 1917 to 2005. The Billy Goat Curse and The Curse of Rocky Colavito are still running strong. The Philadelphia Phillies' entire existence doesn't exactly lend itself to a lot of charm, and while there hasn't been a prominent curse surrounding them, the team's fans can make a solid argument otherwise if they ever decide it necessary.

Rocky Colavito was the instigator of his own curse by trade, and he's the name attached to the team that is arguably the rough American League equivalent to the Chicago Cubs: The Cleveland Indians. Both had periods of long-term excellence followed by periods of long-term suckitude. Both had well-known baseball movies made about them overcoming their curses. They both have two World Series titles, won back during the good old days.

Although the Indians are an American League team, baseball has a long and storied history in Cleveland. Cleveland, in fact, was one of the establishing cities of Major League Baseball way back in 1869. The first professional baseball team in history was the Cincinnati Red Stockings, who were formed in 1869, and several other cities took their cue and started creating professional clubs of their own. Cleveland was one of them, and they formed their first pro team, the Forest Citys of Cleveland (not a typo; that's how they spelled it) that same year. Like many other teams of that era, that team popped in and out of existence at regular intervals in various incarnations: The Cleveland Blues, Cleveland Infants, and most famously the Cleveland Spiders. The Spiders were a force in the 1890's, led by an Ohio native by the name of Cy Young whom a few baseball fans have maybe heard of. In the 1890's, there was a final series between the first and second place teams in the National League called the Temple Cup. The Spiders played in that series twice, beating the Baltimore Orioles in 1895, but they're much better known for going in the other direction. In 1899, the owners of the Spiders became the owners of two teams - something sports leagues now have strict rules against - when they bought the bankrupt Saint Louis Browns. The owners - who I could only find as "the Robison brothers" for their identity - were business guys, and no matter how good-natured, fair, or reliable a business is, the point is always to make a profit. Money being the point here, the Robisons believed the newly-renamed Saint Louis Perfectos (the early version of the Cardinals) would draw better than the Spiders because Saint Louis was a bigger and more densely populated city than Cleveland. That being the case, they funneled alllllll the players and resources over to Saint Louis, and were more than happy to even leave the Spiders to play many more of their games on the road.

Baseball fans know what happened next. With no money or players, the Spiders put on a display of baseball so wretched that, even more than the 1915 Philadelphia Athletics, 1962 New York Mets, 1935 Boston Braves, or 2003 Detroit Tigers, the 1899 Cleveland Spiders are considered the worst baseball team in history, period. They finished 20-134, 84 games behind the Pennant-winning Brooklyn Superbas and 35 games behind the team right in front of them, the Washington Senators. They were so bad that they unwittingly helped the National League lose its monopoly on professional baseball, becoming one of the four teams the NL decided to cut after the season. The Robisons sold the team in 1900.

That same year, there was a minor league running around called the Western League, and they had a very ambitious leader named Ban Johnson. He bitched about how the rowdy National League crowds were driving families and women away from baseball games, and wanted to create a whole new major league for fans who would be willing to sit and clap politely instead of cheer wildly when a player hit a very rare home run. When the NL let their teams go, Johnson moved some of the Western League teams into the bigger cities, pissed on the formal understanding between the NL and the minor leagues, and declared the newly-renamed American League. One of the teams in that league was called the Cleveland Lake Shores, who were renamed the Cleveland Bluebirds in 1901. In 1903 the team threw a write-in naming contest which resulted in them being named the Cleveland Naps, after they heisted NL star Napoleon Lajoie from the Phillies. In 1912 the team was named again, this time being called the Cleveland Molly McGuires after the area coal miners who were trying to form a union at the time. That name lasted for three years, when another write-in contest resulted in the team finally becoming the Cleveland Indians. Legend states the name came from the fact that this same team fielded the first American Indian player, Louis Sockalexis. Although the team officially stands by this story, most of it has been conclusively debunked.

