Why Don’t the Indians Win Championships? Blame the Owners.

Donald Trump almost bought the Cleveland Indians in 1983. (via Mark Taylor)

Donald Trump almost bought the Cleveland Indians in 1983. (via Mark Taylor)

The Cleveland Indians have one of the longest World Series droughts in baseball, one that owes much of its longevity to a revolving door of temporary owners, many of whom sold the team just a few years after buying it.

The last Indians championship came in 1948, 68 years ago — back when there were only seven other teams in the American League. From 1960 to 1993, the team had seven different owners: on average, the team was sold every five years or less. Not coincidentally, over those 34 seasons, they never finished higher than third.

But what if, years ago, a businessman named Donald Trump had been successful in his offer to buy the team? Or another businessman, George Steinbrenner?

The franchise has been around since 1901, an inaugural member of the American League, but the team has won only two World Championships in more than a century. This makes the Indians something like a Junior Circuit counterpart of the Chicago Cubs, though the Cubs’ misery is far better publicized.

Then again, there’s something that tends to escape the miserablism that often surrounds both fan bases: The Cubs and Indians have, respectively, the sixth- and seventh-best franchise winning percentages in Major League Baseball. The third-best winning percentage in the history of the American League, after the Yankees and Red Sox, belongs to the Cleveland Indians, who at 9,097-8,770 are more than 300 games above .500.

The trouble is, while they have generally managed to avoid utter oblivion — the strings of 100-loss seasons that can leave a team below .500 for decades — they rarely have the knack for coming out on top. In 115 team seasons, they have won a total of seven division titles, one Wild Card, and five league pennants. Their 40 percent World Series winning rate is actually rather enviable in that light. It’s certainly a lot better than the Cubs’ two wins in ten tries.

(Yes, ten! The Cubs lost in 1906, 1910, 1918, 1929, 1932, 1935, 1938 and 1945.)

Cleveland has fielded a lot of middling teams, but few extraordinary ones. The Indians’ record means that their fans didn’t have a whole lot to root for in the off years, just a whole lot of teams that hung around the bottom of the first division or the top of the second. From 1901 to 1947, the Indians finished first exactly once, in 1920, and they beat Brooklyn to win the Series. They finished second six times, third 12 times and fourth 11 times.

Then came the 1948 championship, led by a group of future Hall of Famers, including their MVP player/manager Sweet Lou Boudreau, along with Larry Doby, Bob Lemon, Bob Feller, Satchel Paige, and Joe Gordon. Just a few years after that came the tremendous 1954 squad, in which Doby, Lemon, and Feller were joined by future Hall of Famers Early Wynn and Hal Newhouser. They finished a phenomenal 111-43 in the regular season, still the best winning percentage in AL history, and brought the Indians their second pennant in seven years. But they ran into a famous buzzsaw in the World Series: Willie Mays. And that was that. They wouldn’t reach the postseason again for 40 years.

That four-decade drought is what was called the “Curse of Rocky Colavito,” in a popular 1994 book by Cleveland Plain Dealer sportswriter Terry Pluto, who marked the 1960 deal that shipped away the popular slugger as the moment that it all went to hell. But in all events, for the first 94 years of the team’s history, the Indians finished first three times and won two World Series. In the subsequent two decades, they finished first in their division seven more times — including five times in a row from 1995-1999 — and lost two more World Series. The curse lost some of its pungency, but little of its poignancy. No fans under the age of 68 have actually had a championship in their lifetime.

Here are the team’s winning percentages, by year, from 1901 to 2016:

Indians history really has four high points: 1906-1908, 1917-1959, 1948-1956 and 1994-2001. Those mark the only times that the team notched successive years with winning percentages significantly above .500. You can also see that from 1960 to 1993, the team was almost always well below .500. That’s why the Indians were the laughingstock of baseball by the time the movie Major League came out in 1989. Pluto’s book covers the period from 1960 to 1993 and serves as a comprehensive listing of the maladies that befell the team.

Why were the Indians so bad? It starts with turnover.

