The Indians’ Ten Greatest Hitters
Tris Speaker (1916-26)
Traded to Cleveland in 1916 when the Boston Red Sox dared to cut his salary in half, Speaker reaffirmed and enhanced his star presence with the Indians with increased production, including a .386 average that won him his only batting title—and the only won nabbed by someone other than Ty Cobb over a ten-year period—during his first year with the Tribe.
The consummate Deadball Era hitting star, Speaker adjusted well to the Babe Ruth-inspired offensive splurge of the 1920s, hitting over .380 three more times—including a personal-best .389 in 1925, at age 37. Speaker also set a career high in doubles with 59 in 1923, the last of four straight years in which the eventual all-time career leader in two-baggers would lead the American League. That same year, Speaker powered up and easily set personal bests with 17 home runs and 130 runs batted in. This impressive accumulation came with exceptional discipline; Speaker never struck out more than 15 times in a season while playing for the Indians.
Speaker also assumed managerial duties for Cleveland midway through 1919, finishing the year with a 40-21 mark under his reign—and a year later, snagged the Indians their first-ever championship when they defeated Brooklyn in the World Series. Speaker managed the Indians through 1926, then was released by the team after it came to light that he might have been involved in fixing games during the 1919 season. He played two more seasons (for Washington and then the Philadelphia A’s) before retiring with 3,514 hits, second in AL history behind Cobb.
Nap Lajoie (1902-14)
The American League’s first superstar, Lajoie became Cleveland property in 1902 after being pulled out of a legal tug-of-war between the two Philadelphia teams (the A’s and Phillies) over who owned his rights; he escaped Pennsylvania state jurisdiction by joining the Blues, who would be renamed the Naps in his honor once he became player-manager in 1905.
A popular player who packed a tight, muscular physique akin to Adonis, Lajoie won batting titles in his first two full seasons with Cleveland (1903-04), but both his numbers and health suffered while doing double duty as player and pilot. His closest brush with postseason glory came in 1908 when he led the Indians to within a half-game of Detroit in a memorably tight finish. A year later, Lajoie stepped away from the manager post and was re-concentrate on playing every day; the renewed focus translated into greatly improved numbers over the next four years. He hit .384 in 1910 and won a controversial batting title when, on the final day of the season, the last-place St. Louis Browns sat back on defense and intentionally allowed Lajoie to lay down six bunt hits to overtake the hated Ty Cobb in the batting race. (Various sources of the time disputed who claimed the title, but modern-day revisionists have mostly sided with Lajoie.)
Age caught up to Lajoie in 1914, but not before becoming baseball’s third player to collect 3,000 career hits; two years reunited with the self-cannibalized A’s did him no good. Done with the majors, Lajoie won one more batting title in life, hitting .380 as a 42-year-old player-manager for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the International League, a prominent minor league circuit.
Larry Doby (1947-55, 1958)
Baseball’s second black player, joining the major league ranks three months after Jackie Robinson’s debut, made as big an impact on the field for the Indians as Robinson did for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Though Doby was given sparse opportunity to play in 1947, he showed he belonged for the long term a year later when he hit .301 and helped the Indians win the World Series over the Boston Braves, hitting .318—the rest of the Tribe hit .183—and becoming the first African-American to hit a World Series home run.
A patient hitter, Doby collected 100+ RBIs four times, 100+ runs three times and 100+ walks twice. In 1954, Doby led the AL with 32 home runs and 126 RBIs and placed second in the MVP vote as the Indians rumbled to a 111-43 record and another AL pennant; that same year, Doby—who appeared in seven All-Star games—also became the first black player to homer in the Mid-Summer Classic, igniting an eighth-inning rally that lifted the AL to victory in front of his home fans at Cleveland.
Poetically, Doby would become baseball’s second black manager (after Frank Robinson) in 1978 when Bill Veeck, who brought him on in 1947, made him pilot of the Chicago White Sox in 1978; he lasted half a season. Doby was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1998 by the Veterans’ Committee.
Elmer Flick (1902-10)
Though Flick was dubiously recalled as the butt of a painful memory in early Cleveland baseball history involving a declined straight-up trade for Ty Cobb, it should not obscure the fact that he was one the AL’s finest and most decidedly consistent hitters during its infancy.
Born just outside Cleveland in neighboring Bedford, Flick found himself back home in 1902 after he escaped Philadelphia along with Lajoie and pitcher Bill Bernhard when the Phillies sued the A’s to get the players they once owned back in the NL. He would become a rock in the lineup over his first six years in Cleveland, hitting anywhere between .286 and .311—strong numbers in a time of pitching dominance. In fact, his .308 mark in 1905 would be the lowest figure by an AL leader until Carl Yastrzemski hit .301 during 1968’s so-called “Year of the Pitcher.” On the basepaths, Flick was also considered the league’s kingpin in steals and triples until Cobb came along; in 1902, he became the first American Leaguer to hit three triples in one game, and led the league three straight years in three-baggers.
