The 1920 Cleveland Indians
by Will Carroll
Despite the World Series trophy they won and the achievements the team made throughout the campaign, the Indians of 1920 are overshadowed by tragedy. No matter the actual feats on the field, the team was responsible for ushering in the modern era of baseball. An event they had no control over simply towers over each event they did. Success is merely a footnote to the death of Ray Chapman.
Perhaps the most ironic note to be made about the ’20 Indians is that they were the last team to win in the so-called “Dead Ball” era. While a young slugger was beginning to make his mark in the Bronx, the dead ball was a year away and the result of a tragedy. The Indians were thirty-one games over .500 on an overcast day in Brooklyn. Despite whispers that would follow Carl Mays throughout his career, the singular tragedy of Chapman’s death was mere accident. It was as much a collision of styles – Mays was a sidearming fastball pitcher (not an oxymoron in the period) while Chapman’s batting stance was open and he would dive into the plate as he hit. Without the benefit of a helmet, a white ball, or modern medicine, the sickening thud of a fractured skull is sure to be the one part remembered, no matter the outcome.
If anything, Chapman’s death led to the use of new, white baseballs, the installation and upkeep of “batter’s eyes” – the blacked out section of the field in the line of sight for the batter – and rules to limit the deception a pitcher could use to hide the ball from the hitter. It is somewhat wondrous that helmets took years to come into the game, but this is an America years removed from plastic. Indeed, football players of the age seldom used leather helmets. The side effects of all these events led to an offensive explosion that capped in 1930 and set the stage for the greatest player yet, Babe Ruth.
Ruth, however, was not yet the acclaimed best outfielder. Instead, a man they called “The Grey Eagle” roamed center field in Cleveland. In Dunn Field (usually known as League Park, but known as Dunn Field for the years that the team was owned by “Sunny Jim” Dunn), center field had more acreage than many family farms. At its opening in 1910, at its deepest point just left of center, the fence was 505 feet from home. In 1920, the fences had been moved in to a somewhat more human 450. Speaker was a brilliant outfielder, known for playing shallow and making inhuman runs back on the ball. It was Speaker that Willie Mays famous catch in the Polo Grounds was immediately compared to and many argued that for Speaker, that catch would have been routine. Speaker was no slouch at the plate either, hitting .380 to lead the AL, fifty doubles, also leading the AL, and posting an almost unthinkable thirteen strikeouts against ninety-seven walks.
Speaker was far from the only hitter on the team, joined by three other players with one hundred or more RBIs and three .300+ hitters. Elmer Smith, the right fielder, had a career year for the Indians, just two years removed from his service in World War One. Catcher Steve O’Neill was amongst the leaders in every offensive and defensive categories amongst catchers and was right in the middle of a four-year peak period at the age of 28. The Indians were assisted by defensive whiz Bill Wambsganss, who was widely known as the second best second baseman, not a bad thing when playing at the same time as Hall of Famer Eddie Collins.
The pitching staff was another strength, led by thirty game winner Jim Bagby and two other twenty game winners, Stan Coveleski and Ray Caldwell. All three threw over three hundred innings, but Bagby not only had the best results but appears to have taken the most abuse. His 340 innings included thirty-nine starts and in addition nine game finishing relief appearances, plus the World Series. In less than three years, Bagby was out of baseball and he was never as effective. For Coveleski, while it was a career year, he remained one of the most consistent starters in the AL for several more years. These three pitchers combined with several others to form a strong four man rotation.
The Indians jumped to a quick lead in the American League due to the quirky nature of baseball schedule’s of the period. They spent the first month of the season playing just three teams – the Detroit Tigers who finished thirty games under .500 in the twilight of Ty Cobb’s career, the perennially losing St. Louis Browns, and one series against the White Sox. The White Sox had played in the World Series the year prior and in a story now known throughout baseball as one of the darkest episodes in all of sports, the team lost the series to the Cincinnati Reds while under the control of gambler Arnold Rothstein. The White Sox returned their entire team, including Eddie Cicotte, Eddie Collins, and the incomparable Shoeless Joe Jackson.
The Indians and White Sox would stay neck and neck throughout the 1920 season. During the second series between the teams, this time in Chicago, the Indians took the lead in the AL and held onto the lead until late August, when a surge by the White Sox and Yankees pulled them into a classic pennant race. (In an interesting aside to the Chapman tragedy, it is forgotten that Yankees shortstop Chick Fewster was beaned in a spring training game and missed over half the season with a skull fracture.)
