Guest Post, Indians

On Lee Fohl and the Lessons of Cleveland Fandom

You may be about to learn two things about me.  First, while many of you know this already, I’ve never made my provenance entirely explicit.  I was born in St. Louis, MO and spent most of my childhood there.  This made me (and still makes me) a fairly die-hard Cardinals fan.  It also makes me a fan who has reveled in–depending on how and whom you count–anywhere from two to four World Championships.  That, I suppose, is not all that interesting.

Second, you’re about to learn that my wife, Ann, is a much better writer than I.  She also happens to be the great-grand-daughter of former Cleveland Indians manager Lee Fohl.  What follows is something she wrote about him.  And me.  And you.

Explaining Cleveland Fanhood to My Husband

My husband is baffled by this question – why do Cleveland fans so desperately want a championship?

He’s a transplant from St. Louis, where they’ve won it all four times (three World Series and a Super Bowl) in his lifetime. What does he have to show for these wins? A blue Cardinals cap with a 2006 World Series patch on the side and a new red one sporting a 2011 patch, as well as a general feeling of optimism about his hometown team (without “hopeless” or “foolish” thrown in as a modifier). To his four championships, I have four heartbreaks – the drive, the fumble, 1995 and 1997 – and a creeping sense of foreboding whenever things look like they might be going Cleveland’s way.

I try to explain that it’s not the losing, at least for me it isn’t – it’s that we come so close before we lose. It’s that we’re a rag-tag bunch doing the best we can, which usually isn’t all that impressive, but every once in a while, we almost get lucky enough to pull it off. And then, of course, we lose, just as I knew all along we would. Winning a championship, for me, would help me ditch my “we’ll find a way to screw it up” attitude, which isn’t just the product of Clevelanders’ shared sports disappointments – it’s in my blood.

The story goes that my great grandfather, Lee Fohl, was plucked from the sandlots of Pittsburgh to play professional baseball. A catcher, he played one game with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1902 and four games with the Cincinnati Reds in 1903 – those five games represent his entire major league playing career.

He then bounced around the minors for ten years, playing for the Binghamton Bingoes, Youngstown Ohio Works and Columbus Senators, and acting as player manager for the Lima Cigarmakers, Akron Champs and Akron Rubbermen, winning the pennant each of the four years he was in that role. Near the beginning of his tenure in Akron, an August 1910 editorial in the Akron Beacon Journal said this about Fohl and his squad:

It looks like Akron for the pennant this year and the prospect of finishing at or near the top must be doubly sweet to the tribe of Fohl after the almost universal roasting they received from fans earlier in the year. Some of the Akron youngsters seem to have major league possibilities ahead of them. Nothing of the kind is in store for Fohl. While there are dozens of worse catchers holding more or less securely to better jobs, Fohl is veteran enough so that scouts have learned to pass him by. His career seems to be cut out for just what has appeared here, that of a faithful and competent caterer to the minor league fan – somebody to take up the drudgery and responsibility of a backstop’s job, to do the thinking for nine men and the work of two, and to do it every day.

After stints with the Huntington Blue Sox and the Waterbury Contenders, Fohl proved the author wrong and made it back to the majors in 1915 – as a coach with the newly-christened Cleveland Indians. About a month into the season, manager Joe Birmingham was ousted and Fohl, who’d been warming up pitchers in the bullpen, was unceremoniously named temporary manager. The Tribe finished seventh (of eight) in the American League that year, a depressing 44.5 games behind the pennant-winning Boston Red Sox.

But in his first full year managing the Indians, Fohl seemed to hit his stride. A July 1916 article in The Day described him as a “managerial find”, going on to say, “Despite every obstacle, with a pitching staff of kids shot to pieces, Fohl has rallied his team after every retreat and continues to stick in the thick of the fight.” Things must have fallen off after that, though, as Cleveland finished just sixth in the league that year.

The Indians finished third in 1917 and continued to improve into 1918. An article titled ‘Saying Little, Sawing Wood’, dated May 16, 1918, and clipped from a newspaper I can’t identify had this to say about the team and its manager:

Hit harder than any other American League club during the winter by the draft and starting the season with about half his team on the sick list, most critics counted Lee Fohl’s Indians out of it, but the silent Dutchman smiled grimly, set his teeth and plugged away. Don’t think he was off in a corner grumbling at his fate, however. Lee has a way of doing things without making a noise, and doing them well. Those who don’t believe it are invited to inspect the standings of the clubs. Of course the Indians are not expected to stay up there, but you never can tell about a silent man – still water runs deep.

