Long-suffering Indians deserve touch of success

June 29, 1994|By Phil Jackman

The quality of mercy in a true baseball fan is strained if, as it falleth as the gentle rain from heaven upon Cleveland, he or she feels anything but joy, appreciation and goodwill for what's happening with the Indians these days.

It has been far too long since the Tribe, in a grand ball town, made any noise on the diamond front. Far too long. Why, it has been 35 years since Cleveland even contended, finishing second to the White Sox in 1959, five games back.

Since last it achieved a better than .500 record in 1986, the team has lost 138 more games than it has won. Since the start of division play 25 years ago in 1969, the beloved Featherheads are a mere 362 games below the break-even mark. They have averaged somewhere between a fifth- and sixth-place finish in the AL East, eight times finishing last.

In other words, boys and girls, it has been bad.

What's hard to understand about all this is the franchise located on the shores of Lake Erie was long one of the mainstays in the American League. For instance, in the 12 years after its World Series triumph of 1948, the Indians had a season perhaps comparable to any ever recorded by a club (1954) and finished second six times, third once and fourth twice, 11 first-division TC finishes in a dozen years. These were the days when all the Yankees had to do is show up in a town to win.

Lou Boudreau, Al Lopez, Birdie Tebbetts, Alvin Dark, Joe Gordon, Jimmie Dykes and Frank Robinson were among the high-profile men who served as managers. Back in the days that Bill Veeck owned them, the Indians where a huge attraction, at home or on the road.

They stepped to the forefront shortly after Veeck started to weave his magic: He made Larry Doby the first black in the AL shortly after Jackie Robinson had broken the color line in Brooklyn. Satch Paige was brought aboard.

Veeck had a player-manager with six years experience, Lou Boudreau, but the club had had mediocre success under him, finishing 4-3-5-5-6-4. When he tried to trade him to St. Louis for Vern Stephens, the fans revolted. The deal was called off, and Lou answered with a .355 batting average, 106 runs batted in and four hits in the first playoff game ever in the league, the Tribe beating the Red Sox.

At the insistence of Casey Stengel, he grabbed a Purple Heart pitcher by the name of Gene Bearden out from under the nose of the Yankees, and he led the team with a 20-7 record. With something to watch and Veeck innovations (exploding scoreboards, etc.), Clevelanders responded marvelously. They improved attendance by a million over the previous year and the season total of 2,620,627 stood as the major-league record for a generation. The city, with its WPA project Municipal Stadium, featuring Early American bathhouse architecture, flourished on all fronts for a decade.

Its loyal fans showed up year after year, usually leading the league in attendance, until once again they were rewarded in 1954. That Tribe team was immense. New York went 103-51 that year, and Cleveland left it gasping eight games behind with its 111-43 record.

Listen to this pitching staff: Early Wynn, 23-11; Mike Garcia, 19-8; Bob Lemon, 21-7; Art Houtteman, 15-7; Bob Feller, 13-3; and Hal Newhouser, 7-2. Out of the bullpen, when they were needed on rare occasions, came Don Mossi and Ray Narleski. Feller and Newhouser used to pitch Sunday doubleheaders, mostly.

Bobby Avila won the batting title with a .341 mark. Doby led the league in home runs (32) and RBIs (126). Al Rosen had 24 homers, 102 RBIs and a .300 average. Eight hitters had double-figure homers, and poor Vic Wertz had trouble getting into the starting lineup.

That's what Cleveland got used to as, following a shocking loss to the New York Giants and Dusty Rhodes in '54, the Indians finished second three times in the next five years. The decline commenced not too long after Herb Score, a lefty of predicted legendary ability, was felled by a line drive off the bat of Gil McDougald of the Yankees in 1957.

More than a decade went by before a terrific pitching staff of Luis Tiant, Sam McDowell, Sonny Siebert, Stan Williams and Steve Hargan was put together and the Indians finished third in the league, but 16 games out. Good players came and went, Graig Nettles, Joe Carter, Chris Chambliss, Buddy Bell, Roger Maris, Jim Perry, Mudcat Grant, George Hendrick, Ray Fosse, Max Alvis and Julio Franco came and went; there were never enough of them, and the franchise was always short a few bucks to properly compete.

There's a sparkling new ballpark now, Jacobs Field, a new division, the AL Central, and a first-place record of 43-29. Think back to the summer of 1966 here, and you've got what's happening in Cleveland now. It's so well deserved.

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