41 years after Series loss, Indians catch on Latest berth marks end to tailspin began by Mays' classic grab

October 19, 1995|By PETER SCHMUCK | PETER SCHMUCK,SUN STAFF

It remains one of the most memorable moments in the history of the Fall Classic. New York Giants center fielder Willie Mays -- his back to home plate -- making a seemingly impossible catch to rob Cleveland Indians first baseman Vic Wertz of an extra-base hit in the 1954 World Series. But it also can be viewed as the beginning of a classic fall.

The Indians were never quite the same after that. They won 111 games in a 154-game format that year and were heavily favored to defeat the Giants, but "The Catch" would soon come to be recognized as the turning point of the '54 Series and a symbol of the club's frustration for the next four decades.

"The Catch was a tremendous psychological jolt to the $l organization," said journalist and author Jack Torrey, who documents the decline of the Indians' organization in his book, "Endless Summers." Not for another 41 years would the Indians appear in the postseason. Not even after the advent of divisional play made it far easier to play into October. Not even a second-place finish since 1959, unless you count a strike-shortened '94 season in which the Indians were in line for a wild-card berth -- and even then fate intervened to keep them out of postseason play.

Not until now. The Indians swept Boston in the new divisional series and won the American League pennant on Tuesday night in Seattle. The drought is over, but the success of the 1995 club has focused attention back on what was one of the most successful major-league franchises of the postwar era.

"The Indians were one of the three or four great franchises in baseball at that time," Torrey said. "Hank Greenberg was the general manager and he had built an incredible farm system. He was looking to replace the Yankee dynasty with a Cleveland dynasty."

Instead, the club changed course in the mid-1950s and quickly ** fell victim to a short-sighted management philosophy that ruined the once-productive minor-league system and left fans with little reason to visit cavernous Cleveland Stadium.

"It's hard to point to one particular factor," said former Indians general manager Hank Peters, "but they just had the wrong ownership for so many years. Owners that were not willing to make a commitment to have a winning team. Until the Jacobs brothers [real estate investors Richard and David Jacobs] bought the team in 1986, no one would do what it took to produce a winner."

It's hard to point to any particular owner because there were so many. The team changed hands nine times from 1946 to 1986 as owner after owner sought to exploit an Internal Revenue Service ruling that allowed the club to depreciate player contracts. But the organizational malaise that enveloped the franchise from the early 1960s until Cleveland's baseball renaissance last year may have begun with the club's decision to de-emphasize scouting and player development in the late 1950s.

"The Indians made a conscious decision to scale down," Torrey said. "They went from nine farm teams and 368 minor-league players in 1956 to four teams and 140 players in 1965. And what they were doing had a two-pronged effect because they were trading away young players and not spending money to develop players."

The minor-league talent gap continued to widen in the '60s and '70s. It got so bad that when the 1980 season began, there were only 10 players in the major leagues who had been scouted and signed by the Cleveland organization in the previous decade.

The Indians finished higher than fourth place only three times from 1959 to 1994 and their lack of success was reflected at the turnstiles. They drew more than 1 million fans only five times from 1956 until the current ownership took over the club in 1986.

The old, oversized stadium just made matters worse. There was little demand for season tickets because walk-up availability at the 76,000-seat facility was only in question on Opening Day. When attendance fell to a free-agent era low of 655,181 in 1985, there was a very real possibility that the club would move out of Cleveland, which only makes the club's current success that much sweeter.

"Did we ever wonder if the Indians would ever win another pennant?" said longtime Indians executive Bob DiBiasio. "Sure. There was serious consideration of the team not even being in Cleveland. . . . [There were] days when absolutely nobody wanted to play for the Indians."

Of course, all that changed when Richard and David Jacobs returned a semblance of organizational stability to the franchise in 1986 and voters responded three years later by approving funding for a sparkling new stadium.

The Jacobs brothers brought in Peters to rebuild the organization from the bottom up. There were some tough seasons in between, but Peters succeeded in upgrading the minor-league system and hand-picked successor John Hart moved aggressively to lock most of the club's top young players into long-term contracts. And the Indians -- with a winning combination of homegrown players and carefully selected free agents -- are going to the World Series.

"The key to the whole turnaround was Hank Peters," Torrey said. "You could almost say that Edward Bennett Williams saved baseball in Cleveland when he fired Hank Peters."

World Series

6*

Atlanta Braves vs. Cleveland Indians

Day .. .. .. Site .. .. .. .. Time

Saturday ... at Atlanta .. .. 7:20

Sunday .. .. at Atlanta .. .. 7:20

Tuesday . .. at Cleveland ... 8:20

Oct. 25 . .. at Cleveland ... 8:20

Oct. 26* ... at Cleveland ... 8:20

Oct. 28* ... at Atlanta .. .. 7:20

Oct. 29* ... at Atlanta .. .. 7:20

-- If necessary

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