Here is the list of team owners:

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.
  • Charles W. Somers, 1900 – 1916
  • Jim Dunn / Dunn’s estate, 1916 – 1927 (Dunn passed in 1922)
  • Alva Bradley, 1927 – 1946
  • Bill Veeck, 1946 – 1949
  • Ellis Ryan (President), 1949 – 1952
  • Myron H. Wilson (President), 1953 – 1956
  • William R. Daley, 1956 – 1962
  • Gabe Paul, 1963 – 1966
  • Vernon Stouffer, 1967 – 1972
  • Nick Mileti (President), 1972 – 1976
  • Ted Bonda (President), 1977 – 1978
  • F.J. “Steve” O’Neill / O’Neill’s estate, 1978 – 1986 (O’Neill died in 1983)
  • Richard E. Jacobs, 1986 – 2000
  • Larry Dolan and family trusts, 2000 – Present

So the Indians have had 15 owners over the past century and change, but they had eight different owners from 1946 to 1986, getting a new one just about every five years. Dick Jacobs bought the team in 1986, and he was easily the best owner since Veeck, who owned the team from 1946 to 1949 and brought the team its last world championship: he also brought the team stability, controlling the team for longer than anyone but the founding owner.

The man Jacobs sold the team to, Larry Dolan, has owned the team for even longer, though the Indians have not been nearly as successful under him as they were under Jacobs.

There have also been 46 managers in team history; they’ve gotten a new manager just about every two and a half years. In the 27 years from 1960 to 1986, the height of the pre-Jacobs misery, the Indians had 15 managers, switching skippers less than every two years. All that shuffling of deck chairs didn’t change the basic fact: The team didn’t have much money and wasn’t winning, and it wasn’t making much money because it wasn’t winning.

Thirty years before the setting of the movie Major League, which involved an owner who wanted to move the Indians out of town, Cleveland nearly lost its team. Owner Bill Daley apparently was considering moving the team to Minnesota or Seattle (Minnesota eventually got the Twins in 1961; Seattle eventually got the M’s in 1977). Just to keep the team in town, newly arrived general manager Gabe Paul eventually formed an ownership group and became an Indians owner.

Interestingly, two of the most important events in Indians history were things that didn’t happen: Two deep-pocketed men with ties to New York who almost got the team but failed. Had they succeeded, Indians history might have been very different.

Steinbrenner and Trump.

In 1983, Trump had his lawyer send a letter to then-general manager Gabe Paul — who was back in the front office after selling his stake in the team — with an offer to buy the Indians. There was a public outcry because it was widely believed that he would move the Indians out of Cleveland, and eventually Trump withdrew his offer. In the end, the team chose to sell itself to Dick Jacobs for $35 million in 1986. Fourteen years later, Jacobs sold the team for nearly 10 times as much money.

A decade earlier, Steinbrenner, a Cleveland native, had come even closer. As The New York Times wrote, “On Dec. 6, 1971, Steinbrenner’s ownership group struck a handshake agreement to purchase the Indians for $8.6 million.” Steinbrenner was a former classmate of the son of the owner of the Indians, an heir to the Stouffer’s food fortune. But shortly before the sale was to be announced (and reportedly deep in his cups), the elder Stouffer scotched the deal.

A year later, Steinbrenner bought the Yankees.

Making matters worse, as Pluto writes, there was a seemingly unending series of on- and off-field tragedies. The worst was the boating accident that killed Steve Olin and Tim Crews in 1993. Cliff Young died in a a car crash later that year, a few weeks after being released by the team. Walt Bond, a rookie in 1960, died of leukemia in 1967. Max Alvis was hospitalized with spinal meningitis in 1964, and though he regained the field within a month and a half, never recovered to full strength.

And then there were the literal tough breaks on the field. Catcher Ray Fosse, an All-Star at 23, had his shoulder fractured when Pete Rose body-slammed him on a play at the plate in the midsummer classic; his career didn’t end, but he was never the same player. Before the team hit its nadir, young fireballer Herb Score, one of the best pitchers in the league, got hit by a line drive in 1957, and his career was never the same.

Much of the worst of it was of the team’s own making. Manager Alvin Dark, who skippered the team from 1968 to 1971, was a quite literal bigot. “This guy was a real southerner with real southern attitudes from the 1940s,” Pluto quotes radio host Pete Franklin as saying, putting it as charitably as possible. “He honestly didn’t know it was racist. It was hard for him not to consider minorities inferior.”

