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Our Past Cleveland Indians Heroes Part 1 – 1920

Photo by Charles Murray

The Cleveland Guardians have clinched the Central Division and now face one of the wild card teams in a three game set on the corner of Carnegie and Ontario sometime next week. 

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Every year there are heroes and players that transcend the regular season and somehow carry their team to victories and glory. Who will be our Guardians Heroes this year? Steven Kwan, the rookie? Jose? The only player on the team you can identify with one name only? Tito Francona, the seasoned, sure-to-be hall of fame manager? Maybe Cal Quantrill or Shane Bieber?

 

We at NEOSportsinsiders.com take a look back at prior playoffs and World Series heroes for our Guardian ballclub! A great place to start will be a few years back…in 1920!

 

1920 League Park on the corner of Dunham and Lexington

League Park was situated on the corner of what is now East 66th street and Lexington Avenue. In many ways it was a true neighborhood stadium with that crazy 45 foot wall!

League Park

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Cleveland Press Collection as seen on the website https://thisgreatgame.com/ballparks-cleveland-league-park/

 

The wall was not flat so balls hit off that monster would ricochet in all directions! That year saw the largest number of Cleveland fans attend the games. The final attendance figure was 912,832.

 

The season

The club battled the Yankees and White Sox throughout the season. As the play got to September, the White Sox players alleged to have thrown the 1919 series were banned and the chase from the South Side died. At the time, the White Sox and Indians were in a virtual tie with just three games remaining.

 

The Yankees had just traded for a player named Babe Ruth who helped shape the Yankee’s fortune for 1920, but the summer months saw the Bronx Bombers fade away from the two other clubs. The thought was that pitching occasionally was starting to wear the Babe down. But the homeruns, with the newer baseballs, increased throughout the league and helped the Yankees register over 1,000,000 fans, the first time a team surpassed that figure in attendance. The Tribe had a losing record in the regular season against only the Yankees.

 

The World Series Champions!

So their American League Championship was the first in the club’s history. And up next would be a best of nine game series with the National League champions, Brooklyn Robins. And that week of October 5th to October 12th saw the Clevelanders defeat the Robins, five games to two, for the first world championship in Cleveland professional sports.

 

The Many Heroes

The Manager

Tris Speaker was the player/manager for the Indians. A fan favorite in Boston during his playing days, he would send the fans crazy as he hit the Durham Bull sign for $50! Coming over to Cleveland, Tris is said to have introduced the managerial art of platooning, something Cleveland fans have come to expect with the club today!

“The Gray Eagle” led the team in batting for the series and guided the team through a tragic affair that will be addressed later. He is still considered one of the greatest center fielders for defense and offense.

 

The Catcher

Steve O’Neill was a catcher from Minooka, PA. The 17 year veteran had a career BA of .263 while spending 23 years with Cleveland. Steve was the mainstay behind the plate for the then Indians. And handled all the pitchers in 149 of the 154 games that season. The staff was the 11th best that season, but when it mattered, he got the most out of the staff. With O’Neill behind the plate, the Brooklyn Robins didn’t score more than 3 runs in any World Series game. 

O’Neill was the leading hitter in the series at .333. In fact you could make the case his most impactful season of his career was 1920. He had 157 hits, the most in his distinguished career, and had his highest slugging percentage at .440.

 

He drove in his only two runs of the seven games in game 1 at Ebbets Field batting eighth in the lineup, helping the Indians take game 1.

 

The Pitcher

Stan Coveleski was the one of the leaders in ERA for the regular season. He was 24-14 for the year with a 2.49 era. He even came on to record two saves! And when the World Series started, Stan was dominating. He won games 1, 4 and 7, compiling a 3-0 record and a microscopic era of 0.67. He finished each game he started, too.

Courtesy of pinterest.com

Game 5 Heroes and a Game of Firsts

The Right Fielder

Elmer Smith led the club in homeruns that year with 12. But it was one swing of the bat in game 5 that made history. Playing in right field, Elmer came to bat in the bottom of the first with bases loaded. The Erie County, Ohio native connected on a pitch that cleared the right field wall AND the screen sitting atop the wall! Elmer hit baseball’s first grand slam in World Series history. Here’s his take on the pitch courtesy of the sabr.org and the Cleveland Press.

 

“It was a straight fast one about chest high I crushed over the fence in the first round with the bases full. I wasn’t a bit nervous, though I had missed a couple of spitters and I was in the hole with two strikes and one ball charged against me and I knew that these three lads on the sacks were pulling hard for me to deliver, while I couldn’t help but feeling the excitement in the stands.”

(From the Cleveland Press, quoted in sabr.org.)

 

The Second Baseman

Bill Wambsganss was a true Clevelander. Born in Cleveland and buried in Calvary Cemetery, the man nicknamed Wamby was a 26 year old second sacker, who played in 153 of the 154 games the club played that year.

 

His .244 batting average was one of the lowest of his career in a year of the juiced baseball! But his one play in game 5 has never been matched in World Series play and caused one of the loudest roars heard in the League Park neighborhood! 

