The Indians’ Ten Greatest Pitchers
Bob Feller (1936-41, 1945-56)
Rarely has anyone had a more celebrated and successful major league debut than Feller, a 17-year-old flame-throwing wunderkind who began his career by pitching three innings of an exhibition for the Indians against the St. Louis Cardinals—and striking out eight batters.
Feller’s smashing initiation would be no fluke. That same year, in a September game that counted, he struck out 17 Philadelphia A’s to set a major league record—and two years later broke that mark, racking up 18 K’s against Detroit. In 1940, he became the only major leaguer to throw a no-hitter in an Opening Day start. He notched his first 20-win campaign at the age of 20 and collected 100 career victories by age 22, the youngest to reach the milestone until Dwight Gooden. Had it not been for a four-year stint away from baseball at his peak to serve in the Navy during World War II, Feller would have certainly won over 300 games and struck out 3,500 batters. As it was, he settled for 266 wins and 2,581 K’s over 18 seasons.
Once clocked at 106 MPH—later calibrations showed that those measurements were actually closer to 99—Feller wasn’t nicknamed Rapid Robert by accident. But early in his career, Feller’s blazing speed was matched by his wildness; Rogers Hornsby, then the manager of the St. Louis Browns, said that Feller possessed “everything but control.” Feller led the AL in strikeouts seven times, but also was a four-time leader in walks, with 208 passes alone in 1938 to set an all-time record which still exists; six times over his career, he walked ten or more batters in a game.
Rested up after his war duties, Feller was one of the first star players to return to major league action late in 1945 and, in his first full season back in 1946, had his most dominant year—sporting a 26-15 record with 36 complete games, ten shutouts and a career-high 348 strikeouts (and career-low 2.18 earned run average) in 371.1 innings; the strikeout total broke the season record held by Rube Waddell—who posthumously got it back when later research uncovered two strikeouts that hadn’t been officially tallied back in 1904.
After his über-effort of 1946, Rapid Robert’s fastball began a rapid fade, but Feller merely addressed the issue as most successful pitchers do: By adjusting. Working more with finesse, Feller remained a force for five more years, winning 20 games for the sixth and last time in 1951—the same year he fired his third and final career no-hitter.
Feller always impressed at the All-Star Game, allowing just a run with 12 strikeouts in 12.1 innings; he was decidedly less effective in his only World Series appearance, losing both of Cleveland’s games in the Indians’ 1948 six-game triumph over the Boston Braves. Though on the roster for the Tribe’s juggernaut 111-43 run to the 1954 AL pennant, the 35-year-old Feller was never once called into action as the Indians got swept by the New York Giants in the Fall Classic.
Feller was not immune to controversy. He ridiculed Jackie Robinson’s entry into baseball, though not in a racist context—instead claiming that what he saw as Robinson’s subpar talent, black or white, didn’t warrant the attention he received. While still a player, Feller was named the first head of the Major League Baseball Players Association in 1954—but went out of his way to let everyone know that the fledgling outfit was not a “union,” lest the reserve clause-empowered Lords got indignant over the label.
In retirement, Feller remained wildly popular to Indians fans, and was a fixture every spring at the team’s camp, annually throwing out the first pitch of the team’s first exhibition until his death in 2010 at the age of 92.
Bob Lemon (1941-42, 1946-58)
Distinguished among other honors for being the only pitcher in the Hall of Fame who began his major league career as a position player, Lemon joined Feller, Early Wynn and Mike Garcia to shape together one of the most formidable pitching rotations ever seen.
The Los Angeles-area native was an unremarkable third baseman and outfielder when he switched over to the pitching side of the roster and began relieving for the Indians in 1946. A spot opened on the rotation midway in 1947, and Lemon took full advantage; he won ten games after July 31, won 20 the next year with a no-hitter, a league-leading ten shutouts and two solid, victorious efforts for the Indians in their World Series conquest of the Braves.
