The Surprising Pre-1970 Excellence of the Cleveland Indians

The Curse of Rocky Colavito, the Major League movies, the long Cleveland drought without a pro sports title: these things make it very easy to not notice that before 1970, the Indians were one of the best teams in the American League.

From 1947 through 1968 (22 seasons), Cleveland’s average record was 86-71, with six below-.500 seasons. From 1948 through 1955, the Indians averaged a 95-59 record, with 89 wins in 1949 their only season below 92 wins. When we stretch the span out to 1947 through 1959 (13 seasons), the Indians still average a 90-64 season, making them easily the second-best A.L. team—behind the Yankees, of course. Cleveland finished second six times in the 13 years, and got swept in a 1954 World Series that capped their record-making 111-win season; we usually remember the ’50s as years of the greatness of New York City baseball, not as years when Cleveland and the Yankees battled for control of the A.L.

From 1960 through 1968, the Indians averaged an almost perfectly mediocre 80-81 season, ranging between 75 and 86 wins during the nine seasons.

But there’s more to this story: when we skip past the World War II years and look at the Indians’ record from 1916 through 1940, we see an average 81-71 record (ties excluded). In five of these 25 years Cleveland finished second in the A.L.; they won the World Series in 1920, but often finished third or fourth in the league. Going back even further, to 1901 through 1915, we see the Indians averaged an 85-68 season from 1904 through 1908, and had an 86-66 season in 1913 and a 77-63 season in 1903’s 140 games (but did not win even a pennant in these 15 seasons).

In the aggregate, from 1901 through 1968 the Indians averaged an 80.5-72.5 season, for a .526 winning percentage. The franchise didn’t get many pennants and world titles from the seven decades, but I’d be surprised if their aggregate record was not the second best in the A.L., behind the Yankees but ahead of the other six A.L. teams.

Published in: Uncategorized on September 30, 2013 at 7:37 am  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Francona did such a nice job this year. It helps, though, to be in the same division as the horrid White Sox and Twins. Still success is success, and they should be congratulated for their efforts this season. Interesting research here,

  2. Is there a historical explanation for why the Indians started to do so badly during the divisional/expansion/DH era? Some bad trades obviously helped sink them… Nettles, Chambliss, Tommy John & Luis Tiant… the unfortunate fate of Tony Horton…

  3. There was a sharp dropoff, from 86 wins in 1968 to 62 in ’69, when division play started, but I don’t really know why.

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