Reliving Yesteryear: The Regrettably-Named “Dead Ball Era” in Cleveland

league park

league park

Lifting his gaze, he closed the thick reference book. Gabby raised her eyebrows with a blink of fur.

Unmistakably, the Bichon-Yorkie mix was the girls’ dog. But what the alpha male in the recliner lacked in affection, he made up for in his reliability for remembering dinner. She was savvy enough to remain still, curled up with her chin on the floor, next to the fire. She had yet to detect the promise of food. Any premature stirring could result in wasted movement.

He twirled his eyeglasses, lightly tapping his chin. Society has long lamented its own obsession with women retaining their youthfulness. This has crept into its expectation of men: try watching something as intrinsically innocent as a televised baseball game. Being bombarded for an entire evening about hair transplant technology is irritating enough, without adding the prospect of “experiencing an erection lasting more than four hours.”

He snorted a half-smile. He wouldn’t want to be young; he’d want to be ooooold. Rather, what he wouldn’t give to have experienced first-hand the early, glory days of baseball. In Cleveland, especially.

The industrial Midwest’s exponential growth in the early portion of the 20th century was felt in Cleveland: the number of wage earners had grown four-fold between 1880 and 1910. While the Great Depression of the 1930s dampened the growth rate to fifty percent from 1910 to 1940, the local steel industry swelled ever larger, relative to the rest of the Cleveland economy. As a hub of the industrial revolution, the percentage of Cleveland workers in metal-working industries doubled between 1880 and 1940, to 64%.

Interest in baseball grew, and the sport began to rival boxing in popularity. Factories sponsored employee-stocked teams in local sandlot leagues, and some of the talent was major-league worthy. Fan interest was already high, and gaining momentum.

His thoughts drifted to the recollections of Bob Hope. To the entertainer’s tales from his childhood on the east side of Cleveland early in the 20th century. It’s too bad the period from around 1900 to 1919 is referred to as baseball’s “dead ball era.” It is a boring label that belies the experience. Hope told of peering through the outfield wall at League Park, getting a glimpse of his favorite players.

During most of the “dead ball era,” the ball club in Cleveland wasn’t called the Indians. They were the Cleveland Naps. So popular was Napoleon Lajoie that in 1903 the fans voted to change the nickname of the team in his honor.

The “dead ball era” featured a “small ball” style of play, which emphasized reaching base, stealing, and advancing runners with the bunt. A factor that encouraged this style was the huge dimensions of some major league ball fields. Also, pitchers were allowed to throw spitballs, scuffed balls… basically, it was anything-goes. One ball was used for an entire game. It grew mushy as the game proceeded, and became dark and hard to see from the dirt (and pitchers’ tobacco juice). Foul balls were not strikes (except for bunt fouls). Batters, in turn, could waste pitches by fouling them off, with no repercussions.

The story was essentially the same, those first few seasons for the Naps. They stumbled early on, before recovering and finishing strong. They suffered injuries some years, like in 1903 when much of the starting pitching went down. This included the notable Addie Joss. Other years, key players were sidelined by ailments that aren’t seen in modern times. Shortstop Terry Turner succumbed to typhoid fever. Joss eventually died from spinal meningitis. Napoleon Lajoie was a victim of a recurring blood poisoning, which had been brought on by the infection he contracted as a result of getting spiked during a game.

For several seasons, observers considered the Cleveland Naps the favorites to win the American League pennant. Entering 1908, they’d finished as high as third.

The days immediately prior to the 1908 season proved to be a watershed moment for the Naps. The rival Detroit Tigers made them an offer. Their young batting champion was perhaps the most talented ball player in the world, but he couldn’t get along with anyone. The season hadn’t even started, and Ty Cobb had already been involved in two fights with his teammates. The Tigers’ brass was alarmed. They were willing to part with Cobb, in exchange for the Naps’ 1905 batting champ, Elmer Flick.

Cleveland decided they didn’t want Cobb either. They declined, and Cobb went out and won his second batting title—on of twelve during his outstanding career. The Tigers won the pennant in 1908, doing so by a half game over the Cleveland Naps. A key to the race was a Tigers rain-out late in the season, a game they weren’t forced to make up. Another key, of course, was Cobb, whose .324 batting average would have looked very nice on the Cleveland Naps. In an early Only in Cleveland scenario (OIC), Elmer Flick’s career was to a large extent over.

A poor record in 1909 prompted Napoleon Lajoie to offer his resignation. James McGuire was tabbed to manage the team—then still called the Naps. When there was no improvement in 1910, critics referred to the team as the “Molly McGuires.”1 The 1910 season featured a thrilling batting race between Ty Cobb and Lajoie. The Chalmers Motor Car Company anted up with the offer of a new car to the champ. On the season’s final day, Cleveland was scheduled to play a double-header against the St. Louis Browns. The Browns hated Cobb so much that their third baseman played far enough back to allow Lajoie to bunt several times for hits. Cobb still won the title, by a small fraction. They both were awarded cars. The 1910 season also saw the return to Cleveland of Cy Young who, at 43 years old, was close to retirement.