Lemon would go on to win 20 or more games seven times within an eight-year stretch; only three other American League pitchers have reached the milestone as often. Of Cleveland’s “Big Four” pitchers during the early 1950s, Lemon was likely considered the ace of aces; his workhorse ethic certainly played a role toward that status, given that he led the AL five times in complete games. Lemon’s early life as a position player also served him well; his fielding skills were among the best in the game at the pitcher’s spot, and although his .232 career batting average was nothing to write home about, his 37 home runs (in 1,183 at-bats) are just one shy of the major league record for pitchers.
In 1978, Lemon returned to the baseball spotlight as a wisely low-key, successful fill-in for Billy Martin after his first of five firings by New York Yankee owner George Steinbrenner; Lemon quietly restored sanity to the clubhouse and led the Yankees to a 48-20 record and a World Series title to finish the year, calmly explaining to the press, “I tell George what I think and then I do as he says.” He almost pulled it off again when Steinbrenner tabbed him to replace Martin towards the end of the 1981 campaign, but the Yankees lost that year’s Fall Classic to Los Angeles.
Addie Joss (1902-10)
One of the great pitchers of the deadball era whose 1.89 career ERA is second all-time behind Ed Walsh, Joss was a gifted and enterprising young man whose forlorn expressions on almost every photo ever taken of him seemed to telegraph a tragic death that cut his career short at age 31.
Brought on by Cleveland in 1902, the right-hander threw a one-hitter in his first major league start and nearly threw a no-hitter in his second; he would go on to lead the AL with five shutouts to go with a 2.77 ERA—the worst of his career. Using a tornadic corkscrew delivery, Joss would go on to win 20 games four straight years running (1904-07), won AL ERA titles in 1904 and 1908—registering a career-best 1.16 mark in the latter year—and threw two no-hitters, including a memorable perfect game in 1908 over Walsh and the Chicago White Sox in what some consider the greatest pitching duel ever witnessed. He allowed fewer baserunners per inning (0.97) than any pitcher in history. Off the field, Joss proved to be a man of many talents, evolving into an accomplished sportswriter while also designing one of the first electric scoreboards, one of which was put into use by the Naps starting in 1909.
After a torn elbow muscle ended his 1910 season early, Joss returned in 1911 but collapsed before the start of an exhibition game on April 3; 11 days later, he was dead—a victim of tubercular meningitis. Joss’ funeral was scheduled in Toledo, Ohio on the day of a scheduled game between the Naps and Tigers at Detroit but Cleveland players, shaken by the death, voted not to play and attended the service in defiance of an edict by AL strongman Ban Johnson to stay on the field; for one of the few times during his dictatorial rule, Johnson wisely backed off in the name of sensitivity. Three months later, an exhibition between the Naps and a group of AL all-stars raised $13,000 for Joss’ family.
For years, Joss became one of Cooperstown’s gross omissions because he was technically ineligible for playing only nine seasons—one shy of qualification. In 1978, the Veterans Committee rightfully gave Joss a special exemption and voted him into the Hall of Fame.
Stan Coveleski (1916-24)
The younger brother of Harry Coveleski, who had established himself as an ace pitcher in Detroit, Stan quickly became his equal and than passed him up after Harry’s quick demise from the game in the late 1910s. The two would become the first pair of siblings to both win 20 games in the majors.
Coveleski thrived on the spitball while it was legal; his career was graciously extended because of it, as he was one of 17 pitchers allowed to continue using the spitter after its abolition in 1920. But his first year with the handicap was a difficult and bittersweet one; after his wife passed away in May, Coveleski recovered to win a career-high 24 games (for his third of four straight years with 20-plus victories) and emerged as the hero for the Indians in a triumphant World Series over Brooklyn, winning three five-hit, complete game gems, allowing just two runs in 27 innings while averaging 87 pitches per start.
The wins were more difficult to come by afterward as the Indians began to regress in the standings, but Coveleski remained sharp, winning his first of two career ERA titles in 1923 with a 2.76 mark despite a 13-14 record. After an off-year in 1924, the Indians shipped Coveleski off to Washington, where he revived his game and had one final hurrah in 1925, leading the Senators to a rare AL pennant.
Early Wynn (1949-57, 1963)
Wynn was a gruff competitor who is famous for saying he’d knock his grandmother down at the plate if she dug in too much. Perhaps his crusty demeanor was molded out of his first decade in the majors, a frustrating, inconsistent experience with the woebegone Senators in which he escaped to Cleveland on the downside, losing 19 games with an abysmal 5.82 ERA in his last year at D.C. in 1948.
