Invisible Rivalry: 100 Years of Cubs vs Indians

Joe Gordon and Lou Boudreau

No one is accusing the first ever Cubs vs Indians World Series of being short on story lines. The unlikely meeting of baseball’s two longest suffering fan bases—combined with a Tito vs. Theo subplot, the surprise returns of Danny Salazar and Kyle Schwarber, an ex-Yankee closer showdown, and loads of young star power on display (Frankie Lindor, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, J-Ram, etc.)—makes for plenty of intrigue and drama. There’s even a Bill Murray vs. Tom Hanks celebrity mascot battle to keep an eye on. All that’s missing, it seems, is a pre-existing rivalry between the teams themselves.

For two franchises with a combined existence of more than 250 seasons, the Tribe and the North-Siders have done a pretty good job of not getting in each others’ way—rarely crossing paths let alone drawing lines in the sand. If you go digging a bit deeper into the archives, though, a unique Cubs-Indians history does begin to reveal itself.

Let’s Go Back to the ’90s. Not Those ’90s.

Officially speaking, the Major League Baseball record book will tell you that the Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs played their very first game against each other on August 29, 1997—the inaugural year of interleague play. In a similar vein, you could probably say that Heat was the first movie with both Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro in it. It’s just that you’d be pointlessly ignoring a film called The Godfather Part II.

For their part, the franchise eventually known as the Cubs had already started making regular visits to Cleveland dating back more than a century before that night in Jacobs Field, albeit against the short-lived Cleveland Spiders of the National League. In 1890, Spider rookie Cy Young even got the first of his 511 career victories against Cap Anson and the Chicago “Colts.” For much of the decade that followed, Chicago and Cleveland competed regularly and quite competitively as NL squads. The Spiders featured star players like (these are all real) Nig Cuppy, Cupid Childs, Jake Virtue, and Chief Zimmer, while the Colts had guys named Ad Gumbert, Jiggs Parrott, and Malachi Kittridge. Mustaches were curled and balls were fiercely swatted.

Cy Young

Cy Young shockingly never won the Cy Young Award.

By the turn of the century, though, the folding of the Spiders and birth of Cleveland’s new American League franchise appeared to create a permanent divorce between the Chicago Cubs and their old rivals on the shores of Lake Erie. The upstart Cleveland Blues/Naps found a different Windy City foe in the form of the White Sox, and the Cubs—barring a World Series match-up—would never appear on their schedule again.

Unless, of course, you’re talking about exhibition games!

Who Says They Didn’t Count?

Yes, you might think obsessive baseball research in the sabermetrics era has left no stone unturned when it comes to the history of America’s pastime, but exhibition games—be it spring training games, barn storms, or special events—are where the real folklore lives on. It’s also where the age-old Indians-Cubs rivalry might be hiding.

Cubs beat NapsTake, for example, this Chicago Tribune report from April 12, 1914, when the Cubs traveled to League Park to battle the Tribe in a final preseason tune-up, just days before Wrigley Field (then known as Weegham Park) hosted its first game.

“Cleveland, O., April 12—[Special]—Although the Cubs are in anything but excellent shape, they were good enough today to end the spring training trip with a shutout victory over the Cleveland Naps, 8 to 0.

“The Cubs displayed better form than their opponents in every department and made the triumph appear simple. They did not out-hit the Naps by a large margin, but they managed to get the blows when they were needed. . . . The Cubs certainly looked much better than the locals in fielding, pitching, and behind the plate. … Heinie Zimmerman was the star of the game. This was his first appearance in Cleveland, and he made a hit with the 10,344 fans who packed Charley Somers’ first class plant. Not only in walloping the ball did the Great Zim make himself conspicuous, but in fielding and in base running also. Zim did himself proud in covering ground at short and made several brilliant plays. On the pathways he showed remarkable speed. He stole home on Hagerman in the fourth inning and then purloined second on O’Neil in the sixth. One of the safeties he obtained was a triple, which nearly took a hand off Joe Jackson when he essayed to stop it.”

