This article was written by Joseph Wancho
When there is a discussion regarding who is the best major-league baseball team in history, the conversation usually begins and ends with the 1927 New York Yankees. They ravaged the rest of the American League, posting a 110-44 record. At the time, it was the top mark in the AL and tied the 1909 Pittsburgh Pirates1 for the second-most wins of all time. The Yankees were nicknamed Murderers’ Row for their powerful lineup that included four Hall of Famers, Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, Babe Ruth, and Earle Combs.
Members of the Bronx Bombers led in every offensive category except batting average. Ruth topped the league in home runs (60), runs (158), walks (137), on-base percentage (.486), and slugging percentage (.772). Gehrig led the league in doubles (52), RBIs (173) and intentional walks (9). Combs topped everyone in hits (231) and triples (23).
New York swept the Pirates in four games in the 1927 World Series. One year later, the Yankees swept the St. Louis Cardinals. They became an icon, and the moniker Murderers’ Row is still revered when the question is asked: Who was the best?
By comparison, the Cleveland Indians fielded a team in 1954 whose lineup was not as intimidating as the Bronx Bombers. Larry Doby led the league in home runs (32) and RBIs (126). Bobby Avila was second in batting average (.341) and Al Smith was tied for second in doubles (29) with Chicago’s Minnie Minoso.
The Indians’ strength was their pitching staff. They had strong pitching staffs from 1948 through 1956, as they boasted 16 20-win seasons, three strikeout leaders, and four ERA champs.
The Indians dominated most of the AL in 1954 with the exception of New York and Chicago. Both the Yankees and White Sox finished the season with 11-11 records against Cleveland. The Indians had their way against most of the other teams, posting superior records against Boston (20-2), Baltimore (19-3), and Philadelphia and Washington (18-4). The Tribe put together two 11-game winning streaks, May 13-23 and September 8-20.
The Indians needed all of these wins as they battled the Yankees all season. Cleveland led New York by 6½ games going into a doubleheader on September 12 at Cleveland Stadium. A crowd of 86,563 turned out for the double-dip. The Indians did not disappoint the home crowd, sweeping the New Yorkers, 4-1 and 3-2.
On September 22, Cleveland defeated the White Sox, 3-2, to win their 110th game. They closed the season with a three-game set against Detroit at home. After dropping the first game, 6-4, the teams met for game two on September 25.
A minuscule crowd of 8,647 turned out for the Saturday afternoon game. Detroit started right-handed hurler George Zuverink (9-12, 3.40 ERA). Zuverink had 25 of his 31 career starts in 1954. For the most part, his big-league career was spent as a reliever, covering eight seasons with Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit, and Baltimore.
The Indians countered with their own righty in Early Wynn (22-11, 2.79 ERA). It was the third time Wynn had won 20 or more games in his career and he was chasing Lemon for a share of the team and league lead in wins with 23.
Wynn set the Tigers down in order in the top of the first inning. The Indians struck first in the home half. With one away, Avila singled to center field. Doby followed with a double to right field. Avila sped to third base and scored on Al Kaline’s throwing error. Doby attempted to take third base, but was thrown out, 5-2-1.
Cleveland extended its lead to 3-0 in the bottom of the third inning. With one out, Smith and Avila got on base with singles and each moved up a base as Doby grounded out to shortstop for the second out. Rudy Regalado singled to right field to drive in both runners.
Meanwhile, Wynn was having little trouble with the Tigers lineup. Through the first five innings, he was perfect. The Tigers went three up and three down through the first five innings.
In the bottom of the fifth, Cleveland pulled away for good. With one out, Smith walked. He advanced to third on a double to left field by Avila. Doby was given an intentional free pass to load the bases. Detroit skipper Fred Hutchinson went to his bullpen and brought in Frank Lary to relieve Zuverink. The first batter he faced was Dale Mitchell, pinch-hitting for Regalado. Mitchell doubled to left field to plate both Smith and Avila. Bill Glynn fouled out to first base for the second out. Dave Philley doubled to left field, scoring both Doby and Mitchell.
With Cleveland stretching its advantage to 7-0, the only question was whether Wynn would be able to succeed in his bid for a perfect game. The Tigers finally got a man on base in the sixth when Red Wilson walked. In the top of the seventh inning, Wynn issued back-to-back walks to Fred Hatfield and Jim Delsing. But Wynn settled down to get the next three batters. Though the perfect game was gone, a no-hitter was still a possibility.
The Indians blew it open with four unearned runs in the bottom of the seventh inning. Wynn surrendered another walk in the top of the eighth inning, but still but still held the Tigers without a base hit.
The drama ended in the top of the ninth when Hatfield led off with a single to right field. He moved to second when Wynn uncorked a wild pitch. Delsing flied out to left, and Bud Souchock followed with a slashing triple to left field. Hatfield’s run made the final score 11-1.
The Cleveland Indians were now holders of the AL single-season record for victories in a season with 111.
The win raised Wynn’s record to 23-11. He struck out four and walked four. Zuverink took the loss and his record dropped to 9-13. He gave up six runs, all earned, struck out two, and walked three.
“I guess it was a little trouble with control that got me,” Wynn said. “I got ahead of Hatfield, then got three balls on him and had to come in with one. It was a fastball that he hit.”2
“I figured to let him go six, maybe seven, innings,” Indians manager Al Lopez said. “But the fellow was going so good, I began to think he’d get it. I sure wish he had – he’s pitched great ball for us this year.”3
Unfortunately for the Indians, the winningest season did not mean a world championship. They were swept in the World Series by the New York Giants.
In 1998, playing a 162-game schedule, the Yankees (114-48) eclipsed Cleveland for most wins in a season in the AL. In 2001, the Seattle Mariners set the bar even higher with a mark of 116-46. Seattle tied the 1906 Chicago Cubs for the major-league record for most wins in a season with 116.
However, the 1954 Indians, playing a 154-game schedule, still own the highest winning percentage, .721.
The author accessed Baseball-Reference.com for box scores/play-by-play information, and other data (baseball-reference.com/boxes/CLE/CLE195409250.shtml), as well as Retrosheet (retrosheet.org/boxesetc/1954/B09250CLE1954.htm).
1 At 110-42, the 1909 Pirates finished with a slightly better winning percentage (.724) than the 1927 Yankees (.714) by virtue of playing two fewer games.
2 Dan Cordtz, “No-Hit Bid Keeps Wynn Overtime,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 26, 1954: 6-C.