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Thursday, May 24, 2018
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A timeless look at the 1920 Cleveland Indians

There is always time to read books about baseball, especially when the subject is timeless.

So even though Scott Longert’s latest book was published more than a year ago, it still deserves a look by fans of baseball history.

“The Best They Could Be: How the Cleveland Indians became the Kings of Baseball, 1916-1920” (Potomac Books; hardback; $27.50; 256 pages) is a nicely written, interesting look at how the Indians went from American League doormats in 1914 to World Series champions in 1920. It’s Longert’s second book about the Indians; in 1999, the Beachwood, Ohio resident wrote “King of the Pitchers,” a biography of pitching great Addie Joss.

The 1920 Indians are an overlooked American League champion. It was shoehorned between the dominant Boston Red Sox teams of the late 1910s (A.L. champions in 1915, ’16, and ’18), the Chicago White Sox (1917 A.L. champs and the notorious Black Sox of 1919) and the emerging New York Yankees, who would dominate the 1920s with six A.L. crowns. They are even perhaps overlooked in Cleveland, which won a World Series title in 1948; set an A.L. record with 111 wins in 1954 before Tampa native Al Lopez’s squad was shockingly being swept in the World Series by the New York Giants; and lost a pair of Series in 1995 and ’97.

The 1920 squad was built from the ground up beginning in early 1916 by owner “Sunny Jim” Dunn and general manager Bob McRoy. Dunn had the cash and McRoy had the business acumen, and the Indians began to turn their fortunes around after landing future Hall of Famer Tris Speaker in a trade with the Red Sox. The addition of pitchers Jim Bagby and Stan Coveleski, the maturing leadership of shortstop Ray Chapman, and the surprising resurgence of former pitcher Smoky Joe Wood in the outfield helped Cleveland improve to third place by 1917. The next two seasons, the Indians contended for the pennant and finished second; the shortened 1918 season possibly robbed the club of a shot at the flag, as 25 games were erased from the schedule due to the “work or fight” edict of World War I.

But in 1920, the Indians hit pay dirt, edging the White Sox by two games and holding off the Yankees for their first pennant.

What makes “The Best They Could Be” interesting is the attention Longert gives to the individuals who were essential parts of the Indians’ retooling efforts. Dunn is definitely covered, but so are Speaker, catcher Steve O’Neill, outfielder Elmer Smith, pitchers Bagby and Coveleski, and the double play combination of Bill Wambsganss and Chapman. Even some of the more obscure names get their due, players like Larry Gardner, Jack Graney, Duster Mails and Charlie Jamieson. And even a mascot, a dog named Larry.

Longert also sheds more light on the career of manager Lee Fohl, who took over the Indians 28 games into the 1915 season and compiled a 327-310 mark before resigning after 78 games in 1919. Fohl was an underrated manager, a good pilot but not a great one; still, the Indians improved into a contender under his leadership. His resignation after Cleveland blew a four-run lead to Boston allowed Speaker to take over, and “Spoke” would put them on top in 1920. For his part, Fohl resurfaced as manager of the St. Louis Browns and led them to a second-place finish in 1922, one game behind the Yankees.

There are a few glitches. For example, Longert notes that the Indians visited President William Howard Taft at the White House, two years after their 1906 visit with Theodore Roosevelt. As Taft did not take office until March 1909, the date appears to be incorrect.

The other mistake involved Germany Schaefer, the eccentric infielder. Longert notes that Schaefer joined the Indians after having not played since “a brief appearance with Newark of the Federal League in 1916.” Schaefer did play for Newark, but it was in 1915; the Federal League did not field teams in 1916. However, Schaefer did play one game for the New York Yankees in 1916.

Longert’s coverage of Chapman’s fatal beaning at the hands of Carl Mays in August 1920 is interesting, with observations about the impact his death had on his teammates. In fact, two of them scuffled on the day of his funeral. While the players are not definitively identified, Longert makes a strong case that the men were Speaker and O’Neill.

Despite the tragedy, the Indians won the pennant and faced the Brooklyn Robins (now called the Dodgers) in a best-of-nine World Series. After falling behind 2-1 in the series, the Indians swept the next four games, with Smith’s grand slam and Wambsganss’ unassisted triple play — both firsts in the Fall Classic. Memo to current baseball teams: every game in the 1920 World Series took less than two hours to play. The longest time was 1:55 (Games 2 and 7) and the shortest was 1:34 (Game 6).

The Indians became baseball’s champions, and their 1921 uniforms boldly proclaimed them “Worlds Champions.” Cleveland would remain contenders until 1924, but Dunn’s death in 1922 hurt the team, and the Indians would remain inconsistent for the most of the next two decades.

Cleveland fans will enjoy Longert’s prose and occasional cheerleading forays (he occasionally reverts to calling the Indians “the good guys”), but the book is mostly balanced and well-researched. It tells the reader how it was possible for one of the smaller franchise teams to build a contender. The Yankees, Red Sox and White Sox were the glamour franchises, but the 1920 Indians were able to find some glory of their own.

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