Once upon a time, there were five cursed teams in baseball. The great knight Theo came along and slew The Curse of the Bambino and the Billy Goat Curse, thus freeing Red Sox of Boston and the Chicago’s Cubs. The great Giants of the land of San Francisco and the Chicago Sox that were White also broke free of their longtime yokes. That left one more: The land and lake of Cleveland and its Indians. Their World Series drought is the fifth-longest in baseball history and the longest that’s still running.
The Indians of the Land of Cleve (okay, I’ll stop now) are one of a lot of teams named after Native Americans, but their name presents probably the widest, weirdest gap between the claim the team makes and what actually happened. What’s even weirder is that the team claims the version of the story which it knows makes them look bad. The longtime claim of the Indians is that they named themselves for having signed a player named Louis Sockalexis, a Native American – Penobscot tribe – who played for the Cleveland Spiders from 1897 to 1899. Being the pre-modern days, his accomplishments of three home runs and 55 RBI aren’t the most impressive, but he did conclude his career with a sick .313 batting average. In his first season, he hit a whopping .338 and 42 RBIs in 66 games. Unfortunately, his alcoholism caught up to him after that year, probably fueled by the nonstop racist taunts. Journalists referred to his disease as “Indian weakness.” He was released in 1899 after playing seven games for a team that was considered the worst in baseball history – yes, even more so than the 1962 New York Mets. He later suffered from tuberculosis and heart trouble before dying in his native Maine in 1913, 42 years old. He was later elected to the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame.
What actually happened was that the Boston Braves won the World Series after making a miracle run in 1914 which, by baseball’s laws of space and time, shouldn’t have ever happened. The team figured having a name relating to the country’s Native population must bring good luck, so it latched on to the idea and ran with it. None of the reports from any of Cleveland’s dailies back then brought Louis Sockalexis’s name up, but they all mentioned all the bad stereotypes people had of Native Americans.
In any case, the story of baseball in Cleveland starts in 1869, when a professional team was established to follow the success of Cincinnati’s Red Stockings earlier that season. They were called the Forest Citys. (The misspelling is deliberate.) They joined the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players in 1871 only to fold a year later. The National League was founded in 1876, and while Cleveland wasn’t involved in it, the re-created team jumped aboard when the NL started looking for expansions in 1879. They ended up changing their name to the Cleveland Blues for a new dress code, but Forest City or Blues, they still sucked for the better part of six years. I know this is the part when I usually tell fans how they found a keystone that made them better, and… Nope! The Blues were then destroyed when the Union Association popped up in 1884 and pirated Cleveland’s three best players. The only thing they could do to save themselves was merge with the St. Louis Maroons, which was part of the UA, in 1885. Cleveland got a new team in the American Association – the Spiders – two years later, which jumped to the NL in 1889.
While the Spiders are best-known for what happened at the end of the decade, they were actually a force in the league in the preceding years. Led by pitcher Cy Young, they went to that era’s equivalent to the World Series – the Temple Cup Series – and won it in 1895. They began to fade after that, though, and team owner Frank Robison decided to go out and buy the St. Louis Browns just before the 1899 season. That means Robison now had two teams to dote over, except all the doting went in St. Louis’s direction. Cleveland was considered a small market, and St. Louis had more promise. So Robison renamed the Browns the St. Louis Perfectos and sent all of Cleveland’s best players – including Cy Young – there in an effort to make them good. In a case of karmic retribution, the Perfectos less than lived up to their name and finished in fifth for the proceeding two years. But what the poor Spiders got left with is the stuff of legends, and not in a good way. Left with a minor league lineup, the Spiders spent the year getting stomped. They lost at a record pace, drew no fans, and finished the year in 12th place. Their record was 20-134, which left them with a .130 winning percentage and an incredible 84 games away from the Pennant. The National League let go of four teams after that season, and not wanting to deal with the mess the Spiders turned into, they got canned. And THAT is why sports owners aren’t allowed to own more than one team per sport. Several owners own teams in multiple sports, but no one has more than one in any one sport. We’ll call this The Norris Effect. (See: The NHL Original Six.)
