The dynasty that wasn’t: 1918-21 Cleveland Indians

There are some classic baseball dynasties. You have the Joe Torre Yankees, the Casey Stengel Yankees, the Joe McCarthy Yankees—and wow is this column off to an ugly start. Aside from that one franchise, there is also the Bash Brothers A’s, the Mustache Gang, the Big Red Machine, the 1969-71 Orioles, and many others.

These are the clubs that had that right combination of talent at just the right time. They put everything together and won pennant after pennant. They became teams people remember for decades and even multiple generations later.

Other squads aren’t quite so fortunate. They have 95 percent of what the clubs above have but miss that last little bit and, thus, become completely forgotten. They compete for many years but don’t quite rise up to dynasty status, and thus miss their place in the game’s folklore. They may not miss by much, but what matters is that they miss.

One of these near misses was the 1918-21 Cleveland Indians. They didn’t walk away completely empty-handed. They won the AL pennant in 1920, and the World Series that year, as well, but that was it.

They had to settle for a second-place finish in 1918. And again in 1919. And yet again in 1921. It’s a damn shame for Cleveland there was no Wild Card 95 years ago.

The Indians were never a distant second, either. In 1918, they finished just 2.5 games behind the pennant-winning (and world champion) Boston Red Sox. The next year, they were just 3.5 games in back of the infamous Chicago Black Sox (who threw the World Series that year). They finished the furthest out in 1921, but that still was just 4.5 games behind the Yankees.

It was an incredibly close run, and had the situation worked out a tad differently, we might remember the great Indians dynasty of olden times.

But that’s not what happened. So what did occur? How come the Indians kept coming so close, and why did they repeatedly fall just short? Let’s look at the Indians in those years and see what conclusions we can come to.

1918 Indians: 73-54 record (.575); 70-57 pythag record (.551)

The season before this one, the Indians had been very good. In 1917, they went 88-66, but that was good for only a third-place finish, a full dozen games back of the White Sox’s world champion dynamo. That 1917 Indians club had finished third in the league in runs scored and fewest in runs allowed. While that appears balanced, given that Cleveland played in a hitters’ park, the club really leaned more on its arms.

In 1918, the Tribe’s offense improved notably, leading the league in runs scored. This was less a matter of getting new players and more about improvement from the guys they already had. Catcher Steve O’Neill rebounded from a miserable 1917 (when he hit .184) to a middling but still clearly superior 1918 batting average of .242.

No one had a real superstar season; not even the team’s true superstar, Tris Speaker. He was fine, batting .318 with an on-base percentage a little north of .400, but he was no Ty Cobb.

The team’s strength was its offensive depth. Six of the starting eight had an OPS+ in triple digits. Three of their four most important bench players had an OPS+ of 88 or better. Thus, the club was able to lead the league in doubles, triples, walks, stolen bases, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, hit by pitches, and, most importantly, runs scored.

Their pitching was also good, though not nearly as deep. Only seven men threw more than 10 innings for them. And even for the time—the deadball era in a season shortened by World War I—that still was low. They had one great pitcher in Hall of Famer Stan Coveleski, who posted a 1.82 ERA during his 22-win season, and a couple of solid fellow starters in Jim Bagby and Guy Morton.

The key point for Cleveland this season came in a three-game series against Boston in Fenway Park in mid-August. The Indians entered the series two games back, and due to WWI, the season had just two weeks left to go. They needed to win the series, and if they could sweep, they’d be in first place.

Instead, Boston pitchers Babe Ruth and Sad Sam Jones shut them down in the first two games, 4-2 and 6-0. Though Cleveland won the series finale, going 1-2 pushed them back, and there wasn’t time enough to make up for it. Those big games late in the season can really make the difference.

1919 Indians: 84-55 record (.604); 80-59 pythag (.576)

Though the war ended in late 1918, this was also a shorter season as the United States adjusted back to peacetime mode. Cleveland fielded a better team than the year before, but unfortunately, they had stronger competition in a resurgent White Sox club.

