Bill Veeck was an immensely popular owner in Cleveland. Though he had only been at the helm since 1946, in the 4 short years he had moved the team permanently from League Park to Cleveland Municipal stadium, ensured that all 154 of the team’s games would be broadcast on the radio, brought the team its first world series since 1920, and signed Larry Doby, breaking the American League color barrier. His only major misstep as owner was his attempted trade of superstar Lou Boudreau, the team’s beloved shortstop and manager. Veeck faced major backlash from fans as news leaked of the attempted trade. Unbeknownst to fans, the trade talks had fallen apart behind the scenes, but Veeck, ever the opportunist, took the opportunity to publicly announce that he’d heard and listened to the complaints from the fans, and signed Boudreau to a two-year extension. Unfortunately Veeck’s tenure in Cleveland would come to an abrupt end. Most of Veeck’s assets were tied up in the franchise itself and when his wife Elanor filed for divorce, Veeck would be forced to liquidate his assets, selling the team to local businessman Ellis W. Ryan fund the divorce settlement.
Ryan, unlike Veeck, preferred to stay in the background and promoted the Indians’ farm director, and former star first baseman for the Detroit Tigers, Hank Greenberg to the position of General Manager. Greenberg’s legacy as general manager is complicated. While he was the architect of the 1954 team that won an American League record 111 games (later broken by the 1998 Yankees), many, including analytics pioneer Bill James, attribute the team’s collapse in the late 50s and early 60s to moves Greenberg made.
Greenberg’s biggest blunder would come in the form of three wildly inaccurate scouting reports. In 1949, star outfielder Larry Doby approached Greenberg, recommending he scout and sign three Negro League players Doby had played with, the implication was that the mere presence of Doby on the Indians would be enough to entice these three players to sign. When Doby followed up, Greenberg informed him that the scouts reports weren’t good. The reports said that the first player’s swing wouldn’t hold up against high level pitching, the second player didn’t have enough speed or range to play shortstop, and the third couldn’t hit a curveball.
The players in question? Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, and Willie Mays.
And you thought trading Junior Caminero was a scouting failure?
Apart from the changing of the guard in the front office, the rest of the offseason was relatively quiet. The only major moves being the release of fan favorite third baseman Ken Keltner, and legendary, but aging, pitcher Satchel Paige. There would be no major player acquisitions leading up to the 1950 season.
The Indians opened the season at home against Detroit on April 18th, Bob Lemon was the opening day starter. Notably this was the first time since 1938 that Bob Feller was on the opening day roster but was not the opening day starter (he missed the 1942-44 and much of the 1945 season due to active military service in WWII). Larry Doby gave the Indians an early lead with a 2-run home run in the bottom of the first, but the Tigers battled back, taking a 6-4 lead into the bottom of the 8th inning. Tigers manager Red Rolfe chose to send starter Fred Hutchinson back out for the 8th inning to face Lou Boudreau and the Indians’ rookie third baseman Al Rosen. Boudreau led off the inning with a single to right field, bringing up Rosen with a chance to be a hero, he parked a 2-run home run into the seats in left field, tying the game. The Tigers would score on a sacrifice fly in the top of the 10th inning, taking a one run lead. That lead would hold as the Indians would fall to Detroit 7-6, but Al Rosen had arrived in Cleveland.
Rosen had been the Indians’ top minor leaguer for years, by the 1947 season he had more than proven everything he could at the minor league level, but found himself blocked from a starting role by the immensely popular Ken Keltner. Rosen would play sparingly over the next 3 years, totaling only 35 games played from 1947-1949, enough to maintain his rookie status for the 1950 season. The Indians released the aging Keltner prior to the 1950 season in order to make room for Rosen, a move that was incredibly unpopular with the Cleveland fan base. Naturally Rosen was met with skepticism from the Cleveland faithful but he endeared himself quickly, putting up one of the greatest rookie seasons in the history of baseball. Rosen hit .287/.405/.543 leading the league with 37 home runs, a rookie record that would stand until 1987 when Mark McGwire hit 49.
Additions from the farm system like Rosen, as well as power hitting first baseman Luke Easter, shortstop Ray Boone, and second baseman Bobby Avila eased many of the offensive woes of the year prior. Unfortunately, the gauntlet that was the American League of the late 1940s and early 50s would prove troublesome once again. Oddly enough it was the starting pitching that held them back in the opening months, posting a 4.35 ERA in the month of May an uncommonly high mark for the big four of Lemon, Feller, Early Wynn, and Mike Garcia. The staff would settle in down the stretch though, posting a spectacular 3.25 mark in the second half.
The Indians would, much like the 1949 season, get off to a slow start for a team hoping to contend, posting a 22-22 record through their first 44 games. Clutch hitting and winning close games skewed that number in their favor as they went 16-14 in the month of May despite a negative run differential. It was their 45th game where the 1950 Indians would start to find their footing. After a comeback victory over the Washington Senators on June 9th, the Indians would post a record of 54-24 in their next 78 games, moving them into second place and 1.5 games out of first. Unfortunately, and stop me if you’ve heard a story like this before, they would lose 6 in a row, including 4 straight to the first place Yankees, breaking their spirits and killing their hopes for an American League pennant. They did close out the season winning 8 of their last 10, but by then the Yankees were simply too far ahead and the Indians finished 6 games out of first place with a very respectable record of 92-62.
It’s hard to truly pinpoint what went wrong in the 1950 season, there were certainly changes that could’ve been made earlier in the season that may have helped close that gap, but in many ways the Indians were up against an impossible situation, the American league at the time was a gauntlet. The Yankees were a juggernaut, the Red Sox still had Ted Williams, and the Tigers’ core that had won a world series in 1945 was aging but still had something left in the tank. Perhaps moving off the clearly declining Boudreau and Joe Gordan for Ray Boone and Bobby Avila earlier in the season could’ve helped them get off to a better start, but the top of the league was just so dominant. Notably the Indians had a winning record against every team in the AL except for the Yankees (8-14).
Notably the 1950 season would be the last in Cleveland for player/manager Lou Boudreau who would be released that offseason. He’d be replaced as manager by Al Lopez, one of the winningest managers in Cleveland history whose legacy would be marked by his inability to get over the hump.
The 1950 season was one of transition for the Indians. Bill Veeck had sold the team, Ken Keltner had been released, stars like Boudreau and Joe Gordon would play their last season in an Indians uniform, but with newcomers like Rosen, Boone, Avila and Easter as well as the continued brilliance of their starting rotation the future was bright in Cleveland. The next handful of seasons will include what is truly some of the best baseball ever played in the city of Cleveland. Unfortunately, the now all to common theme of “Cleveland was great but New York was better” would continue for the next decade.
Join us tomorrow as we break down Al Lopez’ first season at the helm and dive into the 1951 Cleveland Indians.