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75 Years and Counting Part XIII: The Story of the 1961 Cleveland Indians

Not many teams can have a 22-4 stretch and finish below .500, yet here we are.

Cleveland Indians v Detroit Tigers Set Number: X6051

Ah 1961, if it weren’t for you how else would I know that the asterisk is the universal symbol for a disclaimer. Baseball went through some major upheaval in between the ‘60 and ‘61 season, apart from the famous switch to the 162 game schedule we all know and love, they kicked off what would become known as the “expansion era” by adding two teams, doing so in what is probably the weirdest manner possible. First they added a team in Los Angeles, the Angels, pretty straightforward, nothing unusual about that. Then, and try and follow me here, The Washington Nationals, known colloquially as the Senators, moved to Minnesota, becoming the Twins, then Major League baseball stepped in and added a team in Washington called the Senators.

So for those of you keeping score at home, there was a team called the Washington Senators who then changed their name to the Nationals, but sportswriters and fans kept calling them the Senators anyway, then that team moved to Minnesota and became the Twins, making way for a new team called the Washington Senators. Fans in Washington finished the 1960 season rooting for a team they referred to as the Senators, then they started the ‘61 season rooting for a team they called the Senators, but it was a different team with different players, the team with the players from the year before was now in Minnesota. The new team in Washington would move again 10 years later, becoming the Texas Rangers, clearing the way for the Montreal Expos, 33 years later, to move to Washington and become the Nationals. Confused? Me too. The new Senators at least had the decency to provide a sense of familiarity to the Washington fans by finishing last in the American League. (Insert cliche joke about these changes still making more sense than anything congress has done in the last 50 years or something here) (pause for forced laughter).

Anyway we’re not here to talk about the Senators/Twins/Nationals/Rangers/Expos, this is a Cleveland Indians series, so let’s dive into the ‘61 Cleveland Indians. The 1961 season was the first that saw Gabe Paul leading the front office, Frank Lane had resigned the offseason prior and was now the GM of the Kansas City A’s. Just because it made me smile to see (and because Lane was a pretty crappy person in addition to his incompetence running a baseball team) Lane took over the Kansas City A’s, made 15 trades sending away 50 players (25 if you count trades for cash), got into a war with A’s owner Charlie Finley that resulted in 5 years of litigation that barred Lane from working in baseball during that period, and got himself fired after one year, going 61-100-1. You love to see it. Seriously, go read about it, it’s wild.

On the other hand, the Gabe Paul era got off to a remarkably good start. Though he didn’t make any transactions of consequence that would cause this, the team would find themselves in first place on June 6th, and would hold the position for 10 whole days! They started the season playing .500 ball for about a month, sitting at a pedestrian 12-13 on May 13th. After a walkoff 1-0 win in 15 innings against the Baltimore Orioles on May 14th the team got scorching hot, winning 22 of their next 26 with 5 shutouts! The hot streak culminated in a 10 game winning streak. Did it matter that to that point they’d really only beaten the worst teams in the league? Or that 24 of their 34 victories to that point had come against the Twins, Angels, A’s and Senators who finished 7th-10th out of 10 teams? Did it matter that they were winning on the backs of pitchers who were allowing a BABIP of .250 despite a league average of .280? Of course it didn’t! The Indians we’re in first place baby! Who needs Rocky Colavito?

Actually, as it turns out, all of that stuff mattered a ton. Regression to the mean comes for us all as the Indians’ pitching staff fell back to earth, and a mediocre offense wasn’t enough to keep the team above water as they stumbled to a 44-66 record from June 8th onward. Certainly not enough to fend off the juggernaut Yankees team that won 109 games, or the Cash/Colavito/Kaline led Tigers and their dominant pitching staff.

The ‘61 Indians certainly had some bright spots. An 18 year old lefthander named Sam McDowell made his debut in September throwing 6 shutout innings against the Twins in a 3-2 loss, the first of many dominant pitching performances in his career that would punctuated by a lack of run support. While Mudcat Grant, Jim Perry, and Gary “ding-dong” Bell were certainly a far cry from Lemon, Feller, Wynn and Garcia, they were emerging as a solid rotation in their own right. Tito Francona continued to be a solid contributor with his bat as his young son Terry hung around in the clubhouse.

The Indians’ offense was paced by catcher John Romano who put up one of the best offensive seasons by a catcher in franchise history. Slashing .299/.377.483 with 21 home runs in 142 games. Unfortunately Romano was a disaster defensively, putting up an utterly Zunino-esque 25 passed balls across the ‘61 and ‘62 seasons. For context, Austin Hedges has only 19 in his career.

The Indians of the 1960’s were an enigma. Whereas the teams in the 50’s would get off to a slow start, playing .500 ball for a month, then hit their stride and play solid baseball the rest of the way, the teams of the 60’s would play mostly below average to terrible baseball, and then have one random stretch where they’d win 20 of 25 to keep their final record near .500

In a year of baseball defined by the remarkable the Indians were anything but. While Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle chased Babe Ruth’s home run record, the Indians only had one player hit more than 25 (Willie Krikland). Cleveland Stadium found itself empty most nights, made all the more noticeable by the stadium’s 80,000 seat capacity, not only were the Indians in the bottom 3 of the league in attendance, it felt even worse than it was by the sheer amount of empty seats in the ballpark on a given night. As one CTC reader remarked, the decline of the Indians was happening at the same time as the decline of the city of Cleveland itself. Once an economic hub in the midwest, rivalling Detroit and Chicago, Cleveland was on the decline. It’s part of what made the struggles of the baseball team feel so impactful. Sure the Red Sox and Cubs hadn’t won championships since before World War 1, but Boston and Chicago were thriving cities, and their other teams were great! Seriously, who wants to hear a Cubs fan talk about sports heartbreak while wearing a Bulls jersey!