December 29th, 2002.
Just a few short months after the end of the 2002 baseball season, one which would signal the end of the Cleveland Indians’ run of brilliance from 1994-2001, Charley Lupica passed away at age 90 in a Cleveland area nursing home. Lupica was a deli owner by trade, but you wouldn’t find that on his business card, instead you’d see, in bold letters, “the 1949 Cleveland Indians Flagpole Sitter.”
Midway through a disappointing 1949 season, Lupica faced taunts from a group of Yankee fans at Cleveland Municipal Stadium
‘’These four fellows were hollering about how lousy the Indians are, and how the Yankees were going to beat them in ‘49,’’ Lupica told The Plain Dealer of Cleveland in 1995. ‘’So I spoke up and said, ‘If you love the Yankees so much, why don’t you move there?’ ‘’And they said, ‘Well, if you like the Indians so much, why don’t you sit on a flagpole until you die up there?’ ‘’ (New York Times)
Lupica took them up on their challenge. He climbed onto the platform that sat atop the flagpole above his deli, and there he remained for 117 days, even missing the birth of his fourth child. Lupica vowed not to come down from his perch until the Indians turned their season around. They never did.
On September 25th, 1949 Cleveland owner Bill Veeck, a man who never missed an opportunity for a publicity stunt, had Lupica (and his platform) transported to Municipal Stadium for the final game of the season where he finally descended from his platform and kissed home plate like a soldier returning from time overseas. Veeck also gave him a new car as a gift.
Newsreel footage of Charlie Lupica, the #Cleveland Indians flagpole sitter. Lupica, an Italian American deli owner in Cleveland, sat atop a flagpole for 117 days in the hope that the Indians would be victorious in the 1949 baseball season. #ForTheLand #ThrowbackThursday pic.twitter.com/tnJDi8F8JN— Let’s Talk (@LetsTalkCLE) August 11, 2022
Lupica never got to see the Indians win another world series.
The 1949 season is unique among the 75 seasons we’ll be covering in this series, it’s the only one where throughout the season the team could be referred to as “the defending champions” Unfortunately for Cleveland, attempting to defend their title meant that they’d first need to finish the 154 game season with the best record in the American league. No divisions, no playoffs, just a 154 game gauntlet with one team from each league left standing when the dust settled. This would lead to a recurring theme that would become emblematic of Cleveland Baseball for the next 10 years, falling just short of those damn Yankees.
With the lone exception of 1954, a season that saw Cleveland win a then American League record 111 games, the Yankees would win every American League pennant from 1949-1958. Cleveland would finish in second place 5 times during that stretch, winning at least 92 games 4 times. In a universe without the Yankees (wouldn’t that be nice), perhaps it would be Cleveland and their dominant pitching that became the class of baseball as the popularity of the game exploded after World War II. Perhaps it’d be Cleveland talked about in the same breath as the Russell era Celtics, Jordan’s Bulls, and the Brady/Belichick era Patriots. Perhaps they’d have formed a bit of a rivalry with the Dodgers who they’d have faced in the World Series 4 times. But like many things in Cleveland sports, we can only ever ask “what if.”
In the winter leading up to the 1949 season, Bill Veeck would make one of the most impactful trades in franchise history, trading first baseman Eddie Robinson, and pitchers Joe Haynes and Ed Klieman to the Washington Senators for first baseman Mickey Vernon and pitcher Early Wynn. Vernon would only last a season and a half with Cleveland, but Wynn would go on to be a key member of one of the most dominant pitching staffs in baseball history. Wynn and fellow newcomer Mike Garcia would join star pitchers Bob Feller and Bob Lemon to make up the rotation that would dominate the American League for nearly a decade, known throughout baseball as “The Big Four”
The 1949 season began on April 19th as the Indians fell to the St. Louis Browns 5-1. The Indians would get off to a slow start, finishing the month of May with a sub-.500 record of 17-18, 7 games behind the first place Yankees. Notably, it was at this point, May 31st, that Charley Lupica would climb the flagpole. They’d hover around the .500 mark until late-June, finally finding their footing en route to a 27-12 stretch from June 22nd thru July 31st.