And Cleveland Stadium was no prize. As Pluto writes:

[Former broadcaster Nev Chandler]: “It was in the middle 1970s that they lowered the field eighteen inches to create better sightlines for the fans.”
That was when they discovered that the field was built over landfill.
“There were stove tops and parts of bathtubs and kitchen sinks under there,” said Paul.

And then there were the insects. Years before swarms of midges rattled Joba Chamberlain so much that he threw two wild pitches, allowing the winning run to score in a playoff game in 2007, Cleveland was known for its bugs. “Thanks to the dampness off Lake Erie, the Stadium was a marvelous breeding ground for insects,” writes Pluto. “Pitcher Jim Kern once had to leave a game when he swallowed a moth.” Added Franklin, “Sometimes millions of gnats would dive-bomb the park, and players spent the whole game swatting in front of their faces just so they could keep the bugs out of their mouths.”

Of course, in recent years, the Indians fielded a couple of really strong teams, losing two World Series in the 1990s to the Braves and Marlins with a team that, if a few breaks had gone its way, was probably talented enough to hoist a trophy. The Indians’ pitching was no great shakes, but they had one of the greatest offenses ever — a near-mirror reverse of the 1954 Indians who got swept by the Giants.

The 96-win Indians of 2007 were similarly quite strong, led by the offensive core of Grady Sizemore, Victor Martinez and Travis Hafner, and a starting one-two punch of C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona, in his first full season. It seemed as though they would contend for years to come — but then Fausto was revealed to be neither as young as he claimed nor actually named Fausto. Instead, he was a man in his late 20s named Roberto Hernandez, and he would never again be that good. Neither, to date, has been his erstwhile team.

So what made it all go wrong?

Well, Pluto makes his own beliefs pretty plain: He blames it on a series of incompetent front offices that bought high and sold low on a stupefying amount of talent. He particularly demonizes general manager Frank Lane, the man who not only traded Colavito to Detroit, but Roger Maris to Kansas City and Hoyt Wilhelm to Baltimore and Norm Cash to Detroit.

So obsessive a dealer was Trader Lane that, as Pluto writes, “In the spring of 1960, the only Tribe players left from the forty-man roster Lane had inherited two years earlier were Score and Colavito.” And, indeed, Colavito would be traded within weeks for Harvey Kuenn, and Lane traded Kuenn away the following winter.

Lane was followed by Gabe Paul, a domineering figure in Cleveland history who variously served as general manager, president and owner of the team, and presided over severe budget cuts to the farm system budget while making several terrible deals of his own, including a trade to bring Colavito back to Cleveland that cost Tommy Agee and Tommy John, and trades of Mudcat Grant and Jim Perry (Gaylord’s brother) for relative scraps.

But a more plausible answer lies on the second-to-last page: a constant succession of miserly owners. As Pluto writes, “From 1949 to 1986 no group owned the Indians for more than six years. On the average, the team was sold every four years.” He quotes Hank Peters, who became the team’s president in 1987, as saying:

I studied the Indians organization going back to the late 1950s… you can look back over thirty years and see the deterioration of what was once a great farm system. When the owners wanted to save money, they looked at cutting back the scouting and farm system because that was something the public or media couldn’t immediately see.

It’s really rather remarkable when you look at it. There have been 12 owners since the last world championship, 68 years ago, though there have only been two in the last 30 years: Dick Jacobs and Larry Dolan, who bought the team from Jacobs in November 1999 for a sale price of $320 million, the most that had ever been paid for a baseball team. Jacobs, the namesake of Jacobs field, spent money on the team and won the fourth and fifth AL pennants in team history; Dolan is the uncle of the owner of the New York Knicks, and his stinginess mired the team once more in mediocrity.

Dolan ended the Jacobs era of lavish payrolls and continued his predecessors’ glorious tradition of shrinking the budget. In each of Jacobs’ last four years of owning the team, the Indians had the fourth-highest payroll in baseball, and they finished in first place of their division every year. Within a few years of the sale to Dolan, the payroll plummeted into the bottom third of the league. The Indians have finished in first place in their division only twice since the sale.

Payroll ranks are not easy to come by prior to 1988, the first year listed in USA Today‘s salary database. But over the past three decades, it’s easy to see the difference between Jacobs and Dolan’s budgetary styles:

(Salary ranks taken from USA Today.)

