The Cleveland Indians have one of the longest World Series droughts in baseball, one that owes much of its longevity to a revolving door of temporary owners, many of whom sold the team just a few years after buying it.
The last Indians championship came in 1948, 68 years ago — back when there were only seven other teams in the American League. From 1960 to 1993, the team had seven different owners: on average, the team was sold every five years or less. Not coincidentally, over those 34 seasons, they never finished higher than third.
But what if, years ago, a businessman named Donald Trump had been successful in his offer to buy the team? Or another businessman, George Steinbrenner?
The franchise has been around since 1901, an inaugural member of the American League, but the team has won only two World Championships in more than a century. This makes the Indians something like a Junior Circuit counterpart of the Chicago Cubs, though the Cubs’ misery is far better publicized.
Then again, there’s something that tends to escape the miserablism that often surrounds both fan bases: The Cubs and Indians have, respectively, the sixth- and seventh-best franchise winning percentages in Major League Baseball. The third-best winning percentage in the history of the American League, after the Yankees and Red Sox, belongs to the Cleveland Indians, who at 9,097-8,770 are more than 300 games above .500.
The trouble is, while they have generally managed to avoid utter oblivion — the strings of 100-loss seasons that can leave a team below .500 for decades — they rarely have the knack for coming out on top. In 115 team seasons, they have won a total of seven division titles, one Wild Card, and five league pennants. Their 40 percent World Series winning rate is actually rather enviable in that light. It’s certainly a lot better than the Cubs’ two wins in ten tries.
(Yes, ten! The Cubs lost in 1906, 1910, 1918, 1929, 1932, 1935, 1938 and 1945.)
Cleveland has fielded a lot of middling teams, but few extraordinary ones. The Indians’ record means that their fans didn’t have a whole lot to root for in the off years, just a whole lot of teams that hung around the bottom of the first division or the top of the second. From 1901 to 1947, the Indians finished first exactly once, in 1920, and they beat Brooklyn to win the Series. They finished second six times, third 12 times and fourth 11 times.
Then came the 1948 championship, led by a group of future Hall of Famers, including their MVP player/manager Sweet Lou Boudreau, along with Larry Doby, Bob Lemon, Bob Feller, Satchel Paige, and Joe Gordon. Just a few years after that came the tremendous 1954 squad, in which Doby, Lemon, and Feller were joined by future Hall of Famers Early Wynn and Hal Newhouser. They finished a phenomenal 111-43 in the regular season, still the best winning percentage in AL history, and brought the Indians their second pennant in seven years. But they ran into a famous buzzsaw in the World Series: Willie Mays. And that was that. They wouldn’t reach the postseason again for 40 years.
That four-decade drought is what was called the “Curse of Rocky Colavito,” in a popular 1994 book by Cleveland Plain Dealer sportswriter Terry Pluto, who marked the 1960 deal that shipped away the popular slugger as the moment that it all went to hell. But in all events, for the first 94 years of the team’s history, the Indians finished first three times and won two World Series. In the subsequent two decades, they finished first in their division seven more times — including five times in a row from 1995-1999 — and lost two more World Series. The curse lost some of its pungency, but little of its poignancy. No fans under the age of 68 have actually had a championship in their lifetime.
Here are the team’s winning percentages, by year, from 1901 to 2016:
Indians history really has four high points: 1906-1908, 1917-1959, 1948-1956 and 1994-2001. Those mark the only times that the team notched successive years with winning percentages significantly above .500. You can also see that from 1960 to 1993, the team was almost always well below .500. That’s why the Indians were the laughingstock of baseball by the time the movie Major League came out in 1989. Pluto’s book covers the period from 1960 to 1993 and serves as a comprehensive listing of the maladies that befell the team.
Why were the Indians so bad? It starts with turnover.
Here is the list of team owners:
- Charles W. Somers, 1900 – 1916
- Jim Dunn / Dunn’s estate, 1916 – 1927 (Dunn passed in 1922)
- Alva Bradley, 1927 – 1946
- Bill Veeck, 1946 – 1949
- Ellis Ryan (President), 1949 – 1952
- Myron H. Wilson (President), 1953 – 1956
- William R. Daley, 1956 – 1962
- Gabe Paul, 1963 – 1966
- Vernon Stouffer, 1967 – 1972
- Nick Mileti (President), 1972 – 1976
- Ted Bonda (President), 1977 – 1978
- F.J. “Steve” O’Neill / O’Neill’s estate, 1978 – 1986 (O’Neill died in 1983)
- Richard E. Jacobs, 1986 – 2000
- Larry Dolan and family trusts, 2000 – Present
So the Indians have had 15 owners over the past century and change, but they had eight different owners from 1946 to 1986, getting a new one just about every five years. Dick Jacobs bought the team in 1986, and he was easily the best owner since Veeck, who owned the team from 1946 to 1949 and brought the team its last world championship: he also brought the team stability, controlling the team for longer than anyone but the founding owner.