In 1900, Cleveland tried again, this time with the Grand Rapids Rustlers of the Western League, who moved in. They renamed themselves the Cleveland Lake Shores, but changed their name again to the Bluebirds after Ban Johnson changed the Western League to the American League and declared the AL a major league. It would be the first of many name changes – first writers shortened the name to the Blues because of their blue uniforms, and the players, not liking either name, tried but failed to call them the Broncos. In the meantime, the Bluebirds had so many financial problems in his first two seasons that owner Charles Somers considered turning Pittsburgh or Cincinnati into two-team cities. But the Bluebirds ended up catching a huge break: In 1901, Philadelphia Phillies star Napoleon Lajoie jumped to the Philadelphia Athletics because his salary was capped. The Phillies used the law system to get him back, but the injunction they filed turned out to only be enforceable in Pennsylvania. So the Athletics zipped him over to the Bluebirds as a favor, because they had helped keep the Athletics stay afloat by lending them money. Lajoie was a star in Cleveland right off. Even though he had to sit out any games he played in Philadelphia because of the injunction, he was an immediate draw. The fans went a little overboard celebrating him as a savior: They named him Captain, then after a newspaper contest, the whole team ended up being named after him. So the Cleveland Bluebirds/Blues were now the Cleveland Naps. Then they named him the Manager in 1905, a position he held until his own resignation in 1909. They fell half a game short of the Pennant in 1908.
Lajoie stayed with the Naps as a player, and in 1910 they grabbed Shoeless Joe Jackson from a Southern Association team called the New Orleans Pelicans. But their pitching stunted them, so they never got above third place for most of the next decade. Hell, they finished at rock bottom in 1914 and 1915. After 1915, Lajoie was sold back to the Athletics, partly because he didn’t get along with the Manager and partly because he was creeping up on 40 and not hitting like he used to. Without him, the team renamed itself again since, you know, Nap wasn’t a Nap anymore. So a bunch of baseball writers rung up the name Cleveland Indians. And that wasn’t even the biggest thing that happened that year. Somers was in debt after his business ventures started failing, so he traded Jackson to the Chicago White Sox and sold the Indians. Then Manager Lee Fohl got his hands on a couple of minor league pitchers, Stan Coveleski and Jim Bagby, and they also traded for Boston Red Sox outfielder Tris Speaker. Speaker took to managing the Indians in 1919. The next year, shortstop Ray Chapman got conked on the head by New York Yankees pitcher Carl Mays. The pitch had fractured his skull, and Chapman died the next day, becoming the only player to get killed after being hit by a pitched ball. (Again, this is why beaning batters is childish. If you whine that a batter disrespected you, you need to fucking pitch better.) You would think a team would be overcome by grief and use it as an excuse to lose, but that didn’t happen. Chapman was replaced by rookie Joe Sewell, who hit .329, and the Indians ran neck and neck with the White Sox down to the end of the season. Cleveland was 94-54, and Chicago 95-56 in September. Then some rather unseemly information popped up about the White Sox, who had won the Pennant the year before: Eight of their guys had conspired to throw the World Series that ensued. Charles Comiskey, the Sox owner, immediately suspended all eight players. The Indians took advantage, went 4-2 in their last two series, and took the Pennant. Speaker hit .388 and Bagby won 30 games. In the World Series, the opposing Brooklyn Robins took a 2-1 Series lead, but Cleveland won the next four to wrap up their first title.
That was the highlight of the Cleveland Indians for awhile. Speaker and Coveleski got old, and the Yankees started winning everything in sight by turning the home run into a weapon. The Indians spent the next decade hanging around at the bottom step of the ladder, and things didn’t improve very much after that. They were finishing in third or fourth a lot in the 30’s, thanks in part to the work of pitcher Bob Feller. Signed when he was 17 years old, Feller was equipped with a nasty fastball which he once used to set a record by striking out 17 batters in one game. From 1938 to 1941, he led the league in strikeouts. The Indians were stocked with Feller, Ken Keltner, Mel Harder, and Lou Boudreau in 1940, and they took the team to one game from the Pennant. They also hated manager Ossie Vitt’s guts, and Feller and Harder kept demanding that Vitt be fired. Feller won 27 games that year, pitching a no-hitter to start the season, but lost the final game of the year to an unknown pitcher on the Detroit Tigers named Floyd Giebell. Detroit won the Pennant. Giebell never won another major league game. Cleveland entered 1941 young, refreshed, and managed anew!… And finished fourth. And in December of that same year, the United States entered World War II. The war took away a lot of the baseball talent all around. Feller enlisted in the Navy two days after Pearl Harbor got bombed. In 1945, Keltner and Ray Mack were drafted.
