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75 Years and Counting Part VI: The Story of the 1954 Cleveland Indians

A truly dominant age in Cleveland baseball history

For the 6th entry of the series, today we are covering the 1954 Cleveland Indians. The Indians entered 1954 off the heels of a season where they once again played second fiddle to the New York Yankees, going 92-62 opposed to the Yanks’ 99-52. That made it three straight years where the Indians fell short of an AL pennant only for the dominant Yankees to take it. However, things were different in 1954 as the Tribe, managed by Al Lopez, exploded for 111 wins, claiming the pennant that had eluded them in the 50’s despite some truly excellent teams. That 111 win mark stands as the 4th best record in MLB history, tied with the 2022 Dodgers. Unfortunately, that was not enough to beat the invincible Willie Mays and the Giants.

It is a common trope that is thrown around today that the Indians, now the Guardians, churn out some of the best pitching year in and year out. Back then, it was no different. In fact, the Indians had one of the all time great starting rotations in 1954 when the big four of Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, Early Wynn, and Mike Garcia dominated AL offenses. Those four, as well as Art Houtteman, combined for the most complete games in the AL, accumulating 77 of them. This performance is complimented by the pitching staff as a whole, who combined for a league-leading ERA at 2.78, 1.20 WHIP, and FIP of 3.32. The team behind those in each respective stat was the Chicago White Sox with a 3.05 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, and a 3.42 FIP. It is not hard to tell how forceful and dominant this Indians rotation was.

Now, over to the offensive side of things. The Indians rivaled the Yankees’ powerhouse in overall offensive impact in 1954. Led by one of all-time greatest players in the history of the franchise, Larry Doby, the Indians offense ranked at least 2nd in most metrics. Their ISO was an AL-leading .141, while their 102 OPS+, 106 wRC+ and .342 wOBA all ranked 2nd. On top of all that, the Indians mashed 156 homers, which also topped all other AL ball clubs. Besides Doby, there were many other significant contributors to the Indians’ stellar offensive performance in 1954. Names such as second baseman Bobby Avila, third baseman Al Rosen, and outfielders Al Smith and Vic Wertz all provided some serious thump to this lineup, as all but two of them, Doby included, amassed an ISO of at least .200.

During the 1954 season, there were many individual performances that stood out among others. The aforementioned Bobby Avila led the AL with a .341 batting average, despite his lack of power. Larry Doby also sat atop the AL in homers with 32. On top of the homers, Doby compiled a 129 OPS+ as well as a 133 wRC+, as he entered the back end of his career. On the other side of the coin, the individual pitching metrics were dominated by Cleveland pitchers. Bob Lemon threw 21 complete games, while compiling 23 wins. Both are tied for first in the AL, and he shares that first place spot in wins with his teammate, Early Wynn. As for Mike Garcia, well, he was in a league of his own. He posted a 2.64 ERA, 2.55 FIP, 1.12 WHIP, and threw 5 shutouts, all of which, yet again, lead the American League. Bob Feller, who was a really seasoned veteran by the time, still deserves some recognition, however, as he had one of his best seasons, despite being within three years of his retirement. Feller put up a 3.09 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and 3.66 FIP and, though his K rates dropped drastically because of the age, he still hung in there and put together a great season for himself, acting as the leader of a legendary starting rotation.

It seemed as though baseball was hitting its peak for Cleveland in 1954. The team was even performing better than how they did in 1948. When they were locked in, they just exuberated dominance. The Indians went on not one, but two 11-game win streaks across their extended stretch of such dominance. Attendance was up as well, ranking 3rd in the league at a total of 1,335,472. Everything just seemed right, until it didn’t.

The Indians were just two series removed from the second of their 11-game win streaks, as they made their way into the World Series. It was game 1 at the Polo Grounds in New York, and the Indians put Bob Lemon on the mound to face the Giants’ Sal Maglie. The Indians jumped Maglie early, scoring two off a triple from Vic Wertz in the first, only for the Giants to answer in the third after stringing together some hits. From then until the 8th inning, no team caved in, as both Maglie and Lemon shut down their opposition, even despite almost constant traffic on the basepaths. Everything changed in the 8th, however, when Willie Mays made a play that would become the first in a long series of plays in Cleveland sports history known by the moniker “The _____” with “The Catch” . Larry Doby was on second base with Al Rosen on first. Vic Wertz was up to deliver again, and sent a moonshot to deep center field. Unfortunately, a moonshot to deep center in the Polo Grounds is not enough, as center field in the ballpark goes as far back as 463 feet. So, ultimately, Mays made the basket catch he is most known for, catching the ball over his head in the deepest parts of the field and taking away a sure two runs that would have secured the game 1 W for the Indians. Evidently, however, nobody ended up scoring that inning and the game was forced to extras, where James “Dusty” Rhodes hit a walk off three run homer for the Giants off Lemon in the 10th. Rhodes homer barely cleared the right field wall that sat a mere 258 feet from home plate. Everything else seemed to go downhill from there. The typically dominant Indians rotation got hit around over the next three games as the Indians were swept by the Giants in the World Series.

Despite a disappointing playoff run for the Tribe, Cleveland put together one of, if not the best all around seasons in franchise history. Doing so behind a pitching staff that has a real case to be called the greatest ever. Again, they attracted many fans to Cleveland Municipal Stadium along the way. They also saw Bob Feller, who is widely regarded as the best Cleveland baseball player of all time, have the best season in the latter half of his career. The Indians put together 111 wins, a count that only so few have topped. All of these factors, in tandem with many others, contributed to the Indians finally toppling the Yankees’ juggernaut to get the monkey off their backs and win their first pennant in 6 years. Overall, the 1954 season, despite its sour end, was one filled with great successes and mountainous highs.