Looking back at Cleveland’s first two World Series championships

Editor’s note: This article was first published in SABR’s “Pitching to the Pennant: The 1954 Cleveland Indians,” edited by Joseph Wancho and published by University of Nebraska Press in 2014. Read all SABR biographies from the book by clicking here.

By Joseph Wancho

The trivia question came up while the Cleveland Indians announcers were filling time during a rain delay in the early 1980s: What did the 1920 and 1948 Cleveland Indians world championship teams have in common? Answer: Both teams were led by a player-manager (Tris Speaker in 1920 and Lou Boudreau in 1948).

But the player-manager aspect was not the only connection between these two teams. Both field­ed future members of the Baseball Hall of Fame at shortstop and center field. And both teams received outstanding pitching performances from unherald­ed players. And of course, like all great teams, both of these had their own unique personality. For a city and a franchise that has enjoyed just two World Se­ries titles in its history, let’s start with a look back at that 1920 squad.

1920: Spoke’s Team

As the Cleveland Indians departed from their spring training home in New Orleans, they looked to be the team to beat in the American League. At least that is what the beat writers and reporters who covered the teams in the junior circuit seemed to believe. Although such polls are informal and really don’t mean all that much, it was a mild sur­prise that the Tribe was the odds-on favorite to fin­ish on top of the standings. But Tris Speaker’s nine was given the nod by the baseball scribes in 1920 despite the strong teams that Chicago and Detroit fielded. Philadelphia manager Connie Mack was in agreement with the writers. “There’s a mighty fine fellow (Speaker) and I would like to see him make good. And I think he will. I’m picking the Indians and I generally pick the winners,” Mack said.[fn]George Wiley. The 1920 Cleveland Indians (Indiana, PA: Copies-Now, 1993), 6.[/fn]

Cleveland featured strong starters in Jim Bagby, Stan Coveleski, and Ray Caldwell. The three were so strong that combined they won 75 of the team’s 98 victories. Each recorded 20 or more wins, Bag­by leading the way with 31 victories and 30 com­plete games. The rest of the staff was made up of journeymen, and except for Dick Niehaus and Joe Boehling, there was not an experienced southpaw on the team. The lack of a lefty seemed to be the only potential mound glitch on the Indians.

The rest of the team was an offensive juggernaut, led by the triumvirate of Charlie Jamieson, Elmer Smith, and Speaker in the outfield. Steve O’Neill was a fine catcher and a formidable batsman. The infield was solid up the middle with Ray Chapman at shortstop and Bill Wambsganss at second base. The corner positions were anchored by Doc Johnston at first base and Larry Gardner manning the hot corner. Of the starting lineup, only Wambsganss (usually called Wamby) and Johnston did not ex­ceed a .300 batting average. And Johnston did not miss by much, stroking the horsehide at a .292 clip. The team average was .303.

Speaker employed the platoon system at certain positions, and he had the bench to do it. George Burns spelled Johnston at first base. Joe Evans and Smoky Joe Wood were able replacements when needed in the outfield. And then there was always Jack Graney, who at the age of 34 was still a dangerous offensive threat.

There was a new rule that banned pitchers from using a foreign substance on the baseball. This included spit, mud, and emery. A list was submitted with the names of 17 pitchers who depended on the spitball, and thus were allowed to throw it until their careers ended. Coveleski and Caldwell were two of the 17.

Cleveland opened the season at home, splitting a two-game series with St. Louis. An estimated crowd of just under twenty thousand attended the opener at League Park, located on the east side of Cleveland. Coveleski blanked the Browns, 5-0, as the Tribe backed him with a 13-hit attack. The Indians then won nine of their next 11, finding themselves percentage points behind Chicago and a half-game up on Boston as the day’s schedule concluded on May 2.

A week later, the Indians won four of five from the White Sox at Chicago. Coveleski won his sixth and seventh games of the season. He bested Eddie Cicotte in a 4-3 victory for number seven. Smith went 3 for 4, driving in two runs, and Speaker added an RBI and a triple. The Tribe had taken six of eight from the White Sox in the early going. The Indians found themselves atop the league with a 14-6 record and a half-game lead over Boston. As good as Coveleski was, Bagby was even better. He started the season at 8-0 before finally dropping his first, a relief outing against the White Sox on May 29. He did not lose a game he started until June 4, a 7-6 loss to the Browns at League Park.

