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75 Years and Counting Part XXIII: The Story of the 1971 Cleveland Indians

So bad they almost moved

Lousiana Superdome Photo by David Madison/Getty Images

Before getting into the recap I want to issue a brief errata to yesterday’s article. I incorrectly stated that Chris Chambliss was our 1970 first rounder when in fact he was only one of two, at the time there was a January draft for HS and College players who graduated during the winter semester, Chambliss was our draft pick in that draft. Our pick in the regular June amateur draft was a pitcher by the name of Steve Dunning, second overall out of Stanford University. Steve was unique in that he was rushed to the majors, pitching immediately after being drafted without a single game in the minors. Only a small handful of players have ever done that.

He was, to put it lightly, not ready and finished his career with 1.9 WAR and a 23-41 record with a 4.56 ERA. He had an electric fastball but never developed a second pitch, something that some time in the minors may have helped. Apologies on the mistake in excluding that from last week’s article, I was unaware of the separate drafts.

So, 1971. There isn’t much to say, and what little there is to say isn’t good.

The Indians finished with an atrocious 60-102 record. They were the worst pitching team in Major League Baseball giving up 747 runs on the year, 77 more than the next worst team. As bad as their pitching was their offense wasn’t much better, scoring a paltry 543 Runs, 3rd worst in the American League.

They lost 32 games by more than 5 runs, they were shutout 17 times, they blue 44 leads, and finished with an abysmal 21-51 record in the second half. Things got so bad that rumors started swirling that summer that Vernon Stouffer, the team’s owner, was considering having the team play some of it’s home games in New Orleans, or even considering moving the team outright. With the biggest ballpark in the sport, the Indians were consistently dead last in attendance and were showing no signs of improvement. Even in their “good” seasons like 1968 the teams showed no signs of being anywhere close to competing with the top end of the American League.

For those of you too young to remember these years, this is why that line in Major League where the rich woman asks Jake Taylor what he does for a living, and when he tells her he’s a baseball player her response is “Here in Cleveland? I didn’t know they still had a team.” Times were tough on the shores of Lake Erie. Though it was a few years later, sometime in the early 80’s, I remember my dad telling me that when they changed their uniforms to simply say “Indians” with no reference to Cleveland everyone was convinced they were going to move away at any minute. That was the air that hung over baseball in Cleveland for much of the 70’s and 80’s, constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop and finding out that the team had up and moved to Tampa or New Orleans. In reading about it, the comparisons to the Oakland A’s of today are uncanny, a massive cavernous ballpark that wasn’t designed for baseball, an ownership group completely indifferent towards fielding a competitive team, and a feeling that any time someone got good they were going to be sold to save a few dollars.

One such example of a guy who was starting to get good (and would be shipped off after the ‘72 season) was Graig Nettles. Nettles had been acquired from the Twins in a multi player deal that sent Luis Tiant and Stan Williams to Minnesota. He’d never been able to gain a foothold in Minnesota, but by the time the 1971 season rolled around he was emerging as one of the better young third basemen in the game. Nettles had a solid year in 1971 and was, alongside Chris Chambliss, one of the only bright spots in a terrible Cleveland lineup. He hit .261 with 27 home runs and led the team with 86 RBI.

The Indians certainly had interesting young players between Nettles, Chambliss, Ray Fosse, and Steve Dunning as well as first rounders Eddie Leon and Jack Heidmeann. It was clear that the plan was to embrace a youth movement, unfortunately most of those guys didn’t pan out, and the ones that did would be gone within the next 3 years.

This seemed to be the M.O. of the Cleveland front office of the 70’s. Start a 5 year plan, get to year 2, abandon the plan for another 5 year plan, rinse and repeat.

The good news is though that the Indians would have the number 2 pick in the 1972 MLB Draft, and there was no way they could screw that up, right?

Find out tomorrow as we continue to trudge down memory lane and discuss the ‘72 season.