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75 Years and Counting Part VIII: The Story of the 1956 Cleveland Indians

One last run at a pennant as the cracks in the foundation began to show.

Cleveland Indians Photo by Hy Peskin/Getty Images

I was born in January of 1995, so my entire life has been in the Jacobs’ Field era of Cleveland baseball. My grandparents were season ticket holders and went to nearly every game, there’s pictures in old photo albums somewhere of me bundled up like Randy from A Christmas Story sitting on my Dad’s lap at the world series in 95. I went to countless games with my grandparents when I was young. My Grandpa would drive down to Columbus to pick me up and I’d stay with him and my grandmother at their house in Galion, Ohio for a weekend and we’d go to all three games in a weekend series. Fireworks on Fridays, giveaway day on Saturday, and “kids fun day” on Sundays where I’d get to run the bases after the game. We’d load up the car and make the hour and a half drive from Galion to Cleveland, stopping partway for milkshakes at a place called “Mom’s Restaurant”. There was a spot on I-71 where you could see the smokestacks of a factory (not sure which) right as you were about to cross the city limits into Cleveland. Right when that factory would become visible my grandpa would look back at me and say “well, we’re in Cleveland now!”

We’d take the “skidoo” as he called it across the drawbridge right into gateway plaza and park in the garage attached to the home run porch, sit in our customary seats, and I would beg him for a lemon ice until he’d finally relent. When this ritual started I was far too young to really remember much and it honestly wasn’t until 2001 that I started to form memories of going to games, the team, it’s players, and the big moments. One of my clearest memories is Jim Thome’s 49th home run of the season against the Minnesota Twins and watching Bob Wickman inexplicably come in to close out an 8-0 game in the 9th.

The 2001 team was the first that I truly fell in love with, and it’s a season I cant wait to discuss as we get further into this series. It was a very good team, but it was a very old and a very flawed team. Sure there were young exciting players (regardless of what became of them) like C.C. Sabathia, Danys Baez, Russell Branyan, Jake Westbrook, etc. but much of the team was aging, and quickly. Only one starter in the ‘01 lineup was still in his 20s, Einar Diaz. The rotation featured the 1-2 punch of Colon and C.C., but the aging trio of Finley, Burba, and Nagy was starting to wear down.

There was enough veteran leadership and enough left in the tank to squeeze out one more run at a pennant, but they ran out of gas at the very end and fell short. More importantly it was clear that the run that started when the Indians moved to Jacobs Field in 1994 was coming to an end. There was still one last run in there, but the cracks in the foundation were starting to show and it was time for a rebuild. I think that 2001 team is the best comparison I can think of for the 1956 Cleveland Indians.

The Indians teams of the ‘50s were known for their pitching but their best seasons were marked by excellent offensive play centered around stars like Larry Doby, Al Smith, Al Rosen, Bobby Avila, and Vic Wertz. Though they weren’t outhitting the Yankees, they only needed their offense to be serviceable to find success with the type of pitching they had, and they had cleared that bar easily from ‘52-55. The ‘56 season would mark a major decline in offensive production. Larry Doby was traded to Chicago in the offseason. Al Rosen, just 3 years removed from his MVP season in 1953 was a shell of his former self as injuries and rabid heckling from fans would force him into an early retirement after the season. Bobby Avila and Al Smith saw major regressions as well. Vic Wertz was the only player from the ‘54 team that was still putting up excellent numbers. The team was aging all at once, and there weren’t enough young players ready to take their spots for it to be a clean transition like there had been between the great teams of the late 40’s and those of the early 50’s.

They weren’t completely without young talent, however, as outfielder Rocky Colavito got his first real taste of big league baseball and hit the ground running. Colavito would swat 21 home runs in 100 games, enough to tie for second place in the rookie of the year voting with Tito Francona (Terry’s father). Colavito was emerging as one of the brightest stars in Cleveland. He was handsome, humble, instantly likeable, and he played hard, endearing himself to the Cleveland faithful in a hurry. We’ll dive more into his backstory when we discuss Frank Lane a few days from now, but suffice it to say Colavito was a star.

In past entries the inevitable “and the Indians fell just short” has looked mostly the same each time. They’d get off to a slow-ish start, catch fire in July, pull themselves to within a game or two and then a poorly timed losing streak would eliminate them from contention. That wasn’t the case in 1956. The Indians did finish in second, 9 games back of first place New York, but there wasn’t really much of a race for the AL crown. The Indians would spend exactly one day in first place, tied with the Yankees on May 14th, but from June 15th onward they’d never be closer than 5 games back. The 1956 Indians certainly weren’t a bad team, but they never stood a chance at catching the Yankees who spent exactly two days not in first place (the 3rd and 4th day of the season).

Manager Al Lopez would step down at the end of the season citing “irreconcilable differences” with GM Hank Greenberg. Lopez, though he could never quite get over the hump, had been a stabilizing presence in the Indians dugout for 6 years after taking over for the legendary Lou Boudreau. If Boudreau and Lopez represented stability, the next 10 years represented the farthest thing from it. After having only 2 managers for an entire 14 year stretch from 1942-1956, the position of “Indians Manager” was starting to look like “Browns Quarterback” or “Hogwarts Defense Against the Dark Arts Teacher” in terms of turnover. From 1957-1968 10 different people held the job of manager. From smith’s resignation until Alvin Dark in 68/69, no Cleveland manager would start and finish two consecutive seasons at the helm.

The wheels were starting to come off for the Indians, in just a few short years Herb Score would go from future hall of famer to one of the greatest “what if” stories in baseball, Rocky Colavito would be the subject of one of the most asinine trades in franchise history, stars like Norm Cash and Roger Maris would be shipped out of town for spare parts. Cleveland Municipal stadium would go from sold out crowds of 70,000+ and record setting attendance numbers to the Indians consistently ranking amongst the least attended teams in Major League Baseball.

It’s hard to believe that a franchise with so many promising players that had been so good for so long could slip into utter futility in such a short time period, but they would.

Again, the 1956 team was not a bad baseball team, far from it. Herb Score followed up his ROTY campaign with an utterly dominant season, leading a rotation that was still one of the best in baseball, they finished in second, only behind an absolute powerhouse Yankees team. They were a solid team, but the cracks were beginning to show.

Join us tomorrow as we discuss the 1957 season, and one of the most tragic moments in franchise history.