Cubs vs Naps

Boxscore from Cubs vs Naps game in Cleveland, 1914

During that same time period, the Cubs and Naps/Indians became the first teams to open Spring Training camps in Florida (Tampa and Pensacola, respectively), essentially launching the Grapefruit League.

By the 1940s—those glory days when the Cubs last appeared in a World Series and the Indians last won one—the two clubs were reunited for Spring Training on the West Coast, with the Tribe in Tucson and the Cubs in Catalina Island, outside Los Angeles.

“It will be a big day in the life of the Chicago Cubs tomorrow at 2 a.m.,” the Tribune reported on March 29, 1949, “when they will have completed their 13 1/2 hour trip between Los Angeles and Tucson. Tomorrow afternoon they will meet the Cleveland Indians for the last time until Lou Boudreau’s boys will have learned whether they have defended their world championship successfully thru 1949, or are just disillusioned also-rans.

“There has been considerable squawking about the distribution of spring exhibition dates in southern California, but it’s a safe bet that the Cubs, for sound reasons, will dominate the calendar making again in 1950. And the Indians, as all-time turnstile as well as artistic champs, will be booked with the Cubs for several of the juiciest dates. The Indians and the Cubs, remember, on March 20 broke the all-time southern California baseball attendance record with a turnout of 24,517 at $1.85 tops. The old record, 1,004 under the new mark, was set by the Indians and Cubs two years ago.”

By the ‘50s, the Cubs moved to their current home-away-from-home in Mesa, Arizona, establishing a Cactus League rivalry of sorts with Cleveland as the two clubs remained the top draws in the desert.

Perhaps noticing the wider appeal, Major League Baseball started booking the two teams for a very different sort of exhibition game, as well—the Hall of Fame Game. Held every July on induction weekend in Cooperstown, NY, the game was, for many decades, the only opportunity to see American and National League teams square off within the calendar of the regular season. The Tribe and Cubbies met up in the game on four different occasions. I actually remember listening to the very last one on the radio in 1988 (as a young kid), and would remain thoroughly confused for several years as to how the Indians had managed to play an NL team in the middle of the summer, and perhaps more importantly, how that same game had somehow ended in a tie.

Indians vs Cubs “Hall of Fame Game” History

1952: Indians 4, Cubs 2
Pitcher Sam Jones goes six strong and the Indians get back-to-back homers from Harry Simpson and Joe Tipton, neither of which would be counted toward their career totals. We call these “ghost homers.” Same goes for dingers wiped out by rain-outs.

1952 HoF Game

National Anthem before 1952 Hall of Fame Game in Cooperstown, NY.

1960: Cubs 5, Indians 0
Dick Drott tosses seven shutout frames for Chicago and Ron Santo follows an Ernie Banks double with a three-run homer to blow the game open. Lou Boudreau is now managing the Cubs, and one of Cleveland’s two hits goes to a fella named Tito Francona.

1971: Indians 13, Cubs 5
Ernie Banks, playing in his final season, homers for the Cubs, but the Indians take advantage of a sloppy Chicago defense to win handily, posting 8 runs in the fifth inning alone. Jim Clark leads the way with a couple knocks, including a three-run jack.

1988: Indians 1, Cubs 1
Ryne Sandberg homers in the first, but the Tribe ties it in the eighth on a Willie Upshaw RBI single. Tied after nine, everybody agrees to call it quits. Later, teams will start wondering why they are utilizing pitchers for games that don’t count, and the Hall of Fame Game will be eliminated entirely by 2007.

Wheelin’ & Dealin’

Joe Carter
Arguably the best player on that 1988 Indians team was Joe Carter, a former Cubs prospect who’d come to Cleveland along with Mel Hall in a midsummer deal for Rick Sutcliffe in 1984. Trades are another area where the Cubs and Indians have impacted one anothers’ ups and downs over the decades.