The team closed the month of May winning nine of twelve, and found itself out in front of the pack with a three-and-a-half game lead over both Boston and New York. Predictably, Jamieson and Speaker led the offense in May, hitting .385 and .392, respectively. Speaker also contributed 10 doubles and 27 RBIs, both marks club highs for the month. O’Neill chipped in with 30 hits and a .345 average for the month.

The 1920 season ended the Deadball Era, and there was evidence that perhaps a different type of baseball was now being used in Major League games. For instance, from May 29 to June 4, which included two doubleheaders, the Tribe scored 66 runs on 116 hits. Another factor was Babe Ruth smacking home runs left and right for his new team, the Yankees. By August 11, he had eclipsed the 29 homers he hit the year before for Boston, on his way to swatting 54 for the year.

After Bagby lost to St. Louis on June 4, Niehaus and Coveleski also fell to the Browns. They found themselves tied with New York, each sporting 28-16 records at the end of the day on June 6. But the Indians won 12 of their next 15 games, including three of four from the Yanks at League Park. An overflow crowd of 29,266 squeezed their way into the stands for the second game, only to see Bob Shawkey shut out the Indians, 14-0. Ruth smacked his 17th home run, over the right field wall, stroked a double, and drove in two runs. Ping Bodie drove in three runs, and Cleveland starter George Uhle lasted only one-third of an inning.

The White Sox were not through either, and after getting swept by Chicago in early July, the Tribe found themselves one game behind the Yankees, while the White Sox were lurking in third place, three and a half games behind, on July 6.

On a trip east, Cleveland won four of five at Fenway Park, but lost three of four to the Yankees. The Indians’ only victory was a 4-2 win. The game went 11 innings, and Bagby went the distance to earn his 20th win. Gardner’s triple scored Chapman and Wood to provide the needed margin of victory. The team returned home to topple the White Sox, as Coveleski outdueled Lefty Williams for his 16th win. The Indians closed the month by sweeping Boston at home in a four-game series. In the finale Guy Morton surrendered only one hit as Boston scored its only run via a wild pitch in the first. The Tribe won 2-1. Heading into August, the Indians led the Yankees by three games and the White Sox by five and a half.

New York headed to Cleveland for a crucial four-game set on August 9-13. The Yanks trailed the Indians by four and a half games, and as the season was growing long, they could not afford to lose ground. And they didn’t, sweeping the Tribe, as Shawkey started and won both the first and last games of the series. A crowd estimated at close to 27,000 crowded their way into League Park for the second game, only to see the Yankees score three runs in the top of the 10th inning to win 7-4. Bob Meusel and Duffy Lewis delivered key run-scoring singles. When the Indians dropped a 5-3 game to Urban Shocker and the Browns, they found themselves in a virtual tie with New York.

The team departed Cleveland for its final eastern road trip on August 15. The Indians’ first stop was the Polo Grounds and a three-game set with the Yankees. Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, the series would mark one of the greatest­ tragedies, not only in baseball, but in all of professional sports. In the fifth inning of the first game, on August 16, Ray Chapman was struck in the head by a pitch from Yankees pitcher Carl Mays. He was rushed to St. Lawrence Hospital, where he was oper­ated on after midnight. X-rays revealed a depressed fracture on the left side of Chapman’s skull and a fracture on the right side. Once in surgery, it was discovered that Chapman had a triple fracture to the left temple, and that pieces of bone had been driven into his brain. He was pronounced dead at 4:30 a.m. on August 17.

Boston and Detroit led a petition drive to ban Mays from the league. The submarine-style pitch­er had hit 55 batters (including Chapman) to that point in the sixth year of his Major League ca­reer, and he was considered a bit reckless. Speaker did not blame Mays, though, stating that he did not believe Mays intentionally threw at Chapman. In­stead, he said he thought Chapman had time to duck out of the way of the pitch, but he never moved. To Speaker it seemed that Chapman stood at the plate in a sort of trance. Thousands of mourners jammed St. John’s Cathedral in downtown Cleveland to attend the funeral.

As the Indians continued their trip, they lost a doubleheader at Boston, getting shut out by the Red Sox in both games, 12-0 and 4-0. After losing four out of five games in the series, they moved on to Philadelphia and lost two more to the A’s before righting the ship against Washington, winning three of four. As August came to a close, the Indians found themselves in second place, a half-game behind Chicago and a half-game ahead of New York.

