Greatest Indians Team
It was June 20, 1971, Father's Day, Bat Day, and my birthday. That was the day that my father took me to see my first game. The Indians swept the Tigers in a double header and I was hooked. Between that day in 1971 and 1993, I could never say that I saw one of the greatest Indians teams play.
That all changed in 1995 when Mike Hargrove took his Indians to the World Series. Now I had seen one of the Indians greatest teams. That team didn't win the title. Heck other great teams like the 1954 Indians nor other great teams in 1997, 1999, 2005 or 2007 won a title. In fact, the only two World Series titles for the Indians came in 1920 and 1948.
Which leads to the question, what Indians team was the greatest?
Was it the 1920 team which rallied around the death of its star player Ray Chapman? Or the title winning 1948 team which had to beat two Boston teams in the post season? Or was it another team like the 1954 and 1995 great Indians teams that were worthy of titles but fell short of brandishing the hardware? Or maybe the 1999 team that scored over 1000 runs? Maybe the 1908 Naps team with its microscopic team ERA of 2.02?
So how do we determine which team was best?
As an experiment, I have assembled 18 Cleveland baseball teams from all eras to compete in a 162 game schedule for the Best Team in Cleveland History using Out Of The Park Baseball 13 (OOTP), which is a baseball simulation game.
Now, as a baseball fan, I am a stats lover and OOTP does produce results based on baseball statistics. I place a disclaimer that evaluating a team is better done watching them play day-in-and-day-out, so I'm not advocating that this process will determine the best but the journey will be a fun way of looking back to see how the best players in Cleveland history stack up against each other.
The first set of teams selected to compete in the Nostalgia League were the five Cleveland World Series teams: 1920, 1948, 1954, 1995 and 1997. I attempted to avoid teams which were close in years and from the same eras. For instance, I could have selected every team from 1949-1953 and from 1996-2001 as each of those teams were worthy of selection but I wanted to get a sampling from all eras. Teams like the 1908 and 1913 Naps as well as 1926, 1940, 1956, 1959, 1999, 2005 and 2007 were all selected as each were very good teams which added something unique to the nostalgia. I wanted to add a team from each decade so teams like 1932, 1968, 1976, and 1986 were all added to represent each decade as being the best team of the decade by record.
The 18 teams were assembled into two divisions. The Speaker division contains the 1908, 1920, 1940, 1954, 1968, 1986, 1997, 1999, and 2005 teams while the Boudreau division contains the 1913, 1926, 1932, 1948, 1956, 1959, 1976, 1995, and 2007 teams.
I have a confession to make here, and that is my goal in doing this is more to experience some of my favorite Indians of all time playing against guys that I never had the pleasure of seeing. So join me to see if Shoeless Joe Jackson can break up a Bob Feller no-hit bid or if Rocky Colavito can take Jose Mesa deep in the bottom of the 9th with the winning run on first base. Stay tuned to read if Ken Keltner's defense can stop a Tris Speaker hitting streak or if Kenny Lofton can steal second base off of Jim Hegan. Who will win the MVP or the CY Young?
1908 Naps – Lajoie's Dominant Pitching Staff
The 1908 Naps (90-64) fought all season with the Tigers (90-63) only to come up a half game short. Player manager Napolean Lajoie's batting average (.289) fell below .300 for the first time in his career, but the 33-year old second baseman was still the team's top offensive weapon posting team highs in runs (77), RBI (74), OPS (.727), and doubles (32). In fact, none of the regular hitters hit over .300 or had more than six home runs.
How did this team win 90 games? With pitching, that’s how. The team posted a 2.02 ERA led by league leader Addie Joss with a 1.16 ERA and a 24-11 record. In fact, three pitchers had sub-2.00 ERA's (Joss, Bob Rhoads and Charlie Chech).
The season's highlight was an October 2nd game which featured Nap's ace Joss against the White Sox ace Ed Walsh. Walsh put together a one-run four-hitter with 15 strikeouts but Joss was better. Entering the ninth inning, Joss was perfect. After recording the first two outs, he gave up what would have been a certain double to John Anderson which fortunately went foul, then proceeded to induce a ground ball to third baseman Bill Bradley but the throw to first required George Stovall to dig the ball out of the dirt for the perfecto. Joss needed only 74 pitches to record only the second perfect game in baseball history.