Again, the sale was in 2000. It’s pretty striking just how precipitous the fall in revenue rank was. (That chart is slightly misleading, because there were expansions in 1993 and 1998, so the earlier ranks are out of 26 teams, and later ranks are out of 28 and then 30 teams.)

It might be simpler to believe in a curse, or even gross incompetence of the kind that might drive a pathological trader to swap a one dollar bill for two shiny quarters ’cause two is more than one. But the real reason that the Indians have struggled to field a competitive team for nearly 70 years is much simpler, and much sadder. And it’s the one thing that Trump and Steinbrenner might have been able to provide.


References & Resources

Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times.
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Dennis Bedard
8 years ago

As bad as it was, they did have some pretty decent pitching inn the mid to late 60’s. Luis Tiant, Sonny Siebert, and Sam McDowell. And let’s not forget Ken Harrelson, traded to the Indians in 1969. And Gaylord Perry did a stint with them in the 1970’s, putting up some impressive numbers. I recall studying box scores in the 1960’s and I believe there were games when they got less than 1000 to the park. I remember the stadium. I think it sat 80,000 and was also use by the Browns. It looked forbearing, especially in black and white newspaper photos of the era. Another name that pops up in my mind as I am typing is Leon Wagner. One announcer called him Daddy Wags. There was an obituary written here a few years back that did an excellent job chronicling his career.

Mike T.
8 years ago

as an aside I think it is important to at least consider that not all sports team owners are actually trying to win

I think they portray that image but the real goal is making $$ and often sports teams and stadiums offer clever tax avoidance

8 years ago

For years I was in the “Dolan is cheap!!” camp. And to an extent that may be true. He had opportunities where he said he would increase payroll and never did, thus eroding public faith in him.

However, the bigger culprit is the city of Cleveland. The people of Cleveland simply do not attend games and do not support that team.

In 2001, the Indians went 91-71 and finished in first place. Not surprisingly, the attendance was robust. 3.175M fans showed up and the team ranked 3rd in AL attendance. The hangover in 2002 saw 2.616M fans show up for a 74-88 team, good for 5th in the AL.
However, from 2003 – 2016, Cleveland’s turnout never ranked higher than 9th out of 14 or 15 teams. In 13 years, they’ve only drawn 2M+ 3 times. Think about it this way – the Tribe has won 90+ games 3 times; they’ve also drawn less than 1.45M fans 3 times.

Bad ownership from the 50’s through the 80’s has zero impact on attendance today, especially considering the sellout streak that Cleveland saw in the 90’s. The here and now is what is relevant. And the Dolan’s are ultimately on the hook for the current state of the franchise, but Clevelanders bear some responsibility as well. That locals would rather spend their money on an utterly hopeless football team rather than a baseball team that is actively trying to draw fans says a lot about the local fan base.

8 years ago
Reply to  Alex Remington

Payroll is more ‘effect and cause’ than the usually attributed opposite. What I recall of Dolan’s first year, they tore down the club and rightfully so in the eyes of all sabrists. So naturally payroll went way down. As to the 2007 club, I don’t recall them unraveling because of stinginess. I thought they gave Hafner big $$$? He then unraveled much like Fausto. (tho’ nowhere near as dramatically) Then they jettisoned CC and VMart as part of their next rebuild.

8 years ago
Reply to  Richie

In the ’07/’08 offseason, the question was if the Indians could afford to re-sign all three of CC, Hafner & Jake Westbrook. They opted to signed Hafner & Westbrook and make a run at it in CC’s final year. When they ended June 36-46, they moved CC to the Brewers.

8 years ago
Reply to  Kevin

Thank you, Kevin.

8 years ago
Reply to  Alex Remington

I actually did grow up in Cleveland during the 80’s & 90’s, so I’m very familiar with the local perception of the team. Those that grumble about “Dolan is cheap!” are more in their 30’s and 40’s and nobody (including media) brings up previous ownerships. So it has more to do with current ownership than ownerships past. Which is why there is still some truth, but it’s not a 100% ownership problem. More like 60%. The rest comes from the fans.