The team needed help, and a shot in the arm following the death of “Chappie.” Two Minor League deals supplied the boost and helped carry the squad through the final month.

The first deal sent pitchers Niehaus and To­ny Paeth to the Sacramento Senators of the Pacific Coast League for left-handed pitcher John Walter “Duster” Mails. Mails had posted an 18-17 record for the Senators at the time of the deal. He made his first start for the Indians on September 1 and beat Washington on the strength of a two-hitter. In all, he made eight starts in September, and his record was a 7-0 with an ERA of 1.85. He also beat Chi­cago with a three-hitter on September 24, provid­ing a key win down the stretch.

To replace Chapman, the Indians turned to the New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern Association, with whom they had an unofficial working agree­ment. They signed left-handed-hitting Joe Sewell for $6,000. Sewell hit .329 for the season and proved adequate in the field. He was a mainstay in Cleve­land for years, eventually being enshrined at Coo­perstown in 1977.

Cleveland had a one-and-a-half-game lead over Chicago on September 21 as the White Sox came to League Park to open a three-game series. Back in Chicago, a grand jury had been convened to inves­tigate whether seven current members of the White Sox conspired to throw the 1919 World Series. (Ar­nold “Chick” Gandil had retired after the 1919 sea­son.) The White Sox did not seem to be bothered by the allegations, and they won two of three from the Indians to close to within a half-game. As Cleveland was sweeping a four-game series in St. Louis, indict­ments were being handed up on several White Sox players. On September 28 Chicago owner Charles Comiskey announced that the players who were being investigated would be suspended from the team indefinitely. The Indians finished the year in Detroit, winning two of four from the Tigers, while the depleted Chicago squad lost two of three to the Browns to end their season.

Cleveland claimed its first pennant and headed to the World Series to face the Brooklyn Robins, who finished seven games ahead of the second-place New York Giants. Brooklyn was returning to the Series for the first time since 1916. The Robins were a formidable foe, with Zack Wheat, Burleigh Grimes, Rube Marquard, and Doc Johnston’s brother Jimmy, who manned the hot corner for the Robins.

The 1920 Fall Classic was a best-of-nine format and began with three games in Brooklyn. The Tribe lost two of three to the Robins, with Coveleski getting the only win, in the Series opener. Grimes came back to post a shutout in Game Two, scattering sev­en hits. Brooklyn right fielder Tommy Griffith went 2 for 4 and drove in two runs. Wheat knocked in the other run. Sherry Smith pitched a three-hitter in Game Three for a 2-1 victory. He got all the support he needed when the Robins scored two runs in the first inning, with Wheat and Hi Myers driving in a run apiece. Wheat also collected three hits.

The Tribe took control of the Series when the teams moved to Cleveland, winning Game Four with Burns getting a key pinch hit in the third inning that scored two runs. The Indians then dismantled the Robins in Game Five. A key play occurred in the fifth inning when, with runners on first and second base and no outs, Brooklyn pitcher Clarence Mitchell lined out to Wambsganss. Wamby converted the out into an unassisted triple play. Bagby got the win and backed his outing with a three-run homer in the fourth inning, the first pitcher to do so in the World Series. Elmer Smith also homered, stroking the first grand slam in Series history. The Indians cruised to an 8-1 victory. Mails and Coveleski pitched shutouts in Games Six and Seven to give Cleveland its first world championship since it entered the American League in 1901.

1948: A Veteran Team

Unlike the 1920 edition of the Cleveland Indians, the 1948 squad wasn’t expected to finish higher than third in the American League. When The Sporting News made its annual predictions in the April 21 issue, the Indians were placed behind Boston and New York. Ed McCauley of the Cleveland News wrote, “Enough improvement over last year to suggest third-place finish.”[fn]”Red Sox, Redbirds Rated Flag Redhots,” The Sporting News, April 21, 1948, 3.[/fn] The Indians had finished fourth in 1947, 17 games back of New York.

But a series of player moves after the 1946 season had laid the foundation for success in 1948. The In­dians sent pitcher Allie Reynolds to the Yankees for second baseman Joe Gordon. Several weeks later, the Indians and Yankees were trade partners again, with second baseman Ray Mack and catcher Sherm Lollar moving to New York and outfielder Hal Peck and pitchers Al Gettel and Gene Bearden heading to Cleveland. Gordon provided leadership and credi­bility because of the success he’d had in New York, where he had helped lead the Yankees to five pen­nants. He led the Tribe in home runs in both 1947 and 1948. But the real surprise was Bearden, who pitched with Oakland of the Pacific Coast League in 1947, posting a 16-7 record. The tall, strapping left-hander tied for Cleveland’s team lead in victories with 20 in 1948.

