Cleveland Indians: All-Time Greatest Team

Cleveland Indians (1901-Present)

Also known as the Bluebirds, Bronchos, and Napoleons (Naps)

American League (1901-Present)

American League Champion: 1920, 1948, 1954, 1995, 1997, 2016

World Series Champion: 1920, 1948

Cleveland has been represented since the beginning in Major League Baseball. The  Forest City’s of Cleveland were an original member of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players in 1871. The franchise only lasted two uneventful years. The next opportunity came in 1887 when the American Association, in an attempt to replace the Pittsburgh Pirates, who had deserted to the National League, put a team in Cleveland. They again took the name the Forest City’s, but then they too abandoned the failing American Association and jumped to the National League. That was 1889 and they soon changed their name to the Spiders.

The first few seasons in their new league were not good ones, finishing last and next to last in those seasons. 1890 was the year the Spiders signed a 23 year old pitcher out of Ohio who threw harder than anyone before him, earning the nickname “Cyclone”. Their fortunes would improve dramatically when Denton “Cy(clone)” Young joined the club.

Cy Young threw a 3-hitter in his Major League debut and would go on to win 240 games in his nine years with the franchise. Cleveland would never win the Championship outright, but after the collapse of the American Association in 1891 the National League would match their first and second place teams against each other in an end of season World’s Championship Series Exhibition. The Spiders would reach this Series three times, winning once (1895) and losing twice (1892, 1896). Cleveland remained competitive until 1899, when the Spider’s club owners bought another National League Franchise; the financially strapped St. Louis Browns.

Frank Robison and his brother Stanley now owned two National League teams, and chose to favor the one in St. Louis. They transferred all their best players to the Gateway City, including future Hall of Famers, Jesse Burkett, Bobby Wallace, and the great Cy Young. The Spider’s descent was steep and unprecedented. The Cleveland fans abandoned the team. For their first 16 home games they averaged 199 paying customers a game. The other National League teams began to refuse to play in Cleveland. They started shifting most of their home games to road games. At season’s end they played only 42 of their 154 games at home, and averaged a mere 145 fans a game. Their record for 1899 was 20-134, by far the worst record in Major League history. 

The Spiders were expelled from the League at the end of the season.The Robison brothers then sold the remaining assets to Charles Somers and John Kilfoyle who merged what was left of the Spiders with the Grand Rapids franchise in the Western League and formed the Cleveland Lake Shores. Thus, the franchised was then already in place when Ban Johnson was rebranding his Minor League into the American League. 

Cleveland struggled their first few years in the League, but when the National League sued for peace in 1903 the situation improved. The American League was in a bitter court battle with the National League’s Philadelphia Phillies over the rights to a young Napoleon Lajoie. The peace agreement secured Lajoie in Cleveland, and with the services of the best player in the new league, Cleveland was set as a Major League city. Cleveland did not win any championships in Lajoie’s time, but they were competitive until 1914. In 1908 they finished the season ½ game behind the Detroit Tigers at the end of that memorable pennant race. After a miserable 1914 and 1915 Cleveland acquired another superstar, Tris Speaker, and again became one of the stronger teams in the American League. The height of their success was the club’s first Pennant and World Series triumph in 1920. 

For the next 27 years the Indians failed to win an American League Pennant, but they weren’t the Browns either. They would finish in the first division in 20 of those years, before winning their second, and last, World Championship in 1948. The 1950s would be extremely frustrating to Cleveland fans. With Al Lopez at the helm they would finish second to the New York Yankees in five of his six years. 1954 was the only year they didn’t finish second. That was the year they won an astonishing 111 games and left Casey Stengal’s Bronx Bombers in second place. Unfortunately, that season ended in disappointment when they were swept by the New York Giants in the World Series. 

When Al Lopez left Cleveland after the 1956 season, the franchise fell into a 35 year slump, which saw them be the laughing stock of the American League. The team’s performance improved dramatically with their move to Jacobs Field in 1994 and they have been one of the better franchises in the American League since, winning 10 Division Titles and three American League Pennants since 1995. They are now one of the more stable clubs in baseball. 

