Winning the World Series is hard. Equally difficult, and sometimes forgotten, is the immutable fact that winning a league pennant is also hard. Baseball’s grueling season, long road trips, and top tier talent make capturing the league crown an accomplishment worth celebrating. Complicating the matter, expectations rise for the following season especially if you failed to win the World Series like *cough* someone we know. In an effort to learn from previous repeat attempts, let’s gaze back in time and see how previous Cleveland Indians campaigns went the year after winning the American League.
A year removed from the franchise’s first World Championship, manager Tris Speaker brought back roughly the same group with eyes on a repeat. Despite going 94-60, Cleveland finished 4.5 games behind Babe Ruth and the New York Yankees. Without divisions or a wild card to save them, the Tribe missed the playoffs. The team ERA rose from 3.41 to 3.90. Ace Jim Bagby, a 31-game winner in 1920, dropped to a meager 14 wins the following year. Five players finished with a batting average above .300; Speaker led the way with a .362/.439/.538 slash line, 52 doubles, and 75 RBI. Despite failing to repeat, this club gets high marks for hauling around the cajones it took to wear jerseys with the words World’s Champions emblazoned on them for all to see. They not only earned the belt, they wore it every day for a year.
The ’49 Indians brought back much of the same team that took them to the mountaintop in 1948. Fewer lucky bounces and regression to the mean led to the team winning 89 games, down from 97 the year before, and finishing in third place, eight games behind the Yankees. The Indians’ offense scored a rollicking 840 runs in 1948, but dropped off to 675 the following year. Lou Boudreau, Larry Doby, and Joe Gordon all saw their stats slip offensively. As a rookie in ’48, knuckleballer Gene Bearden went 20-7 with a 2.43 ERA and a win in the one-game playoff against Boston. His sophomore campaign he struggled to the tune of 8-8, 5.10 ERA. Still, Bob Lemon gave his all, going 22-10 with a 2.99 ERA; offensively he hit .269/.331/.556 with 19 RBI in 108 at bats. Many of the players stuck with the Tribe as they won either 92 and 93 games entering the 50’s. The second place finishes ended in 1954 when Cleveland won 111 games and the American League Pennant.
The 1955 Indians were a very solid baseball club. They won 93 games which today would almost guarantee you at least a wild card game. That year the Tribe had the unfortunate task of following up a season in which they set the American League record for wins (111). Still, the juggernaut Yankees would not be denied as they took the AL crown with 96 wins. Cleveland saw their offensive numbers drop for runs, hits, homers, and team batting average. Some regression was inevitable, of course, and the drop offs were not terribly severe. A 36-year-old Bob Feller finally showed his age, posting a 4-4, 3.47 ERA campaign in only eleven starts. Al Rosen led the team with only 81 RBI. The team’s performance did not fall off a cliff, but the era’s slim margin of error left them on the wrong side of the postseason picture.
Cleveland’s 1995 pennant run turned a generation of children in to Tribe fans. Popular opinion held that in ’96 Cleveland would finally have the experience necessary to get over the the hump and capture the Commissioner’s Trophy. The win total dropped from 100 to 99, but Cleveland still captured the AL Central by 14.5 games. For the first time in franchise history the club reached the playoffs in consecutive seasons. The same faces populated the roster – Thome, Vizquel, Lofton, Ramirez, Nagy, Hershiser. Cleveland met with Baltimore in the ALDS. The Orioles took the first two games at home. The Tribe salvaged a 9-4 win in Game 3 before falling in twelve innings in Game 4. Season over. The loss did not end Cleveland’s contention window; the core continued for the remainder of the decade.
The 1997 Indians broke a region’s heart when they dropped a devastating Game 7 in Miami. Looking to add some new energy during the offseason, Cleveland picked up left fielder Brian Giles and third baseman Travis Fryman. Orel Hershiser left town so the Indians added David Burba and Dwight Gooden to the starting rotation. The win total perked up from 85 to 87, and Cleveland won their fourth consecutive Central Division this time by nine games. The Boston Red Sox again came calling. Boston took Game 1 before Cleveland rattled off three straight to advance to the American League Championship Series. The Indians took a 2-1 series lead over the Yankees with Games 4 and 5 at home. Undaunted, New York won the next three games and the pennant. Cleveland would not advance to another ALCS until 2007.
Be careful when comparing eras in baseball history. The ’49 and ’55 Indians were deep, talented clubs that in today’s game would have likely qualified for the playoff. Sadly those clubs were victims of their era, unable to bank on a division title or wild card to save them. More recently, success has not been an isolated incident on the North Shore which offers hope for the 2017 Tribe. This year’s team brings back a talented roster still in their prime with aims to follow the 2014-15 Royals formula:
1. Win the pennant with a young team that no one saw coming.
2. Lose a devastating Game 7 at home.
3. Win the pennant the following season.
4. Dominate the National League in the second season.
The recipe is simple. Execution is tricky. The season of redemption begins on April 3.