Cleveland Indians: 96 Years Later, A Look Back at the Tribe’s First Championship


Today marks the anniversary of the first World Series championship the Cleveland Indians ever won. How did the 1920 team get the job done?

The year 1920 was significant or a number of reasons, several of which had a direct impact on Major League Baseball and its future. The United States refused to join The League of Nations, the brainchild of President Woodrow Wilson following the First World War, but it did roll out Prohibition forbidding the manufacture and sale of alcohol. The National Football League was formed, the Negro National Baseball League played its first game in Indianapolis, and some pitcher named George Herman Ruth was sold by the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees. The Cleveland Indians also watched as shortstop Ray Chapman was killed after being hit in the head by a pitch, an event that would usher in the live ball era and change the game forever.

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Chapman’s tragedy is perhaps more significant to Cleveland and MLB than the fact that the Indians also happened to win their first World Series championship in 1920. The live ball era ushered in the prominence of the home run, and the game has never been the same.

The Tribe finished 98-56 that year, winning a fiercely competitive American League pennant by coming from 3.5 games back in late-August to end up two games ahead of the Chicago White Sox and three three up on Ruth and the Yankees.

In what was then a best-of-nine Fall Classic, Cleveland fell behind the Brooklyn Robins two games to one before ripping off four straight wins by a combined score of 17-2, including shutouts in the final two games played at Dunn Field, League Park was originally known.

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The 1920 Indians were an imposing offensive team, albeit still playing in the dead ball style, and led the league in runs scored, doubles, on-base percentage, OPS, and OPS+ as a team. Hall of Famer and all-time great Tris Speaker was 32 that season, but showed no signs of slowing down as one of the premier batsmen the game has ever known. As player-manager, Speaker slashed .388/.483/.562 for the Tribe, leading the league with 50 doubles, hitting eight triples and 11 home runs, driving in 107, and posting an OPS+ of 172.

Complementing him was third baseman Larry Gardner, who led the team with 118 RBIs, right fielder Elmer Smith and his team-high 12 homers to go along with 103 driven in, catcher Steve O’Neill, and left fielder Charlie Jamieson, who just this past summer was inducted into the franchise’s Hall of Fame.

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As good as the team was at the plate, the pitching staff was nearly its equal on the mound, boasting three 20-game winners, and ranking second in the AL in ERA, complete games, shutouts, and hits allowed, while posting a 113 team ERA+.

Right-hander Jim Bagby turned in the finest season of his nine-year career, leading the league with 31 wins, 30 complete games, and 339.2 innings pitched, posting an ERA of 2.89 and an ERA+ of 133. Hall of Famer Stan Coveleski won 20 games for the third of what would be four straight years, going 24-14 with a 2.49 ERA, and leading the league with 133 strikeouts, a2.81 FIP, and 1.108 WHIP.

Cleveland’s staff that season also had Ray Caldwell go 20-10, and a 21-year old in his second professional season named George Uhle, who would go on to win 199 games in his career, including 147 in an Indians uniform.

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Brooklyn, who would of course go on to become the Dodgers, ran away with the National League pennant, going 93-61 to outdistance the second place New York Giants by seven games. The Robins did so with the best pitching staff in the NL, leading the league in ERA, FIP, ERA+, and WHIP, and sporting six guys with at least 10 wins.

Hall of Famer Burleigh Grimes was just coming into his own at the age of 26, going 23-11 with a 2.22 ERA, while another Hall of Famer, Rube Marquard, was entering the twilight of his career at 33.

Offensively, Brooklyn was a good-but-not-great team, ranking second in the NL in runs scored, hits, slugging percentage, and OPS. Left fielder Zach Wheat, another man who landed in Cooperstown, led the way with a .328/.385/.463 slash line and 73 RBIs.

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No MVP award was given out in the World Series back then, but if it had been, Coveleski would have been the sure winner. The right-hander won three games while yielding just two runs on 15 hits in 27 innings of work, good for 0.67 ERA, out-dueling both Marquard and Grimes in the process.

Next: Remembering the 1948 World Series Champion Indians

The Indians would win 94 games the next season, but finish 4.5 games behind the Yankees and Ruth’s unheard of at the time 59 home runs. The Tribe would ascend higher than third in the American League pennant race only twice more in the intervening 27 seasons between the 1920 club and the franchise’s second World Series championship in 1948