During the 1869 season, Cleveland was among several cities which established professional baseball teams following the success of the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, the first fully professional team. In the newspapers before and after 1870, the team was often called the Forest Citys, in the same generic way that the team from Chicago was sometimes called The Chicagos.
In 1871 the Forest Citys joined the new National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (NA), the first professional league. Ultimately, two of the league's western clubs went out of business during the first season and the Chicago Fire left that city's White Stockings impoverished, unable to field a team again until 1874. Cleveland was thus the NA's westernmost outpost in 1872, the year the club folded. Cleveland played their full schedule to July 19 followed by two games versus Boston in mid-August and disbanded at the end of the season.
In 1876, the National League (NL) supplanted the NA as the major professional league. Cleveland was not among its charter members, but by 1879 the league was looking for new entries and the city gained an NL team. The Cleveland Blues had a mediocre record for six seasons and were ruined by a trade war with the Union Association (UA) in 1884, when its three best players (Fred Dunlap, Jack Glasscock, and Jim McCormick) jumped to the UA after being offered higher salaries. The St Louis UA team replaced Cleveland in the NA in 1885.
Cleveland went without major league baseball for two seasons until gaining a team in the American Association (AA) in 1887. After the AA's Allegheny club jumped to the NL Cleveland followed suit in 1889, as the AA began to crumble. The Cleveland ballclub, nicknamed the Spiders (supposedly inspired by their "skinny and spindly" players) slowly became a power in the league.
The Spiders survived a challenge for fans from the Cleveland Infants, an entry in the one-season Players' League in 1890. The next year the Spiders moved into League Park, which would serve as the home of Cleveland professional baseball for the next 55 years. Led by native Ohioan Cy Young, the Spiders became a contender in the mid-1890s, when they played in the Temple Cup Series (that era's World Series) twice, winning it in 1895. The team began to fade after this success, and was dealt a severe blow under the ownership of the Robison brothers.
The Robisons, despite already owning the Spiders, were allowed to acquire a controlling interest in the St. Louis Cardinals franchise in 1899. They proceeded to strip the Cleveland team of its best players (including Young) to help fill the St. Louis roster. The St. Louis team improved to finish with a winning record. The Spiders were left with essentially a minor league lineup, and began to lose games at a record pace. Drawing almost no fans at home, they ended up playing most of their season on the road, and became known as "The Wanderers." The team ended the season in 12th place, 84 games out of first place, with an all-time worst record of 20 wins and 134 losses. Following the 1899 season, the National League disbanded four teams, including the Cleveland franchise. The disastrous 1899 season would actually be a step toward a new future for Cleveland fans the next year.
Seeking to capitalize on general public disillusionment with the National League, Ban Johnson changed the name of his minor league, the Western League, to the American League and shifted the WL's Grand Rapids club to Cleveland, taking over League Park in 1900 as the Cleveland Lake Shores. Although still a minor league, the new organization was ready to make its move. In 1901 the American League broke with the National Agreement and declared itself a competing Major League. The Cleveland franchise was among its eight charter members.
The new team was owned by coal magnate Charles Somers and tailor Jack Kilfoyl. Somers, a wealthy industrialist and also co-owner of the Boston Americans, lent money to other team owners, including Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics, to keep them and the new league afloat. For its first season as a major league team, it was nicknamed the "Bluebirds," but the players didn't think the nickname was suitable for a baseball team. Writers frequently shortened it to "Blues" due to the players' all-blue uniforms, but the players didn't like this name either. They tried to change the name themselves to "Bronchos," but this name never caught on.
The Blues suffered from financial problems in their first two seasons. This led Somers to seriously consider moving to either Pittsburgh or Cincinnati. Relief came in [[ in baseball|]] as a result of the conflict between the National and American Leagues. In 1901, Napoleon "Nap" Lajoie, the Philadelphia Phillies' star second baseman, jumped to the A's after his contract was capped at $2,400 per year—one of the highest-profile players to jump to the upstart AL. The Phillies subsequently filed an injunction to force Lajoie's return, which was granted by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. The injunction appeared to doom any hopes of an early settlement between the warring leagues. However, a lawyer discovered that the injunction was only enforceable in the state of Pennsylvania.