After the war, the Indians had a solid team, and Bill Veeck knew that when he bought them in 1946. Veeck had a gift for promotion, but he also had a great baseball acumen, which is why he broke the American League color barrier in 1947 by signing Larry Doby. That happened 11 weeks after Jackie Robinson made his debut. While Doby doesn’t receive Robinson’s accolades, he was nearly as good a player; he batted .301 in 1948 and led the American League in homers twice. It was also in 1948 that Veeck signed Satchel Paige, an aging, past-his-prime pitcher who was written off as another stunt. The 42-year-old Paige was and still is the oldest rookie in MLB history, and he was also the first black pitcher in MLB. But there was a reason Veeck signed him, and everyone learned it when Paige posted a 6-1 record with a 2.48 ERA, 45 strikeouts, and two shutouts. The Tribe raced against the Red Sox throughout the season, and everything wound down to the first-ever one-game playoff between Cleveland and Boston. Cleveland captured the Pennant, then defeated the Boston Braves in the World Series for their second championship.
Veeck was forced to sell the Indians in 1949 because of his divorce – his ex-wife had a half-stake in Veeck’s share of the team, and in any case, most of his money was tied up with it. But that didn’t bother the Indians, who spent the 50’s fielding a powerhouse which included Al Rosen, Bob Lemon, Mike Garcia, Luke Easter, and Bobby Avila. But those guys all did them a whole fat load of bridesmaid finishes; with the Yankees fielding their Whitey Ford/Mickey Mantle/Yogi Berra dynasty, Cleveland basically ended up fighting over second place with the White Sox. They only won the Pennant once. That was in 1954, when the Tribe burned through the AL to the sweet tune of 111 wins, which was a record in the American League until the Yankees won 114 games in 1998. (What? Did you think it would be the San Diego Padres?) They beat out the Yankees for the Pennant by eight games. They also got themselves swept by the New York Giants in a World Series defined by an over-the-shoulder catch Giants star Willie Mays made in game one.
Rocky Colavito made his debut the next year. Colavito quickly established himself as a keystone and fan favorite. Surely the Indians could win the World Series again with him! Sadly for Cleveland, the team’s general manager at the time was Frank Lane, better known as Trader Lane because, well, he liked to trade. He once said the only deals he regretted were the ones he didn’t make. And you can tell where this is going, can’t you? It took five years, happening in 1960. It was with the Tigers in exchange Harvey Kuenn. Colavito became a big hit in Detroit, while Kuenn, after winning the AL batting title as a Tiger, played one season for Cleveland before hightailing it to San Francisco. The popular baseball curse mythos eventually reared its head over it, and this is today known as the beginning of the Curse of Rocky Colavito. As with the Curse of the Bambino, which was a cute nickname that sportswriter Dan Shaughnessy thought up for a book – Shaughnessy himself seems to think the idea of a curse is silly – the whole thing picked up ground when author Terry Pluto wrote a book called The Curse of Rocky Colavito. Colavito himself said he never cursed the Indians. He just had a fight over money with Lane. Not that it made any difference to the Indians, who generally performed pretty well in the 60’s and even brought Colavito back in 1965. (His second run in Cleveland went two more years before he was traded again, this time to the White Sox.) Throughout the 60’s, the Indians dominated the pitching books, setting tons of records and leading the league in strikeouts every year from 1963 to 1968. In 1968, they became the first staff with more strikeouts than hits allowed.