In the fifth inning, the Robins hit back to back singles to open the frame. Boston’s pitcher, Clarence Mitchell, then proceeded to hit a rope Wamby, guarding 2nd, leapt to grab. After the line drive out, he quickly stepped on 2nd to retire Pete Kilduff, who was leaning to third, and as Otto Miller charged to 2nd from first, Wamby touched Miller. The park was quiet, trying to understand what had just happened. Simple. An unassisted triple play. The first and only one in WS history.

 

The Slugging…Pitcher?

Jim Bagby was the starter that day for the Indians. He struggled all game with his control but the Robins still had no runs to show for it. He gave up 13 hits for the game, but only 1 run in a complete game victory. But what he did in the game as a hitter was the stuff of legends. In the bottom of the fourth, Cleveland had a runner at third with one out. Brooklyn decided to walk O’Neill to attempt to get a ground ball double play. Jim had other ideas. He deposited the pitch over the centerfield wall.

jim bagby

If we stick with Baseball-Reference.com’s description of the homerun to “deep center” then we can assume Bagby hit the ball at least 420 feet! If it was to deep right center field, that was 460 feet! Either way, he became the first pitcher to hit a homerun in a World Series.

 

The Guardian Angel

Ray Chapman was one of the most popular Cleveland baseball players in the decade of 1910’s. He was a singer, showman and comedian. Ty Cobb, often an example of a lonely, aloof player, considered Ray one of his closest friends. Ray was married after the 1918 season. And with a new family, he began to realize that he was ready for retirement. Tris Speaker, his friend, was named manager/player of the club and was Ray’s best man at his wedding. Why not go one more year for my friend?

Cleveland.com, August 15, 2020

 

Ray decided he would suit up for the 1920 season and head into retirement, hopefully with an American League pennant. Chapman was having his best season with a .304 batting average to go along with his 111 hits by middle August and 13 more stolen bases to add to the speedy shortstop’s career total.

 

The Pitch

The Indians were battling the Yankees all summer. Babe Ruth owned almost every batting statistic that year in MLB. But on that rainy day, August 16th, fate stepped in to hand the Indians and their popular shortstop, Ray Chapman, another infamous record in baseball – the last player to be killed in the play of the game.

https://theoldballgame.org/ray-chapman-tragedy-on-the-diamond/

 

Ray was facing Carl Mays, the Yankee pitcher and fellow Kentuckian. In the top of the fifth, with the count of one ball and one strike, Mays let loose a pitch that froze Chapman as it raced towards his head.

 

Babe Ruth said he heard the sound of the ball striking Ray’s head from his position deep in right field. Ray collapsed immediately to the ground with blood streaming from his ear. Mays, thinking the ball hit the bat, tossed it to Pipp at first base.

https://thegruelingtruth.com/baseball/storiesyoushouldknowraychapman/

 

The umpire behind home plate turned to the crowd yelling for a doctor. Ray was taken to a nearby hospital where he died the next morning on the 17th. His pregnant wife did not make it to the hospital in time to see her husband.

What next?

Many forget that after the funeral on the 20th, Cleveland went on to lose the next 7 games. But with a manager/player/friend like Tris Speaker leading the club, the Indians were able to hold off both the White Sox and Yankees for the right to represent the American League in the fall classic.

 

Ray’s sister was quoted in the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1995 in an article by sabr.org saying how much Cleveland meant to Ray.

 

“Ray loved Cleveland. He thought it was such a wonderful place. So did I. I still look in the papers to see how the Indians are doing.”

 

The team wore black armbands the rest of the year as they charged to their first World Series title. And a generation of Cleveland fans found new heroes in those men on the field and up above.

 

Thanks to websites like Baseball-Reference.com and sabr.org for their many fine articles and data used for this and subsequent articles.

Next Article – 1948 Feller, Lou, Doby and Paige

I am a math teacher in SW Ohio. Born and raised in NE Ohio, I am married with four sons who keep the flame burning for all things Cleveland. I cover soccer, betting, football and anything that focuses on the human side of sports.

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Norm hershfield

    September 28, 2022 at 11:28 am

    A great article Tells a lot most of us don’t know. They must have been some special group.

  2. Bill Petrello

    September 28, 2022 at 3:15 pm

    Thanks for reading, Norm. Appreciate it! Really, this team was destined for this. This group of guys really came up through the minors together, too! But Ray’s death could have ended the run. Instead, it inspired them. I hope we get to see a LOT of playoff baseball this October!

  3. Bentley Henderson

    September 29, 2022 at 6:43 am

    Would have been a good article had you gotten more of the information correct.
    The title is incorrect. You need to insert Indians or the Cleveland baseball team in place of Guardians. The Guardians have no history until after the end of the season in 2021.
    I am already tired of the media, including the Cleveland media talking about Indians history if that history was not positive. If it’s positive history you can guarantee they will call it Guardians history when that is just not the case.

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