The city of Cleveland has been a home to baseball since the beginnings of baseball. They had amateur teams as far back as the 1850’s. Professional baseball came to Cleveland in 1871, when the “Forest Citys” joined the National Association of Professional Baseball Players, but they only lasted two seasons before folding. The Forest Citys were resurrected in 1879, when the National League was looking for some new locations for expansion. For the 1882 season, the National League required distinct colors for their teams, so the Forest Citys became the Cleveland Blues. But, after three seasons of mediocrity, they were devastated when their best players jumped to teams in the Union Association after the 1884 season. They ended up merging with the St. Louis Maroons (of the Union Association) in 1885. In 1887, another team was established in Cleveland – the Spiders – as a part of the new American Association. But, in 1889, this team jumped to the National League. They enjoyed some success early on, with the help of Cy Young, winning a championship in 1895. But, prior to the 1899 season, their owner bought the St. Louis Browns. And, in an effort to load up the talent, he sent the Spiders’ best players to St. Louis. With a decimated team, the Spiders lost games at a record pace – finishing 20-134, the worst record in the history of baseball, even to this day. After that season, the Spiders were disbanded by the National League.
In 1900, a team from Michigan moved to Cleveland, and became known as the Cleveland Lake Shores. They were a part of the Western League (a minor league, initially), which changed its name to the American League in 1900. And, in 1901, the American League broke its contract with the National League, declaring itself a competing professional league, and the newly named Cleveland Bluebirds were one of its eight charter members. They were the Cleveland Blues to the media, but the players disliked the name. In 1902, they attempted to change it to the Cleveland Broncos, but that didn’t stick either. In the middle of the 1902 season, Napoleon “Nap” Lajoie joined the team after a dispute with the National League. He was quickly named team captain (and enjoyed a brief stint as player/manager) and the team was known as the Cleveland Naps for the next 12 years. After the 1914 season, they traded Lajoie to the A’s in Philadelphia. And, when their owner asked the local newspapers to come up with a new nickname, the Cleveland Indians were born. Even though this franchise was one of the original American League teams, they have gone through some very lean years. Just three postseason appearances in their first 94 seasons of existence (’20, ’48 & ’54), which resulted in 2 World Championships (’20 & ’48). In fact, from 1960-1993, they never finished above 3rd place, and only had 6 winning seasons. But, they’ve had 8 playoff appearances since 1994, including 2 American League championships. However, the World Series title has evaded them the last 65 years – the second longest drought in baseball.
All that being said, they have had their fair share of talent to come through Cleveland. They’ve retired 6 players’ jerseys, and there are 12 HOFers whose primary careers were spent in Cleveland. Here are what I consider the top 5:
5. Kenny Lofton (’92-’96, ’98-’01, ’07) – in spite of being tagged as a “journeyman” player (he played for 11 different teams), he spent more than half his career in Cleveland. An excellent lead-off hitter, a top-notch centerfielder, and a speedster on the base paths, Lofton finished his career with 622 stolen bases – 15th all-time. He also owns the record for most stolen bases in the postseason (34). He burst onto the scene in 1992, and finished 2nd in Rookie of the Year voting, after leading the league with 66 stolen bases. He would continue to lead the league in stolen bases his first 5 seasons in the league. In 10 seasons in Cleveland, he won 4 Gold Gloves in center field, appeared in 5 All-Star games, and finished 4th in MVP voting in ’94, while helping the Indians win 6 division titles. He ranks 3rd on the Indians’ All-Time runs scored list (975), 9th in hits (1512), 12th in total bases (2149 – and only 2 ahead of him have fewer at-bats), 11th in doubles (244), 1st in stolen bases (452 – nearly 180 ahead of 2nd place), and 8th in runs created (889).
