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IBI Super Power Poll: Your favorite Indians Championship team

IBI Super Power Poll: Your favorite Indians Championship team
February 2, 2014
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In honor of Super Bowl Sunday, I decided to take the IBI Power Poll in a slightly different direction today. While the world will be focused on who because the World Champions on the football field, I’m going to take a closer look at the two World Championship teams that called Cleveland home in the baseball world.

Today, we’re going to take a close look at the 1920 and 1948 Cleveland Indians World Championship teams.

It’s hard to fathom what it must have been like for the fans of the Tribe in both of those seasons, having a team bring the World Series trophy home to Cleveland.

Here’s a closer look at both teams:

The 1920 Cleveland Indians

The 1920 Cleveland Indians are often overlooked in the annals of baseball champions because of two extremely newsworthy events that took place during that fateful season. Ray Chapman, the Indians star shortstop, was killed in August of that 1920, becoming the only major leaguer to this day to die on the baseball field. The news of the season was also swirling around the Chicago Black Sox and it came to a head when the eight players, including former Indians’ star Shoeless Joe Jackson, were indicted for the crime in September of 1920 during the last week of the season.

The Indians would finish two games ahead of those White Sox when it was all said and done.

The Indians were led by arguably the best outfielder of his day. Player-manager Tris Speaker, the Grey Eagle or “Spoke” to the Cleveland faithful, was traded to the Indians at the start of the 1916 season thanks to a salary dispute with the Red Sox for Sam Jones, Fred Thomas and $55,000, was the clear star of the team. Speaker was good at many things, but he was no doubt the best fielding centerfielder of his day.

League Park had a vast centerfield that varied from year-to-year from 500 feet to where it stood in 1920, at 450 feet. Speaker used it like his own personal playground. He truly is one of the most overlooked players in the history of baseball. In a game that’s today measured by offense, Speaker’s defense was in a league of its own.

He was the first player to really play a shallow centerfield, and that bears out as he is still the career leaders in assists from the outfield (449) and outfield double plays (143), and he is the only major leaguer to have at least six unassisted double plays from the outfield. It certainly helped that he played in the “Dead Ball” era, but it didn’t stop him from playing shallow when the Ruth era took over after the Indians World Championship in 1920.

That season, Speaker had one of his best seasons. He led the league in doubles with 50, and hit .388, with eight homers and 107 RBI. While he was the leader offensively and defensively, it was how he handled the team after Chapman’s death that will forever will be remembered. Speaker had been Chapman’s best man in his wedding, prior to the 1920 season, and many close to Speaker said that he never recovered from his good friend’s death.

The Indians were in first on August 16, the day that Chapman was killed, but over the next week, the Tribe would go 2-7 and fall 3 ½ games behind the Black Sox. From that point on, they would go 25-9 to win the club’s first pennant, with a 98-56 record.

They were set to play against the Brooklyn Robins.

The team had more than just Speaker though. Third baseman Larry Gardner led the team with 118 RBI, and Elmer Smith joined the trio with 103 RBI, and led the team with 12 homers. Six starters hit .300 or better, and the team as a whole hit .303 that season. The walked 574 times, and only struck out as a team 376 times. Now that’s selection.

The starting rotation was nothing short of spectacular. Jim Bagby led the team with a 31-12 record, while Stan Coveleski won 24 games, and Ray Caldwell won 20. Bagby and Coveleski each pitched over 315 innings, with Caldwell throwing 237.

Joe Sewell was eventually called up to replace Chapman as the season progressed. Sewell, of course, would eventually become a Hall-of-Fame player. The problem with Sewell that year was that the Indians didn’t call him up until September 10th, after the September 1st call-up date. Because of this, he wasn’t eligible to play in the Series.

Charlie Ebbets, the owner of the Robins, allowed Sewell to play, in a move that would likely never be allowed in today’s game. I only mention it because things were vastly different then, and it does make you realize how difficult comparing eras really is.