The Indians had nearly the exact same team as the year before. The main change was a spring training trade, in which Cleveland sent the talented but vexing starting outfielder Braggo Roth to the Philadelphia A’s. Roth’s self-promotion earned him his nickname, and he had a reputation as a clubhouse cancer. Despite a career 123 OPS+, six teams would dump him in his eight-year career.

In exchange, the Indians received veteran third baseman Larry Gardner. An archetypal Hall of Very Gooder, Gardner came to Cleveland just as he left his prime. He still had a few decent years left in him, but nothing more.

The Indians’ biggest change occurred in mid-season, when the Indians fired manager Lee Fohl under rather memorable and spectacular circumstances. On July 18, 1919, the Indians held a seemingly comfortable 7-3 lead against the Red Sox in the ninth inning at Cleveland. Relief pitcher Elmer Myers didn’t have it that day, allowing several men to reach base.

Fohl didn’t make a move for a reliever, though. In fact, as a general rule of thumb, he didn’t handle in-game strategy at all. Instead, he delegated that to his star center fielder, Speaker.

Sure enough, Speaker signaled the Fohl to warm up a particular reliever. The problem was, Fohl misread Speaker’s signal. He started warming up sore-armed Fritz Coumbe, who hadn’t pitched in over two months due to arm problems. Speaker wasn’t sure if Fohl had misread the sign or just overruled him, and so he went with the flow.

It all came crashing down in spectacular fashion. With two outs and the bases loaded and the Indians now up, 7-4, Fohl brought in Coumbe to face the potential winning run, Ruth himself. Naturally, Ruth swatted a game-winning grand slam, and Boston won, 8-7. Cleveland fired Fohl right after the game.

Fohl was not the first manager to have an arrangement with a star player like he had with Speaker. It was common in the 19th century, in fact. But Fohl was the last one to cede so much power to a player. The buck had to stop with the manager, and this disastrous incident showed why.

The Indians made Speaker their official player-manager. The club caught fire under him, going 40-21 the rest of the way. But it was too little, too late. Though they ended the season just 3.5 games back, they were never really a threat to the White Sox.

1920 Indians: 98-56 record (.636); 97-57 pythag (.630)

This year, it all came together for Cleveland. The offense was terrific, with player-manager Speaker posting one of his best seasons ever, batting .388 with 50 doubles. Perhaps more importantly, Speaker did a terrific job managing. He aggressively platooned his players whenever possible and the overall results were terrific.

The entire team batted .303 and led the league in base on balls, too. Even if you adjust for ballpark, the Indians still had the best offense in the AL. Only one team was within 50 of their 856 runs scored on the year.

Their pitching also was terrific, with the second-best ERA. Old warhorse Coveleski was just one of three men to win 20 games for Cleveland. In fact, he wasn’t even the biggest star, as Bagby had a breakout season, winning 31 games. Ray Caldwell rounded out the trio of star pitchers.

Cleveland needed every last bit of its ability, as the club narrowly won one of the tightest pennant races ever. The Yankees proved to be major contenders, aided by the acquisition of Ruth, who shattered the old home run record with 54 that season. Also, the White Sox had a strong team with a record-setting four 20-game winners. However, the Sox were ruined in the last week of the season when news of the Black Sox scandal broke.

True, but Cleveland had its own tragedy to contend with. On Aug. 16, 1920, star shortstop Ray Chapman suffered the only fatal beaning in baseball history. People in attendance later said he appeared to be mesmerized and didn’t even try to move as the Carl Mays fastball went to his head. Chapman died the next day.

Incredibly, a team that lost a Hall of Fame-caliber talent was able to soldier on. Perhaps even more incredibly, the Indians did so in part because they almost immediately replaced Chapman with another Hall of Fame talent, Joe Sewell. The young Sewell cracked the lineup in mid-September and hit .329 in the last 22 games, beginning a career that would end in Cooperstown.

It was an amazing pennant race, and a tight one, too. The Indians were within two games of either taking or falling out of first place all but a few days in the last eight weeks. But they won.

1921 Indians: 94-60 record (.610); 95-59 pythag (.617)

On paper, this was the least competitive of the Cleveland pennant races, with them finishing 4.5 games back. However, that is very misleading. The Indians were tied for first with the Yankees with just six games left to play. Alas, the Indians lost five of those six to drop well behind the Yankees.

