The Virtual 1954 Cleveland Indians:  Part One

Recently we had some fun imagining what kind of a lineup the 1930 New York Giants might have featured, had they not traded away three key players in the preceding seasons. That particular scenario is actually one I’d taken note of many years ago. But while writing it up for THT, it struck me that quite a few similar sorts of plausible scenarios are easily imaginable for other teams in other seasons.

So this time we’ll play the same game with the 1954 Cleveland Indians, and in future installments we’ll do it for some other teams (I’ve already got four other likely candidates in mind). The rules are the same as we applied with the 1930 Giants: we re-tool an historical team’s roster, not by invoking any acquisitions they didn’t actually make, but instead by simply erasing a few transactions they did make.

What Was

The 1954 Indians were one of the most remarkable ball clubs of all time. They won the astonishing total of 111 games, setting an American League record that would stand until 1998, and their winning percentage of .721 remains the highest in AL history. Their stunning loss in the ’54 World Series, in four straight games to the 97-57 Giants, served to cast skepticism over just how great a team they truly were; the consensus among experts is that the 1954 American League wasn’t very strong, and the Indians fluffed up their record by beating the league’s weak sisters like a drum: they were, in fact, a mind-boggling 89-21 (.809) against everyone in the league other than the Yankees and White Sox, while going just .500 against those two contenders.

This is a valid observation. But on the other hand, no one doubts the strength of those great Casey Stengel Yankees, who after all had won five straight World Series heading into 1954, and would immediately win four more pennants in a row beginning in 1955. Those Yankees were playing in the same league as the Indians, and against the same weakest five-eighths of the 1954 AL that Cleveland annihilated, the ’54 Yankees were 77-33 (.700): a great record, but a full 12 games behind the Indians. The ’54 American League likely was unusually weak, but it wasn’t so weak as to render a fair assessment of the regular season performance of that Cleveland team as anything other than stupendously impressive.

The ’54 Indians were blessed with an utterly phenomenal pitching staff. Anchored by two Hall of Fame aces in peak form (Early Wynn and Bob Lemon, each of whom won 23 games), and with a third ace to boot (Mike Garcia, who was nearly as good), the Indians’ staff featured still two more veteran Hall of Famers (Bob Feller and Hal Newhouser) in supporting roles, in which they combined to go 20-5 with a 126 ERA+. As if that weren’t enough, two 25-year-old rookies, Don Mossi and Ray Narleski, provided brilliant relief work, combining for a 9-4 record with 20 saves and a 178 ERA+ in 182 innings. All told the 1954 Cleveland staff posted a stunning 132 ERA+, among the best in history; their 2.78 team ERA and total of just 504 runs allowed were both by far the best in the major leagues between the Balata ball World War II period and the extreme low-scoring mid-1960s.

It was this spectacular pitching that was the basis for the 1954 Indians’ tremendous success: their hitting was very good, but not great, finishing second in the league (to the Yankees) in both runs and OPS+. Here are their offensive stats:

Pos  Player            AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS OPS+
1B   Wertz            295   33   81   14    2   14   48   34   40 .275 .344 .478 .822  122
2B   Avila            555  112  189   27    2   15   67   59   31 .341 .402 .477 .879  139
SS   Strickland       361   42   77   12    3    6   37   55   62 .213 .314 .313 .627   72
3B   Rosen            466   76  140   20    2   24  102   85   43 .300 .404 .506 .910  147
RF   Philley          452   48  102   13    3   12   60   57   48 .226 .308 .347 .655   78
CF   Doby             577   94  157   18    4   32  126   85   94 .272 .364 .484 .848  129
LF   Smith            481  101  135   29    6   11   50   88   65 .281 .398 .435 .833  127
C    Hegan            423   56   99   12    7   11   40   34   48 .234 .289 .374 .663   79
     REGULARS        3610  562  980  145   29  125  530  497  431 .271 .364 .432 .795  116

OF   Westlake         240   36   63    9    2   11   42   26   37 .262 .337 .454 .791  114
3B   Regalado         180   21   45    5    0    2   24   19   16 .250 .333 .311 .644   77
1B   Glynn            171   19   43    3    2    5   18   12   21 .251 .297 .380 .677   84
SS   Dente            169   18   45    7    1    1   19   14    4 .266 .319 .337 .656   79
23   Majeski          121   10   34    4    0    3   17    7   14 .281 .320 .388 .708   92
OF   Pope             102   21   30    2    1    4   13   10   22 .294 .354 .451 .805  118
C    Naragon          101   10   24    2    2    0   12    9   12 .238 .300 .297 .597   63
PH   Mitchell          60    6   17    1    0    1    6    9    1 .283 .377 .350 .727   99
C    Grasso             6    1    2    0    0    1    1    1    1 .333 .500 .8331.333  258
PH   Easter             6    0    1    0    0    0    0    0    2 .167 .167 .167 .334   -9
1B   Nelson             4    0    0    0    0    0    0    0    1 .000 .000 .000 .000 -100
C    Ginsberg           2    0    1    0    1    0    1    0    0 .500 .6671.5002.167  477
PH   Dyck               1    0    1    0    0    0    1    1    01.0001.0001.0002.000  447
     BENCH           1163  142  306   33    9   28  154  108  131 .263 .329 .379 .708   93