The Cleveland Naps stumbled through the next few seasons, until 1914 when their record tumbled to an awful 51-102. This was the end of the line for Napoleon Lajoie in Cleveland. Before he left, however, he became the third major leaguer ever to record 3,000 hits (of course, in a quaint twist that is not uncommon from those days, some historians disagree on just when the milestone was reached).

Besides Lajoie, there were other memorable ball players on that 1914 team, however.

We noted Joe Jackson, whom it’s said had earned the nickname “Shoeless” from a minor league game in which his shoes were bothering him. He played part of the game without shoes. Jackson is said to have been a fairly simple-minded, illiterate man. He was perhaps easily swayed by those in Chicago who eventually masterminded the “Black Sox Scandal” during the 1919 World Series. As a player, Jackson was mentioned in the same breath as Cobb, Tris Speaker (at that time with the Red Sox), and Nap Lajoie. It is believed by some that Babe Ruth, a rookie in 1914, patterned his batting stance after Jackson’s.

Steve O’Neill’s thirteen seasons as Cleveland’s catcher began in 1911. His tenure at the position is second in Cleveland history, to… (hey, want to guess? Wait to check the answer. It’s at the bottom of this article.) O’Neill was sent to the Boston Red Sox after the 1923 season, in the deal that also sent away second baseman Bill Wambsganss. He is perhaps best remembered for his 14 years managing. He was the skipper of the Indians from the end of the 1935 season through 1937 (Bob Feller’s first full season).

Ray Chapman was the shortstop. If he’d lived long enough, historians believe he would have been a Hall of Famer. He held down the position in Cleveland from 1912 to 1920, and was well-known for his hitting ability (he was a lifetime .377 hitter) and his base-stealing. His 52 stolen bases led the Indians franchise until 1980 (do you know who broke Chapman’s team record? Answer at the bottom). Readers know what happened to him in 1920; we’ll take a look at that in this space, soon.

Jack Graney was Chapman’s good friend and road roommate. Beginning in 1911, Graney was Cleveland’s star left fielder through 1922. He’d come to the major leagues as a wild left handed pitcher, and famously knocked out Lajoie with a pitch during a tryout. By 1931, Graney became a treasured role model to a new generation as the Indians’ radio announcer. Jack Buck later shared that Graney’s descriptive style had inspired him to eventually become an announcer himself (Buck was born in New England, but moved to Cleveland when his father got a job there).

He put the book aside. One hundred years ago. What were my forefathers doing then- were they aware?

He paused. His hands gripped the armrests. That did it: the dog burst to her feet, her ears at attention, ready to sprint to the kitchen at the drop of the “e” word.

“C’mon Gab- wanna EAT?”

*****

The record for most games at catcher for the Cleveland baseball franchise is held by Jim Hegan, with 1,491.

Miguel Dilone stole 61 bases for the Indians in 1980. Kenny Lofton would eventually re-write the Cleveland history books, as they pertain to steals.

*****

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  1. Early 20th century society knew of the original Molly McGuires, a secret society of 1800s outlaws that had originated in Ireland and that lived in the eastern Pennsylvania coal region. []
  • Jason Hurley

    An enjoyable read. Well done.

  • mgbode

    Great, amazing read. Really enjoyed it.

    And, hats off to anyone who got Dilone (hey, I got Hegan, but that was far easier of a question). My guess was Brett Butler, but I was off by 4 years and 9 stolen bases with that one.

  • MrCleaveland

    Greg, I enjoyed that very much. Thank you.

    (I got Dilone, but whiffed on catcher by guessing Alomar).

  • https://twitter.com/jimkanicki jimkanicki

    Great to see you on WFNY Greg. Big fan. And Miguel Dilone references are always appreciated.

  • Greg Popelka

    I really appreciate the kind words. GP

  • Harv 21

    Nice. [And WFNY, way to stretch and give space to a very different style].

  • Celeritas

    Nice!

  • bossman09

    Cleveland really was “tribe town” for 1/2 a decade before the browns played their first game. I’m always amazed by that fact.

  • Greg Popelka

    Yeah, and even the early years of Paul Brown’s run in Cle hadn’t completely conquered the town. They weren’t losing money, but they were yet to be as popular in their town as the NY Giants and Chicago Bears were in theirs. PB lobbied privately to return to OSU to coach, when the spot opened in 1950. To be fair, there also was uncertainty with the owner McBride testifying at the Kefauver organized crime hearings. Woody got the OSU job.