The baseball world has hit the pause button in light of the recent coronavirus situation. As sports fans everywhere brace themselves for suspended or cancelled seasons, we turn to each other (not physically though – stay home folks), and we say “what the Hell do we talk about now?”
For the Cleveland Indians, they’re in the same boat as everyone else. With no games to play and no competition, the majority of our talking points have evaporated. Fear not though, as all is not lost; we can fall safely into the warm embrace of nostalgia.
Today we’ll look at some of the legendary figures who put Cleveland fans on the edge of their seats, in a bid to get casual fans more familiar with Indians players no longer on the current roster.
There is no finer starting point than Bob Feller, arguably the finest pitcher to have ever represented the city of Cleveland. “Rapid Robert” smashed pitching records from an early age with his unrelenting fastball, a pitch that developed mythical status in his day. Feller regularly faced off against golden age icons like Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, the sort of guys who instilled fear into pitchers. Feller didn’t just hold his own, he dominated. I wrote a profile on Feller for this very website not so long ago, and encourage everyone to discover the brilliance of “The Heater from Van Meter.”
No list of legends is complete without the inclusion of Larry Doby. Everyone is familiar with the story of Jackie Robinson breaking the colour barrier in 1947, but Doby followed just a few months later, becoming the first African-American player in the American League and second overall in the majors. A seven-time All-Star, Doby was a pioneer for the Tribe and battled through adversity to capture the hearts of fans across the country, albeit without the spotlight and attention Robinson received in New York. A talented centre fielder, Doby was a huge factor in the Indians’ World Series success of 1948 and became the first African-American to hit a home run in a World Series. Doby developed into a gifted player who cemented his place in history thanks to his leadership and excellence, both on and off the field. Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1998 and immortalised in bronze with a statue just beyond the centre field gates at Progressive Field, Doby’s legacy continues to amaze long after his passing in 2003.
If we’re discussing the stars from the Tribe’s last championship-winning team, we must include Lou Boudreau. A player-manager for much of his time in Cleveland, the do-it-all shortstop was the ultimate leader. He capped his finest year in 1948 with not just a World Series title but also the AL MVP award, taking home 96% of the vote, ahead of DiMaggio and Williams. His .355/.453/.534 slashline that year is staggering, as is his 10.3 WAR and 165 OPS+. The most amazing statistic from Boudreau’s unforgettable 1948? The fact he struck out just nine times in 560 at-bats; That’s insane. Elected to the Hall of Fame in 1970, Boudreau also received a statue posthumously outside the Indians’ home in 2017, a thoroughly deserved reward for one of Cleveland’s greatest.
Our next legend is better known for the ramifications of his absence upon leaving the Tribe: the one and only Rocky Colavito. The fifties fan-favourite and prodigious power hitter was adored by Cleveland before an unbelievable and shocking trade to the Detroit Tigers two days before the start of the 1960 season. Orchestrated by the dastardly and villainous general manager Frank Lane, who traded every asset the team had, Colavito’s departure ripped a hole in an Indians club that would spiral into mediocrity, taking decades to recover from. Thus, a curse was born, and has never been written about better than in Terry Pluto’s formative book The Curse of Rocky Colavito; required reading for all Indians fans. Colavito was 26 years old at the time of the trade, in his prime, and was coming off the back of two seasons with 41 and 42 homers, more than anyone else in the American League. It was an inconceivable decision to trade him, but Colavito’s hero status remains in Cleveland to this day.
Last but certainly not least is the giant slugger Jim Thome. The definitive nineties Indians icon, Thome was ushered into the Hall of Fame in 2018 after a truly stellar career. His defining uppercut swing sent baseballs into orbit at an astounding velocity, and his 612 home runs currently place him eighth on the all-time list. In an era defined by the longball, Thome’s reputation remained untainted by the scandals of the time, and he was considered a genuinely nice guy by all who dealt with him. Thome’s Tribe came so close to winning it all in 1995 and 1997 but were cruelly denied in the World Series each time. Despite those disheartening defeats, Thome was beloved even after he left the city in free agency. He returned for a brief farewell as a 40-year-old designated hitter in 2011, giving fans one last glimpse at an Indians great prior to his retirement the following year. His statue was only a matter of time, revealed in 2014, positioned close to the 511 feet mark where the longest homer in stadium history came to rest, courtesy of Thome of course.
With the 2020 season postponed until further notice, and under threat of being cancelled entirely, baseball fans must content themselves with reminiscing about the past. Thankfully for the Indians, one of the oldest ballclubs in existence, there is a wealth of history to enjoy and explore. So, dear readers, expect some trips down memory lane for the foreseeable future, as we delve into the remarkable past of Cleveland’s best, baddest and downright puzzling.
Ash Day is covering the Cleveland Indians throughout the 2020 season as part of the growing team of writers at Bat Flips and Nerds. Follow him on Twitter @AshDay29
IMPORTANT: Hey, the next few months will be tough for all of us. The UK baseball community is one large extended family. We are here to help, and together we will all get through it. Reach out to us on Twitter @BatFlips_Nerds – our DMs are open