The “of course the Indians are not expected to stay up there” gets me every time. Reality always seems to get in the way for Cleveland, doesn’t it? At any rate, Fohl and the Indians finished second in the league in 1918 and seemed on their way to even better things in 1919 – at one point in June, they were tied with the Chicago White Sox for first place. They’d slipped a bit after that and were in third when the Boston Red Sox and Babe Ruth came to town the next month.

On July 18, 1919, the Indians had a 7-4 lead over the Red Sox going into the ninth inning. Cleveland’s pitcher, Elmer Myers, struggled and the Red Sox loaded the bases for Ruth. Fohl called for Fritz Coumbe, a leftie, from the bullpen. The story goes that Ruth missed Coumbe’s first curveball but connected on the second, sending it over the right field wall in League Park for a grand slam and the eventual win.

What exactly happened next varies depending on the storyteller, but the outcome is the same – the next day, Fohl was no longer manager of the Cleveland Indians. Some news outlets said he was fired, others said he was asked to resign, and still others said the Indians had long wanted to hand the reigns over to star centerfielder Tris Speaker and were just waiting for an event to precipitate the change.

How did the 1920 Indians, whom Fohl had developed from duds to contenders in his five years as manager, do under Speaker? They won the pennant, of course. What is a feel-good story for Cleveland ends up falling flat for me. That’s not to say Fohl’s efforts went unnoticed – his turnaround of the Indians led to managing gigs with the St. Louis Browns and the Red Sox. Three years’ worth of losing records in Boston, though, spelled the end of his tenure in the big leagues, and he ended his professional baseball career with the Class A Des Moines Demons in 1929 at age 49.

Lee Fohl was so close to winning a pennant with the Indians, but he didn’t, and really, that shouldn’t be all that surprising, right? The editorial writer from the Akron Beacon Journal expected him to be a journeyman in the minors. Other articles from the beginning of his tenure with the Indians dubbed him “the accidental manager”, a “busher” (short for ‘bush leaguer’, as in among the minor league or amateur ranks), a manager “not born with a major league spoon in his mouth.”

The story of Lee Fohl – rising up from humble beginnings and low expectations to almost winning it all if not for a single mistake – is the story of what it’s like to be a Cleveland fan for me. I don’t want to believe the argument that small-market teams like the ones in Cleveland can’t hack it. In a clipping from the Cleveland Press in 1956, Fohl said of his departure from the Indians in 1919, “The handwriting had been on the wall long before Ruth hit that home run. I was just a busher who had spent little playing time in the majors and I didn’t fit the picture.” I don’t want that to be how the story ends – that even Cleveland doesn’t believe it’ll ever succeed – but damn, it’s hard not to go there sometimes.

My dad has a scrapbook of newspaper clippings about Lee Fohl, passed down through the family, and most of the articles in it deal with his life after baseball. I don’t know what that means – did the baseball stuff get lost along the way, did my great grandparents not get the newspaper back then, did baseball not matter as much to them as I thought it would have? Is that the moral of the story – “Get over it Clevelanders, sports aren’t important”?

Know what my great grandfather did after professional baseball, what someone in my family thought was worth saving articles about? We have clippings about him managing a gas station at East 12th and St. Clair during the Great Depression. Him coaching sandlot teams and leading clinics for kids. Him acting as a ticket checker at Highland Park golf course at the corner of Kinsman and Green for the last 16 years of his life, making sure the golfers approaching the third hole had paid their greens fees. Him celebrating 50, 55, 60 and 65 years of marriage with his wife, Anna, whom he referred to as his “boss and manager” and “the best worker in the world.” Him exchanging Christmas cards with and being invited to the 50th wedding anniversary party of Fritz Coumbe, whose Ruth-crushed curveball ended Fohl’s tenure as Indians manager.

Maybe my husband’s right – winning a championship doesn’t amount to much more than a bit of memorabilia and a brief spring in your step. If Fohl had been there to win the pennant with the Indians, it might not have changed his life, or might not have changed it for the better. An obituary in our scrapbook (clipped out of a newspaper I can’t identify) says this about him:

The man who laid the foundation for the Cleveland Indians’ first world championship in 1920, Lee Fohl, was a credit to the game of baseball. He was a team man in his loyalties to his employer and to the city he adopted as his home after becoming manager of the club in 1915. Fohl was a quiet and competent leader who accepted the breaks of the game, good and bad, with instinctive sportsmanship.

I don’t know about the rest of you Clevelanders, but championship or not, I don’t think I’d mind being remembered as a loyal fan, one who accepted the breaks of the game – good and bad.

The author/wife would like to thank Jon and the rest of the guys at WFNY for letting her tell this story.