Catcher:

Jim Hegan (1941-1957) is another player who lost considerable time serving his nation from 1943-1945 in the United States Coast Guard. When he returned, at age 25, he served as the Indian’s regular catcher for the next 11 years. He caught, what many feel, the best pitching staff in baseball history (Bob Feller, Early Wynn, Bob Lemon, Mike Garcia). He was a five time All Star, but hit like a catcher. He was the backstop during Cleveland’s most successful period, with six second place finishes and two pennants during those 11 years. Steve O’Neill’s  (1911-1923) Cleveland contributions were very similar to Hegan’s. He was the regular behind the plate for 10 years, and was a central figure in their other World Championship year. This is very close, both were outstanding defensive catchers that didn’t hit much. By reputation, Hegan had a slight edge behind the plate and O’Neill a slight edge at the plate. Our rating system puts   Steve O’Neill (1911-1923) ahead of Hegan by a small margin, so we’ll go with that. 

First Base:

Jim Thome (1991-2002) by a wide margin.

Second Base

Just to be clear, the reason the team’s name from 1903 to 1914 was the Cleveland Napoleons was because their second baseman and best player was Napoleon “Larry” Lajoie (1903-1914). The best player in the American League in that League’s first decade. One of the all time greats.

Third Base

Al Rosen (1947-1956) in 1953 had the best year ever by a third baseman. He was stuck behind Ken Keltner (1937-1949) for three years before securing the third base job for Cleveland in 1950. His career was then cut short by injuries, but from 1950 to 1955 he was as good as any third baseman has ever been.

Portrait of American professional baseball player Al Rosen, third baseman for the Cleveland Indians, kneeling in the batter’s circle with a bat, 1950s. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Shortstop

Cleveland has had two shortstops who wound up in the Hall of Fame. That said, the choice for the best shortstop in franchise history is easy. Lou Boudreaux (1938-1950) is one of the top 15 shortstops of all time, and to be blunt, Joe Sewell (1920-1930) is not. 

Left Field

If we don’t consider center fielders in left the choice is close between Elmer Flick (1903-1910) and Manny Ramirez (1993-2000). However, There were three center fielders who were all significantly better than those two gentlemen. So we’ll move Larry Doby (1947-1958) from center to left. Rating Doby, of course, has the same caveat that we had with Jackie Robinson. Being the first black player in the American League meant that he didn’t get an opportunity to play for Cleveland until late in the 1947 season. He was already 23 years old at the time. 

Center Field

The three best outfielders in Indian’s history were all primarily center fielders. Tris Speaker (1916-1926), Earl Averill (1929-1939) and Larry Doby (1947-1958) allowed Cleveland to have a Hall of Famer in Center Field for most of the years between 1916 and 1958. While active, many writers of his day thought that Tris Speaker was a better player than Ty Cobb. We don’t agree, but Speaker was much better than Cobb with the glove, as a teammate, and was on teams that were much more successful. It’s not an unreasonable argument. One of the Top 20 players of all time, and easily the best of the three Indian Hall of Fame center fielders.

Right Field

Albert Belle (1989-1996) was a head case, but the best player to regularly play right field for Cleveland. He was not nearly as good as the three Hall of Fame Center Fielders. It’s not a tough decision to move Earl Averill (1929-1939) to right. After all, he’s the second best outfielder in Indian History.

Pitchers

Bob Feller (1936-1941, 1945-1956) went 24-9, 27-11, and 25-13 in 1939, 1940, and 1941 then enlisted in the United States Navy on December 8th, 1941. He served aboard the USS Alabama, seeing action in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters. His father died while he was serving. He was discharged as a Chief Petty Officer on August 22, 1945. His first full season back he went 26-15 in 1946, then 20-11 in 1947. As it was, he won 266 games for the Indians, give him those almost four years he missed and you’re looking at around 350. That, in the context of its time, would have been as impressive as anyone’s. He never once complained about it. Just another example of the sacrifices his generation did for all of us.

The #2 Pitcher Bob Lemon (1941-1942, 1946-1958) came up with the Indians as a third baseman in 1941. After only ten games in Cleveland, he too joined the United States Navy, serving for three years. When he returned in 1946 he was moved to pitcher and became the ace of the great Cleveland pitching staffs of the early 1950s. Winning 20 or more games seven times, while also being the best hitting pitcher of his generation. Lemon was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1976.