So! Do the names Graig Nettles, Dennis Eckersley, Buddy Bell, and Chris Chambliss mean anything to you? Of course they do! They were all stars and impact players! And do you know what else they all had in common? They all played for Cleveland! And they all got traded away early in their careers for paperweights and paper mache! Yeah, the Indians of the 70’s were one of those teams for whom the best that can be said is that they at least weren’t much worse than their rivals. The best thing that probably happened to them was that they broke the second big color barrier by hiring Frank Robinson to manage in 1975. He was the first black manager in baseball. Unfortunately, he didn’t prove to be much better than anyone else who managed the Indians for the decade, which in 1977 resulted in Robinson becoming the first black manager to get fired. The only thing the Indians did that really got attention in the 70’s was Ten-Cent Beer Night, which was just what was written on the label: Every beer was a dime! Customers could only buy up to six beers per purchase, and purchases were, uh, UNLIMITED! Now, in all fairness, the Tribe had held a few promotions like that before, starting in 1971 with a Nickel Beer Day. Of course, there’s a difference between a DAY and a NIGHT, and people tend to limit their drinking more when the sun is peeking out. And this promotion came in a series against the Texas Rangers a week after the Rangers and Indians had a bench-clearing brawl in Texas. And despite cheap beer’s well-known ability to resurrect the dead, preparation for the promo in Cleveland was spectacularly short-sighted. The 25,134 fans who showed up for this showdown between these terrible teams was double the expected crowd. The number of security guards was under 50 – a number which had also been doubled from the usual. During the game, the Rangers went up 5-1 while the crowd drank away and lost its senses. There were numerous flashers and a streaker. As the game kept going, fans started running out onto the field and pelting players with whatever loose object they could throw. Despite everything, the game kept going, especially when Cleveland started to rally in the bottom of the ninth to tie the game at five. Unfortunately, the drunks really got out of control by then, and after the Indians tied the game, a fan ran onto the field to try to steal the cap of Rangers star Jeff Burroughs. Burroughs tripped when he confronted the fan, but it probably didn’t look that way from the dugout, so no one could blame Rangers manager Billy Martin for leading his team onto the field to defend Burroughs. And Martin, a fighty character at his nicest, meant business this time – some of his players were carrying bats. As the Rangers rushed out to rescue Burroughs, fans started streaming onto the field armed with whatever they were carrying – knives and chains in some cases, and a few with bits of the seats they had ripped up. Others started pelting the field with debris. In a show of solidarity which was a striking contrast from the previous week’s fight, the Indians realized the Rangers could have been in real danger, grabbed their bats, and rushed out to help them. Umpire Nestor Chylak was hoping order could be restored so the Indians might have a chance to finish their comeback, but when a thrown knife landed somewhere around his feet, he changed his mind and declared a forfeit to Texas. The team had two more Ten-Cent Beer Nights planned, but after this, they decided to… Limit the number of beers fans could buy for the night to two. Unfortunately, the accounts of what happened then tend to diverge, at least in my own sources. Some say the Indians ran the next one without incident. Others say AL president Lee MacPhail told the Cleveland Indians, “Don’t even fucking THINK about it.”
As you can probably guess, the 80’s were rather bereft of bright spots. Len Barker tossed a perfect game against the Toronto Blue Jays in 1981, but the only big deal other than that was only marginally related to baseball: The movie Major League was released in 1989. I think Major League is a little overrated, but I can see why people love it, and it doesn’t make the mistake of trying to smooth out the rough edges of the baseball jock for family audiences. But the popular comedy was made about the Indians by a pair of longtime Indians fans, and it was about a hapless team turning around. Little did they know what the team was about to become!
In 1989, the team made another one of its this-is-why-you-shouldn’t-get-attached-to-your-favorite-players trades with the Padres: They sent over Joe Carter for Carlos Baerga and Sandy Alomar. Both became All-Stars. Then in 1991, manager Mike Hargrove was hired while the team made a trade with the Houston Astros that won them Kenny Lofton. Although a boat crash killed pitchers Steve Olin and Tim Crews in 1993, the Indians proved to be in a real transition. After the following season was wiped out by the players’ strike, the Indians emerged in 1995 as one of the best teams in the AL. With players like Dennis Martinez, Orel Hershiser, Eddie Murray, Albert Belle, Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Charles Nagy, and Lofton leading the way, the stacked team won its first Pennant since 1954. They came into the World Series to play against the Atlanta Braves, a team whose existence had been pretty parallel with the Indians. In a case of the better team winning, it was the Braves who walked out alive in six games. Although it was a disappointment, it wasn’t unexpected. The inexcusable happened two years later: The Indians won the Pennant again. Their opponents in the Fall Classic this year were the Florida Marlins, an expansion team created in 1993. This one came down to the wire; the Indians and Marlins exchanged wins for the whole series. Florida won the first game, Cleveland the second, Florida the third, Cleveland the fourth, and so on. In the seventh game, Cleveland looked poised to break the pattern, taking a 2-1 lead into the ninth. The championship looked like a lock when the Tribe had Jose Mesa, one of the league’s best closers, on for the last inning. But Mesa had this habit of zoning out, and he picked the absolute worst time to zone out. He gave up his run, the game went into extra innings, and the Marlins went out and grabbed a third run in the 11th which won the game and the Series.
