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This Week in Cleveland Indians History: Lee Fohl’s great managerial blunder

(Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images) /

Cleveland Indians manager Lee Fohl, frequently criticized for managerial blunders, made his most memorable, and last blunder.

On July 18, 1919, the Cleveland Indians and Boston Red Sox met for the third of a four-game set at League Park in Cleveland. The Indians entered the game at 44-33, 4.5 games behind the first place White Sox. The Red Sox were 31-42 and well on their way to a fifth-place finish.

33-year-old Hi Jasper lasted eight innings for the Indians. In the bottom of the eighth inning with the score tied 3-3 the Indians pinch-hit Joe Harris for Jasper.

Harris might be one of the best Indians you’ve never heard of. In 10 seasons he batted .317. OPS wasn’t a big deal back then, but he had a career OPS of .877, well above average.

In 1919 he hit .375. At this point in the season he was actually hitting .452. Given that Jasper was hitting .150, this was a shrewd, if not somewhat obvious, move.

Harris rewarded his manager with a bases clearing triple and later scored. The Indians held a 7-3 lead going into the ninth.

The Indians had a good bullpen. Most of the relief pitchers finished with ERAs under 3. On this day they called in Elmer Myers to finish the game. Myers, a part-time starter and part-time reliever, had pitched a complete game two days before, winning 3-1 and lowering his ERA to a season low 1.58.

Myers didn’t have it. His line for the day was 2/3 IP, one hit and three walks. The walks left the bases loaded with two outs and this part-time pitcher/part-time outfielder named Babe Ruth at the plate. To this point Ruth had one home run to his credit on the day.

You already know how this will end…

Manager Lee Fohl went to his bullpen, and brought in lefty Fritz Coumbe. Coumbe was good in 1918 (13-7, 3.06) and even better in earlier years (including a 1.44 ERA in Boston his rookie year).  That said, he was awful in 1919 (5.32 ERA). And he had not pitched for two months.

Ruth hit Coumbe’s first pitch out of the park. The Indians lost, 8-7.

What exactly Fohl had in mind is a mystery. Coumbe was left-handed, so maybe he was trying to play the lefty/righty matchup game with the left-handed hitting Ruth.

On the other hand, Ruth had over twice as many home runs as the next best hitter in the AL. In fact he had more home runs than half the TEAMS in the AL, and had already hit one in the game at that point. Even a bases loaded intentional walk would have made it 7-5.

In a 1948 interview Babe said that Coumbe and Ruth never liked each other. Both came up with the Red Sox in 1914. In his interview, Ruth said that “Coumbe rushed off the bench and pleaded with Fohl to put him in. He insisted that he knew how to pitch to me. He bragged that I never hit a home run off him… Fohl gave in.”

Fohl didn’t have any lefties in the pen, but he did George Uhle (2.91 ERA), Johnny Enzmann (2.28) and Tom Phillips (2.95).

You can’t fire me, I quit

After the game, Fohl went to owner Jim Dunn‘s office and “resigned.” As noted in the local papers form that day his message to Dunn was the following: “I feel the fans are not for me and, as I have your interests at heart first and my own last, I think it best for all concerned for me to step down and out. The team has a chance to win the pennant and I don’t want to appear in the light of being a hinderance to them. I hope they will win the pennant.”

So technically the reason was fan anger. On the other hand Dunn had no problem accepting the resignation. He said the resignation was a complete surprise to him and said their relations were cordial. In fact, Dunn kept Fohl on the payroll at the same salary. He also immediately handed the keys to Tris Speaker.

Speaker took over and said all the right things: Hate to see you go dude, didn’t want your job, etc. He then managed the Indians to a 40-21 record for the rest of the year. Unfortunately, the Chicago White Sox were equally hot over the last 61 games, and the Indians finished second to the team that went on to throw the World Series to the Reds.

Whatever happened to them?

Coumbe was sent to the minors after the game. He pitched a little for the Reds in 1920 and 1921.  He wasn’t good.

Hi Jasper finished the 1919 season with the Indians but never pitched in the majors again.

At the end of the season, the Red Sox couldn’t afford Babe Ruth’s contract, so they sold him to the Yankees. He did pretty well in New York.

Speaker led the Indians to a World Series win in 1920.

Next: Outfielders for the Tribe to potentially target

Lee Fohl went on to manage the St. Louis Browns in 1921 and 1922 and the Boston Red Sox from 1924-1926. He holds the distinction of being the only American League manager between 1924 and 1926 that is not in the Baseball Hall of Fame. (Speaker, Eddie Collins, Ty Cobb, Bucky Harris, Connie Mack, Miller Huggins and George Sisler were the others).