It was at Flick’s peak in 1907 that Detroit came asking for him—straight up for 20-year-old Cobb, who had already proven his star power but had also given the Tigers nothing but grief outside the lines. The Naps rejected the offer that likely would have changed the destiny for both franchises; Cobb settled down with his teammates and evolved into the game’s best player, while Flick immediately began to regress. The cause was a mysterious, painful internal ailment that doctors had a hard time pinpointing; after a few years of increasingly sparse and relatively poor play, Flick was given up on by Cleveland in 1910, never to play again in the majors. Despite the persistence of the pains, Flick would go on to live a full life, passing away at the age of 95.
Earl Averill (1929-39)
Debuting in the majors at the relatively belated age of 27 after a stellar minor league tenure with the Pacific Coast League’s San Francisco Seals, Averill made an instant impression by becoming the first American Leaguer to homer in his first at-bat, igniting a long and fruitful career with the Tribe in which he would hit .322.
Averill batted .332 in his rookie campaign for Cleveland with 43 doubles, 13 triples, 18 home runs, 96 RBIs and 110 runs scored; a year later, he became the first major leaguer to hit four homers in a doubleheader. Throughout the 1930s, Averill would be the go-to hitting star for the Indians, scoring 100 or more runs nine times while knocking in over 100 on five different occasions. Although not gifted with speed, Averill only twice failed to leg out ten or more triples with the Indians. In 1936, he led the AL with 232 hits and batted .378 to finish second to the Chicago White Sox’ Luke Appling.
Averill’s loyalty to beleaguered Cleveland manager Walter Johnson in 1935 cost him some love with fans (who showered him with boos and bottles) and teammates who all but revolted against the former pitching great. It was a thankfully short hiccup of discomfort in an otherwise smooth run with the Tribe.
Joe Jackson (1910-15)
Although he was infamously known for his time with a White Sox team for which he helped intentionally squander the 1919 World Series, Jackson’s most dominant years by the numbers took place earlier in the 1910s with the Indians.
A very young Jackson fell into the Indians’ lap after an ill-fated attempt to crack the Philadelphia A’s roster, as aversion to the big city environment and strained relations with teammates (who ragged him over his illiteracy) made him easy trade bait. In Cleveland, a smaller city with fellow Southerners for teammates, Jackson relaxed off the field and exploded on it—making good on his first chance to play everyday in 1911 by hitting .408. He followed that up over the next two years with .395 and .373 averages—and yet, in all three campaigns, lost any chance of winning the batting title thanks to the presence of Ty Cobb. Though never known as a home run hitter, Jackson certainly contained great power, reportedly once hitting a ball over 500 feet at New York’s Polo Grounds. He was also no stranger to triples; three times over his career he would hit over 20 in a season, including an AL-record 26 for the Tribe in 1912.
Jackson’s time with the Indians came to an end midway through the 1915 season when Cleveland owner Charles Somers decided he needed fast cash, and traded Shoeless Joe to the White Sox for two players and $31,000.
Albert Belle (1989-96)
A monster talent who used his prodigious power to fuel his label as baseball’s enfant terrible during the 1990s, the muscular Belle played with an enormous chip on his shoulder, a me-against-the-world attitude that only made it easier for the world to hate back. Hall of Fame voters certainly took his tempestuous disposition into account when Belle made the ballot; despite averaging 39 homers and 119 RBIs with an even .300 average over six full campaigns in Cleveland, he was mostly ignored and made ineligible for future Cooperstown tallies after just two years. The message was unmistakable: Payback is a bitch.
With a bat, Belle was the most dangerous force on a resurgent Indians team that finally became postseason-worthy in the early 1990s. He was so good during the strike years of 1994-95, it was hard to believe the numbers he put up were done with shortened schedules. In 1994, he hit .357 with 36 homers and 101 RBIs in just 106 games; a year later—within a reduced 144-game schedule—Belle became the first player ever to collect 50 doubles and 50 homers in the same season. He added 48 homers and 148 RBIs playing a full schedule in 1996.
But Belle’s immense output couldn’t hide a dark side that was often exposed in broad daylight. A recovered alcoholic who changed his name from Joey to Albert after a few years with the Indians, Belle had frequent run-ins with fans, photographers and reporters. He was at his worst during the peak of his career in Cleveland; he chewed out NBC reporter Hannah Storm in unprovoked fashion before a 1995 World Series game, got heated with a fan in Texas who was kind enough to return a home run ball he hit and simply wanted an autograph in return, and one time on the basepaths used a vicious forearm to Milwaukee’s Fernando Vina’s face in an attempt to break up a double play, earning a fine (but no suspension, despite cries to the contrary). Belle also was caught using a corked bat in a 1994 game, an incident that took on extra life when it was later discovered that teammate Jason Grimsley used Jacobs Field’s crawlspace to enter the umpires’ locker area and swap the confiscated bat with an uncorked one.