The season could have been better though as owner Charlie Somers vetoed a trade of Elmer Flick for Cy Young. Young ended up leading the Tigers to the pennant while Flick experienced stomach troubles and only appeared in 32 games. Sadly Flick's very promising career was over only two injury plagued years later.
As the 1908 Naps play, we'll see how a pitching dominant team gets it done against some of the more offensive teams in Indians history.
1913 Naps – The Napolean – Birmingham Feud
After Lajoie gave up the manager duties in 1909 but remained on the team, the team retained their name as the Naps but were also known as the Molly McGuires. The team got the name from a group of miners. The 1913 Naps team featured a very young core which included outfielder Shoeless Joe Jackson (25), shortstop Ray Chapman (22), catcher Steve O'Neill (21), first baseman Doc Johnson (25), starting pitcher Willie Mitchell (23), starting pitcher Fred Blanding (25), starting pitcher Bill Steen (25) and outfielder Nemo Leibold (21). Thirty-eight year old Napolean Lajoie provided a veteran presence contributing a .335 batting average, but it was Lajoie's very public feud with player manager Joe Birmingham which created headlines.
The Naps finished 9 ½ games behind the Philadelphia Athletics. The teams’ star is Jackson who put up an impressive 1.011 OPS while leading the Naps in all the important offensive categories. He also led the league in hits (197), doubles (39), slugging (.551) and OPS. The pitching staff is led by the lefty-right combination of Vean Gregg (20-13) and Cy Falkenberg (23-10).
1920 Indians - The Tris Speaker Era and the First World Series
The 1920 Indians finished with a record of 98-56 before disposing of the Brooklyn Robins five games to two in the World Series. The team accomplished this with the White Sox (two games back) and the Yankees (three games back) breathing down their necks.
Team player-manager Tris Speaker posted a .388 batting average to lead the team offensively while playing lights out defense in center field. His 50 doubles topped the American League. Outfielder Elmer Smith (107 RBI) and third baseman Larry Gardner (118 RBI) added offensive punch. The tragic death on the field of star shortstop Ray Chapman overshadowed the Indians first World Series victory. Amazingly, Chapman scored 97 runs in only 111 games that season.
1926 Indians – The Grey Eagle's Last Season with the Tribe
The 1926 Indians fell three games short of the Babe Ruth led Yankees with an 88-66 record. Tris Speaker led the team with seven home runs which is a far cry from the 47 that Ruth had for the Yankees. Offensively, the Indians were led by Speaker, first baseman George Burns, shortstop Joe Sewell and third baseman Rube Lutzke.
The pitching staff sported 27 game winner George Uhle, and the top six starters all had ERAs in the 3's. Interestingly, one of the pitchers was a guy named Garland Buckeye who also played four years of pro football, mostly for the Chicago Cardinals.
After the 1926 season Tris “The Grey Eagle” Speaker resigned as manager after being implicated along with Ty Cobb in game fixing. The accuser was Dutch Leonard, who had an axe to grind with both Speaker and Cobb. Baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis cleared both Speaker and Cobb after Leonard failed to show up at the hearing.
1932 Indians – Cleveland Municipal Stadium
The 1932 Indians finished a distant fourth place behind the juggernaut Yankees. The 19 games back is the largest deficit for any team in this competition but the team's 87 wins were the highest total in the 1930's. The team did have stars in outfielder Earl Averill (32 home runs), starting pitcher Wes Ferrell (23-13) and young starting pitcher Mel Harder (22 years old). Averill would one day be enshrined in Cooperstown and Harder would serve the Indians as a pitcher, pitching coach and interim manager from 1928 to 1962. The 1932 team is the first team on this list not managed by a player manager as Roger Peckinpaugh managed the '32 team.
