On December 6, 1971, a young, Cleveland businessman named George Steinbrenner, who headed a group of buyers including former Cleveland Indians’ player Al Rosen, struck a handshake deal with Jimmy Stouffer, son of Vernon Stouffer (principal owner of the Indians) to purchase the Cleveland Indians. A press conference was scheduled that evening to introduce the new ownership group to the Cleveland media.
At 5pm, an irate Vernon Stouffer called Steinbrenner to inform him that he would never own the Indians because Stouffer felt that at the $8.5 million price tag to which his son had agreed, Steinbrenner was trying to weasel him out of the money he was due by involving the media before the deal was finalized. Stouffer believed he could get $10 million for the team and ended negotiations with Steinbrenner and his group.
So, instead, the elder Stouffer ended up selling the team to another group of businessmen headed by Nick Mileti, for $9 million, while George Steinbrenner would go on to purchase the New York Yankees in 1973.
Over the next 37 years, Steinbrenner’s Yankees won 11 American League pennants and seven World Series titles. He was often a hectic owner to work for, but he invested heavily in the franchise and was determined to win as many titles as possible. It’s hard not to wonder how that kind of mindset would have manifested had Steinbrenner purchased the Indians. Would it have been a good tradeoff - winning for putting up with Steinbrenner’s abrasive personality?
Here’s the thing - all owners are some level of bad. I think we’d have been fine with some wild press conference and knee jerk firings and trades if we could have added a few more trophies to the franchise halls.
Alas, the 1972 Indians endured another disappointing season, this time following up an exciting 18-10 start with losing 41 of their next 58 games and finishing 72-84, ending the year by trading their second-best hitter, 27 year old third baseman Graig Nettles to the Yankees(!!!) where he would put up 43.5 fWAR, make six All-Star games and play in five World Series. The Indians did this because they had a third baseman in Buddy Bell so didn’t want to have Nettles moved and Nettles had got in a heated conflict with their manager, Ken Aspromonte.
Now, ask yourself, when you’ve got a choice between Graig Nettles and Ken Aspromonte, who do you choose? Aspromonte every time, right? If you said yes, YOU are qualified to be the principal owner of the Cleveland Indians in the 1970’s.
There were some highlights of the 1972 season, primarily Gaylord Perry, acquired in November 1971 in the Sam McDowell trade to the Giants, winning 20 games and having an ERA+ of 168. Perry was an all-star and won the AL Cy Young. The Indians would not have another Cy Young winner until C.C. Sabathia in 2007. Dick Tidrow was also good with a 117 ERA+ and the entire pitching staff was good enough to rank the Indians solidly in the top five of American League pitching in 1972 in just about every category.
The problem, of course, was the hitting. Chris Chambliss’s 112 OPS+ was the team’s highest, followed by Nettles at 111, and then 20 year-old rookie Buddy Bell at 97. The team was right around 10th in the American League in hitting and they just couldn’t score enough runs to capitalized on their pitching keeping them in games.
Outside of the field, the Indians drafted outfielder Rick Manning in the first round of the MLB draft, right-handed pitcher Dennis Eckersley in the third round, and outfielder Duane Kuiper in a supplemental round. Hmm, interesting names, I’m sure the first two of those names will never be linked for anything but baseball reasons nor be connected in such a way that will drive the future Hall of Famer of the bunch out of town. That would be WILD.
The Indians also employed an outfielder named Larry Doby Johnson who was named after the franchise great but only appeared in two games, and traded for an outfielder named Walt “No Neck” Williams, so dubbed because at a five-foot, six-inches and muscular 185 pounds he appeared to have no neck. Ah, memories.
Finally, prior to the 1972 season, Russell Means, director of the Cleveland American Indians center, proclaimed that the Chief Wahoo logo was “racist, degrading and demeaning.” As many colleges and high schools moved away from such names and symbols, it would take the Cleveland Indians and Washington football team almost four more decades to abandon their logos and names. This is a reminder that issues with the name are certainly not unique to our time and society. They have been with the franchise for at least as long as Rick Manning has, and, in reality, existed from day one.