In early July, Tris Speaker set a record by hitting safely eleven straight times. It stood until 1938 and seemed to inspire the team as they soon rattled off a pair of four game win streaks. Heading into August, the Indians were 65-32, but seemed to tire in the heat of summer. A five game losing streak, including a four game series sweep by the Yankees and their new slugger, Babe Ruth, gave the Sox and Yanks a chance down the stretch.
The Indians held on to first place coming into the Polo Grounds to face the Yankees on August 16th, the fateful overcast day. In the game that Ray Chapman never left, the Indians managed to beat the Yankees and move to 71-40. The death clearly affected the team and they struggled in their next two series, against the Red Sox and A’s, falling to third place briefly. Chapman’s replacement, Joe Sewell, hit well enough to cushion the loss of their popular teammate and of course, Sewell went on to a long excellent career filled with an almost complete lack of strikeouts. Sewell’s call up pushed Wambsganss over to shortstop, but both players seemed to have no problem making the adjustments.
By mid-September, the Indians took the AL lead back and never relinquished it. The Sox came charging valiantly, but the wind came out of their sails quickly when they were shattered by the indictments against eight of their players and the ensuing national scandals. As Jim Bagby won his thirtieth in late September, the Indians had only a one game lead over the Sox and a three game lead over the Yankees. In their first game after the indictment, the Sox lost to the lowly Tigers and the Indians swept a double-header, setting up a World Series match up of the Cleveland Indians against the Brooklyn Robins.
The Series started with a gentlemanly move by the Robins owner Charlie Ebbets. Ebbets allowed Joe Sewell to play in the World Series as Chapman’s replacement even though he came up after the September 1 cutoff date. (Would Peter Magowan have been as gallant if asked about Francisco Rodriguez in 2002?)
In Game One, a low scoring affair, Stan Coveleski out dueled the Robins’ ace, Rube Marquard. Marquard at one point stopped the game to watch fire engines race past the ballpark. Baseball needs more guys named Rube and timeouts for fire trucks. Game Two was won by the Robins’ spitballer Burleigh Grimes and was notable only for the first brothers to face each other in a World Series as Wheeler Johnston pinch-hit for Cleveland and hit the ball to his brother Jimmy, the Robins’ 3B. Game Three was another Robins win, giving them a 2-1 series lead heading back to the shores of Lake Erie.
The Indians were able to win Game Four in front of a great crowd despite biting cold weather. Tied heading into Game Five, the crowd that braved another cold day was treated to a game remembered by history. In the first inning, Burleigh Grimes surrendered three straight hits to the first three Indians batters, then faced Elmer Smith. Grimes appeared to be struggling with his pitches in the cold – does saliva freeze? – and served up a fat one to Smith, who deposited the pitch out near John D. Rockefeller’s home just a short distance away from left field. Smith’s slam was the first in World Series history. Two innings later, pitcher Jim Bagby found himself with two men on when he saw a dry pitch from Grimes and put it into the stands, the first homer from a pitcher in World Series history. Despite these two homers and seven resultant runs, Bagby was much better with the bat than the arm. He gave up thirteen hits in his outing and was saved only by his defense. Three double plays were turned by 3B Larry Gardner, 2B Sewell, and Bill Wambsganss at short. In the fifth, Wambsganss accomplished a feat on par with Don Larsen’s World Series no-hitter, completing an unassisted triple play. The play happened in the fifth inning. With men on first and second and reliever Clarence Mitchell at bat, the Robins put on the hit and run to put pressure on the Indians defense and try to manufacture a couple runs. Instead, Mitchell hit a burning liner up the middle right into the glove of Wambsganss who was only in that position because he was moving to cover the bag. Carried by momentum, Wambsganss stepped on second for the force and continued over the bag, tagging Otto Miller as he tried to slam on the brakes and get back to the bag. Wambsganss took a few moments to realize that he’d just accounted for three outs in the space of a few seconds and according to reports, there was little if any fuss made over the play at the time. The triple play did kill the momentum that the Robins were beginning to show and the Indians took a 3-2 lead in the series with the victory.
After all the eventfulness in Game Five, Game Six was a quick pitchers duel. The Indians and Robins played great defense on the few balls put in play and the Indians managed to scrape up one run, winning 1-0 and taking a four games to two lead. Did I mention this World Series was a best of nine affair? Game Seven was again uneventful as the cold again limited the action. Stan Coveleski got his third win in the series, defeating Burleigh Grimes and giving the Indians the championship.
For the tragedy, for the race, for the eventful Game Five, and for how the 1920 season changed baseball, the Indians remain one of the more overlooked teams, hidden in the shadow of a death and the shadow of a scandal. However, the 1920 Indians remain one of the great teams in history.
Special thanks to Baseball-Reference.com, Retrosheet.org, and the Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia for assistance in researching this piece.
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