It’s a shame, because the Indians led for most of the season despite injuries to some key players. Veteran second baseman Bill Wambsganss missed almost all of the first two months with injuries. More importantly, two of their three big pitchers from the year before were no longer effective. Bagby had dead arm, and his ERA inflated to 4.70. He never would be the same after his big 1920. Caldwell was even worse, winning just six games and spending most of the year in the bullpen.

But the Indians hung tough. Once again, the offense led the way, batting .308 as a team. Yes, the 1920s were a great decade for batters, and sure, they played in a hitters’ park, but back-to-back years over .300 is still impressive.

Once again, the bench was a big part of it. In fact, the 1921 Indians had one of the greatest collections of bench batters ever. As a group, they batted .342 with a .414 on-base percentage and .459 slugging percentage. In 1,290 combined plate appearances, they posted an OPS that would’ve been seventh-best in the entire AL.

In terms of park-adjusted Runs Created per 27 outs, they were 44 better than league average. That is truly, historically wonderful. Bench players, after all, are normally below average.

It’s also a shame the Indians didn’t win, because that was their last hurrah. In 1922, their already weakening pitching staff fell apart completely. Meanwhile, their bench batters reverted to the mean. The team barely finished over .500. They didn’t seriously compete again in the AL for decades.

What went wrong?

At any rate, that’s what happened. So what went wrong for the 1918-21 Indians? How come they just kept missing out?

There is no one single answer. Some answers are small. For instance, what if they’d had a better series against Boston in late 1918? Some are purely speculative. If 1918-19 were full seasons, would they have won it then? (After all, 1918 was pretty close, and the Indians were storming to the finish line in 1919.)

Part of the problem in the early years was their manager, Fohl. He just wasn’t very good. After Cleveland dumped him, the Browns picked him up. He ran the most talented unit they ever had, and he still couldn’t quite deliver. Then he went to the Red Sox when they were totally starved of talent. They got worse the longer he was there and got better as soon as he left.

Fohl consistently got the least out of his teams. The Indians probably should’ve made Speaker their manager sooner than they did.

In 1921, injuries clearly played a role, especially on the pitching staff. If Bagby’s arm was just a bit stronger, they could’ve repeated. (Oddly enough, it’s not clear how much it cost them to lose Chapman. Even in 1921, the 22-year-old Sewell was a fine offensive force at shortstop.)

Oh, and there is one other lurking variable: Ruth. What if the most talented player of the 20th century had come along at any other point in that century (or at least been in the NL at the time)? His pitching helped them miss the 1918 World Series, and his bat helped push them back in 1921.

The main answer is this, though: it’s mighty tough to be a dynasty. Sure, if they had the right manager all the time, and they didn’t have injuries in 1921, and if timing worked out better. Sure, you can point to all of that. But that means if everything worked out perfectly, maybe they could’ve done had a pennant-winning run. Well, how often do things work out perfectly for any team in just one season, let alone four straight?

Not often, which is why the 1918-21 Indians are a dynasty that wasn’t.

References & Resources
Stats come from Baseball-Reference.com.

The info on Lee Fohl I learned from researching my book, Evaluating Baseball’s Managers.

The info on the strength of the 1921 Indians bench comes from an article I wrote for The 2011 Hardball Times Annual.

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Comments

  1. Anon said...

    What makes a team qualify as a dynasty? At least one WS win and another two pennants? How much do division titles count? Does W% play a role?

  2. scott said...

    The entire history of the Indians can be summed up in two words.  What if.  Between dumb luck, bad moves, horrible player-manager relations (1930s), and June and September swoons, they’ve done it all.  Except win pennants.

    Yet they are 2nd to the Yankees in AL cumulative winning percentage, 1901-1960.  Go figure.

  3. Dennis Bedard said...

    The concept of a sports dynasty has its roots in the 1960’s.  The media ‘s then fascination with the word had nothing to do with the greatest sports “dynasty” of all, the Yankees.  Rather, its origin can be traced to three teams:  the Candiens, the Celtics, and UCLA basketball, all 1960’s world champions for what seemed like every year.  So when the Orioles won the pennant in ‘69, I recall the word bandied about until the Mets stole their thunder.  Ditto the 1970 Reds until Brooks Robinson did them in.  And then the ‘71 O’s until . . . you get the idea.  I always felt the 70-76 Reds should have won a lot more WS and pennants than they did and thus given the word a bit more luster.  Funny though, the A’s won 3 straight pennants and I cannot recall anyone calling them a dynasty.