If we’re to use Statista.com as an accurate record, CLE generated $220M in revenue in 2015. At an average ticket price of $22.38 and 1.388M in attendance, ticket sales generated $31M (to your point that ticket sales are a small portion of a team’s overall revenue).
On the other hand, if they even drew 1M more people to get to the league-average attendance of 2.3M for 2015, that translates to $22.4M in additional revenue (pre-merch & concessions). If the entirety of the additional ticket revenue is put into the team, the Indians’ payroll is right in line with the ChiSox, Royals, Orioles, etc.
Teams have fairly static costs on overhead – draftee bonuses, umpire costs, FO payroll, reserve funds, stadium financing, etc. Assuming those costs don’t vary significantly from year to year we can assume the majority of the revenue streams goes to that overhead and everything else should go to player payroll. So higher attendance should translate into higher team payroll.
I’ll bet if one were to look into a correlation between team payroll and team attendance, there would likely be a strong relationship.
Yes, it’s possible for a team to win with a low payroll, but higher payrolls increase the chances of making the playoffs. So the more fans are interested & attend games, the more money the team can make and (hypothetically) increase payroll.

8 years ago
Reply to  Alex Remington

While that’s possibly / probably true, how can you verify?

My comment was that adding even 1M fans would add $22M in ticket revenue. Naturally those 1M fans would buy concessions and merch. So one could assume the merch & concessions would not go to player payroll while the $22m would.

And as Charles also points out below, fans always want to blame owners and absolve themselves of any responsibility for the current situation. The Indians have poured literally millions into renovations and improvements the past few years and fans still aren’t showing up. Good rosters & winning teams haven’t drawn fans. Renovations & better experience haven’t drawn fans.

The only remaining 2 variables that could attract more fans are installing new ownership or moving to a new city & different fan base.

8 years ago
Reply to  Alex Remington

Alex spews the same nonsense that Joe Cleveland Fan has spewed for years now.

“If you were an Indians fan, conditioned for generations to expect that the ownership of your team would try to nickel and dime your team, I think it’s fairly understandable that you wouldn’t reach deep into your wallet to give them a lot more money.”

And what about those under 40s who don’t go to games but will hand over half their weekly paycheck to see the Browns? The current condition has nothing to do with how fans feel about owners long ago.

“The bigger issue is, if a team blames its fans, that’s a good indication that it isn’t thinking about how to appeal to them. ”

When did the team blame its fans? The team has pointed out that lack of attendance makes for a lack of revenue, which makes for a lack of spending. All of this is dyed-in-the-wool true. That fans have had such a negative reaction to hearing this truth makes absolutely no sense. It seems that it’s more important for them to blame someone (else of course) than to acknowledge what the current circumstances are.

” If this year’s Indians team is as good as it has looked in the early going, the fans will come.”

Like in 2013, when they finished 28th in attendance, or in 2007 where the best record in the league got them all the way up to the 21st?

Aside from a brief stretch where the Browns didn’t exist, and the rest of the AL Central waved the white flag before the season even started, the Indians have never drawn well, and there’s no reason, with the declining population, low household incomes, and departing Fortune 500 companies for that to change anytime soon. But go ahead and blame ownership for spending money that doesn’t exist if it helps you sleep at night.

8 years ago
Reply to  Charles

If you ignore the bile, there are a couple of points in here worthy of addressing. Not that I blame you if you let the bile convince you ‘ah, heck with it’.

8 years ago
Reply to  Richie

That was rough, I’ll admit. But being a baseball fan in Cleveland can change a man. Especially when the majority of the fanbase will denigrate anything the team does, while begging to hand over their money to the Browns.

The fans refuse to open their wallets for a contender, and then get whiny when ownership does the same, but seem to have no clue why the former leads to the latter.

8 years ago
Reply to  Alex Remington

So when the Indians have the best record in the league, and are still in the bottom third in attendance, or make the playoffs and finish in the bottom three, there is no blame to go on the fans?

8 years ago
Reply to  Alex Remington

Alex, it’s pretty clear you never lived in Cleveland. And you may want to brush up on your history as the Indians didn’t win the World Series in the ’90’s. They lost in ’95 to the Braves & ’97 to the Marlins.

Using the sellout streak as the major point to show that Clevelanders will support their baseball team is simply incorrect and looks at the baseball team in a vacuum. The late ’90’s streak was largely the product of several independent factors that made a sellout streak possible.