Players back then were so intertwined with their cities, and none moreso than Speaker and Chapman, who often spent their offseasons working other blue-collar jobs right in the city. These weren’t players like today, that were paid exorbitant amounts of money. These were players that Clevelanders could really bond with.

During that 1920 season, Speaker may have revolutionized the game. He was the first manager that used a platoon system regularly. When the Indians faced left-handed pitchers, he was often the only left-handed hitter to start.

The Indians fell behind the Robins, 2-1, after the first three games of the nine-game series. All three were played in Brooklyn. The Indians tied the series in game four, and game five may have turned into the backbreaker for the Robins. In the first inning, Elmer Smith belted the first grand slam in World Series history. In the fourth inning, another first took place when Indians’ starter Jim Bagby hit a three-run homer, becoming the first pitcher to hit a home run in World Series history. The Indians were up 7-0, but Bagby had struggled all day. In the top of the fifth, the Robins got their first two runners on, and the Indians got their third first (and in this case, only) of the day. Reliever Clarence Mitchell was at bat, and lined a hit a line drive up the middle during a hit-and-run. Shortstop Bill Wambsganss grabbed the ball since he was heading to cover second for the hit-and-run, stepped on second, and tagged the runner for an unassisted triple play.

The Indians would win the game, and sweep out the rest of the games to win their first World Series Championship.

That 1920 season was, in many ways, a pivotal year in baseball. The Black Sox would play their final season before being banned from the game, and the ‘Dead Ball’ era was officially over. Babe Ruth hit a mammoth 54 homers that year, his first year with the Yankees.

The Indians, of course, faced many challenges that year, both on-and-off the field, but how they overcame tragedy, the Black Sox, the Ruth-led Yankees and a 2-1 deficit makes them a team that shouldn’t be overlooked as a great, great team.

The team boasted three Hall of Famers including starter Stan Coveleski, Joe Sewell and Tris Speaker

The 1948 Cleveland Indians

The 1948 Indians are clearly the most heralded Championship team of the two. Some will say that it’s because that ’48 team is the more “recent,” but the reality is that the team had more “stars,” with six Hall of Famers and some of the most famous Cleveland Indians of all-time. Perhaps even more famous than the Hall of Famers was the Indians’ owner, Bill Veeck, who was perhaps the most creative owner that Major League baseball had ever seen.

Veeck had purchased the team in 1946, and immediately and permanently moved the Indians from League Park to Municipal Stadium. In his first two seasons, the Indians hadn’t made any marked improvements, even though he improved the attendance for the team.

In 1947, Veeck integrated the American League when he signed Larry Doby, then followed in 1948 with the infamous Satchel Paige. Veeck traded for Joe Gordon in ’48, and then he planned on trading player-manager Lou Boudreau. Boudreau was extremely popular in Cleveland, and when word leaked that he was going to trade their manager, the fans uproar led the Veeck keeping him on the team.

Good move.

Boudreau had the best season of his Hall of Fame career, hitting .355, with 18 homers and 106 RBI, not to mention a crazy .453 OBP. He was the league’s MVP. Second baseman Gordon crushed 32 homers with 124 RBI. Third baseman Ken Keltner had 31 homers, with 119 RBI, and Larry Doby hit 14 homers in his first full season with the Tribe.

As good as the offense was, the pitching was even better. Bob Lemon, Bob Feller and Gene Bearden each had phenomenal seasons. Lemon went 20-14, Feller went 19-15 and lefty Gene Bearden went 20-7.

The Yankees and Red Sox had been clear favorites to win the league, but the Indians were players right from the start. With seven games left in the seasons, all three teams had a 91-56 record, but the Indians moved ahead of the other two teams, and looked like a lock to win the pennant. With three games left in the season, the Indians were up 1 1/2 games on both the Red Sox and the Yankees. The Red Sox were playing the Yankees in a final two-game series, while the Indians had a three-game set against the Tigers. Cleveland lost two-of-three, while the Red Sox swept the Yankees, tying the two teams to end the season, forcing a tiebreaker.

