There is a strong resentment of the New York Yankees among Cleveland fans. It’s almost like it’s in their blood. On this site, commenters often celebrate the day the Yankees’ World Series hopes die each year with the cheerfully named “Yankee Death Day.” The roots of this resentment may find their source in the 1950’s, as in the season we are looking at today in 1953.
The Indians finished second to the Yankees in 1953 with a record of 92-62-1, 8.5 games behind the eventual World Series-winning Yankees, who beat the Brooklyn Dodgers that fall. But, the 1953 Indians were an excellent team; since that season, the 1953 ranks 11th among all Cleveland baseball teams in wRC+ with 108 wRC+ as a team. They weren’t quite as good at pitching, with only 14.5 WAR and a 3.62 team ERA. But, they still deserve to be remembered as an excellent team with some beloved Cleveland figures on the team.
The season began with an exhibition tour with the New York Giants, including a game where Giants’ right-fielder George Wilson went chasing a line drive from Indians’ shortstop, Ray Boone, and fell over a snow drift in the outfield, where he quickly created a snowball he threw back to the field with which Boone was tagged and called out by the umpire. The game took place, appropriately, on April 1st, perhaps an ominous sign for the fool’s hope Indians’ fans had of getting a title that year for star outfielder Larry Doby, standout infielder Al Rosen, or legendary franchise hurler, Bob Feller.
The Opening Day starter was Bob Lemon, who threw a one-hit shutout that day against the White Sox. The first real bump in the road was the loss for a few months of sensational first baseman, Luke Easter, who was hit by a pitch and broke a bone in his hand on April 18th. Easter still managed an OPS+ of 120 that season, but having him for more than 68 games could certainly have made a dent in chasing the Yankees for the AL Pennant. On May 26th, after Larry Doby walked off the Tigers with a homer in the 9th, Bob Feller was hit by a car while walking home. Luckily, he escaped with simply a scratch on his arm, but it was another sign of the odd challenges the team would face in 1953.
On June 14th, the Yankees won their 17th and 18th games in a row, sweeping a doubleheader against the Indians and putting them 10 games back. Though the team rallied to cut the deficit to 5 and a half, the hole proved to be too deep. The team may have recognized this in a trade the next day, in which they sent shortstop Ray Boone, Steve Gromek and others to the Tigers for a return highlighted by Art Houtteman. While Houtteman had a good 1954 season, but losing Boone and Gromek proved costly with the fine seasons the two players proceeded to put up for Detroit. Boone was Boudreau’s replacement, making him unpopular with Cleveland fans who fixated on his defensive flaws (flaws which the Tigers dissapated by moving him to third base).
The 1953 season, thus, saw the Indians consistently winning games but also consistently failing to gain significant ground on the Yankees. Perhaps this Sisyphean environment made it difficult for the Cleveland faithful, as attendance dropped from the 2.6 million fans who entered the gates during the 1948 season to 1,069,176 in 1953.
This was all despite Indians’ third baseman Al Rosen putting up an AL MVP-winning season, falling just one percentage point shy of the American League Triple Crown. Rosen bat leadoff in the final three games of the season, trying to get enough at-bats to catch the front-running Mickey Vernon. Despite going 8 for 15 in those games, Rosen couldn’t catch Vernon. The 29 year-old ended up with an incredible slashline of .336/.412/.613 with 43 homers, 145 RBI and even 8 stolen bases, good for a 178 wRC+, which is still the 10th best season of any hitter in the history of the franchise and tied with Shoeless Joe for the 6th most valuable season of any Guardians’ player at 9.1 fWAR. Rosen's MVP win is the last time a Cleveland baseball player has won the award (because sportswriters hated Albert Belle almost as much as he hated them).
Bob Lemon and Mike Garcia were the starting pitcher standouts, winning 21 and 18 games, respectively, and putting up 111 and 115 ERA+ seasons. Bob Feller had a solid rebound season from some recent struggles, winning 10 of the 25 starts he was able to make with a 104 ERA+.
Some other notable events:
-the 1953 team included Dave Hoskins, who made his way from the Negro Leagues through some rough minor league circuits to becoming an effective relief pitcher for the Indians in 1953, his rookie season, and 1954 at the ages of 27 and 28.
-Dale Mitchell had a good season as a 31 year-old left-fielder. I always remember Mitchell’s name because ZiPS had him as a potential comp for George Valera last year. If Valera can manage Mitchell’s career 114 wRC+ and 19 fWAR, I’d be thrilled, personally.
-The Cleveland Orchestra played concert before around a dozen Indians games in 1953, a tradition I’d love to see the franchise revive.
The 1953 Cleveland Indians couldn’t threaten Casey Stengel’s juggernaut Yankees, so the season settled into a comfortable historical obscurity. It would be up to the 1954 Cleveland players, starting with the strong core of the 1953 team, to see if they could slay the Yankee dragon and bring back some fan excitement to the shores of Lake Erie.