Jacobs Field was built in ’94 and the Tribe had WS aspirations, so they were naturally a draw.
The Browns moved after ’95 and didn’t return until ’99. This alone could have pushed the sellout streak, but it still wasn’t the only factor.
In 98-99, the NBA had a lockout that cost the Cavs over 30 games. And when they did play, they were a below-.500 team.

Taken as a whole, Clevelanders were happy to spend their sports-entertainment dollars on the winning (baseball) team. The biggest factor is the loss of the Browns. It’s very reasonable to think a baseball team would sustain record crowds in a football town that doesn’t have a football team.

The start of the streak – ’95 – was mere months before Art Modell announced the Browns were moving. The city felt scorned & turned their attention to the Indians, which reinforced the streak. The ’98-99 NBA basically made the Indians the only sports draw in town.

The Browns returned in ’99, but were terrible. The Indians continued to draw 3M+ from 99 (when the Browns returned) thru ’01 – coincidentally three straight years of 90 win seasons.

In ’02, the Indians went 74-88 and drew 2.6M fans. That same year, the Browns won 9 games. It wasn’t a championship, but to a football-mad city a winning season was practically the same. The collective mindset shifted back to football that year and hasn’t looked back. To wit, since ’02 the Indians have never drawn more than 2.3M fans.

If the sellout streak of the ’90s is to be used as Exhibit A to show that Indians fans will attend games, then one has to consider the factors that led to the streak. That was a once-in-a-lifetime confluence of events for record baseball attendance.

Yes, the Dolans have made missteps over the years (ahem, not increasing payroll when they said they would) but they have also tried many innovations to draw fans – snow days, family sections, food centers, beer gardens – but fans still don’t show.

At some point, the question has to shift from “will a new owner boost attendance” to “do Clevelanders deserve a baseball team”?

Aaron Steindler
8 years ago
Reply to  Kevin

Ownership is directly responsible for this, however. If you stop investing in a team, then people don’t come to games.

Marc Schneider
8 years ago

In fairness, the Indians haven’t been much worse than other teams and, as Alex notes, they have been much better than many. The difference is, the Phillies won the WS in 1980 and 2008. The Indians could easily have won in 1995 (sure glad they didn’t) and 1997. In 1995, they played one of the all-time great pitching staffs in the World Series. Some of it is just bad luck.

But I totally agree with Alex’s point about bad ownership. In fact, I think that if you look at teams in all sports that lose consistently, it’s almost always due to bad ownership, which leads to bad management. (In some cases, it’s not necessarily being tight with money, but interfering with running the team. The football team in Washington is a case in point.) My point is, the argument about bad ownership could probably be applied, at least at times, to most of the teams. The difference is, some of the teams have had periods of success, ie, winning championships where the Indians have not. What have the Reds done, really outside of the Big Red Machine Period (largely pre-free agency) and 1990? The Phillies have been lousy for most of their existence. You can go down the list and, outside of the Yankees, Cardinals, and, maybe the Dodgers, most of the teams have been mediocre to lousy more often than they have been good.

8 years ago

God hates Cleveland.

One thing that’s always bothered me a little: What is the evidence that Ray Fosse was going to OPS 1.005 for his career (June 1970)?

8 years ago
Reply to  Alex Remington

OK … just that I think there’s a consensus he was going to be somewhere between Mike Piazza and Yogi Berra, and I wondered why a hot half season had everyone putting him retroactively in the HoF but for the Rose incident.

John G.
8 years ago
Reply to  bucdaddy

Some more context, since we all enjoy baseball…Fosse was born in the same calendar year (1947) as Bench, Fisk, and Munson, among others. Cleveland wasn’t producing many promising young position players at the time. There’s a certain “what-might-have-been” aspect to Fosse.

While there is no consensus that Fosse would have been a HoF’er, the more measured comments appear to fit with Bill James (“[Fosse] looked like he was going to be one of the top catchers of his generation”), and the Cleveland sportswriter Terry Pluto (“Fosse was on the verge of becoming an All-Star catcher, maybe the best catcher in the history of [the Cleveland] franchise”).

That could put Fosse somewhere between Munson and Bob Boone (also born in 1947). Not a HoF’er, but potentially a very meaningful player. Boone rates higher (WAR, JAWS, etc) than Cleveland’s franchise leader in WAR for catchers (Dead Ball-era Steve O’Neill), so if Boone is the floor, Fosse indeed had potential to be the best catcher in the history of the franchise.