In more recent years, it’s generally been the Cubs sending veterans to Cleveland for youngsters (Mark DeRosa for Chris Archer in 2008, Kosuke Fukudome for Abner Abreu and Carlton Smith in 2011). Back in 1993, the teams made a couple of interesting midseason deals, as the Tribe dealt Jose Hernandez for Heathcliff Slocumb in June, then shipped out Glenallen Hill to bring back Candy Maldonado in August.

In a deal for Sam Jones way back in 1954, Chicago eventually sent Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner to the Indians as maybe the most well known “Player to Be Named Later” in MLB history. He was on his last legs.

The most famous Indian to wind up in a Cubs uniform, however, is probably Lou Boudreau, the boy manager of the ’48 Championship club. An Illinois native, Boudreau took a broadcasting job with the Cubs in 1958, then briefly managed the team in 1960 [he is pictured in the main title image of this article at the 1960 Hall of Fame Game] before returning to the radio booth for another 25 years. Best known in Cleveland as the hero of the team’s last championship, Boudreau is essentially Herb Score to the Baby Boomers of Chicago.

Let’s Play 18

In the ‘90s, the Indians Spring Training facility had (temporarily) moved back to Florida, and with no further battles at Doubleday Field in Cooperstown, there was a brief vacuum in the Cub-Tribe feud. This was mercifully resolved, of course, by the controversial arrival of interleague play in 1997—the same year the Indians last advanced to the World Series.

In their first “official” match-up after nearly a century of co-existence, the two hard-luck clubs didn’t disappoint. Chicago erased a 6-2 deficit with a 4-run eighth inning rally off Mike Jackson, Paul Assenmacher, and Jose Mesa. But David Justice drove in a go-ahead single in the bottom of that inning and Mesa held the lead in the ninth for a 7-6 Indians win.

Indians Cubs 1999

The Indians’ Chris Turner slides into the Cubs’ Jose Hernandez during a game in 1999.

A year later, in the Indians first ever regular season game at Wrigley Field, Dwight Gooden got the W in a 3-1 pitcher’s duel against Kevin Tapani. Manny Ramirez notched the first hit by a Tribesman in the historic park.

The Doctor was on the mound again the following summer back in Cleveland when the Indians came back from a 7-5 score to plate two runs in the ninth, then celebrated with a Wil Cordero walkoff single in the 11th inning.

All told, the Cubs and Indians played 8 times from 1997-1999, with Cleveland winning 6 of them. Then, suddenly, changes in the interleague schedule created a 7-year gap without any games between the two clubs. Since their reintroduction in 2006, the tide has shifted to Chicago, who’ve won 7 of the last 10. That includes a three-game sweep at Wrigley in 2009, low-lighted by former Cub hero Kerry Wood blowing a save against his old team in one game, and Cliff Lee and the Tribe pen improbably blowing a 7-0 lead in another.

Last year’s 4-game split series had its own unusual high and lows, including the Cubs pummeling the Tribe by a 17-0 count at Progressive Field. The two games at Wrigley, though, are of particular interest to us, as they featured marquee pitching match-ups that, by pure chance, will be re-visited this week in the Fall Classic.

On August 24 of last year, I told the tale of watching Corey Kluber battle Jon Lester in a classic, with each man surrendering just one run deep into the ballgame. Kluber struck out 11 and gave up just four hits, but Zach McAllister checked in to a 1-1 game in the ninth and promptly gave up a game-winning bomb to Kris Bryant. I don’t see that match-up happening on Tuesday.

Wrigley Field, Cubs vs Cleveland Indians, August 24, 2015

I took this photo during the Jon Lester – Corey Kluber showdown on 8/24/15, a matinee preview of what would be Game 1 of the 2016 World Series.

Meanwhile, on June 16, 2015, it was a preview of Game 3 of the World Series, as Trevor Bauer—clean pinky in tow—outclassed eventual Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta with seven shutout innings in a 6-0 Tribe win. The key blow was a three-run, third inning homer by Carlos Santana.

So, in grand total, the Indians and Cubs have 18 interleague meetings in the books. Cleveland has won 9. Chicago has won 9.

