Cleveland Indians: Remembering a Championship 68 Years Later

Today marks the anniversary of the last World Series championship the Cleveland Indians ever won. How did the 1948 team get the job done?

The day was October 11, 1948. Harry Truman was running for reelection as President of the United States against some guy named Thomas Dewey (how’d that turn out?), the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II was just six months old, “A Tree in the Meadow” was Margaret Whiting’s No. 1 song on the Billboard charts, and Babe Ruth had been dead less than two months. Oh, and a baseball game was played between the Cleveland Indians and the Boston Braves.

The Tribe did something that day it has never done since: they won the World Series. A 4-3 victory at Braves Field spurred by a sixth inning home run deep to left field by second baseman Joe Gordon, 7.1 innings of three-run ball pitched by future Hall of Famer Bob Lemon, and a five-out save by rookie Gene Bearden. It was the second World Series championship in Cleveland franchise history, and to date, the last.

That Indians team was not all that dissimilar from the one that advanced to American League Championship Series on Monday night, some 68 years later, built on a foundation of strong starting pitching. Cleveland led the AL in ERA, complete games, and shutouts en route to a 97-58 record that was one game better than the second place Boston Red Sox for the pennant.

That club had Lemon go 20-14 with a 2.82 ERA and 144 ERA+, Bearden at 20-7 with a 2.43 ERA and 168 ERA+, and perhaps the greatest Tribe player of all-time, Bob Feller, who in a bit of a down year went 19-15 with a 3.56 ERA and 114 ERA+, the first time in five full seasons (interrupted by his military service) that he failed to win 20 games.

Also on that team was Satchel Paige, a 41-year old rookie in MLB, who became the first African-American to pitch in the Fall Classic. Paige went 6-1 for Cleveland, with a 2.48 ERA and a 165 ERA+, appearing mostly out of the bullpen.

Another trailblazer on the club was 24-year old outfielder Larry Doby, who just a season earlier had been the first African-American player in the American League, debuting on July 5, 1947, just 11 weeks after Jackie Robinson.

The Indians’ offense in 1948 was, unlike the pitching, decidedly much different than the 2016 club. The Tribe was third in runs scored in the American League, but they did so by bludgeoning the ball, hitting a league-high 155 home runs and .792 team OPS.

Gordon, who had won four World Series in his first six season with the New York Yankees and won the 1942 AL MVP award, found a resurgence in Cleveland. In 144 games during the regular season, he slashed .280/.371/.507 with a 135 OPS+, and led the team with 32 home runs and 124 RBIs.

His double play partner in the middle infield was Lou Boudreau, the team’s player-manager and owner of one of the finest nicknames (“Old Shufflefoot”) that baseball has ever known. Boudreau had a .355/.453/.534 slash line in 1948, with 116 runs scored, 34 doubles, 18 homers, 106 driven in, and an OPS+ of 165, and resoundingly beat out Joe DiMaggio for AL MVP.

Boudreau also had one other remarkable achievements in the championship season: he struck out just nine times in 676 plate appearances (1.3 percent rate) during the regular season, and only once in 24 PAs in the World Series.

Ken Keltner shared the left side of the infield with Boudreau, and had the final productive season of his career, slashing .297/.395/.522 with 31 home runs, 119 RBIs, and a 146 OPS+. This is the same Keltner that, on July 17, 1941, had played a big role in the end of DiMaggio’s historic 56-game hitting streak.

The Braves in 1948 were very similar in that they boasted the top pitching staff in their league, leading the NL in ERA and complete games. Johnny Sain was runner up for National League MVP after posting a 24-15 record, 2.60 ERA, and 149 ERA+, and future Hall of Famer Warren Spahn was in just his second full big league season after World War II service.

Sain bested Feller in a classic pitcher’s duel in Game One in Boston, 1-0, but Lemon held the Braves to just one run in Game Two, Bearden tossed a shutout in Game Three, and Steve Gromek also let up just one run in Game Four to give Cleveland a 3-1 lead.

The Indians were unable to close the series out at home, though, as Feller was shelled for seven runs in 6.1 innings in Game Five, and Boston rode a four-RBI day from third baseman Bob Elliott to an 11-5 win.

That loss came on October 10th, and a day later, the Tribe was victorious. World Series champions. No one could have known then that we would still be waiting for another one nearly seven decades later.