Of course, Fosse didn’t get there, and we don’t know what would have happened but-for the Rose incident. But it is possible to say that Fosse was a good young player with a high ceiling, without it being exaggerated to the extreme of equating him to Berra, Bench, Josh Gibson, etc.

8 years ago

I agree with those who say Cleveland is a football town, first and foremost. The tradition got established in late 40’s – mid 50’s when Otto Graham helped win 7 championships. Ironically this was also the Indians’ most successful period (10 straight winning seasons from 1947-1956). But the Indians were overshadowed not only by the Browns but a Yankees’ juggernaut of that era. After Graham left, Jim Brown arrived and the Browns kept winning as the Indians went south. Having grown up in Northeastern Ohio in 60’s and 70’s, it was quite clear the Browns were “the team” and the Indians were a laughingstock. Not only was there a disparity in winning, the cold, windy cavernous stadium was meant for football, not baseball. That is no small matter as the parents of today’s 30 and 40 year old Cleveland residents didn’t establish a “let’s go see the Indians” tradition, even though baseball was a relatively cheap form of entertainment in this blue collar town.
Having lived in Los Angeles for over 40 years now, I see the tremendous contrast in the tradition established by the Dodgers, passed along to subsequent generations., which has sustained their attendance through all kinds of seasons.
Indians fans have been more fair weather, flocking to the newly opened Jacobs field in the mid-1990s and keeping attendance up only so long as the Indians were a top shelf team, which they stopped being in 2002.

8 years ago

If the marketing team wants to get serious about this party-time youth appeal thing, they’ll need to double down on the current discount pricing pitch. Currently, one can buy a patio-seating/SRO “District” ticket for $15, which includes a free beer.
Lower that price point to the average cost of two beers at the 6th St. bars, and you’ve added enough surplus value to draw a respectable crowd. Something like ten bucks, two free beers and a ballgame going on somewhere in the background. Perhaps at some point the kids’ll begin to appreciate baseball.

John G.
8 years ago
Reply to  Alex Remington

Terrific observations regarding marketing and the fan experience, Mr. Remington. Aside from that, it seems like you tried a little too hard to just hand-wave away the observations of the outstanding Terry Pluto, who has written many thoughtful columns and books over his decades of covering Cleveland sports. There also isn’t any useful purpose in inserting Trump into your article, because he just as likely would have been baseball’s version of Cleveland basketball’s horrible early-1980s owner Ted Stepien (look him up, kids). However, this is an interesting article. Thank you.

John Munch
8 years ago

Is there no way this is explained by market size and the explosion in revenue inequality which began with New York and Boston in the mid to late 1990s? Even when the Indians spent money in the 1990s, they weren’t outspending the competition in the way that New York, Boston, and LA teams have over the past 20 years; _no one_ really was in the 90s.

This is just to say — the success of the 90s was surely influenced by not being at the bottom of the payroll list. But Cleveland weren’t “almost”-champions by doing what teams who have won championships with money (such as New York, Boston, and Philadelphia) have done in the past twenty years — massively outspend the lowest teams (by two and threefold). What if the Dolans are cheap, but are also right — that some markets, such as Cleveland, simply don’t allow sufficient spending to make adding payroll effective in the way it used to be?

It seems like you need a crazy owner like Ilitch, who’s losing money by trying to keep up with the big payrolls, in order for ownership’s willingness to spend (or lack thereof) to be the decisive factor here. The Dolans may not feel like they play in a fair game. Why should they have to pay out of pocket to not be called “cheap” if owners in big markets can be very economizing (perhaps even to the same extent as the Dolans) but have more money to work with?

John Munch
8 years ago

Oops, meant to say NY, Boston, etc. outspent the _median_ payroll by two and threefold.

8 years ago

Just a quick thought about how realignment played into all this.

Though Cleveland won 5 straight Central Division titles (1995-1999), realignment might have done more harm than good for Cleveland just as they were poised to become the final American League East club to win an East divisional title.

In 1994, when the strike hit, the Indians were 1 GB Chicago in new Central Division (and four “behind” the Yankees had they still be in the AL East).