P    Lemon             98   11   21    4    1    2   10    6   24 .214 .257 .337 .594   61
P    Wynn              93   10   17    3    0    0    4    7   13 .183 .240 .215 .455   25
P    Garcia            81    5   11    0    0    0    4    6   22 .136 .193 .136 .329   -9
P    Houttemann        65    6   18    2    0    1   10    2   11 .277 .294 .354 .648   76
P    Feller            48    6    9    1    0    0    1    4   17 .188 .250 .208 .458   26
P    Mossi             19    1    3    0    0    0    0    3   10 .158 .273 .158 .431   20
P    Narleski          16    0    0    0    0    0    0    1    5 .000 .059 .000 .059  -83
P    Newhouser         13    0    2    0    0    0    1    0    0 .154 .154 .154 .308  -16
P    Hoskins            8    2    0    0    0    0    0    1    3 .000 .111 .000 .111  -68
P    Hooper             5    0    0    0    0    0    0    0    1 .000 .000 .000 .000 -100
P    Chakales           3    0    1    0    0    0    0    1    0 .333 .500 .333 .833  131
P    Santiago           0    1    0    0    0    0    0    1    0 .0001.000 .0001.000  inf
     PITCHERS         449   42   82   10    1    3   30   32  106 .183 .239 .229 .468   28

     TOTAL           5222  746 1368  188   39  156  714  637  668 .262 .342 .403 .745  109

We see that the Indians’ lineup featured three excellent-hitting stars in third baseman Al Rosen, second baseman Bobby Avila (the league’s batting champ), and center fielder Larry Doby (the league leader in homers and RBIs). A fourth guy, left fielder and leadoff man Al Smith, was also quite good. But they had three gaping offensive holes: catcher Jim Hegan, right fielder Dave Philley, and shortstop George Strickland were all fine with the glove, but feeble with the bat.

First base was a mixed bag: they got strong production from Vic Wertz after picking him up in a June trade, but until then they were getting by with light-hitting defensive specialist Bill Glynn as their primary first baseman, as well as frequently sliding Rosen over to first and deploying light-hitting rookie Rudy Regalado at third base.

So, the Indians won 111 games, despite having an offense that had obvious room for improvement. And that’s where we come in.

What Might Have Been: Element One

Owner Bill Veeck’s Indians made a curious choice in December of 1946. They weren’t strong behind the plate, but they did have two interesting young catchers on their roster. The first was 26-year-old Jim Hegan, a terrific defender, but through 529 major league plate appearances, Hegan had posted an OPS+ of just 63, nor had he hit well in four minor league seasons.

The other guy was 22-year-old Sherm Lollar, who had come to bat just 70 times in the majors, but had hit promisingly in that brief trial, producing an OPS+ of 95. This came on top of a terrific minor league career, all in the triple-A International League, in which Lollar had hit .250 with 15 home runs at age 19, then a league-leading .364 with 34 homers and 111 RBIs at age 20, and in a partial season at age 21, blasting 20 homers in 222 at-bats. This was a kid catcher who could hit.

But in the winter of 1946, Veeck authorized a trade of Lollar in exchange for secondary pitching help, sending the young fellow to the Yankees (who, oddly, for their part had no need for Lollar, with standout catcher Aaron Robinson and budding star Yogi Berra on hand). It would require a couple of years, for the Yankees themselves to trade Lollar and finally get him a chance to play, but he would emerge as a hitting and fielding star: a seven-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glover.

Hegan, the catcher the Indians chose in favor of Lollar, would have a fine career as well, being widely regarded as the finest defensive catcher in the American League in the late 1940s and early 1950s, making five All-Star teams. But Hegan would never hit at all: in ten seasons as a regular, his best OPS+ was 94, and was typically in the 70s. All things considered, it’s clear the Indians would have been better off had they decided to go with Lollar rather than Hegan.

Let’s suppose that’s what they did.

What Might Have Been: Element Two

Veeck hired the former superstar slugger Hank Greenberg as Cleveland General Manager in 1950, and Greenberg would remain in that position through 1957, long after Veeck’s departure. Through that tenure Greenberg would demonstrate great skill at overseeing a highly productive farm system (as we saw here), but his acumen at making trades and constructing the big league roster would be a very different story.

