Recently, Stephanie and I participated in a little project with IPL’s friends over at Tribe Time Now about our personal top lineup in Tribe history. This is mine. Comments and/or mockery are always welcomed and encouraged.
There has been a long, rocky road throughout the history of the Cleveland Indians. From the humble beginnings as the Forest Citys, to the palace christened as Jacobs Field in 1994, the Indians have been through its share of both elation and agony. Decades and generations went by with many only knowing their place as the dregs of the divisional bottom-feeders as Cleveland Municipal Stadium slowly decayed from wear brought on by the unforgiving Lake Erie elements. As the stadium suffered, so did the franchise that would stare down 46 years of irrelevance. From 1948 to 1994, the Indians were the proverbial baseball desert; the last resort for baseball players whose pride forbade them from believing that Father Time had caught up.
While the Indians were widely viewed as a professional outpost, they weren’t without their cornerstones of pride. This is my lineup of the all-timers.
Pitchers: Bob Feller (1936-41, 1945-56); Bob Lemon (1941-42, 1946-58)
Robert William Andrew Feller may be the most revered member of the franchise’s family. Beginning his prodigious career at the age of 17, he became the first pitcher to win 24 games before his 21st birthday. He threw three no-hitters (1940; 1946; 1951) and an astounding twelve one-hitters; both stats were records at the time of Feller’s retirement. His career flourished despite four years missed while serving during World War II. He was a constant fixture at Indians home games until his death at the age of 92 in 2010.
Bob Lemon started as an utility infielder until he, like Feller, left the diamond to serve during World War II. Upon his return, he became the second half of the one-two punch with Feller that would terrorize opposing hitters. He was then named an All-Star for seven consecutive seasons. He would also go on to manage the Royals, White Sox and Yankees.
First Base: Jim Thome (1991-2002, 2011)
As the Indians all-time homerun king, Thome’s 337 round-trippers made him a baseball favorite. But it was his country boy charm that made him a fan favorite. Blessed with a prototypical power-hitter’s swing that was as pretty to watch as it was violent, Thome was the middle-of-the-order monster that commanded respect. With an eagle eye for the strike zone, Thome was seemingly always on base somewhere. But Jacobs Field seemed to be constructed specifically for his power, and he made us all love him for it.
Second Base: Bobby Ávila (1949-58)
Not only is he just considered as one of the best all-around players in franchise history, Roberto Francisco Ávila González is widely considered as the archetypal figure of Mexican baseball. He won the 1954 American League batting title, besting Ted Williams and the White Sox’ (and former Indian) Minnie Miñoso.
Third Base: Al Rosen (1947-56)
“The Hebrew Hammer,” as he was affectionately called, was every bit of the thunder his nickname suggested. Rosen was power and consistency personified. Rosen won the 1953 AL MVP award, where he posted the Triple Crown with a .336/47/145 slash-line. A career Indian, back injuries cut his career short at the prime age of 32. Like his teammates Bob Feller and Bob Lemon, Rosen served four years serving during World War II. Rosen also had a distinguished post-playing career, becoming an executive with the Yankees, Astros and Giants. While with the Giants, he won the National League Executive of the Year award in 1989. Rosen is the only former MVP to win the award. This season, the Indians are commemorating his memory and legacy with a no. 7 patch.
Shortstop: Omar Vizquel (1994-2004)
Vizquel is unquestionably one of the most beloved Indians ever. He was a defensive wizard; where a bare-handed snag was no big deal, nor did his defensive range appear to have limits. A winner of nine consecutive Gold Gloves (a number exceeded only by the Cardinals’ Ozzie Smith’s ten), he thrilled and wowed Jacobs Field crowds with such routine-looking flair and grace that, we, as Indians fans, probably took for granted just how hard his job was. The Indians pretty much fleeced the Mariners in acquiring him in 1993 for Félix Fermín and Reggie Jefferson. He is currently the first-base coach of the Tigers.
Outfielders: Larry Doby (1947-58); Rocky Colavito (1955-59, 1965-67); Kenny Lofton (1992-96; 1998-2001; 2007)
As the first African-American player of the American League, that fact alone warrants inclusion in the lineup. But even more appropriately, Doby was arguably the best player the Indians have ever had. Honing his skills in the Negro Leagues with the Newark Eagles as a second baseman, he started to catch the eyes of former Indians’ owner Bill Veeck. Doby’s ascent to the Indians was put on hold due to a two-year tour of duty in World War II, but Doby became the first player to ever go directly from the Negro Leagues to the Majors in 1947. The Indians transferred Doby from second to the outfield, and the rest ultimately culminated in Doby being neck and neck with teammate Bob Feller as one of the most important figures in franchise history.
Rocky Colavito is where it all started to go wrong for the Indians. “The Curse of Rocky Colavito” still lingers, and depending on who you ask, it may never be broken. Colavito, the 1959 AL homerun champ, was a wunderkind player that shockingly was traded to the Tigers for Harvey Kuenn right as he was getting into his prime. Maybe we should go a little easier on Chris Antonetti for not being the kind of GM that Frank Lane was. As a player, Colavito was the total package; hitting for average, power and being a stout right-fielder. He became the first Indian to have consecutive 40-homerun seasons in 1958 and ’59, a franchise best until it was reset by Albert Belle.
Kenny Lofton was the ultimate defensive weapon in the outfield. The Indians got a bonus in that he was a major problem for opponents offensively, as well. Blocked by Steve Finley in the Astros’ farm system, the Indian swung a shrewd deal for the player who then became the offensive catalyst of the ’90s machine. A winner of four consecutive Gold Gloves (1993-’96), Lofton was a human magnet that very rarely allowed any balls over his head. After a sojourn trade to Atlanta, Lofton returned to finish out the bulk of his noteworthy career. He’d put stickers on his suitcase until 2007, where he’d finish his career with the Indians.
Catcher: Sandy Alomar (1990-2000)
If ever there were a guy who would wear the C for captain on his jersey, Sandy would be it. Alomar was the foundation of the ’90s glory years; the general in the room and on the room. Much like his teammate Kenny Lofton, Alomar was blocked in the Padres system by an entrenched player in Benito Santiago. The Indians swung a deal for the highly-touted catching prospect, which ended up working so much better than John Hart could’ve envisioned. Alomar’s magical 1997 season was as much of a story as was the Indians run to the World Series against the Marlins. Alomar serves as the first-base coach with Terry Francona.
Travis Hafner (2003-2012) Designated hitters are always a tough spot to determine, but let’s give the spot to “Pronk.” For a stretch in Hafner’s career, it looked like he could give the likes of Jim Thome and Al Rosen a run for their money amongst the the top power-hitters in team history. But financial restraints under the current James Dolan regime, as well as a recurring back issue hampered his career. His stretch from 2004 through 2007 was MVP caliber, but he was never able to recapture and sustain the levels set due to injuries. This is more of an extrapolation choice, a “what could’ve been” story. But Pronk was on his way to being a Big Papi-esque conundrum for Cooperstown.
Top Ten Honorable Mentions:
Matt LaPorta (JUST KIDDING!)