Whatever the name, the team did very well in the first decade of Major League Baseball's modern era, between Napoleon Lajoie and Shoeless Joe Jackson, as well as players like Addie Joss. Despite their talent and solid performances, though, they were rarely able to ascend because their pitching was just plain bad. One sportswriter called them the Napkins because "they fold up so easily." Their pinnacle was finishing half a game short of the Pennant-winning Detroit Tigers in 1908. The 1910's didn't go a whole lot differently, and the Indians never made it over third. Nap Lajoie was in a nasty feud with manager Joe Birmingham, and the team finally sold Lajoie back to the AL team he had originally jumped to, the Philadelphia Athletics. (Long story.) In 1916 the team was sold, and players Stan Coveleski, Jim Bagby, and Tris Speaker were picked up. In 1919 Speaker was made a player/manager. In 1920, shortstop Ray Chapman suffered one of baseball's enduring tragedies when he took a pitch from Yankee pitcher Carl Mays right to the skull. Chapman's skull was fractured, and the next day, Chapman became the first - and still the only - ballplayer to be fatally wounded in a game. It didn't matter much in the standings, though, because by now the Indians were so loaded that it didn't slow them down in a three-way Pennant race with the New York Yankees and Chicago White Sox. In September 1920, with the Indians a game behind the White Sox, the Sox suffered a tragic setback when eight of their players were banned for life for throwing the 1919 World Series. Cleveland finished two games in front of Chicago, three in front of New York, took the Pennant, and beat the Brooklyn Robins for their first World Series title. During game five, Cleveland made the only unassisted triple play - and in fact the only triple play period - in World Series history.

In 1921, the Indians made the mistake of using their uniforms to brag about their accomplishment. They had "World Champions" stitched onto their uniforms for the season. As a form of bragging, it probably motivated other teams to kick their asses. As a form of prognostication, it was an abject failure in every way. While the Yankees came to prominence utilizing Babe Ruth and the long ball, Cleveland failed to adapt and spent the decade in the cellar, coming out only to finish second in two seasons. They were better by the 30's, having risen from a basement team to a middling team. In 1936, they found their premier pitcher in Bob Feller, and with the help of Ken Keltner, Mel Harder, and Lou Boudreau, were a game away from the Pennant. Unfortunately for them, they also couldn't stand each other, they hated the manager, and reporters of this dissent made fun of them by calling them the Cleveland Crybabies. Everything boiled over in their last game against the Detroit Tigers when they choked: The magnificent Feller, who had opened the season on a no-hitter, lost the game to Detroit's Floyd Giebell. You've never heard of him, but that's only because he never won another game. Detroit won the Pennant.

After being depleted during the war years, Bill Veeck bought the Indians in 1946. In 1947, after the callup of Jackie Robinson, the staunchly anti-racist Veeck got on the horn and said "I want Larry Doby in an Indians uniform, and I want it NOW." That made the Indians the first AL team to integrate, and while Doby sort of languishes in Robinson's shadow, he did hit .301 in his first full season in 1948, led the AL in homers twice and RBI once, and made seven All-Star games. The following year, needing help down the line, Veeck signed the immortal and ageless Satchel Paige, possibly the greatest pitcher in baseball history at any level. The Indians were finally a solid team again by then, and in 1948 they finally returned to the World Series, where they defeated the Boston Braves. Veeck was forced to sell the team in 1949 because of his divorce.

Throughout the 50's, the Indians were one of the true powerhouses of MLB. Feller and Doby still headed the team, and they had high-caliber players like Minnie Minoso, Luke Easter, Al Rosen, Early Wynn, Rocky Colavito, and Bob Lemon. This lineup, however, didn't turn out as wonderfully as one might think. After all, they were cursed to play in the American League against the Yankees for all eternity. Finishing second to the Pinstripers five times, the Indians only managed to win a single Pennant, in 1954. They even needed to set a record to do that: The Yankees won 103 games themselves to finish second. Cleveland's 111 victories were a record that stood until 1998, when the Yankees won 114. The Indians still hold the winning percentage record. Somehow, they managed to not only lose the World Series to that OTHER team from New Fucking York City, but the New York Giants actually swept them.

In 1957, the Indians hired Frank Lane to be their GM. Lane had spent the seven previous years with the White Sox, and built them into that other team that kept losing to the Yankees. (The culmination of his efforts in Chicago was a single Pennant in 1959, two years after he left.) Lane is known as Trader Lane because he kept making deals, and he doesn't really deserve the bad rap he gets. The White Sox were very, very good during his tenure, regularly winning over 90 games. They just couldn't overtake the AL. Lane defined his Cleveland tenure forever in 1960, when he traded Rocky Colavito to the Tigers for Harvey Kuenn in a blockbuster just before Opening Day. This was good on the outside; Colavito was a feared slugger while Kuenn was a feared hitter. Colavito, though, tormented the Indians for five years while making three All-Star teams before returning in 1965. Kuenn only spent that one season in Cleveland. Colavito was traded because of a salary dispute, and said he never personally placed a curse on the Indians.

