This is the 4th entry in the series, and in each of the three previous seasons we’ve covered we saw the Indians fall just short of winning the American League pennant, usually pulling within a game of first place late in the season only to go cold at exactly the wrong time. 1952 would be heartbreaking in a very different way. The 49-51 teams had clear structural flaws ranging from offensive issues to slow starts. The 52 team on the other hand was a juggernaut on the rise. They finished the year with the league’s best offense, paced by MVP caliber seasons by stars Larry Doby and Al Rosen as well as a breakout campaign by Luke Easter. Their rotation featured three starters who would win at least 22 games and sub 3 ERA’s. They started strong, they finished strong, they had 35 wins by 5 runs or more. The ‘52 Indians were, by every metric, an absolutely dominant team, and one still improving, they finished the season only 2 games behind first place New York. Unfortunately they did have one critical flaw, and it came from a place you’d least expect.
Bob Feller was arguably the most dominant pitcher of his time. By the time the 1952 season rolled around he had already put together a career worthy of being a first ballot Hall of Famer, even after missing 3 of his prime years due to military service. A big leaguer from the age of 17, he was only 33 entering the ‘52 season, but by this point in his career he’d already logged well over 3,000 innings and was beginning to show signs of slowing down. From 1938-1946 Feller had averaged 7.5 K/9, having multiple seasons where he led the league in strikeouts by over 100, including a career best 348 K’s in 1946. Though he won 22 games in 1951 the regression was showing, he struck out a career low 4 batters per 9 innings. The pitcher known as “The Heater from Van Meter” and “Rapid Robert” had lost his dominating fastball and was becoming more of a crafty veteran. The 1952 season would be by far the worst of his career. While he would turn it around, putting together effective campaigns from 1953 til his retirement in ‘56, his 52 season was a disaster.
For a season in which the Indians walked a razor thin line the whole year, Feller’s 9-13 record with a 4.75 ERA over 30 starts may very well have been the difference between a world series title and missing out on the pennant entirely.
The Indians opened the season on a 7 game win streak, unfortunately the Red Sox started on an equally hot streak and Cleveland found themselves a game out of first place at the end of April. They would reclaim first place on May 8th after back to back sweeps of the Red Sox and Yankees. They held first place for a month until dropping 3 straight to the Yankees, then 3 more to the mediocre Senators. Notably on June 7th the Indians would make their lone consequential transaction of the season, signing amateur pitcher Herb Score who would go on to become one of the greatest what if stories in the history of Major League baseball, as well as a beloved broadcaster for over 30 seasons.
In the past 3 editions of this series, there’d come a point in the season where they’d go on a losing streak that would create an insurmountable deficit, but this one would be different. Starting on July 1st the Indians were 4 games out of first place, they kicked off the month on a 9-2 run en route to a 51-28 mark in the second half of the season.
Entering the month of September the Indians were 2 games out of first. They opened the month dropping 2 of their first 3 games, but went on an unbelievable hot streak winning 18 of their last 21 games. Unfortunately, the Yankees matched them blow for blow, rattling off a 19-5 September of their own. That’s how tough it was to get past those Yankees teams, a 19-5 month of September wasn’t enough to close a 2 game deficit in the American League.
It would be another year before the Indians would finally exorcise their demons and finally get past the Bronx Bombers and win the AL Pennant (only to lose to another team from New York). One can only imagine how things would’ve played out in the 50’s if baseball had a divisional format like today, or even the one they had pre 1994. The Indians and Yankees were the two hottest teams in baseball to close out the season, a pennant race for the ages, a playoff series between them would have been truly legendary.
The 1952 Indians were one of the best teams in the history of the franchise, a dominant offense that led the league in scoring and had 8 starters with an OPS+ over 110 (5 players with an OPS+ > 125). They had 3 dominant starters in Early Wynn (22-12, 2.90 ERA, 4 shutouts), Bob Lemon (22-11, 2.50 ERA, 5 shutouts), and Mike Garcia (22-11, 2.37 ERA, 6 shutouts). They were held back only by a massive regression from arguably the greatest player in the history of the franchise, and a mediocre bullpen. Even the problem of the bullpen was mitigated by the rotation (Lemon, Wynn, and Garcia combined for 11 saves between them in relief apperances).
In many ways the ‘52 team reminds me a lot of the 2018 Indians, a dominant rotation except for one starter, a disappointing bullpen, and an excellent offense. A team that could’ve easily won 100 games with the level of talent they had, and one that at their top end was utterly dominant with over 30 blowout wins (Margin of victory > 5 Runs). Unfortunately they couldn’t quite do enough to put themselves over the top.