The man Jacobs sold the team to, Larry Dolan, has owned the team for even longer, though the Indians have not been nearly as successful under him as they were under Jacobs.
There have also been 46 managers in team history; they’ve gotten a new manager just about every two and a half years. In the 27 years from 1960 to 1986, the height of the pre-Jacobs misery, the Indians had 15 managers, switching skippers less than every two years. All that shuffling of deck chairs didn’t change the basic fact: The team didn’t have much money and wasn’t winning, and it wasn’t making much money because it wasn’t winning.
Thirty years before the setting of the movie Major League, which involved an owner who wanted to move the Indians out of town, Cleveland nearly lost its team. Owner Bill Daley apparently was considering moving the team to Minnesota or Seattle (Minnesota eventually got the Twins in 1961; Seattle eventually got the M’s in 1977). Just to keep the team in town, newly arrived general manager Gabe Paul eventually formed an ownership group and became an Indians owner.
Interestingly, two of the most important events in Indians history were things that didn’t happen: Two deep-pocketed men with ties to New York who almost got the team but failed. Had they succeeded, Indians history might have been very different.
Steinbrenner and Trump.
In 1983, Trump had his lawyer send a letter to then-general manager Gabe Paul — who was back in the front office after selling his stake in the team — with an offer to buy the Indians. There was a public outcry because it was widely believed that he would move the Indians out of Cleveland, and eventually Trump withdrew his offer. In the end, the team chose to sell itself to Dick Jacobs for $35 million in 1986. Fourteen years later, Jacobs sold the team for nearly 10 times as much money.
A decade earlier, Steinbrenner, a Cleveland native, had come even closer. As The New York Times wrote, “On Dec. 6, 1971, Steinbrenner’s ownership group struck a handshake agreement to purchase the Indians for $8.6 million.” Steinbrenner was a former classmate of the son of the owner of the Indians, an heir to the Stouffer’s food fortune. But shortly before the sale was to be announced (and reportedly deep in his cups), the elder Stouffer scotched the deal.
A year later, Steinbrenner bought the Yankees.
Making matters worse, as Pluto writes, there was a seemingly unending series of on- and off-field tragedies. The worst was the boating accident that killed Steve Olin and Tim Crews in 1993. Cliff Young died in a a car crash later that year, a few weeks after being released by the team. Walt Bond, a rookie in 1960, died of leukemia in 1967. Max Alvis was hospitalized with spinal meningitis in 1964, and though he regained the field within a month and a half, never recovered to full strength.
And then there were the literal tough breaks on the field. Catcher Ray Fosse, an All-Star at 23, had his shoulder fractured when Pete Rose body-slammed him on a play at the plate in the midsummer classic; his career didn’t end, but he was never the same player. Before the team hit its nadir, young fireballer Herb Score, one of the best pitchers in the league, got hit by a line drive in 1957, and his career was never the same.
Much of the worst of it was of the team’s own making. Manager Alvin Dark, who skippered the team from 1968 to 1971, was a quite literal bigot. “This guy was a real southerner with real southern attitudes from the 1940s,” Pluto quotes radio host Pete Franklin as saying, putting it as charitably as possible. “He honestly didn’t know it was racist. It was hard for him not to consider minorities inferior.”
And Cleveland Stadium was no prize. As Pluto writes:
[Former broadcaster Nev Chandler]: “It was in the middle 1970s that they lowered the field eighteen inches to create better sightlines for the fans.”
That was when they discovered that the field was built over landfill.
“There were stove tops and parts of bathtubs and kitchen sinks under there,” said Paul.
And then there were the insects. Years before swarms of midges rattled Joba Chamberlain so much that he threw two wild pitches, allowing the winning run to score in a playoff game in 2007, Cleveland was known for its bugs. “Thanks to the dampness off Lake Erie, the Stadium was a marvelous breeding ground for insects,” writes Pluto. “Pitcher Jim Kern once had to leave a game when he swallowed a moth.” Added Franklin, “Sometimes millions of gnats would dive-bomb the park, and players spent the whole game swatting in front of their faces just so they could keep the bugs out of their mouths.”
