Every Wednesday during this long offseason, the Indians community on reddit.com poses a question that is meant to get baseball fans doing what they do best: debating arbitrary statistics and situations. Yesterday, I thought the question was really interesting and deserved some real extrapolation and clarification.
If you had to assemble a lineup using one player from each decade, who would make the cut?
The Indians are a team with a deep and rich history, so this should be pretty fun. The original question was posed without any rules or clarifications, so I am imposing the following guidelines on myself:
- Players can only be chosen once – Bob Feller played in multiple decades, but he’s only allowed to appear once.
- Players will be selected based on performance and historical significance (as well as positional need).
- There are 12 decades to draw a player from, so these are the positions that must be filled: C, 1B, 2B, SS, 3B, LF, CF, RF, DH, SP, SP, Manager.
1900-1909: 2B Nap Lajoie (1904)
There is no better place to start than Lajoie, who was so good and so famous that the team was named after him for twelve seasons. Lajoie was an all-around star who was wildly popular across the league. Baseball historian Bill James (yes, the Moneyball guy) said this about Lajoie: “Lajoie was not only the team’s superstar, after 1905 he was also the manager. He was more than that – hell, the team was actually called the “Naps” in his honor, and if Lajoie was the team.” (Quote taken from The New Bill James Historical Abstract, 2003)
Before he came to Cleveland in 1902, Lajoie had hit .426 with Philadelphia the year before, which is the highest average recorded since 1900 (and 4th all time). Two seasons after this arrival, however, a 29-year old Lajoie had his best season in his illustrious Cleveland career. That season the Naps went 86-65 (4th in the American League), but Lajoie hit .376/.413/.546 while driving in 102 runs.
Also, if you’re confused about his name, it’s pronounced La… just look up.
1910-1919: LF Shoeless Joe Jackson (1912)
Forget what you think you know about Shoeless Joe and the 1919 Black Sox scandal. Before that, he was an absolute offensive terror in the outfield for the Cleveland Naps. In 1911, he hit .408 as a rookie, which is a record that still stands today. It was his sophomore season, however, that lands on this list. In 1912, Jackson hit .395/.458/.579 with 226 hits and 26 triples. Yeah, 26 triples.
It’s unfortunate what happened in 1919 with the White Sox, but Jackson maintained his innocence throughout his life. If he did throw the series, however, his 12 hits (a Series record until 1964), .375 average, and no errors committed show that he was absolutely terrible at it. You know, just saying.
1920-1929: CF Tris Speaker (1923)
In a selection that is sure to cause difficulties later on in the 90s and 2000s, Tris Speaker simply has to be the definitive center fielder in Indians history. Before we get to his 1923 season (which was amazing, for the record), let’s look at what he accomplished before that:
-1912 American League MVP
-1915 World Series Champion (Boston Red Sox)
-Top-5 MVP finish in 1911 and 1913
-1920 World Series Champion (Cleveland Indians) (As player-manager)
To put it lightly, Speaker was one of the most accomplished hitters in baseball history before his 1923 season, and he still went out and hit .380/.469/.610 and drove in 130 runs. He also hit 59 of his 729 career doubles in 1923, which is still the most career doubles in Major League History.
Apologies to Kenny Lofton and especially Larry Doby, but Speaker owns center field.
1930-1939: SP Bob Feller (1939)
Bob Feller was always going to make this team as the starting pitcher, the only question was which season would be used. Feller is the one Indians player who should need no introduction, but he’s going to get one anyway. Feller is unquestionably one of the greatest pitchers to ever play baseball, but he’s also a true American hero. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, Feller became the first American professional athlete to enlist in the armed forces. He was granted an exemption from the war due to his terminally ill father, but Feller declined and specified that he wanted to get into combat missions. In other words, he could have stayed in America, taken care of his father and blown away whatever major leaguers were left to face, but he went and volunteered to risk his life for his country. I don’t know if they make men like Bob Feller anymore.
There are many seasons that would qualify for this list, and 1940 is probably his best statistical season, but I’ll gladly settle for a 20-year old Rapid Robert putting up a 27-11 record with a 2.61 ERA and 261 strikeouts in 1939.
1940-1949: Manager Lou Boudreau (1948)
With apologies to everyone else on this list, this was the easiest decision of them all. Boudreau is one of the greatest shortstops in baseball history, but he’s also perhaps the best manager in Indians history, too. He is credited with inventing the infield shift, which was at the time called the Boudreau Shift. The shift was the first thing that was able to at least slow down Boston’s Ted Williams, who was waging a war against Major League pitching throughout the 40s and 50s. There’s a really great article here by Joe Posnanski that you should read, but here’s the takeaway: Boudreau wasn’t just a player-manager in name only, and he did some revolutionary things that changed how the game was played.
In 1948, Boudreau hit .355/.453/.987, which was good enough to win the American League Most Valuable Player award. His Indians also went 97-58 and won the World Series.
Yeah, he’s the manager.
1950-1959: 3B Al Rosen (1953)
Al Rosen isn’t a player that many people immediately think of when they think of Indians greats, but he was unquestionably the best third baseman in team history. He also had one of the greatest nicknames in team history, too, as he was known as ‘The Hebrew Hammer.’
Rosen played his entire career for the Indians, and was on the 1948 World Series champion team (though he only appeared in 5 games all season), and the 1954 American League Championship team, but his 1953 season is the true stand-out. He bashed his way to a .336/.422/.613 line with 43 home runs and 145 RBIs and the American League MVP. Additionally, while defense has always been notoriously hard to quantify, Rosen still rates as an above average third baseman.