On July 31, 1932, the Indians opened their brand new Municipal Stadium by sending Mel Harder to toe the rubber against the Philadelphia Athletics and Lefty Grove. In a game befitting the cavernous size of Municipal stadium the two pitchers went toe-to-toe with the Athletics prevailing 1-0.
1940 Indians – The Crybabies
How could a team known as the Crybabies make the list of top Indians teams? To be honest this team was a solid team lead by stars Bob Feller, Lou Boudreau, Hal Trosky, Ken Keltner and Mel Harder. This talented team played the American League tough and competed right down to the last day of the season. The 1940 Indians had a contentious locker room, not among themselves, but with manager Ossie Vitt. In fact, the players went to owner Alva Bradley with a list of grievances against the “wild man” Vitt. Vitt would survive the ordeal but 1940 was the last of his three years as the Indians skipper.
Bob Feller opened the season with the only opening day no-hitter in MLB history. It was a Friday September 27th 2-0 loss to the Tigers which eliminated the Indians and gave the title to the team up north. The Indians did come back and win the final two games against the Tigers to finish 89-65. Feller lost twice to the Tigers in the final week of the season, but the 21-year old hurler had a fine season and finished 27-11 with a 2.61 ERA and 261 strikeouts. Trosky led the team with 25 homers and Boudreau eclipsed the 100 RBI mark.
1948 Indians – Lou Boudreau and the 2nd World Series
Player manager Lou Boudreau would give the Indians their (up till now) last World Series championship. A solid line-up with catcher Jim Hegan, second baseman Joe Gordon, shortstop Lou Boudreau, third baseman Ken Keltner, and center fielder Larry Doby was teamed with an arsenal of Bob Lemon, Bob Feller, and rookie knuckleballer Gene Bearden.
The 1948 team finished the season tied with the Boston Red Sox with 96-58 records, so on October 4th the Tribe traveled to Boston for a 1 game playoff. Lou Boudreau sent 20-game winner Bearden against a Red Sox line-up featuring Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky, Bobby Doer, Birdie Tebbetts and some guy named Dimaggio (okay not Joe but his brother Dom). Boudreau went 4-for-4 with two home runs and a four-run fourth inning featuring a Ken Keltner blast sent the Indians into the World Series.
The World Series was also against a Boston team, the Braves of the “Spahn and Sain and pray for Rain.” Hall of famer Warren Spahn out-dueled Bob Feller 1-0 in Game One in spite of a bad call on a pick-off play at second base where the runner was called safe despite pictures showing he was out by a foot. The runner eventually scored the lone run of the game. Despite dropping Game One, the Indians came back to win four of the last five games giving the city on the lake its second World Series title.
1954 Indians – Deflating World Series
Between 1949 and 1953 the Indians would win 89 games every season including finishing in second place in '51, '52 and '53. Then in 1954, the Indians went out and set a then American League record for wins in a season when they finished 111-43 on the season. The Yankees won over 100 games, but the Indians 111 games were eight better than the Yankees.
Manager Al Lopez was able to throw out a line-up like third baseman Al Rosen, second baseman Bobby Avilla, center fielder Larry Doby, and left fielder Al Smith at opposing teams, but every day he was able to counter the opponent's line-up with an imposing pitcher. The rotation featured the big four of Early Wynn (23-11), Mike Garcia (19-8), Bob Lemon (23-7) and Bob Feller (13-3), and the other starter Art Houtteman finished with a 15-7 record. Avila won the AL batting title hitting .341, and Doby's 32 homers and 126 RBI also led the AL and he finished second in the MVP balloting.
For all the success this team had in the regular season, the World Series was a different story. They lost Game 1 in ten innings to the Giants in a game which featured the Willie Mays over the shoulder catch off of a Vic Wertz drive at the Polo Grounds in New York City. The Indians then went on to lose the remaining three games and finished their season on the losing end of the World Series.
1956 Indians – It's a Beautiful Day for Baseball
One of the rules that I wanted to set was not to overload the same team in the Nostalgia league which is why the teams from '49 – '53 did not make the cut. So why 1956? Well, this season featured an impressive season by Herb Score as the 23-year old lefty went 20-9 with an AL leading 263 strikeouts. This team also featured rookie right fielder Rocky Colavito who would finish second in the Rookie of the Year balloting despite only playing in 101 games. The rotation of Score, Wynn, Lemon and Garcia led the Indians to an 88-66 record and a second place finish to the Yankees finishing nine games back. It is the presence of Score, who I heard calling play-by-play for the Indians as a boy, which allows this team into the Nostalgia League.