Of course, in recent years, the Indians fielded a couple of really strong teams, losing two World Series in the 1990s to the Braves and Marlins with a team that, if a few breaks had gone its way, was probably talented enough to hoist a trophy. The Indians’ pitching was no great shakes, but they had one of the greatest offenses ever — a near-mirror reverse of the 1954 Indians who got swept by the Giants.
The 96-win Indians of 2007 were similarly quite strong, led by the offensive core of Grady Sizemore, Victor Martinez and Travis Hafner, and a starting one-two punch of C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona, in his first full season. It seemed as though they would contend for years to come — but then Fausto was revealed to be neither as young as he claimed nor actually named Fausto. Instead, he was a man in his late 20s named Roberto Hernandez, and he would never again be that good. Neither, to date, has been his erstwhile team.
So what made it all go wrong?
Well, Pluto makes his own beliefs pretty plain: He blames it on a series of incompetent front offices that bought high and sold low on a stupefying amount of talent. He particularly demonizes general manager Frank Lane, the man who not only traded Colavito to Detroit, but Roger Maris to Kansas City and Hoyt Wilhelm to Baltimore and Norm Cash to Detroit.
So obsessive a dealer was Trader Lane that, as Pluto writes, “In the spring of 1960, the only Tribe players left from the forty-man roster Lane had inherited two years earlier were Score and Colavito.” And, indeed, Colavito would be traded within weeks for Harvey Kuenn, and Lane traded Kuenn away the following winter.
Lane was followed by Gabe Paul, a domineering figure in Cleveland history who variously served as general manager, president and owner of the team, and presided over severe budget cuts to the farm system budget while making several terrible deals of his own, including a trade to bring Colavito back to Cleveland that cost Tommy Agee and Tommy John, and trades of Mudcat Grant and Jim Perry (Gaylord’s brother) for relative scraps.
But a more plausible answer lies on the second-to-last page: a constant succession of miserly owners. As Pluto writes, “From 1949 to 1986 no group owned the Indians for more than six years. On the average, the team was sold every four years.” He quotes Hank Peters, who became the team’s president in 1987, as saying:
I studied the Indians organization going back to the late 1950s… you can look back over thirty years and see the deterioration of what was once a great farm system. When the owners wanted to save money, they looked at cutting back the scouting and farm system because that was something the public or media couldn’t immediately see.
It’s really rather remarkable when you look at it. There have been 12 owners since the last world championship, 68 years ago, though there have only been two in the last 30 years: Dick Jacobs and Larry Dolan, who bought the team from Jacobs in November 1999 for a sale price of $320 million, the most that had ever been paid for a baseball team. Jacobs, the namesake of Jacobs field, spent money on the team and won the fourth and fifth AL pennants in team history; Dolan is the uncle of the owner of the New York Knicks, and his stinginess mired the team once more in mediocrity.
Dolan ended the Jacobs era of lavish payrolls and continued his predecessors’ glorious tradition of shrinking the budget. In each of Jacobs’ last four years of owning the team, the Indians had the fourth-highest payroll in baseball, and they finished in first place of their division every year. Within a few years of the sale to Dolan, the payroll plummeted into the bottom third of the league. The Indians have finished in first place in their division only twice since the sale.
Payroll ranks are not easy to come by prior to 1988, the first year listed in USA Today‘s salary database. But over the past three decades, it’s easy to see the difference between Jacobs and Dolan’s budgetary styles:
(Salary ranks taken from USA Today.)
Again, the sale was in 2000. It’s pretty striking just how precipitous the fall in revenue rank was. (That chart is slightly misleading, because there were expansions in 1993 and 1998, so the earlier ranks are out of 26 teams, and later ranks are out of 28 and then 30 teams.)
It might be simpler to believe in a curse, or even gross incompetence of the kind that might drive a pathological trader to swap a one dollar bill for two shiny quarters ’cause two is more than one. But the real reason that the Indians have struggled to field a competitive team for nearly 70 years is much simpler, and much sadder. And it’s the one thing that Trump and Steinbrenner might have been able to provide.
References & Resources
- Terry Pluto, The Curse of Rocky Colavito