Karl Lindholm: The Indians of Cleveland — and me
“The Yankees cannot lose.”
“But I fear the Indians of Cleveland.”
(“The Old Man and the Sea,” Ernest Hemingway, 1956)
The Indians are my second favorite baseball team — and have been since I was a baseball-obsessed kid.
I grew up next door to my five cousins. My cousin Charlie, the boy nearest in age to me, and I played a game in his ample back yard we called simply “tennis ball.” We inherited the game from his older brothers.
It was just one on one, pitcher and hitter, with a wall as a backstop. If you get an old worn out (no fuzz) tennis ball, you can curve it like real pitchers.
Charlie played as one Major League team and I as another. We knew the line-ups of all 16 MLB teams. If not the Red Sox (my favorites), my choice of teams was often the Indians. They were really good in the ’50s when I was a boy.
My favorite Indian player was third baseman Al Rosen. In 1953, he had a season for the ages, hitting 43 homers to lead the American League, and knocking in 145 runners, which led the Majors, and batting .336, playing in every game that year.
He missed the Triple Crown by the narrowest margin, losing the batting title to Washington’s Mickey Vernon by .001, one measly hit. The Triple Crown has been achieved only six times in the last 70 years, twice by the same player (Ted Williams).
I taught school in Cleveland from 1970-76 and I had Al Rosen’s son Rob on my JV baseball team when he was in 10th grade. His dad was the general manager of the San Francisco Giants from 1986 to 1992. My wife Brett had worked for the Giants for three and a half summers (’83-’86) while in grad school, operating the message board in Candlestick Park.
So whenever the Giants came to Montreal, we were “comp’d” great seats with Giants execs and families of players from the Northeast.
At one game in Montreal, Al Rosen was sitting in a group just a couple rows behind us, so, natch, I went up between innings to say “hello,” and related that I had coached his son. Rosen eyed me quizzically, and said something like, “Really,” or “That so.”
I was a little unnerved, thinking I may have been unwelcome, or intrusive. Rosen turned to a man in his 30s or 40s a couple seats away, and said, “Hey, Rob, you know this guy? He says he was your baseball coach.”
“Oh, hi, Mister Lindholm,” Rob Rosen said, and I was thankful for that. The ice was broken and a nice (if brief) conversation ensued in the Big O in Montreal.
I had a great time in Cleveland in my 20s as a secondary school English teacher and coach. I joined dear Middlebury College friends Rick and Molly, who had preceded me there at University School by a year. I soon realized I wanted to be a teacher and almost right away started taking graduate courses at Case Western Reserve in American Studies.
I went to a lot of Indians games those years. The high-roller dads of my players had season tickets and often provided them to me, great seats. The Indians weren’t very good — they had losing records in five of six seasons, but the Red Sox and Orioles and Yanks were, and they frequently came to town. The games were in cavernous Municipal Stadium (the “Mistake by the Lake”), 75,000 seats, mostly empty.
I didn’t care because I was in the “front roooow!”
I enjoyed so talking with my Cleveland elders who described Larry Doby’s integration of the American League in 1947, just 12 weeks after Jackie Robinson, and the excitement of the 1948 season, with Satchel Paige and Bill Veeck, the playoff game with the Red Sox to decide the pennant, and the Indians’ World Series victory over the Braves.
Cleveland has had a team in the American League for as long as there has been an American League — since 1903. Before that, in the 1890s, a Cleveland team, the Spiders, competed successfully in the National League, the “senior circuit.”
From 1903 to 1914, the Cleveland AL team was popularly known as the “Naps,” short for Napoleons, after their player-manager Napoleon Lajoie (of Woonsockett, R.I.). My wife Brett’s great-grandfather Robert Emory “Dusty” Rhoads played for the Naps for six years (1903-08) and pitched a no-hitter against the Red Sox in 1907. Brett was nine when he died and remembers him well.
When Lajoie, Cleveland’s 40-year-old star, was traded to Philadelphia in 1915, baseball writers were polled and selected the name “Indians,” in part in reference to Louis Sockalexis, a full-blooded member of the Penobscot tribe of Maine who played in Cleveland from 1897-99.
Cleveland had another worthy Major League baseball club — the Cleveland Buckeyes of the Negro American League (1942-50). The Buckeyes won the Negro League World Series in 1945, defeating the Homestead Grays of the Negro National League behind catcher and player-manager Quincy Trouppe and centerfielder Sam “the Jet” Jethroe.
The Buckeyes also played in the 1947 Negro League World Series, losing to the New York Cubans of Luis Tiant Sr. The Buckeyes still had Trouppe and Jethroe, but had added pitcher Sam “Toothpick” Jones and Al Smith, who would go on to fine, if foreshortened, Major League careers after Jackie Robinson’s breakthrough.
In 1952, Jones and Trouppe, now playing for the MLB Indians, became the first Black battery (pitcher and catcher) in American League history. Twice an All-Star, Sam Jones pitched a no-hitter for the Cubs in 1955 (the first in the Majors by a Black pitcher) and Al Smith, also a two-time MLB All-Star, was in the Indians outfield in 1954 when they won 111 games.
So why this ramble of mine through Cleveland baseball history?
Well, after this season, Hemingway’s “Indians of Cleveland” will be no more. The club will have a new nickname, one that does not disrespect indigenous Americans.
How do I feel about this turn of events, given my attachment to Cleveland baseball history? It’s fine with me. The decision reflects change and awareness. If I am perceived by some to be a member of “cancel culture,” I can live with that.
If it’s all right with Cleveland Manager Terry Francona, the best manager the Red Sox have had in my lifetime, it’s OK with me. “I think it’s time to move forward,” Francona said.
For a new name, I favor a historical approach: the Cleveland “Spiders” would be distinctive and original, and the Cleveland “Buckeyes” would honor the progressive role the club played in baseball’s integration.