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75 Years and Counting Part XVI: The Story of the 1964 Cleveland Indians

Sudden Sam emerges as an ace, Tribe is mediocre again.

Cleveland Indians v Baltimore Orioles

The byline itself could be the entirety of this article. Sudden Sam emerges, Tribe is mediocre. If that’s all you read today you’d get the gist of what happened in the 1964 season. Heck, when I say “1964” to a Cleveland sports fan I’m sure baseball is the last thing they think about as it’s most remembered as the year that the Browns won the NFL championship. Little did people realize that there was a baseball season that year too! The Indians drew only 650,000 fans in ‘64, good for an average game attendance just a shade over 8,000. Given that the old stadium held nearly 80,000 fans that meant they were operating at 10% capacity most nights, the tagline “great seats always available” really held true in those days. For comparison, if Progressive Field ever was at 10% capacity they’d be hovering around 3,400 fans, just think how empty the place must’ve felt every night. If there were fans paying attention to games, most of them were likely tuning in to hear the team’s new radio broadcaster Herb Score in his first year behind the microphone rather than actually going to the games.

Much like many of the previous entries covering the 1960’s, the ‘64 team was a bad team who had a random month where they got incredibly hot to keep their final record close to .500 despite playing well below that pace for the majority of the season. Their run differential was about even. Their offense was actually pretty solid, finishing 4th in the American league with 689 total runs scored, but their pitching was in the bottom 4 of the league, allowing 693 runs.

The offense was paced Leon “Daddy Wags” Wagner, a 30 year old outfielder acquired in a trade with the Angels in exchange for Joe Adcock. Wagner provided a much needed power threat in the Indians lineup mashing 31 home runs with 100 RBI while hitting at a .253 clip. His best season in Cleveland would be 1965, but we’ll save that for tomorrow’s post. Apart from Wagner, John Romano, Bob Chance, and Max Alvis helped provide some “thump” in the middle of the Cleveland lineup, Romano in particular had a big bounce back season, slugging 19 homers in only 106 games, his defense was still abysmal but the bat rebounded after a disastrous 1963 campaign.

The big story of the ‘64 team, however, was the emergence of starting pitcher Sam McDowell. McDowell was in his third season in the majors (apart from a single start in ‘61) but was still only 21 years old. The 6’5” lefty immediately drew comparisons to Herb Score with his electric fastball, wipeout curveball (that he often would rely on too heavily), and imposing frame. The size and fastball comparisons were where the similarities ended, however, as the two men could not have been more opposite in their demeanor. Score was a soft spoken gentleman, a man of deep religious conviction and not one to rock the boat, McDowell on the other hand was surly, disagreeable, and struggling with alcoholism, a horrible addiction that would plague him his entire career. On the mound though it was hard to not think of McDowell as the second coming of Score, and the American League version of Sandy Koufax.

In 24 starts in 1964 McDowell pitched to an 11-6 record with a 2.70 ERA in 183 innings. He struck out 177 batters but walked 100. Though he didn’t log enough innings to truly challenge the raw strikeout totals of the league leaders, on rate he was the best strikeout artist in the AL, pacing the league with a 9.2 SO/9IP mark. McDowell would be one of the lone bright sports for the Indians during his tenure that lasted until 1971, providing many of the best memories fans have of that era, and cropping up in a million “so and so is the first Cleveland pitcher to do this since Sam McDowell” anecdotes. If you’re ever in the mood to look at some truly enigmatic baseball stats, I urge you to check out his 1968 season where he somehow only went 15-14 despite a 1.81 ERA! Take that Jacob deGrom!

The 1964 season wasn’t particularly interesting to be quite honest, it was another in a run of mediocre seasons that began at the beginning of the decade but don’t worry, there’s some fun ones to talk about coming up, both good and bad. Tomorrow we’ll be taking a look at the ‘65 season which featured a trade that brought Rocky Colavito to Cleveland which may very well be one of the worst trades we’ve made outside of the one that sent him away in the first place!