Mastering a curve ball under the guidance of former Indians pitcher and then-pitching coach Mel Harder, Wynn’s career righted itself for the better in Cleveland; no pitcher won more games in the AL during the 1950s, as four times Wynn won 20 or more games and kept his ERA constantly around 3.00, winning the 1950 ERA crown with a 3.20 mark that’s the highest ever recorded by a league leader. Despite his success, Ball Four was a familiar call from umpires when Wynn pitched; his 1,775 career walks were the highest total for a major leaguer until Nolan Ryan surpassed and nearly lapped it.
After Wynn’s prime in Cleveland, he spent five years in Chicago where he had one last year of greatness in 1959, posting a 22-10 record and winning the Cy Young Award while taking the White Sox to the World Series. But he ran out of gas and was released by the Sox in 1962—with 299 career wins. Desperate to make entry into the 300 Club, Wynn lobbied the Indians for a last chance in 1963 at age 43; the Tribe relented in June and gave him a roster spot, and Wynn—in his fifth appearance of the year—struggled for the minimum five innings on July 13 at Kansas City but finally earned credit for the milestone win—his last as a major leaguer.
Mel Harder (1928-47)
The longest tenured Indian, Harder began his 20-year reign in Cleveland holding the fort down as the team ace until Feller came along, but he’s well regarded as one of the more productive pitchers of his time—and continued his contributions after his playing days working as the team’s pitching coach, steering and helping evolve the great rotation of Feller, Lemon, Wynn, Garcia (and later, the fleetingly successful Herb Score).
Harder at first was a hard-luck .500 pitcher, best exemplified when he became the only pitcher not named Lefty Grove between 1928 and 1940 to win an ERA title—producing a 2.95 mark despite a 15-17 record shaped greatly by an anemic Indian offense that gave him only three runs per game, two below the league average. In a streak of poetic justice, Harder followed that up by winning 20 or more games over the next two seasons; they would be the only two times he’d get there.
Though he never made it to a World Series (the Indians reached the Fall Classic in 1948, a year after he retired), Harder found fame at the All-Star Game—totaling a record 13 scoreless innings over four appearances, including a sterling five-inning effort to earn the win at the second-ever Mid-Summer Classic in 1934.
Harder threw the first pitch at Cleveland Stadium when the Indians moved there (part-time) in 1932; appropriately, he threw the last pitch in more ceremonial fashion when the Tribe played their last game there in 1993.
Mike Garcia (1948-59)
The burly California native nicknamed the Big Bear was the most underrated (and certainly the least remembered) of the great Indian pitchers of the early 1950s, probably due to the fact that his career was in top gear for only five years. He made an impressive debut in 1949, leading the league with a 2.36 ERA while working half of his time out of the bullpen; moving to the rotation the following year, Garcia struggled to an 11-11 mark but then won 79 games (including 15 shutouts) against just 41 losses over the next four seasons, clinching another ERA crown in 1954 with a 2.64 mark. After this terrific run, Garcia hit into a mediocre rut in which he struggled to win even ten games before he was reduced to part-time relief work at the end of the decade.
Garcia was often accused of throwing a spitter, though it was never proven.
Sam McDowell (1961-71)
Sudden Sam’s rise coincided with a period of statistical strength for major league pitchers, which made his numbers all the more impressive. Over a six-year period between 1965-70, McDowell led the AL in strikeouts, topping the 300 mark twice—but also led the league in most walks allowed, with 153 given up in 1971 alone. Still, McDowell’s fastball success, which came after he stopped taking advice from all corners and began seeking improvement from within, led many to anoint him as the Sandy Koufax of the American League, a status he was happy to soak in.
McDowell was often as effective as he was wild, leading the league in 1965 with a 2.18 ERA; he set a career low at 1.81 during 1968’s “Year of the Pitcher,” placing second in the league behind teammate Luis Tiant. He won 20 games for the only time in his career in 1970.