The #3 pitcher has also been enshrined in Cooperstown. Stan Coveleski (1916-1924) won 172 games for Cleveland, including 24 when they won the World Series in 1920. One of the last pitcher allowed to legally throw the spitball.

#4 is between Mel Harder (1928-1947) and two Hall of Famers, Addie Joss (1902-1910) and Early Wynn (1949-1957). Joss’ selection was a mistake, though understandable owing to his sudden death in April of 1911 from Tuberculous Meningitis. Harder was just a more valuable pitcher than Joss. Wynn on the other hand was a career 300 game winner, a truly great pitcher, but he divided his seasons between the Senators, Indians and White Sox. Wynn won 164 games for Cleveland, winning 20 three times. Mel Harder spent his entire career in an Indian uniform, winning 223 games. This one is close; Wynn was the better pitcher, but he only spent nine years in Cleveland compared to Mel Harder’s (1928-1947) 20. Another close call, but we’ll go with the career Indian.

*quick note on the pitchers, the great Cy Young is not included owing to the fact the Spiders were a separate franchise than the Indians. Continue below are more discussion on this.

Manager

The two Indian Managers to win the World Series in Cleveland were Tris Speaker (1919-1926) and Lou Boudreaux (1942-1950). Both happened to be Player/Managers. Speaker’s overall record was 617-520, a .543 winning percentage. Besides his World Series win in 1920, his Indian Teams finished second three times. Boudreaux record is not nearly as good, a .529 winning percentage and no second place finishes. The gentleman who replaced Boudreaux had a much better record, despite never winning the World Series. Al Lopez’ (1951-1956) Cleveland team’s record was 570-354, a winning percentage of a phenomenal .617, with one American League Pennant and five second place finishes to Casey Stengel’s New York Yankees. His best record was 111-43 in 1954 and his worse was 88-66 in 1956. Mike Hargrove (1991-1999) guided the Indians to two World Series appearances in the late 1990s. Unfortunately, they would lose both times. His teams did win five consecutive division titles from 1995-1999. His overall record with Cleveland was 721-591, .550 winning percentage. Boudreaux seems a safe bet to be out of the discussion, but between the other three this is a very tough call. It comes down to this; does Speaker’s World Series triumph trump Lopez’ and Hargrove’s better record? We say no, so that eliminates Speaker. With Lopez and Hargrove; Lopez’ teams won one Pennant and finished second in an eight team League five times. Hargrove’s teams won two Pennants and won one of the three Divisions in the American League another three times. His overall record with the Indians was worse than Lopez’, but he won more games in Cleveland than did Lopez. It is very close, but in five of Hargrove’s nine seasons his Indians had a poorer record than Al Lopez (1951-1956) worst season. That’s the deciding factor.

 MVP

Considering how little success the team has had, it’s surprising the quality of the three players who are in the discussion as the best player in franchise history. If we also considered the Cleveland Spiders there would be a fourth, that being Cy Young. Nap Lajoie and Tris Speaker are easily in the Top Ten at their positions (second base and center field), while not in the Top Ten, Feller is easily in the top 20 of all time pitchers. We’ll deal with Feller first. If it wasn’t for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and Americas immediate entry into World War II we think “Rapid” Robert would be an easy choice. But the war did come, and Feller spent four years fighting it. As much as we respect Bob Feller, we can not give him credit for seasons he did not have.

Tris Speaker has a different challenge. As good as he was with Cleveland, his best seasons were with Boston. Overall Speaker was a better player than Lajoie, but comparing his Cleveland years with Lajoie’s Cleveland years, they are very close. Speaker was never considered the best player in the American League. While Nap Lajoie clearly was in the first decade of the new League. This is a bit unfair to Speaker. His competition was Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, and Babe Ruth. Let’s just say, Lajoie’s competition was not nearly that tough. We’ll go with this; Cleveland did not change their name to the Cleveland Trises while Speaker was there, but they did change their name to the Cleveland Naps in recognition of Lajoie. They are that close!


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