A couple more strong – but not great – years led the the start of the rebuild in 2002. Their offense was in good shape by 2004, which they showed when they pounded the Yankees 22-0, but what they made in offense, they more than lacked up in pitching – especially with a bullpen that blew more than 20 saves. But that was okay, because the Indians had decided to build again by process, which would take a few years. The bullpen was finally addressed in 2007 with Aaron Fultz and Joe Borowski. They got better, were in second by the All-Star break, and brought Kenny Lofton back in July. At the end of the year, the Indians were tied with the Red Sox for the best record in baseball with 96-66 and had themselves a division title. They began the playoffs by knocking off the Yankees in a series best remembered for the swarm of bugs the overtook the field – and the Yankees – in the second game. The ensuing ALCS is best remembered for the Indians doing a thing they have since perfected: Blowing a 3-1 series lead! At least the opposing Red Sox won the World Series, so the Indians can argue that they were the second-best team in baseball.
The Tribe was dim for the next few years. An 80-win season in 2011 gave fans false hope, but the team still wasn’t going anywhere. So after the 2012 season, they hired manager Terry Francona, a two-time World Series Champion with the Red Sox. It didn’t take long for Francona to work his magic. In 2013, the Indians finished second in their division with 92 wins after winning 68 games the previous year. Although they weren’t quite as good for the next couple of years, they were still winning. Then in 2016, Cleveland won 94 games and the division. They started the playoffs by sweeping the Red Sox out of the ALDS, then beat the Blue Jays in five games behind dominant pitching performances to grab the Pennant. It would be an interesting World Series, to say the least: They were facing the Chicago Cubs, making this Fall Classic a contest between the only two cursed teams left in MLB. Cubs president Theo Epstein also happened to be the general manager for the Red Sox teams that Francona used to manage. Also, even though the Cubs were the overwhelming favorite and best team in baseball for the year – with good reason – everyone was backing them up. The Indians looked more like a one-year Cinderella wonder. But The Tribe was able to win a good amount of attention during the Series; everyone started rethinking the paper mismatch after the Indians ran up a 3-1 lead in the Series. The Cubs had a lot of choking, disappointment, and losing in their past, which included a 71-year Pennant drought to go with a 108-year Championship drought. These Cubs, however, weren’t the Cubs most of the players for the Indians grew up watching reliably giving up games. Honoring their last two big series – the 1997 World Series and especially the 2007 ALCS – the Tribe proceeded to choke and gag away the lead, leading to a seventh game. Although the seventh game started out looking like a routine Cubs victory on the season like so many other, and the Cubs had the Indians on a 5-2 rope at one point, The Tribe fought back into the game with a three-run homer from Rajai Davis in the eighth inning which tied the game at six, which was enough to send it into extra innings. The top of the tenth saw the Cubs put two more runs on the board, but potential hero Rajai Davis followed up his big home run with a single that batted in Brandon Guyer as a response. And the Indians were really close to tying and possibly winning in the tenth inning too, but when Michael Martinez hit a soft ground ball which was quickly fielded, Cleveland’s faithful were stuck going home again to replay the happiness of a Cleveland team which, earlier in the year, had overcome a 3-1 series deficit in the Finals to win. LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers were the city’s big damn heroes for breaking whatever sports curse wasn’t letting Cleveland win anything since the old Browns 52 years before.