1960-1969: SP Luis Tiant (1968)
Luis Tiant had a very long career in professional baseball, but he started it all in Cleveland and had his best season as a member of the Tribe. Tiant was from Cuba and was one of the team’s first international signings. What makes Tiant really interesting is that in 1968 he changed his delivery drastically, and utilized a hesitation pitch that proved nearly impossible to hit. If you followed the World Series this past season, you may have heard some rumbling about Royals pitcher Johnny Cueto utilizing a hesitation delivery at several points in the postseason.
Below, you can see how difficult Tiant’s windup was for opposing hitters.
In 1968, Tiant went 21-9 with a 1.60 ERA and 264 strikeouts. He pitched an astounding nine shutouts, including four consecutive at one point.
1970-1979: C Ray Fosse (1970)
Yuck, the 70s.
I honestly can’t tell you much about the 70s other than the fact that the Indians were consistently “average at best,” which is not the kind of consistency you look for in a sports team. The decade did feature a few great pitching performances, but Sam McDowell and Gaylord Perry are just a tier below Feller and Tiant’s ’68. Also given the mounting positional scarcity, we have to turn to Ray Fosse in 1970 to be our backstop.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, even if he’s not a player many current fans even know about. He was mostly a league average catcher, but in 1970 at the age of 23, Fosse hit .307/.361/.469 with 18 HR, earning him an All-Star berth, Gold Glove honors, and even a few stray votes for MVP. Think of 1970 Ray Fosse as a better Yan Gomes, and it starts to become more palatable.
1980-1989: RF Joe Carter (1986)
Though Joe Carter is famous for his exploits as a member of the Toronto Blue Jays, in the mid 80s Carter was a pretty good outfielder for the Cleveland Indians. In 1986, Carter just missed out on joining the 30-30 club when he hit .302/.335/.514 with 29 HR, 29 SB, and 121 RBIs (the most in his career).
Again, it isn’t a pick that oozes sexiness, but Carter is a great player that fits a need for this All-Decades Indians team.
1990-1991: 1B Jim Thome (1997)
If you had to pick a face of the 1990 Cleveland Indians, you could go so many directions – no one would fault me if I picked Kenny Lofton, Omar Vizquel, Manny Ramirez, Sandy Alomar Jr., or Albert Belle, but for me the choice is clear – Jim Thome was the face of that era and he will be the only member of those teams to be enshrined in Cooperstown. Yes, he did leave the team in a way that caused a lot of bad feelings, but I’m glad that he was able to come back and rebuild those bridges. I’m happy we can watch old highlights and not think about how he left, or even how he came back, just that he was here and we enjoyed it.
Jim Thome belongs in the conversation with all the Indians greats, and it is my guess that when Thome reaches the Hall of Fame, the Indians will make sure #25 is never worn by another player.
You could honestly take multiple Jim Thome seasons from the 90s here and no one would bat an eye. In fact, Thome’s best season was probably 2002, but I have someone in mind for that decade, so we’ll go with 1997. .286/.423/.579 with 40 HR, 102 RBI, and 120 walks. Ho-hum, just another day at the office for the best first baseman in team history.
2000-2009: DH Travis Hafner (2006)
This is the only entry on this list I don’t even need to look up to know what player and what year I want for this decade. In 2006 Travis “Pronk” Hafner had one of the greatest offensive seasons by any Indians player ever. Just look at this line: .308/.439/.659 with 42 HR, 117 RBI, 100 BB.
This article is kind of low on anecdotes for something about baseball, so let me provide you with one to illustrate why Hafner is on this list:
It was June 14th, 2005. The Indians were playing the Colorado Rockies at Jacobs Field and I was working around section 141 (first base side) as an usher. I don’t remember the name of the man I was working with, but he was a retiree who loved baseball and we had some good conversation all night in the course of being ushers. I was 17 years old, a baseball fanatic, and even though the score was 9-2, I told my coworker “watch Travis Hafner here… he’s due for something.”
We laughed it off, because “he’s due” doesn’t mean anything. We say it all the time about players, but it doesn’t mean anything. We went back to talking and focusing on our jobs.
I’ve never heard a sound like it or ever again. We both stopped mid-sentence, we didn’t even turn towards the field, we knew it was gone. That ball was hit into the second deck of Jacobs Field, some 474 feet away.
Yes, Travis Hafner probably took some steroids or something. I don’t know, and it’s all speculation, but the speed of which he declined physically makes us all suspicious. But I don’t care – Travis Hafner in 2006 was one of the most fearsome hitters I’ve ever seen in my life. If the All-Decades team is going to have a DH, it’s going to be 2006 Travis Hafner.
2010-2016: SS Francisco Lindor (2015)
No other pick on this list might cause the sort of drama that this pick will cause. Not Corey Kluber? No, sorry. Not Omar Vizquel? Not Lou Boudreau (as a shortstop, at least)? No and no.
The team is an all-decades team, and the 2010s have been defined by Francisco Lindor. He was picked in 2011 and immediately ascended to the top of every conversation about the team’s future. Every spring training we would hear whispers about Lindor, and every year he’d be banished back to the minor leagues.
But then in 2015, we finally got our first look at the kid, and what a look it was… he played in 99 games, hit .313/.353/.482 with 12 HR and 12 SB. He dazzled in the field. He was second in the rookie of the year vote.
He came up with every expectation on his shoulders and he exceeded them in year one. Yeah, for my All-Decades team I’ll take the 21 year old phenom.
SP: Bob Feller (1939)
SP: Luis Tiant (1968)
C: Ray Fosse (1970)
1B: Jim Thome (1997)
2B: Nap Lajoie (1904)
3B: Al Rosen (1953)
SS: Francisco Lindor (2015)
LF: Shoeless Joe Jackson (1912)
CF: Tris Speaker (1923)
RF: Joe Carter (1986)
DH: Travis Hafner (2006)
Manager: Lou Boudreau (1948)