On July 5, 1947, Larry Doby made his Major League debut with Cleveland, becoming the first black player in the American League. Although he was a second baseman for Newark in the Negro National League, he was relegated to pinch-hitting duties in 24 of the 29 games he appeared in that season, hitting .156.

In 1948 the Tribe’s everyday lineup was stocked with veterans at every postseason, with the exception of Doby, who found a new home in center field. Gordon and Lou Boudreau at shortstop were a formidable keystone combo. Eddie Robinson roamed first base while Ken Keltner was stationed across the diamond at third. Third-year man Dale Mitchell played left field and Bob Kennedy held down right field. Jim Hegan was considered one of the best receivers in the league behind the plate. Allie Clark and Thurman Tucker were both capable reserves.

Bob Lemon, Bob Feller, and Bearden started the bulk of the team’s 156 games, toeing the rubber in a combined 104 starts. Satchel Paige, Steve Gromek, Sam Zoldak, and Don Black all contributed as start­ers and relievers. Russ Christopher led the team with 17 saves. (Saves were not an official statistic until 1969.)

The Indians opened the season at Cleveland Stadi­um as Feller blanked the St. Louis Browns on two hits for a 4-0 win. Hegan went 3 for 3, driving in three runs. He hit the first homer of the season, a two­-run shot in the fourth inning. The turnstiles were busy as a crowd of 73,163 witnessed the shutout.

But the Indians did not stop there, as they won their first six games, making it a perfect month in April. During a three-game sweep of the Tigers in Detroit, Keltner put on his hitting shoes, smack­ing four home runs and driving in eight runs. After dropping for four in a row to begin May, the Tribe went 17-7 the rest of the month. On May 10 Doby collected four hits in a 12-7 win over Boston at Fen­way Park. He drove in two runs, scored three, and hit his fifth home run of the year. Bearden got his first start on May 8, topping the Senators 6-1 on a three-hitter. For the month, he posted a 4-1 record and a sparkling 1.24 ERA. After splitting a doubleheader with the Browns on May 31, the Indians found themselves one game behind Philadelphia and in second place of the American League standings.

After taking three of four on the road at New York on June 11-13, Cleveland took over first place, leading Philadelphia by three games. But the Red Sox came to town and swept the Indians in three straight. The second game was blown wide open by a pair of two-run homers off Feller, by Ted Williams and Bobby Doerr, in a 7-4 loss. Cleveland then lost three of four to New York at home on June 21-24. In the third game, Tommy Henrich smashed a grand slam in the top of the 11th as the Yankees won 5-1 before 65,797 customers. The Indians’ lead over the Yankees was down to one and a half games. The month did end on a good note when Bob Lemon hurled the ninth no-hitter in team history, beating the Tigers 2-0 at Briggs Stadium. Lemon struck out four and walked three batters.

From July 3 to 24, Dale Mitchell put together a 21-game hitting streak in which he batted .443 with eight doubles and three triples. He drove in 11 runs. On July 9, Leroy “Satch­el” Paige made his Major League debut, tossing two innings in relief of Lemon in a 5-3 loss to St. Lou­is. Heading into the All-Star break, the Indians sat atop the standings, a half-game ahead of the Ath­letics, and two and a half games over New York.

The 15th All-Star Game was played July 13 at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis. The Indians were well represented in the midsummer classic, with Lemon, Feller, Keltner, Boudreau, and Gordon all being selected to the team.

After winning three of four in Washington (July 18-20), the Indians lost five of six in a trip through New York and Boston (July 21-25). By month’s end Cleveland was tied with New York for third place, two games off the pace. The streaking Red Sox went 18-3 from the break until the end of July to catapult into first place.

It was anybody’s pennant to win over the last two months of the season, with two games separating the Red Sox, Athletics, Yankees, and Indians.