Offensively the team was led by first baseman Vic Wertz with 32 home runs and 106 RBI, and Colavito put up a .903 OPS. But it was sub-par seasons by Rosen and Avila which doomed this team. The 32-year old Rosen experienced back and leg problems most of the season but still played in 121 games, and it was the Cleveland fans booing of their former star which prompted manager Al Lopez to resign after the season. Lopez's six seasons with Chief Wahoo on his sleeve ended with a winning percentage of .617 and 570 wins.
1959 Indians – Before “The Curse”
Manager Joe Gordon's '59 Indians posted an 89-65 record but finished second to the Go-Go Sox of Chicago. Offensively the team was led by right fielder Rocky Colavito, shortstop Woody Held, left fielder Minnie Minoso, second baseman Billy Martin, catcher Russ Nixon, center fielder Jimmy Piersall and utility man Tito Francona. The rotation of Cal McLish (19-8) and Gary Bell (16-11) kept the Indians within striking range of the White Sox.
Interestingly, this team featured future Indians play-by-play voices Herb Score and Mudcat Grant, and future managers Russ Nixon, Chuck Tanner and Billy Martin. It also featured Tito Francona who is the father of current Indians manager Terry Francona, and Jim Perry who is the brother of future Indians Cy Young winner Gaylord Perry.
1959 would be the last season that the Indians would play a meaningful game in September until 1995 as Frank “Trader” Lane traded away the popular Rocky Colavito bringing on “The Curse.”
1968 – Token 60's Team
The 1960's were the beginning of a bleak period of Indians baseball. Beginning in 1960 the Indians started a decade in which they finished below .500 in 7 of the 10 seasons. With one .500 season, the Indians finished above .500 just twice. They went 87-75 in 1965 and 86-75 in 1968. The 1968 team was selected to represent the '60's decade by finishing in a decade best third place in the AL.
The strength of Alvin Dark's team was pitching with Luis Tiant, Sam McDowell, Sonny Siebert and Stan Williams all posting above .500 records. Tiant led the team with a 21-9 record and the Nostalgia League is graced by one of the best left-handed pitchers in Indians history, Sam McDowell.
The 1968 team had only two regular players hit above .250, catcher Joe Azcue and left fielder Lee Maye while only first baseman Tony Horton (14) and utility man Duke Sims (11) were able to launch double digit home run totals.
1976 – Frank Robinson and the Ugly All Red Unis
Division play started in 1969 and the Indians joined the American League East. If the 60's were bleak, then the '70's were even worse as only two Indians teams were able to reach the 81 win mark. The 1979 Indians finished above .500 with an 81-80 record, but the 1976 Indians got the Nostalgia League bid with an 81-78 record and a decade best fourth place finish (oh how I wish there was sarcasm there).
For the sixth time in the Nostalgia League the 1976 Indians are led by a player-manager, Frank Robinson. This team was full of some of my boyhood favorite players in second baseman Duane Kiper, center fielder Rick Manning, third baseman Buddy Bell, left fielder George Hendrick, designated hitter and Rico Carty. It was the 36-year old Carty that became maybe the Indians first impact DH hitting a team best .310 and piling up 83 RBI. Starting pitchers Pat Dobson, Dennis Eckersley and Jim Bibby all posted winning records, but a solid bullpen of Dave LaRoche and Jim Kern combined for 36 saves.
This team may be most remembered for their ugly all-red uniforms. First baseman Boog Powell, a pretty large man, resembled a big tomato running down the bases.
1986 – One Frickin' Winning Season in the 80's?