Mack, partly to thank Somers for his past financial support, agreed to trade Lajoie to the then-moribund Blues, who offered $25,000 salary over three years. Due to the injunction, however, Lajoie had to sit out any games played against the A's in Philadelphia. Lajoie arrived in Cleveland on June 4 and was an immediate hit, drawing 10,000 fans to League Park. Soon afterward, he was named team captain, and the team was renamed the "Naps" after a newspaper conducted a write-in contest.
Lajoie was named manager in [[ in baseball|]], and the team's fortunes improved somewhat. They finished half a game short of the pennant in 1908. However, the success did not last and Lajoie resigned during the 1909 season as manager but remained on as a player.
After that, the team began to unravel, leading Kilfoyl to sell his share of the team to Somers. Cy Young who returned to Cleveland in 1909, was ineffective for most of his three remaining years and Addie Joss died from tubercular meningitis prior to the 1910 season.
Despite a strong lineup anchored by the potent Lajoie and Shoeless Joe Jackson, poor pitching kept the team below third place for most of the next decade. One reporter referred to the team as the Napkins, "because they fold up so easily" while others called them the "Molly McGuires" as a play on their manager's name, Deacon McGuire. The team hit bottom in 1914 and 1915, finishing in the cellar both years.
1915 brought significant changes to the team. Lajoie, nearly 40 years old was no longer a top hitter in the league, batting only .258 in 1914. With Lajoie engaged in a feud with manager Joe Birmingham, the team sold Lajoie back to Philadelphia.
With Lajoie gone, the Naps now needed a new nickname. Somers asked the local newspapers to come up with a new name, and they chose "Indians". Legend has it that the team honored Louis Sockalexis when it assumed its current name in 1915. Sockalexis, a Native American, had played in Cleveland from 1897 to 1899. Research indicates that this legend is mostly untrue, and that the new name was a play on the name of the Boston Braves, then known as the "Miracle Braves" after going from last place on July 4 to a sweep in the 1914 World Series. Proponents of the name acknowledged that the Cleveland Spiders of the National League had sometimes been informally called the "Indians" during Sockalexis' short career there, a fact which merely reinforced the new name.
At the same time, Somers' business ventures began to fail, leaving him deeply in debt. With the Indians playing poorly, attendance and revenue suffered. Somers decided to trade Jackson midway through the 1915 season for two players and $31,500, one of the largest sums paid for a player at the time.
By 1916, Somers was at the end of his tether and sold the team to a syndicate headed by Chicago railroad contractor James C. "Sunny Jim" Dunn. Manager Lee Fohl, who had taken over in early 1915, acquired two minor league pitchers, Stan Coveleski and Jim Bagby and traded for center fielder Tris Speaker, who was engaged in a salary dispute with the Red Sox. All three would ultimately become key players in bringing a championship to Cleveland.
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Speaker took over the reins as player-manager in [[ in baseball|]], and would lead the team to a championship in 1920. On August 16, the Indians were playing the Yankees at the Polo Grounds in New York. Shortstop Ray Chapman, who often crowded the plate, was batting against Carl Mays, who had an unusual underhand delivery. It was also late in the afternoon and the infield would have been in shadow with the center field area (the batters' background) bathed in sunlight. As well, at the time, "part of every pitcher's job was to dirty up a new ball the moment it was thrown onto the field. By turns, they smeared it with dirt, licorice, tobacco juice; it was deliberately scuffed, sandpapered, scarred, cut, even spiked. The result was a misshapen, earth-colored ball that traveled through the air erratically, tended to soften in the later innings, and as it came over the plate, was very hard to see."
In any case, Chapman did not move reflexively when Mays' pitch came his way. The pitch hit Chapman in the head, fracturing his skull. Chapman died the next day, becoming the only player to sustain a fatal injury from a pitched ball. The Indians, who at the time were locked in a tight three-way pennant race with the Yankees and White Sox, were not slowed down by the death of their teammate. Rookie Joe Sewell hit .329 after replacing Chapman in the lineup.
