Today the Indians and Red Sox will tilt at Jacobs Field in Cleveland in the third game of the American League Championship Series. On the line for the Indians will be a shot at returning to the World Series for the first time in ten years and the third time since 1954. The Indians have not won a championship since 1948, which isn’t a patch on the Cubs‘ 99-year run, but is still a long time to go between champagne showers.
For those who came to baseball between the late 1950s and early 1990s, the idea that the Indians could win a championship can be harder to swallow than the curse-breaking wins by the Red Sox and White Sox in 2004 and 2005. Though those teams struggled in an epic, often heartbreaking way to earn their first rings since ragtime was in vogue, at least they were frequently competitive along the way. For Boston, the 2004 World Series was their eighth postseason appearance and fifth World Series since their 1918 championship. After 1919, the White Sox went through long fallow periods but were a first-division club throughout the 1950s and early ’60s, going to the World Series in 1959. They also won division titles in 1983, 1993, and 2000.
In contrast, the Indians went decades without even so much as teasing their fans the way the Red and White Sox did. However, they had a terrific team in the early postwar period-it was they, and not the Red Sox, that were the true rivals to the dynastic Yankees. After beating them to the pennant by 2½ games in 1948, the Indians finished second from 1951 to 1953, took the pennant again in 1954 with a team-record 111 wins, and then returned to second place in 1955 (yielding to the Yankees only in the last days of the season), 1956, and 1959.
And then, after that run of being a contender, beginning in 1960, the Indians were almost invariably irrelevant. That year, which every Indians fan knows is the year that general manager Frank Lane traded Rocky Colavito to the Tigers for Harvey Kuenn, the club had its first losing season since 1946. From then until 1994, a winning season became a rarity. The Indians finished at .500 or above just seven times in 34 years, and finished higher than fourth place just once, coming in a distant third in 1968.
There were multiple reasons for the franchise’s fall. The Indians were caught in a perfect storm of franchise-destroying developments: they had a series of under-financed owners who could not invest in player development, idiotic general managers, a decrepit ballpark and an unfavorable lease, and a city suffering from the decline of its historic manufacturing base. As is always the case with poorly-performing franchises, declining attendance caused retrenchment, retrenchment led to losing seasons, losing seasons caused further decreased attendance, and declining attendance engendered further retrenchment, which meant more losing seasons and further fan apathy.
The institution of the amateur draft in 1965 did not help the Indians for years, as they were at the nadir of their ownership at this time and were being run at a subsistence level, with money only periodically available to acquire young players. Three consecutive ownership groups, those of Vernon Stouffer, Nick Miletti, and Ted Bonda, did not have sufficient capital to run the team. The privations depicted in the 1989 film Major League, like the dilapidated facilities or travel on an antiquated and dangerous aircraft, were not invented by the screenwriter.
The most fascinating aspect of the Indians during this period is not their decline, which was self-perpetuating once it began, but the rare opportunities the Indians had to hop off the merry-go-round and turn the team around. One of these came in the mid-1970s. From 1966 to 1971, the Indians had employed Hank Peters, who had helped sign many of the quality players the Kansas City A’s would hand over to the Yankees, to rejuvenate a farm system that had severely atrophied since the mid-1950s. As always, the investment would be transient. Then-owner Stouffer had suffered severe stock market losses and forced Peters to gut his newly-built system in 1970.
Still, the Indians did manage to develop a few decent talents through the farm during this period, and these “blossomed,” sort of, during Frank Robinson‘s term as player-manager, resulting in a rare winning season in 1976. Though Robinson was not so much galvanic as a scary perfectionist, the Indians went 81-78, finishing fourth in the AL East. Homegrown players on the roster included catcher Alan Ashby, second baseman Duane Kuiper, third baseman Buddy Bell (16th round, 1969), Rick Manning (the team’s number one pick in 1972), catcher Ray Fosse (back after an Oakland sojourn), John Lowenstein, Rick Cerone (first-rounder, 1975), Dennis Eckersley (third-rounder, 1972), and Jim Kern (non-drafted free agent, 1967).
Other key players included 26-year-old George Hendrick (acquired from the A’s in 1973 with catcher Dave Duncan for Fosse and infielder Jack Heidemann), designated hitter Rico Carty (the self-titled “Beeg Mon,” bought from the Mexican League after the former batting title holder played his way out of the majors with a miserable 1973), closer Dave LaRoche, and veteran hurlers Jim Bibby and Pat Dobson.
Bibby and Dobson came to the Indians in trades that were typical of the Indians at the time, deals which paid some short-term benefit but harmed the team over time. Robinson and veteran pitcher Gaylord Perry (the 1972 Cy Young award winner as an Indian) had a personality clash. The solution was to deal Perry to the Rangers for Bibby, Jackie Brown, Rick Waits, and $100,000 in mid-1975. Perry had another nine years left in his arm, while Robinson would be canned by the Indians in 1977. Dobson was acquired from the Yankees in November of 1975 for lefty power hitter Oscar Gamble. Gamble would remain in the majors through 1985, while Dobson’s career would end in April of 1978.
Eckersley, just 21, was the team’s coming star, but when his best friend, Manning, took up with Eckersley’s wife, it was felt that one of the two would have to be traded. Unfortunately, the Indians chose Manning, who would go on to have a spectacularly-useless 13-year career in the majors. As a 20-year-old rookie in 1975, Manning had hit .285/.347/.358 (.269 EqA) and played excellent defense. In 1976, he improved to .292/.337/.393 (.282 EqA). At this moment he was not unlike the Yankees’ Melky Cabrera is now, a useful center field glove with an intermittently helpful bat. If he were to develop just a little bit more, stardom would be the result.
He had also just taken advantage of a front-office error to leverage the Indians for an expensive five-year contract extension. Sadly, Manning injured his back in 1977 and was never the same. From 1977 through the end of his career in 1987, Manning would hit .249/.311/.333. Eckersley, sent to the Red Sox for Rick Wise, Mike Paxton, Ted Cox, and Bo Diaz-that is, no one of lasting value to the Tribe-would pitch until 1998 and make the Hall of Fame after displaying excellence both as a starter and a closer.
This typified the way this team was broken up. Bell was dealt to the Rangers in 1978 for an older Toby Harrah, Lowenstein and Cerone would be packaged to the Blue Jays to redeem the 37-year-old Carty after he had been selected in the expansion draft, and Hendrick, deemed to be disgruntled, was sent to the Padres for a package including Johnny Grubb. Ashby was also dealt to the Blue Jays, for a package of fringe players. LaRoche was sent to the Angels for Bruce Bochte, Sid Monge, and $250,000. Bochte was allowed to leave as a free agent one season after his acquisition; what the Indians were really after was the money.
Within just two seasons of their small peak, this edition of the Indians would cease to exist. Others would briefly bob to the surface before sinking in a similar matter. It seemed like the cycle could go on forever, and it almost did, until the club’s renaissance in the ’90s, and then its renewal on Mark Shapiro’s watch. Perhaps this is the year that the Tribe finally ends their long stretch, but with the talent on hand, this shouldn’t be their last chance either.