Selecting the best team of the 1980's was simple as only one team had a better than .500 record. This team was sandwiched between two 100 loss teams in 1985 and 1987. The 1986 Indians finished 84-78 and a decade best fifth place finish (my how did I remain an Indians fan?). The 1986 team did have some star power with outfielder/first baseman Joe Carter, shortstop Julio Franco, center fielder Brett Butler, right fielder Cory Snyder, designated hitter Andre Thornton and knuckleballer Tom Candiotti. This team had speed as they stole 141 bases led by Butler's 29. Carter had a 29 homer and 29 stolen base season and also had 121 RBI.
Candiotti was manager Pat Corales' ace pitcher winning 16 games and Ernie Camacho recorded 20 saves as the team's closer. Future closer Doug Jones made one appearance and former first round draft pick Greg Swindell made his Cleveland debut.
1995 - Jacobs Field and the Return to the World Series
I think every Indians fan from my era remembers the 1995 team fondly. The beginning of the season was delayed by the MLB lockout which cut short the 1994 season (Jacobs Field's inaugural season), and the Indians went on the warpath as soon as the season started taking over first place after the 14th game and burying the competition while building a 30 game lead over second place by the end of the season. The Indians won their 100th game on the final day of the season finishing with a 100-44 record.
This star-studded team featured left fielder Albert Belle, second baseman Carlos Baerga, shortstop Omar Vizquel, third baseman Jim Thome, center fielder Kenny Lofton, right fielder Manny Ramirez and designated hitter Eddie Murray. Belle's season was truly special finishing with 50 homers and 50 doubles, a feat only accomplished by Babe Ruth before him. Star catcher Sandy Alomar was reduced to 66 games due to injury. Veteran pitchers Orel Hershiser and Dennis Martinez along with former first round pick Charles Nagy added clout to the pitching staff. When the team led going into the 9th inning, the game was considered over as Jose Mesa nailed down 46 saves.
The playoffs opened with a 5-4 13-inning marathon win against the Red Sox. The game featured a Belle 11th inning home run to tie the game which prompted Boston manager Kevin Kennedy to have Belle's bat confiscated to be investigated for being corked (and then the famous shot of Belle pointing to his biceps saying, in cleaner terms, “the power is right here”). With Tony Pena's two out 13th inning solo homer to win it, Cleveland's 41-year playoff drought was ended in dramatic fashion.
The Tribe went on to sweep the Red Sox in the first year of a two level playoff setup. Next came Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez and the Seattle Mariners. The series went to Game Six with the Indians holding a 3-2 series lead but with the final two games in the King Dome. Game Six featured Mariners ace Randy Johnson versus Dennis “El Presidente” Martinez, and the Indians prevailed 4-0 and punched their ticket to the World Series versus the Atlanta Braves.
Alas, the fairy tale season ended in Game Six at Fulton County Stadium with a 1-0 shutout at the hands of Tom Glavine. Future Indian David Justice provided all the offense the Braves would need with a home run off Jim Poole.
1997 – World Series Heart Breaker
Any team between 1995 and 2001 could have been selected for the Nostalgia League and the 1997 team won the fewest games of those seven teams, but the 1997 team did what none of the other teams could do. They came within a whisker of becoming World Series champions. With an 86-75 record, the 1997 team won the American League Central by six games then defeated the wild card Yankees in five games. In the ALCS they beat the 98-win Baltimore Orioles in six games winning the final game with a dramatic 11th inning home run by second baseman Tony Fernandez before Jose Mesa closed the door and the Tribe punched their ticket to the World Series.
The 1997 World Series against the Florida Marlins started in Miami with the two teams splitting the first two games. Then the series turned to the frigid shores of Lake Erie where Marlins took two of three games before the series shifted back to Miami. The Tribe won Game Six 4-1 to set up the decisive Game 7. The Tribe sent former first rounder Jaret Wright to the hill and he had a shutout going into the sixth inning but solo home run and a walk chased the young hurler to the showers with the Indians clinging onto a 2-1 lead. The bullpen kept the Marlins down until the 9th inning when Jose Mesa gave up a single run to set up extra innings. Then in the bottom of the 11th inning the Marlins drove the stake into the hearts of all Indians fans with a run off of Charles Nagy.