Their hot stretch would continue into the August, pulling within 2.5 games of the first place Yankees of the first place Yankees on August 4th after sweeping the Washington Senators. Unfortunately, this would be short lived as they would go on to lose 5 of their next 7 games, falling to 3rd place in the American league where’d they’d remain (except for a couple of days in 4th place) for the remainder of the season. Notably they would finish the season on an 8 game winning streak (immediately following a 6 game losing streak) bringing their final record to a respectable, if unspectacular, 89-65, 8 games behind first place New York.
So what went wrong with the 1949 Indians? A team that returned nearly everyone from it’s championship roster that saw them win 97 games a year prior
In many ways, the 1949 Indians resembled the 2022 Guardians. They could pitch extremely well, allowing only 574 runs on the year, 63 fewer than the Yankees, far and away the fewest in baseball. Unfortunately, they were mediocre offensively scoring 675 runs, good for 5th in the American League and 220 behind the league leading Boston Red Sox. Larry Doby led the way offensively, leading the team in home runs (24), RBI (85) and OPS+ (128), but unfortunately he wouldn’t have much help. Only first baseman Mickey Vernon (.291/.357/.443, 18 HR) and outfielder Dale Mitchell (.317/.360/.428, 3 HR, 23 Triples) provided much else in the way of offensive production in a season that saw massive regressions from aging star infielder Joe Gordon as well as reigning MVP Lou Boudreau. They would never return to their previous levels of success. Notably, the 1949 season would be the last that saw fan favorite Ken Keltner manning the hot corner in Cleveland, Keltner had been a fixture at third base for the Indians since 1938 and had become a fan favorite. Keltner battled injuries throughout the 1949 season and played a career low 80 games, he’d be released that offseason to make room for Al Rosen (more on him in part 2).
The biggest regression, however, came from pitcher Gene Bearden, a left handed knuckleball specialist who burst onto the scene as a rookie the year prior. In 1948, Bearden won 20 games, including his 9IP/1ER effort in the one game playoff against the Boston Red Sox to win Cleveland its first pennant in 28 years, as well as a 9 inning shutout in game 3 of the World Series. Bearden had come out of nowhere, but if Super Joe Charboneau has taught us anything, it’s that sometimes players come out of nowhere only to go right back to nowhere in a hurry.
Bearden got off to an abysmal start in 1949, finishing the first half with a record of 5-6 and an ERA of 5.42. He also walked 56 batters compared to only 20 strikeouts and allowed a WHIP (Walks & Hits per inning pitched) of nearly 1.900. By July Bearden had lost his spot in the rotation to rookie Mike Garcia, he’d never rejoin the rotation on a consistent basis and was waived the following year.
Garcia, on the other hand, was fantastic, finishing the season with an American League leading 2.36 ERA en route to a 4th place finish in the AL Rookie of the Year voting that can only be described as one of the biggest snubs in the history of the award. Garcia finished the season with 5 WAR, no other American League rookie finished above 2.5 WAR. Granted, baseball writers weren’t exactly thinking in terms of advanced metrics in 1949, but one would think winning the league ERA crown would be enough to propel you into the Rookie of the Year award, no?
The 1949 Indians were a flawed team, they had an absolutely dominating pitching staff, but were held back by a mediocre offense that featured aging stars on the decline. When Charley Lupica ascended the flag pole that May, he did so in the hopes that it would spark the team back into greatness, unfortunately the 1949 Indians were a team that could never quite get over the hump. They were certainly a good team, an 89 win season is certainly nothing to scoff at, but they never quite overcame their slow start, and in an American League that still featured the Ted Williams led Boston Red Sox as well as the powerhouse Yankees, the margin for error was slim and they would close out the decade of the 40’s on a sour note. The 50’s, however, would provide some of the best baseball teams in Cleveland history, if only those damn Yankees hadn’t been there to spoil it.
Join us on Monday as we break down the 1950 season.