Then came 1995. In a shortened season, Cleveland would have finished 14 games ahead of the East Division leading Red Sox. No matter. Cleveland advanced to the World Series anyway.

But in 1996, the Indians played .615 ball (99-62) to New York’s .568 (92-70). Under the two old two division setup, there would have been no upset loss to the wild card Orioles. Instead, the ALCS would have saw Cleveland battle Texas (90-72).

In 1997, the Indians would have been watching the ALCS between Baltimore and Seattle on TV. (The NLCS, had Atlanta been shifted to the East when Florida came in, would have featured the Braves take on San Francisco).

Nothing would stop the Yankees in 1998. But had the Indians prevailed in 1999 (one game “behind” the Yankees would have meant nothing given that both teams qualified early and coasted into the playoffs) they have seen the Rangers again in the ALCS.

Cleveland (90-72) would have squeaked by the Yankees in 2000 and faced the White Sox (95-67) in the ALCS in a two-division AL. Instead, they missed the playoffs altogether.

In 2001, the Yankees would have finished four ahead of the Indians.

For the next three years, Cleveland wouldn’t have been a contender.

But in 2005, a thrilling three-way race with the Red Sox and Yankees would have taken place. The winner would have taken on Chicago.

A playoff game could have resulted in 2007 against the Red Sox, which Boston would have won 10-3 if you consider that was the result of game one of the actual ALCS. The Red Sox would have then gone on to sweep the Angels in the ALCS.

Then the descent into darkness would come.

Since 1995, under the three division set-up, the Indians have made it to the ALCS:
1995 – lost World Series
1997 – lost World Series
1998 – lost ALCS
2007 – lost ALCS

If the two-division alignment had remained, the Indians:
1995 – would have still defeated Seattle in ALCS
1996 – would have faced Texas in ALCS
1999 – close race in ALE v Yankees; possible ALCS appearance
2000 – would have faced Chicago in ALCS
2005 – close race in ALE v Yankees & Red Sox; possible ALCS appearance
2007 – close race result in ALE tie with Boston; Cleveland loses playoff game

Jesse Edwards
7 years ago

Something else happened in the year 2000 and it was the explosion of the free agent market. Starting at around that time, players started getting massive deals in terms of years that extended into their late thirties. Of course this wasn’t the first year that free agents were getting mega deals, but it was probably the end of an era where quality, high-end free agents could be signed to contracts where they could have been reasonably expected to be valuable over the life of the contract. When the Indians were spending money in the nineties, they were getting MVP caliber players and future hall of famers like Kenny Lofton (signed in 1997) and Roberto Alomar (signed in 1998) to sign FA deals for 3-5 years at about $8-$9 million dollar per year. After 2000, players of that caliber for those types of contracts would simply not be available. I’m finding it hard to shower the Jacobs with praise while pointed the cheapo finger at Dolan as their FA fields are a bit different. Jacobs very well could have foreseen the market and the Indians lean years and sold when the selling was good. History looks fondly upon him because he didn’t have to make the tough decisions of being the highest bidder for Ramirez, Thome, and Sabathia.

Keep in mind that the Indians would continue to sign players to similar contracts, but the players became Matt Lawton and Ricky Gutierrez. The Indians then wisely got out the business of signing Lawton caliber turkeys and payroll dropped accordingly. The value of free agents have changed dramatically since the Dolans took over. Surely not every FA contract is an albatross, but when the Dolans did choose to spend since (Hafner’s extension, Kerry Wood, Swisher, Bourn), they’ve spent poorly.

The other problem is that the Indians drafted poorly for more than a decade. It’s hard to pin the poor years completely on the Dolan’s unwillingness to offer excessive contracts. With better talent acquisition via the draft, those Eric Wedge teams would have been stronger with a longer window for success.

This current Indians team going into 2017 is a very interesting case study. Their payroll will be higher than it has been in years and none of their talent has yet to come from high priced FA contracts with the exception of Andrew Miller, whose contract is now a bargain and he was acquired via trade. Nevertheless, the argument could be made that now is indeed the time to spend. With a young core locked up for a few years, adding some expensive wins via Fowler or Bautista could really help this team. I doubt the Indians do that, but I’m curious (chomping at the bit) to see how the 2017 plays out. I’m an Indians fan, after all.