  4. Bill Rubinstein said...

    The Indians have a consistent history of doing this- their 1908 team should have ran away with the pennant, but finished third; the 1948 and 1954 teams also should have been part of a dynasty but, of course, Stengel and the Yankees had the magic touch.

  5. Philip said...

    Dennis Bedard said “The concept of a sports dynasty has its roots in the 1960’s.  The media’s then fascination with the word had nothing to do with the greatest sports “dynasty” of all, the Yankees.  Rather, its origin can be traced to three teams:  the Canadiens, the Celtics, and UCLA basketball…”

    Mmmmmmmmm.

    Even this Red Sox fan will concede the term “dynasty” by the press and media likely does indeed have its roots with the describing the success of the New York Yankees. It certainly predates dynasty talk of the Canadiens, Celtics and the UCLA Bruins.

    Eugene Register-Guard – May 3, 1939
    (UP)
    “Yankees Trim Detroit, 22-2: DiMaggio, Gehrig out of lineup”

    “Everyone has wondered what would happen to the Yanks if they lost one of their key men. Well, they lost the great Joe DiMaggio, almost unanimously hailed as the premier ball player of the age, and Lou Gehrig, a pillar of the Yanks dynasty nigh onto 15 years, and their answer was a colossal shock to the baseball world, particularly all aspirants to the American league pennant…….. by slaughtering the Detroit Tigers, 22-2.”

    The Lewiston Daily Sun – Oct 8, 1941
    (AP)
    “Inside Story on Success of Those Yankees”

    “This is the inside story of how the New York Yankees have become the greatest dynasty in baseball, winning five world championships in six years and getting primed for more.”

    The Pittsburgh Press – May 13, 1950
    “Old-Timers Honor Ed Barrow Today”
    (UP)
    “Two teams of baseball’s greatest old-time stars drag their paunches and creaky limbs out to the Yankee Stadium diamond today for a three-inning game in honor of 82-year old Ed Barrow, the man who founded the present New York Yankee dynasty.”

    The Milwaukee Journal – Oct 4, 1938
    “Rowland Predicts Fall of the Yankee Dynasty”

  6. Dennis Bedard said...

    Re Philip.  great job unearthing these articles.  My point was that the media in the late 60’s and early 70’s was quick to pin the dynasty lable on many a new world champion.  Be it the Boston Bruins of 69-70 with Bobby Orr or Baltimore Orioles of 69-71, I think the word dynasty was used more liberally to create hype and buzz than was warranted.  And I think it was because of the three teams I mentioned whose reign was recent and lengthy.

  7. David B. Wilkerson said...

    “In 1922, their already weakening pitching staff fell apart completely. Meanwhile, their bench batters reverted to the mean. The team barely finished over .500. They didn’t seriously compete again in the AL for decades.”

    They did manage to finish only three games behind the Yankees in 1926. But certainly after that, there was no more serious contention until 1940 (see Scott’s comment on “horrible player-manager relations!).

    @Scott—This franchise is pretty underrated, IMO. From 1901-63, 3rd in winning percentage in MLB (.528), behind the Yankees (.583) and Giants (.555). Still, after all the misery of the 1960-93 period, and the spottiness of the last decade or so, their all-time winning percentage is still .509, tied for 7th.

    @Bill Rubenstein—Yes, yes indeed. The 1904 and ‘06 Naps had the best run differential in the AL—particularly the ‘06 team, the topic of a very good SABR paper that explores just what went wrong. http://sabr.org/research/1906-cleveland-naps-deadball-era-underachiever

  8. Robby Bonfire said...

    Not trading Shoeless Joe Jackson to the White Sox in 1915, for a box of matches and a tin cup, would surely have put the Indians over the top, in one, possibly two of their near-miss pennant races of 1918, 1919, and 1921.

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