Amusingly, 18 games multiplied by 9 players in the starting line-up creates the equivalent of 162 “games started” for the Indians offense vs. the Cubs and vice versa.

Cubs vs Indians 1997-2015

Indians Offense: 610 ABs, .264 / .349 / .403, 118 SO, 77 BB, 18 SB, 18 HR, 81 RBI, 83 R
Cubs Offense: 643 ABs, .285 / .351 / .456, 125 SO, 62 BB, 10 SB, 23 HR, 95 RBI, 104 R

Indians Pitching: 164.2 IP, 9-9, 4.65 ERA, 1.488 WHIP, 125 SO, 62 BB, 6 SV
Cubs Pitching: 161.1 IP, 9-9, 4.30 ERA, 1.475 WHIP, 118 SO, 77 BB, 2 SV

Top Indians Hitters vs Cubs, All Time (min. 12 PA)

Luis Valbuena: 1.538 OPS (6-for-14, 3 HR, 5 RBI)
Matt Williams: 1.308 OPS (7-for-13, 3 2B, 3 RBI)
David Justice: 1.257 OPS (11-for-30, 4 HR, 9 RBI)
Travis Hafner: 1.110 OPS (6-for-14, 1 HR, 4 RBI)
Michael Brantley: .938 OPS (5-for-14, 2 2B, 2 RBI)

Top Cubs Hitters vs Indians, All Time (min. 12 PA)

Henry Rodriguez: 1.751 OPS (9-for-15, 2 HR, 8 RBI)
Henry Blanco: 1.417 OPS (6-for-12, 1 HR, 5 RBI)
Kyle Schwarber: 1.214 OPS (6-for-14, 1 HR, 4 RBI)
Derek Lee: 1.143 OPS (6-for-14, 3 HR, 5 RBI)
Shawon Dunston: .867 OPS (6-for-15)

Cubs Indians Spring 2013

This is what the line-up cards looked like in Mesa, AZ, for Cubs vs Indians in Spring Training, 2013.

Two Ways to Spell C

So, as you can see, there is history, of a sort, between this year’s World Series opponents. It’s just not a familiarity, perhaps. And that goes for the fans of the two clubs, too.

Though I hail from Northeast Ohio, I’ve spent the past 10 years living in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago, just a few L stops north of Wrigley Field (close enough that I walked angrily all the way home from that Cliff Lee loss in ’09 and the Bryant walk-off last summer). As a result, I have experienced firsthand just how little awareness the average Wrigleyvillain has of “that other Ohio team” from over in the American League. For example, if you walk around these parts in a current “block C” Indians cap, someone absolutely WILL presume it’s some sort of throwback/alternate Cubs hat. “Hey, Go Cubbies!” a passerby might say with a smile. Last October, a concerned Cubs fan approached me in my Tribe hat, asking how I felt about “our chances” in the NLCS against the Mets. “Uh, well, I am cautiously optimistic,” I said, choosing the easy way out.

Even the occasional glare from a White Sox fan on the train isn’t enough to counteract this sense that the Indians exist in a totally separate baseball reality from that of the Wrigleyverse. After all these years, you would at least think that Cubs and Indians fans would have forged some sort of mutual admiration society. Along with a shared disdain for the Pale Hose, we all carry a loyalty to a team largely defined by its championship drought (108 years and 68 years, respectively), so much so that comedic films have been made about the very idea of either one winning a pennant (Major League > Rookie of the Year). Less talked about is the Cubs and Indians’ futility in the Fall Classic itself, as the clubs have lost the last TEN World Series they actually did appear in (1954, 1995, and 1997 for Cleveland; 1910, 1918, 1929, 1932, 1935, 1938, and 1945 for Chicago). That is some brutal stuff, even if most of it happened before our parents were born.

So why is there no special connection between Clark & Addison and Carnegie & Ontario? Well, sometimes in life, your next best friend—or your next arch rival—has been right there under your nose the whole time. You just need the right time, right place, and big enough stage, for everything to come into focus.

Javy Baez 2013

Javier Baez on deck against the Indians in Arizona, 2013.