In September 1920, the Black Sox Scandal came to a boil. With just a few games left in the season, and Cleveland and Chicago neck-and-neck for first place at 94–54 and 95–56 respectively, the Chicago owner suspended eight players. The White Sox lost 2 of 3 in their final series, while Cleveland won 4 and lost 2 in their final two series. Cleveland finished 2 games ahead of Chicago and 3 games ahead of the Yankees to win its first pennant, led by Speaker's .388 hitting, Jim Bagby's 30 victories and solid performances from Steve O'Neill and Stan Coveleski. Cleveland went on to defeat the Brooklyn Robins 5–2 in the World Series for their first title, winning four games in a row after the Robins took a 2–1 Series lead. The Series included three memorable "firsts", all of them in Game 5 at Cleveland, and all by the home team. In the first inning, right fielder Elmer Smith hit the first Series grand slam. In the fourth inning, Jim Bagby hit the first Series home run by a pitcher. And in the top of the fifth inning, second baseman Bill Wambsganss executed the first (and only, so far) unassisted triple play in World Series history, in fact the only Series triple play of any kind.
The team would not reach the heights of 1920 again for 28 years. Speaker and Coveleski were aging and the Yankees were rising with a new weapon: Babe Ruth and the home run. They managed two second-place finishes but spent much of the decade in the cellar. In 1927 Dunn's widow, Mrs. George Pross (Dunn had died in 1922), sold the team to a syndicate headed by Alva Bradley.
The Indians were a middling team by the 1930s, finishing third or fourth most years. 1936 brought Cleveland a new superstar in 17-year old pitcher Bob Feller, who came from Iowa with a dominating fastball. That season, Feller set a record with 17 strikeouts in a single game and went on to lead the league in strikeouts from 1938–1941. According to Fundamentals of Physics ( 4 ed., Wiley, 1993 ), by David Halliday, Robert Resnick and Jearl Walker, on page 30, Chapter Two, " Motion along a Straight Line ", Joe Sprinz, at the time in question, a member of the San Francisco Seals, and formerly of the Indians, attempted to beat the World Record for catching a baseball dropped from a great height, set by members of the 1938 Cleveland Indians, who had done so at 700 feet, with balls dropped from a building. On a day in 1939, Sprinz had a blimp hover overhead at 800 feet, from which were to be dropped balls for him to catch. On his fifth attempt, a baseball entered his glove at what could be estimated to be up to 154 mph. It slammed his glove hand into his face with such force, that he broke his upper jaw in twelve places, fractured five of his teeth, and was rendered unconscious. He also dropped the ball. By [[ in baseball|]], Feller, along with Ken Keltner, Mel Harder and Lou Boudreau led the Indians to within one game of the pennant. However, the team was wracked with dissension, with some players (including Feller and Mel Harder) going so far as to request that Bradley fire manager Ossie Vitt. Reporters lampooned them as the Cleveland Crybabies. Feller, who had pitched a no-hitter to open the season and won 27 games, lost the final game of the season to unknown pitcher Floyd Giebell of the Detroit Tigers. The Tigers won the pennant and Giebell never won another major league game.
Cleveland entered 1941 with a young team and a new manager; Roger Peckinpaugh had replaced the despised Vitt; but the team regressed, finishing in fourth. Cleveland would soon be depleted of two stars. Hal Trosky retired in 1941 due to migraine headaches and Bob Feller enlisted in the Navy two days after the Attack on Pearl Harbor. Starting third baseman Ken Keltner and outfielder Ray Mack were both drafted in 1945 taking two more starters out of the lineup.
In 1946 Bill Veeck formed an investment group that purchased the Cleveland Indians from Bradley's group for a reported $1.6 million. Among the investors was Bob Hope, who had grown up in Cleveland, and former Tigers slugger, Hank Greenberg. A former owner of a minor league franchise in Milwaukee, Veeck brought to Cleveland a gift for promotion. At one point, Veeck hired rubber-faced Max Patkin, the "Clown Prince of Baseball" as a coach. Patkin's appearance in the coaching box was the sort of promotional stunt that delighted fans but infuriated the American League front office.