In a controversial move, Boudreau started the rookie Bearden, who would be pitching with only one-day’s rest, instead of Bob Lemon with two. Bearden had beaten the Red Sox twice that year, and Boudreau was playing a hunch.

Boudreau helped out his own cause by hitting a solo shot in the first inning, but the Red Sox quickly matched that in the bottom of the first when Johnny Pesky scored from second on a single. With Boudreau and Gordon on first and second after two singles, Keltner launched a three-run blast to give the Indians a 4-1 lead. Larry Doby would score later in the inning, giving the Indians a 5-1 lead. The Red Sox scored two in the sixth with Bobby Doerr hit a two-run homer, scoring Ted Williams as well, but that ended the scoring for the home town Sox. Jim Hegan scored on an eighth inning error, and Eddie Robinson scored on a double play ball. Bearden pitched a complete game for the victory, and the Indians first pennant since the 1920 team.

The Indians weren’t done with Boston, as they faced the Boston Braves in the first ever televised World Series. The Indians and Bob Feller lost game one in a pitcher’s duel. Feller would hold the Braves to two hits, but lost the gme when Phil Masi scored after getting on base via a walk, and appearing to be out on a pick-off play at second (he later admitted he was out). The Indians would win the next three games behind Lemon, Bearden and Steve Gromek, that was seen by a World Series record 81,897 fans, which was broken in game five. Feller was crushed in  Game 5, 11-5, but it was a noteworthy game in that Satchel Paige became the first black pitcher to pitch in a World Series game. Bob Lemon and Gene Bearden combined for a 4-3 victory, and the Indians had their second World Championship.

The Indians were stacked that season, and the beat two stacked teams in the defending champion Yankees, and the Ted Williams-led Red Sox to get there. Some would say the 1954 Indians were even better, but they failed to win the series.

So what’s the point of all this?

On a day we’re celebrating a new champion, which Indians team was your favorite championship team? For most of us, we weren’t around for either, so much of what we know of these titles is from stories from our parents and grandparents, and the internet. Have fun with this one: Which team is your favorite World Championship team?

Is it the tragedy-laden 1920 team, or is it the talent-laden 1948 team?

Jim is currently the senior editor and Columnist, as well as  the host of IBI's weekly online radio shows, Smoke Signals and Cleveland Sports Insiders. You can follow Jim on Twitter @Jim_IBI, or contact him via e-mail at jpete@indiansprospectinsider.com.

User Comments

Rocky55
February 3, 2014 - 11:49 AM EST
Had to say '48 for my Dad. He always said that Boudreau/Keltner were the best SS/3B combo in Tribe history and claimed that Keltner was as good with the glove as Brooks Robinson.
Daingean
February 3, 2014 - 7:50 AM EST
I'm not old enough to have seen either team but I voted 1920 for the resilience that team had having to have dealt with Chapman's death and Coveleski's wifes death also. Both won in tight races and both were managed by player-managers that are in the HOF.
John
February 2, 2014 - 11:27 PM EST
Gene Bearden. 10/4/48.
Tony
February 2, 2014 - 10:48 PM EST
What a Super Bowl clunker.

In any case, wow, it sure would be nice to have 5-10 championships to debate on this one! But I agree in that both the 1920 and 1948 teams are fascinating. Oh my how it would have been great had a third team been in the mix from either 1995, 1997, 2005 or 2007. In any case, mark me down as the 1948 team as the best. Just so many household names and Tribe legends....not that 1920 didn't have them....but I grew up on the names and stories from those 40s-50s Indians teams.....
Richard
February 2, 2014 - 7:33 PM EST
In 1948, baseball was beginning to be integrated. Including more great players. Also the war was recently over. It must have been a great time to be a baseball fan.

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