Bearden picked up his ninth victory on August 5, shutting out the Senators 3-0. He hit his first Major League home run in the third inning, and Hegan added two solo shots in the win. From August 12-20, Cleveland finally got a streak going, stringing together eight wins in a row. During the streak, Satchel Paige authored two shutouts, both over the White Sox. The first was on August 13 at Comiskey Park, a 5-0 win. The second was a tight 1-0 contest on August 20 at Cleveland Stadium. A couple of reserves played big roles on August 18, when Sam Zoldak shut out St. Louis, 3-0. Allie Clark went 3 for 4 and scored all three runs.

Larry Doby put together his own 21-game hitting streak from August 22 through September 16, during which he batted .345, hit three homers, and drove in 13 runs. He also stroked four doubles and three triples in this period.

But Boston was building steam as the last month played out. The Red Sox went 20-3 from August 20 through September 11. Near the end of the month, Cleveland went on an 11-3 run. Not to be outdone, New York was also playing solidly, go­ing 22-6 from August 17 to September 11. When the day’s action was completed on September 11, the Red Sox led second-place New York by three games and Cleveland was in third, three-and-a-half games back.

On September 11 Lemon won his 20th game, beating the Browns 9-1. Kennedy, Gordon, Tucker, and Hegan all doubled and Keltner drove in three runs. From September 16-22, the Indians won seven games in a row, the last a 5-2 win over Boston. The win gave Feller, who struck out six, his 17th of the campaign. Keltner blasted his 28th homer of the year, a two-run job in the first inning. The win pulled Boston and Cleveland into a tie for first place with 91-55 records. The Yankees were a half-game out at 90-55.

Cleveland and Boston were both 5-3 to finish September. For the Tribe, Bearden and Feller each won two games down the stretch on their way to each winning 19 for the season. New York wrapped up the month with a 4-4 record, losing the final two games of the season to Boston. Cleveland and Boston finished with identical 96-58 records.

A one-game playoff was set for October 4 at Fenway Park. Boudreau sent Bearden to the hill and Boston skipper Joe McCarthy tabbed the journeyman Denny Galehouse to start. Cleveland jumped out to a 5-1 lead in the fourth, courtesy of a three-run homer by Keltner. Boudreau added two solo shots of his own. Bearden went the distance, striking out six on the way to his 20th win. Cleveland punched its ticket to the Fall Classic with an 8-3 win.

Cleveland did not need to travel far to meet its World Series opponent, the Boston Braves. Game One was scheduled for October 6 at Braves Field. The Braves finished six-and-a-half games ahead of the favored St. Louis Cardinals and were looking for their first world title since 1914. They fielded a solid team with Eddie Stanky at second base and Alvin Dark at shortstop. Outfielders Tommy Holmes and Jeff Heath, along with infielders Earl Torgeson and Bob Elliott, were formidable hitters. (Heath, a former Indian, had broken his ankle in a game four days before the end of the season, and was out of the World Series.) Johnny Sain, Warren Spahn, and Bill Voiselle formed a dreaded pitching staff for opposing teams.

Game One was a pitching duel, with Sain besting Feller 1-0. Sain struck out six and walked none, as Holmes singled home pinch-runner Phil Masi with the winning run in the bottom of the eighth. It was only the second hit given up by Feller. Just before the hit, Masi was called safe on a pickoff play even though he appeared to be out — a controversial decision by second-base umpire Bill Stewart.

Lemon won Game Two, 4-1, and the Series shifted to Cleveland for the next three games. The Cleveland crowd was ready, as the attendance for the trio of games was a whopping 238,491. Bearden shut out the Braves 2-0 in Game Three, scattering five hits. Steve Gromek beat the Braves 2-1 in Game Four, as Boudreau and Doby drove in a run apiece. The stage was set for the Indians to wrap up the Series at home, and a then-record crowd of 86,288 entered Cleveland Stadium to get in on the party. But Spahn was better than Feller, and the Braves walloped the Indians 11-5, forcing a return to Boston.

Lemon and Bearden combined to wrap up the world championship for Cleveland, beating the Braves 4-3 at Braves Field. Lemon was credited with the win. Gordon hit a solo shot in the sixth inning, and Boudreau, Hegan, and Robinson were each credited with an RBI.

World Series championships in Cleveland can be summed up in one phrase: few and far between.

JOSEPH WANCHO was the editor for “Pitching to the Pennant: The 1954 Cleveland Indians,” published by University of Nebraska Press in 2014. He is also the co-chair of SABR’s Minor Leagues Research Committee.

Originally published: October 19, 2016. Last Updated: October 19, 2016.