That didn't matter, of course. The Cleveland Indians were now officially doomed, though no one knew it at the time. Much like the White Sox, they became a team of some very odd distinctions, if anyone was giving them any attention at all. In 1969 they let Rookie of the Year Lou Piniella and All-Star Luis Tiant go. They traded Harry Chiti to the New York Mets for the ever-ubiquitous Player to be Named Later. 15 days later, the Indians named the player in question: Harry Chiti, who thus became the first and so far only ballplayer in history to ever be traded for himself. In 1974, the team threw Ten Cent Beer Night, a promotion so ill-thought that it is now frequently mentioned in the same breath as the White Sox' Disco Demolition Night in 1978. Long story short, it turned into a drunken riot. In 1975, they broke the color barrier again, this time by hiring Frank Robinson as manager and making him the first black manager in MLB history. The team didn't improve, though, and two years later Robinson was the first black manager to ever get fired. After an increasingly rare winning season in 1986, Sports Illustrated said the Tribe would win their division in 1987. The Indians lost 101 games that year, finishing with the worst record in baseball. In 1989, the team's ineptitude was given a loving comic tribute in the movie Major League, a highly regarded classic sports movie; more specifically, a classic raunchy jock comedy.

Director David Ward intended Major League to be a love letter and a fantasy. I don't think he intended it to predict the future. But in 1989, the year of Major League's release, the Indians made a very unpopular trade which spelled more bad seasons for the team when they sent power hitter Joe Carter to the San Diego Padres for Carlos Baerga and Sandy Alomar Jr. They both made a huge impact. In 1991 they got Kenny Lofton, improved the farm system, and found a strong core of young players. By the aborted 1994 season, Cleveland was contending. In 1995, they took off on a run as one of the AL's most dangerous teams. They won the Pennant but lost the World Series to the loaded Atlanta Braves that year. 1997, though, was one of the nastiest heartbreakers in Cleveland sports history: They won the Pennant again and fought the Florida Marlins in one of those to-the-death World Series showdowns. It was game seven and the Indians had a 2-1 lead, with two outs to go in the game. With one of the league's best relievers, Jose Mesa, on the mound, Cleveland looked like a lock now. Unfortunately, Mesa apparently had a habit of daydreaming, and his teammate Omar Vizquel blamed him for blowing it, writing in his autobiography that his eyes were just vacant.

The Indians have still been largely very good ever since. They even made it to the ALCS in 2007, taking a 3-1 series lead against the Boston Red Sox. Baseball fans knew that the whole season had belonged to Boston, though, and so a comeback wasn't out of the question. That's how it ended. Boston came back, took the Pennant, and then took their momentum into the World Series, where they swept the Colorado Rockies. Cleveland, meanwhile, weeps.

Cleveland's list of all-time greats isn't as long as one would think for a team this old. Addie Joss, Cy Yound, Nap Lajoie, Bob Feller, Larry Doby, Bob Lemon, Tris Speaker, and Early Wynn stand among their greats, and Jim Thome will undoubtedly be joining them soon enough. Feller, Earl Averill, Doby, Lemon, Lou Boudreau, and Mel Harder have had their numbers retired. Notice Rocky Colavito isn't on that list.

There is more made of the Indians' imagery than of any other team in professional sports, with the possible exception of the NFL's Washington Redskins. I make no secret of the fact that I consider attacks on sports images to be straw men, but it's difficult to blame anyone making the case against the Cleveland Indians: Their logo is a smiling cartoon Indian head with red skin and a single feather sticking up. It looks like those cutesy little guys who say "How!" from Bugs Bunny and Woody Woodpecker cartoons, and with the name Chief Wahoo attached to it, is named in such a way too. Ironically, the team's alternate uniforms feature a stylized letter C, which is an improvement, but they don't seem to have an interest in going to it full time.

The Indians are a Cleveland team, so an adopting fan should know what to expect from them: Losses by absurd margins, and some of the worst heartbreakers on Earth on the few occasions they're doing well. The Colavito trade is considered the beginning, but the 1954 sweep is something that went against all baseball logic. It just shouldn't have happened. Neither should have that blown save in 1997, one of those inexcusable incidents that ranks up there with the Red Sox losing the 1986 World Series by letting the Mets come back in game six after being one strike away from victory, and the 2004 Yankees, who should have closed out the ALCS but blew a 3-0 series lead.

I expected to rate the Indians higher, despite my loyalty to their divisional rival White Sox. Even though the Indians seem to be fielding consistently good teams now, they've still taken a backseat in the AL Central to the three main feudalists - the White Sox, Tigers, and Minnesota Twins. That's not a good thing. At least the fans haven't gone the way of Cubdom and turned their bad fortune into a badge of honor. And no matter what, the movie Major League is something they'll always have.

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Nicholas Croston ()
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Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial.      Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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