Belle found more controversy when he ended his reign with the Indians and signed a five-year, $55 million deal with the White Sox—though the target of ire was not Belle but Jerry Reinsdorff, the White Sox owner and Commissioner Bud Selig’s right-hand man in the fight against the players’ union, who infuriated fellow owners who’d been heeding his sermons on fiscal sanity; the hypocritical moment convinced other owners to take action and quickly establish a new collective bargaining agreement with the players that Selig and Reinsdorff had stalled on.
After four more years of productive output split between the White Sox and Baltimore Orioles, Belle quit the game at age 34 due to a degenerative hip condition. His troubles did not cease however; retired in Phoenix, he made news again for stalking a woman.
Jim Thome (1991-2002, 2011)
Thome was every bit the good guy to Belle’s bad; a year after his departure from the Indians and before local basketball icon LeBron James jilted the city by leaving for Miami, Thome was named the most popular man in Cleveland sports history. Yet he was equal to Belle in terms of offensive production, punching out a franchise-best 334 career home runs over a dozen years of employment with the Indians.
Somehow it took three years for the left-handed slugger to establish himself as an everyday regular in the Cleveland lineup; it was clear that, once given the opportunity, there was no going back to the bench. He worked up opposing pitchers’ work counts with abandon, often finishing among the league leaders in both walks and strikeouts. But he also drove opponents crazy with his power, which got better as his Cleveland tenure evolved; in his final two years with the Tribe, he amassed a total of 101 home runs, including a career-high 52 in 2002. Thome’s clouts did not lack for distance; he’s the owner of the longest ball hit in Jacobs/Progressive Field history, a 511-foot shot clubbed in 1999. In 53 postseason games with the Indians, Thome belted 17 home runs, offsetting a languid .229 average.
No marvel with a glove, Thome has inevitably switched from first base to the designated hitter spot in recent years, plying his power trade for numerous teams and even returning to the Indians toward the end of 2011, shortly after hitting his 600th career home run playing for Minnesota. All of this, without any linkage or serious accusation of steroid use in an era controversially littered with such abusers.
Al Rosen (1947-56)
A bad back suffered in a traffic accident cut short would could have easily become a Hall-of-Fame career for Rosen, who ascended in the early 1950s to become, briefly, the AL’s dominant hitter—before settling into a steady and sure decline that ended his major league days barely ten years after it began.
Rosen’s rise to the top peaked with a thunderous 1953 MVP campaign in which he hit .336 with 43 home runs and 145 RBIs; all that got in his way of a triple crown was Washington’s Mickey Vernon, who finished one batting point higher than Rosen. Another great start followed for Rosen in 1954, but a broken finger suffered before the halfway point cut down on his productivity and, with his back issues, accelerated an inevitable decline. Still, Rosen was good enough that year to mash two home runs with five RBIs at the All-Star Game played at Cleveland.
Rosen’s Jewish heritage sometimes made him of a target of racial baiting, but his reputation as an accomplished boxer quieted many opponents who knew better than to mess with him.
After 20 years away from the game, Rosen returned to baseball in a front-office capacity in 1978 when he was hired by George Steinbrenner as President and COO of the New York Yankees; however, he spent much of his time trying to keep Steinbrenner and manager Billy Martin at peace with one another. (He failed.) Rosen soon after held general manager duties in Houston and later San Francisco, where he helped build the Giants toward multiple postseason appearances in the late 1980s.
Manny Ramirez (1993-2000)
Born in the Dominican Republic but raised in New York City, Ramirez was a sure thing with a bat who didn’t take long to emerge as a powerful presence along with Belle and Thome on the star-studded Indians rosters of the 1990s. Twice he hit over 40 home runs (including a career-high 45 in 1998) and excelled in keeping his batting average well above .300, capped in 2000 with a .351 mark. But most of all, Ramirez had a tremendous knack for knocking in runs (abated by a talented lineup that often reached base ahead of him); in his final three years in Cleveland before moving on to Boston, Ramirez racked up a total of 432 RBIs, including an eye-popping 165 in 1999—the most by any major leaguer since 1938. Despite such crackling numbers—all now considered suspect, given his numerous links to steroid use—Ramirez has never won a MVP, coming closest with the Tribe in 1999 when he finished third in the vote.
With Cleveland, Ramirez’s unpredictable personality emerged, but he was more goofy and less turbulent than he would later be as a member of the Red Sox; his off-the-wall demeanor would be famously nailed down by Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove, who told a reporter in 1995 that Ramirez’s flaky disposition was a case of “Manny being Manny.”
Cleveland Indians Team History: Year-by year records, statistics and an oral history of the Indians, decade by decade.
The Indians' Ten Greatest Pitchers: A list of the ten greatest pitchers based on their productivity and efficiency.
The Indians' Ten Greatest Games: A list of ten memorable games and other notable personal achievements that have defined the Indians' history.
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