The ball club Greenberg took over included two outstanding first basemen: Mickey Vernon and Luke Easter. The latter was a longtime Negro League star who might have forged a 500-home run major league career had he been given the chance. But by 1950 Easter was (somewhere) in his mid-thirties, and prodigious power was the only asset the 240-pounder brought to the table: Easter was extremely slow, poor defensively, and prone to injury. Vernon didn’t have Easter’s power, but he was a very good line-drive hitter as well as a slick fielder: in general, a far superior all-around player, and (at least) two years younger than Easter to boot.

In June of 1950, Greenberg dumped Vernon off to the Senators in a giveaway trade (which we discussed here), committing to Easter as his full-time first baseman. This was a very odd choice, and not one that served the Indians well.

Let’s suppose they had kept Vernon.

What Might Have Been: Element Three

An even more questionable Cleveland course of action was their handling of another player Veeck had recruited from the Negro Leagues: outfielder-third baseman Minnie Miñoso. Despite a strong 1949 triple-A performance (.297 with 22 homers), for 1950 Greenberg again farmed out the twenty-something Miñoso. That year the Indians instead went with journeymen Bob Kennedy and Allie Clark in right field, and received predictably modest production from them while Miñoso was hitting .339 in Triple-A, with 70 extra-base hits and 30 stolen bases. So for 1951 Greenberg finally promoted the abundantly talented Cuban to the major league roster, but he still wasn’t given a chance in the Cleveland outfield: in the early season, field manager Al Lopez weirdly deployed the speedster as, of all things, a backup first baseman.

On April 30th of 1951, Greenberg completed the organization’s systematic waste of Miñoso by trading him to the White Sox as part of a multi-club, multi-player deal (which we discussed here) that netted the Indians pitcher Lou Brissie. The southpaw Brissie would give Cleveland a couple of good years in the bullpen before flaming out with arm trouble, but he was entirely meager compensation for Miñoso, who when given the chance to play in Chicago immediately established himself as a major star.

Let’s suppose the Indians had kept Miñoso, and deployed him as a regular in their outfield.

What Might Have Been: Element Four

Cleveland through the 1940s had featured a star at shortstop, in player-manager Lou Boudreau. But though he was just 31, in 1949 Boudreau began to be slowed by injuries, and his days as a regular were numbered. The player Boudreau and the organization picked to phase in as his replacement at short was a curious choice: 25-year-old rookie Ray Boone.

The 6-foot, 190-pound Boone didn’t look the part of a typical shortstop, and had in fact originally been a catcher in the minor leagues. A strong arm was Boone’s lone shortstop defensive asset, and his fielding there wasn’t impressive. (Teammate Jim Fridley’s assessment: “Ray Boone was an ideal, cheerful teammate. Ray would become a fine third baseman, but he wasn’t mobile enough to play short and couldn’t turn the double play …”) But the Indians really liked Boone’s bat: he’d hit .355 in the Texas League in 1948, and was a fundamentally sound line-drive hitter who looked as though he would develop power. In 1950, getting most of the playing time ahead of Boudreau at short, Boone hit .301, with an OPS+ of 114.

After Boudreau departed, in 1951 Al Lopez played Boone as Cleveland’s full-time shortstop, but perhaps due to the stress of the defensive challenge, he had an off-year at the plate. In ’52, Lopez alternated Boone at short with two light-hitting glove men in Merrill Combs and George Strickland, and while Boone’s hitting perked up in this arrangement, at the age of 28 it now appeared he might not become the offensive star the team had expected.

In 1953 Boone and Strickland were sharing the shortstop job. In mid-June, with Boone’s hitting still okay-but-not-sensational, Greenberg traded him to Detroit in a multi-player deal. The 27-year-old Strickland took over as the regular, and after coming into 1953 with a .201 career average in some 900 major league plate appearances, hit a surprising .284. Meanwhile Boone, shifted to third base by the Tigers, immediately blossomed at the age of 29 into a high-average power hitter, and would remain one of the best-hitting third basemen in the majors for several years.

It’s an intriguing question if Boone’s sudden success at the plate was a function of the trade, and/or of the defensive move to third base (which certainly appeared to better suit his skillset), or whether it was just a coincidence, and he was going to bust out with the bat even if he’d stayed in Cleveland and/or stayed at shortstop. It’s impossible to know, of course, but I’m inclined to think the truth is somewhere in the middle: it probably is the case that the fresh start in Detroit and at third stimulated Boone, but it’s also probably the case that he was just such a good hitter that it was only a matter of time before he delivered strong results.

Meanwhile, Strickland’s improved 1953 hitting would prove to be a fluke: in ‘54 he was back to his customary .213.

Let’s suppose the Indians had stuck with Boone at shortstop into 1954.

Next Time

We’ll examine just what the 1954 Indians might have looked like with Lollar, Vernon, Miñoso, and Boone on board.

References & Resources
The Jim Fridley quote on Ray Boone is from the tremendous book We Played the Game, edited by Danny Peary (Black Dog & Leventhal, New York: 1994), page 199.

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