4. Jim Thome (’91-’02, ’11) – I don’t know if Thome used steroids or not. But, what I do know is that there has been little-to-no mention of his name in connection with PED’s, in spite of playing during a PED-infused era. And, I would be a little surprised (though, not much surprises me anymore when it comes to who gets caught red-handed), if Thome’s name was ever connected with steroids. Yes, he was a big guy – but, I always remember him being a big guy (kinda like Jeff Bagwell). So, going on the assumption that Thome was not juicing, you have to respect his accomplishments. Thirteen of his 22 seasons were spent in Cleveland. In that time, he was a 3-time All-Star, who only led the league in walks 3 times, and OPS once. But, on Cleveland’s all-time lists, it’s impressive how often he shows up: 3rd in OBP (.414), 3rd in SLG (.566), 3rd in OPS (.980), 5th in runs scored (5805), 4th in total bases (2667), 1st in HR (337), 2nd in RBI (937), 1st in walks (1008), 4th in OPS+ (152), and 3rd in runs created (1180).
3. Nap Lajoie (1902-1914) – he was an immediate star when he joined the Cleveland team in ’02. Attendance sky-rocketed, and for good reason. While in Cleveland, he led the league in batting 3 times, hits 3 times, doubles 3 times, OPS twice, and RBI once. Had there been an MVP to give out, he most definitely would have won in 1904, with a .376/.413/.546/.959 stat line – each of which led the league – 102 RBI’s (also led the league), and an impressive 203 OPS+ (by comparison – non-PED-users have eclipsed the 200-mark just 5 times in the last 34 years)! Lajoie also ranks 3rd on the Indians’ all-time batting list (.339), 7th in runs scored (865), 1st in hits (2047), 3rd in total bases (2726), 2nd in doubles (424), 3rd in RBI (919), 4th in stolen bases (240), 3rd in OPS+ (155), and 4th in runs created (1050).
2. Bob Feller (’36-’41, ’45-’56) – one of the greatest pitchers ever – and he gets overlooked too often. He was Nolan Ryan before Nolan Ryan. The problem is, he missed the better part of 4 seasons to WWII. And, not just any 4 seasons – seasons in the middle of his prime – his 23-26 year old seasons. He came back and pitched 9 games at the end of the ’45 season, so he essentially missed about 3.75 seasons. But, consider this: he led the league in strikeouts the 4 seasons leading up to his deployment, and each of the first 3 full seasons after his return. He led the league in wins the 3 seasons prior to, and his first 2 full seasons after his military service. Had there been a Cy Young award, he would have won 3 consecutive awards, leading up to the war, as he finished in the top 3 in MVP voting each year. When Feller retired, he had 2,581 K’s – the 3rd most in history, at the time. Just imagine how many more he might have had, if he hadn’t missed so much time in the military. He’s at the top of the Indians’ all-time list in wins (266), strikeouts, and complete games (279). He also ranks 2nd in shutouts (44). The only reason I don’t have him at #1, is because, like many hard-throwing pitchers, he was intimidating, but also a little wild. He led the league in walks 4 times, and hits allowed 3 times, and finished his career with a 1.46 K/BB ratio, and 1.32 WHIP – 44th & 39th on the Indians’ all-time list, respectively.
1. Tris Speaker (’16-’26) – here’s a guy who has an argument to be on two team’s top-5 lists. Speaker spent the first 9 years of his career (7 of which were full seasons) in Boston, and won an MVP there in 1912. But, while he certainly would be on their top-10 list, he didn’t quite rack up the numbers there that he did in Cleveland. He spent 11 seasons in Cleveland, and is still considered one of the best center fielders to every play the game. One author is quoted as saying that Speaker’s glove was “where triples go to die.” To this day, he still holds the all-time record for career assists by an outfielder (449), and double plays by an outfielder (139). In 11 seasons in Cleveland, Speaker led the league in doubles 6 times, which led to him holding the all-time career record for doubles (792) – and, to give you a little perspective, the closest active player to this record is Derek Jeter, who is nearly 270 behind. It’s unfortunate for Speaker that they didn’t give out an MVP from 1915-1921, because he certainly would have been in the discussion several times, and likely would have won in 1916, when he led the league in every part of his stat line (.386/.470/.502/.972), as well as leading the league in hits (211), and doubles (41), while stealing 35 bases, and driving in 79. Speaker ranks 2nd on the Indians all-time batting list (.354), 1st in OBP (.444), 8th in SLG (.520), 4th in OPS (.965), 2nd in runs scored (1079), 2nd in hits (1965), 2nd in total bases (2886), 1st in doubles (486), 2nd in triples (108), 5th in RBI (886), 10th in stolen bases (155), and 2nd in OPS+ (158).
What do you think about this list?