Before the season began, the Indians sent popular center fielder Kenny Lofton to Atlanta for 1995 World Series hero left fielder David Justice and center fielder Marquise Grissom. The two joined newly acquired third baseman Matt Williams and an Indians nucleus of catcher Sandy Alomar, first baseman Jim Thome, right fielder Manny Ramirez and shortstop Omar Vizquel. Alomar had his finest season hitting 21 home runs and winning the All Star game MVP that was played at Jacobs Field. The pitching staff of Nagy, Orel Hershiser and two youngsters Bartolo Colon and Jaret Wright got the Indians to a very good bullpen of Michael Jackson, Eric Plunk, Paul Assenmacher, Paul Shuey and Mesa.
1999 – Offense, Offense, Offense
The 1999 Indians were an offensive juggernaut scoring 1009 runs. The Indians ran away with the AL Central finishing with a 97-65 record and padding their lead to 21.5 games. Before the season, the Tribe signed free agent second baseman Robbie Alomar to play with his brother Sandy, and Alomar and shortstop Omar Vizquel combined for possibly the best double play combination in baseball. In fact, this team was not all offense as the defense up the middle of Alomar-Alomar-Vizquel-Lofton may have been the best in the league.
The offensive star was right fielder Manny Ramirez who drove in a whopping 165 runs and had a 1.105 OPS. Manny wasn't the only offensive weapon as Robbie Alomar was everything you wanted in a #3 hitter hitting 24 home runs and swiping 37 bases. Thome hit 33 home runs and has 108 RBI. On the mound Bartolo Colon won 18 games and Charles Nagy won 17. By 1999 closer Jose Mesa had left town (ran out of town) and was replaced by Mike Jackson who recorded 39 saves.
When the playoffs came the Tribe drew the Boston Red Sox. After taking two of the first three games of the five-game set the Tribe was on the brink of winning the series, but the pitching staff gave up 35 runs in the last two games and earned a spot on their couches to watch the rest of the post season. Shortly after the final game Indians manager Mike Hargrove was fired.
2005 – Wedge’s Late Fade
In 2002 the great run of the '90's teams came to an end and the Indians suffered through three losing seasons. Things didn't start out great in 2005 and on May 21st the Indians were 18-23 and 12 games out of first place. Then manager Eric Wedge's Indians went on the warpath. On September 1st, the Indians cut the White Sox lead to seven games and even as late at September 7th the Tribe trailed by 9.5 games. The Tribe's season peaked on September 24th and the Indians were 1.5 games back and in play for both the division title and the wild card but the team ran out of gas and lost six of their last seven games to miss out on the playoffs. The team finished 93-69 which is still a strong finish, but the slow start and late fade at the end doomed them.
2007 – CC and the F-Bob
In 2007 the Indians put up a 96-66 record to win the AL Central. The 2007 teams’ strength was a one-two punch of CC Sabathia and Fausto Carmona errrr Roberto Hernandez who both won 19 games. Paul Byrd contributed with 15 wins and Joe Borowski saved 45 games. When the pitchers were in the dugout getting a rest, center fielder Grady Sizemore, catcher Victor Martinez and designated hitter Travis Hafner led the team offensively.
When the playoffs began the Indians drew the New York Yankees. After the Indians took Game One of the series, the Yankees led in Game Two 1-0 in the 8th inning when Yankees reliever Joba Chamberlain was attacked by thousands of Cleveland bugs. When the bug cloud cleared the Indians had scored an 11-inning 2-1 victory sending the series to New York where the Indians closed out the series in Game Four.
Next up were the Boston Red Sox, who were managed by current Indians manager Terry Francona. The series was knotted at 3-3 going setting up the decisive Game 7. The Red Sox jumped to a 3-0 lead before the Indians rallied and with the speedy Kenny Lofton on second base Franklin Gutierrez singled to left but third base coach Joel Skinner decided to hold Lofton up at third and then a double play ended the rally with the Indians trailing 3-2. Boston then opened the flood gates and eliminated the Tribe by scoring eight uncontested runs.
The league modifiers were set to 2011 which is the most recent setting. Also, the DH will be in effect as the league is being conducted now.