Recognizing that he had acquired a solid team, Veeck soon abandoned the aging, small and lightless League Park to take up full-time residence in massive Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Prior to 1947 the Indians played most of their games at League Park, and occasionally played weekend games at Cleveland Municipal Stadium. League Park was demolished in 1951, although a portion of the original ticket booth remains.
Making the most of the cavernous stadium, Veeck had a portable center field fence installed, which he could move in or out depending on how the distance favored the Indians against their opponents in a given series. The fence moved as much as between series opponents. Following the 1947 season, the American League countered with a rule change that fixed the distance of an outfield wall for the duration of a season. The massive stadium did, however, permit the Indians to set the then record for the largest crowd to see a Major League baseball game. On October 10, 1948, Game 5 of the World Series against the Boston Braves drew over 84,000. The record stood until the Los Angeles Dodgers drew a crowd in excess of 92,500 to watch Game 5 of the 1959 World Series at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum against the Chicago White Sox.
Under Veeck's leadership, one of Cleveland's most significant achievements was breaking the color barrier in the American League by signing Larry Doby, formerly a player for the Negro League's Newark Eagles in [[ in baseball|]], eleven weeks after Jackie Robinson signed with the Dodgers. Similar to Robinson, Doby battled racism on and off the field but posted a .301 batting average in 1948, his first full season. A power-hitting center fielder, Doby led the American League twice in homers.
In 1948, needing pitching for the stretch run of the pennant race, Veeck turned to the Negro League again and signed pitching great Satchel Paige amid much controversy. Barred from Major League Baseball during his prime, Veeck's signing of the aging star in 1948 was viewed by many as another publicity stunt. At an official age of 42, Paige became the oldest rookie in Major League baseball history, and the first black pitcher. Paige soon proved he could still pitch and ended the year with a 6–1 record with a 2.48 ERA, 45 strikeouts and two shutouts.
In [[ in baseball|]], veterans Boudreau, Keltner, and Joe Gordon had career offensive seasons, while newcomers Larry Doby and Gene Bearden also had standout seasons. The team went down to the wire with the Boston Red Sox, winning a one-game playoff, the first in American League history, to go to the World Series. In the series, the Indians defeated the Boston Braves four games to two for their first championship in 28 years. Boudreau won the American League MVP Award.
The Indians would appear in a film the following year titled The Kid From Cleveland, in which Veeck had an interest. The film portrayed the team helping out a "troubled teenaged fan" and featured many members of the Indians organization. However, filming during the season cost the players valuable rest days leading to fatigue towards the end of the season. That season, Cleveland again contended before falling to third place. On September 23, 1949, Bill Veeck and the Indians buried their 1948 pennant in center field the day after they were mathematically eliminated from the pennant race.
Later in 1949, Veeck's first wife (who had a half-stake in Veeck's share of the team) divorced him. With most of his money tied up in the Indians, Veeck was forced to sell the team to a syndicate headed by insurance magnate Ellis Ryan. Ryan was forced out in [[ in baseball|]] in favor of Myron Wilson, who in turn gave way to William Daley in [[ in baseball|]]. Despite this turnover in the ownership, a powerhouse team composed of Feller, Doby, Minnie Miñoso, Luke Easter, Bobby Avila, Al Rosen, Early Wynn, Bob Lemon, and Mike Garcia continued to contend through the early 1950s. However, Cleveland only won a single pennant in the decade, finishing second to the New York Yankees five times.
The best season in franchise history came in 1954, when the Indians finished the season with a record of 111-43 (.721). That mark set an American League record for wins which stood for 44 years until the New York Yankees won 114 games in 1998. The Indians 1954 winning percentage of .721 is still an American League record. The Indians returned to the World Series to face the New York Giants. The team could not bring home the title, however, ultimately being upset by the Giants in a sweep. The series was notable for Willie Mays' famous over-the-shoulder catch off the bat of Vic Wertz in Game 1.