But it all fell apart for McDowell in 1971; he first held out for $100,000, and when he settled for $72,000, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn voided the deal because it contained incentive clauses, forbidden at the time within baseball. An irate McDowell responded by refusing to play and declared himself a free agent; tired of it all, the Indians traded him to San Francisco for Gaylord Perry and infielder Frank Duffy. Injuries and poor performance plagued McDowell’s career from that point on, as he struggled to find top form; increased dependence on alcohol only made things worse. It wasn’t until 1980 that McDowell, five years after throwing his last pitch, decided to sober out—emerging successfully from it and using his experience to begin a second career counseling other players fighting the bottle, among other charitable duties.
Gaylord Perry (1972-75)
The Indians were all too happy to welcome Perry after being swapped for McDowell in 1972; though Perry was four years older, his arm was relatively fresh with plenty of mileage to go, while McDowell was headed for burnout in San Francisco.
Although Perry’s stint with the Indians lasted little more than three years, it was highly productive, successful—and, most importantly for the attention-starved Indians of the era—headline-grabbing. In his first year with the Tribe in 1972, Perry produced what is arguably considered his finest season: A 24-16 record with a career-low 1.92 ERA in 342.2 innings that gave him his first of two Cy Young Awards. Opposing managers played to Perry’s reputation as a spitball artist who got away with it; Yankee manager Ralph Houk once tore to the mound while Perry was on it, took his cap off and began alternately checking it out and getting it dusted with the infield dirt; Detroit manager Billy Martin even brought in a bloodhound (or, more appropriately, a spithound) to sniff out possible doctored balls. Perry was defended in jest by Indians president Gabe Paul, who said, “Gaylord is a very honorable man. He only calls for the spitter when he needs it.” Perry himself enjoyed the notoriety because it affected opponents more than he, but his sinker pitch was almost as effective—and a reliable substitute for the spitter, if and when he actually used it.
After another, less effective workhorse effort (19-19, 3.38 ERA) in 1973, Perry got off to a remarkable start in 1974—going 15-0 over 17 starts after an Opening Day loss; just as amazing, all 15 wins were complete game victories, with his only two non-decisions a 15-inning marathon and 8.1 innings for a game that also got sent into overtime. He finally lost at Oakland against Vida Blue despite pitching into the tenth inning, but his run was popular enough that 47,000 filled the Coliseum at attendance-challenged Oakland for a midweek game to watch him. He slumped for the rest of the year—perhaps taxed by the overuse of his arm during his winning streak—but still finished at 21-13 and a 2.51 ERA.
Perry’s end with the Indians was hastened largely because he suckered himself into a battle of egos with new player-manager Frank Robinson in 1974, believing he was worth as much as the star hitter. The abrasive Robinson only made the relationship worse, and it was just a matter of time before one would go; because Robinson was the boss, it had to be Perry, who was shipped off to Texas early in his fourth year with the Tribe.
Wes Ferrell (1927-33)
No pitcher has won 20 or more games in each of his first four major league seasons—and no pitcher has collected more career 20-win campaigns (six) without being represented in the Hall of Fame outside of Ferrell, who also holds the distinction of being the all-time leading home run hitter among pitchers with 38.
Ferrell was steady, successful and often temperamental, which only made it more of a relief that he won so often so early in his career. His ERA figures were never sensational, though that had much to do with the offensive fireworks that dominated the AL during his time; his best ERA reading came in 1930 when he produced a 3.30 figure—still good enough to place second to Lefty Grove for the league lead. His career 4.04 ERA is a likely reason he’s not in Cooperstown.
Ferrell’s bat came in quite handy when he wasn’t pitching; when outfielder Joe Vosmik went down with injury towards the end of the 1933 season, Ferrell filled in at his spot and hit .270. Two years earlier, he had set major league season records for pitchers by slamming nine homers with 30 RBIs to go with a .319 average in 116 at-bats. He became so respected at the plate, he was an extreme rarity among pitchers in that he collected more walks than strikeouts.
After an injury-plagued 1933 season, the Indians traded Ferrell to the Boston Red Sox, where he continued his winning ways as he topped 20 wins for the final two times in his career.
Cleveland Indians Team History: Year-by year records, statistics and an oral history of the Indians, decade by decade.
The Indians' Ten Greatest Hitters: 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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