The Indians have retired eight numbers: Those of Bob Feller, Lou Boudreau, Earl Averill, Mel Harder, Larry Doby, Bob Lemon, Jackie Robinson, and the number 455 is retired for The Fans. Robinson never played for Cleveland, but there’s a sort of harmony in the fact that his number is hanging in Cleveland’s Progressive Field alongside that of Larry Doby. Doby was the first black player in the American League and the second black player overall in Major League Baseball. He doesn’t have Robinson’s accolades, and no one outside Cleveland knows his name because he was second to be integrated. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t accomplished: He was a seven-time All-Star who led the American League in home runs twice and RBI once. The Indians were also the team that signed the first black pitcher in MLB, Satchel Paige, a year later. Since he was 42 years old by then, everyone thought he was another one of Bill Veeck’s cute little stunts. But the thing with the black leagues back then is that they tended to be less restrictive with their rules; pitchers could experiment and throw as they pleased, and batters had to learn how to hit some pretty wild pitches. Paige put up some respectable numbers despite being past his prime. Those who watched and played against him in the Negro Leagues, though, seem to agree that he was universally the greatest pitcher to ever play the sport. In the 30’s, Paige frequently barnstormed against a team that none other than Dizzy Dean pitched for. Dean said Paige was the greatest pitcher he ever saw.
In inter league play, the Indians play against the Cincinnati Reds for the right to hoist the Ohio Cup! As far as I’ve found so far, the Indians and Reds are the only teams that use their inter league rivalry to compete for such an arbitrary prize. I guess it’s some sort of bragging right – the Reds have won the World Series five times (four if we decide not to include the 1919 title) and the Indians have won it twice, and I wouldn’t bet on either of them doing it again anytime in the near future. The series began in 1989, was wiped out when inter league play was introduced in 1997 and the games started to actually count, and brought back in 2008.
I hate bringing this up, but: That fucking logo. He has a name – he’s Chief Wahoo. As an outside observer, the name is the stupidest, most tasteless thing about the image the Indians are trying to present to the world as a first-class organization. On the name, I tend to not have any strong opinion one way or the other; unlike the Washington Redskins, the name Indians isn’t an outright slur. You can’t get away with pointing out that it’s a title – like the Kansas City Chiefs – or a formless concept – like the Atlanta Braves – because it’s a real ethnicity, but there are much worse things to name a team if you’re going to name it after an ethnicity. But the logo really is tasteless. If you want to take the name of a group of people, it’s better to not give those people an image that was once used in old Bugs Bunny cartoons. But the goddamn name is something the logo was just given based on what a group of assholes refused to learn about linguistic nuances. If the name is ever to be removed, the logo has to go because they’re one in the same. Although more and more people are starting to realize that, the team is playing little games with it. The Indians recently appeared to be making progress: First, they announced they would be phasing him out.
The “phase-out” so far is probably best described as “a joke.” It started in 2009, when the Indians pulled the Chief from… Their batting practice helmets. Game helmets? You know, the ones the players wore during the games that people actually paid to sit down and watch? The Chief was still on them, jack. A couple of years later, they continued to phase out Chief Wahoo… On the team website, road uniforms, and in Spring Training. They’re still wearing the damn thing at home, where they can claim Chief Wahoo sitting in all his smiling glory is a fan preference. You have to give them this, though: At least the Cleveland Indians have been more receptive to the inevitable march of progress than the football team in Washington, DC.
Ultimately, the Cleveland Indians are a tough team to peg. There are a lot f reasons to follow them, but there are also a lot of reasons not to follow them. Like any other team, if you really feel drawn to them to the point where you want them to be one of your teams, you should ignore my recommendations and just go with it. Just be aware that a losing team can be defensible. A logo as tasteless as Chief Wahoo may not be.
An underrated ballpark and fan-friendly game experience; history of fearless racial integration; Satchel Paige played for them
You’ll be expected to defend that logo; history isn’t replete with household names even among baseball fans; have made a habit of ripping fans’ hearts out even when they’re good
Should you be a fan?
I wouldn’t. Native imagery is just asking for a verbal attack these days, especially when it’s as badly done as Chief Wahoo. It’s one thing to cheer for a team like this; it takes on a very different and very nasty dimension when people who don’t know anything about sports have you on the defensive. There’s just no looking good in a situation like that.