THE BEST THEY COULD BE
Scott H. Longert
It’s World Series time.
And for fans of the Cleveland Indians, that means lots of football, leaf raking and pining for days gone by.
For the latter, Scott H. Longert’s The Best They Could Be (Potomac Books, $27.50) makes for terrific medicine on a fall afternoon.
The book recounts the building of the 1920 Indians, the city’s first World Series champion and perhaps its most forgotten winner.
As any diehard Indians fan knows, the team has won only one other championship, in 1948. In fact, the Tribe has managed just four World Series appearances in the 93 years that followed that 1920 team. That’s a lot of leaves.
Longert’s 280-page missive on the ’20 Indians is for the serious Tribe fan who wants to be either reminded or taught about how the Indians went from bottom-feeder to contender in the late 1910s.
The book is his second on the Indians. In 1999, he wrote King of the Pitchers, a biography of Indians pitching great Addie Joss.
Longert’s writing style makes for easy reading, an important consideration in light of the volume of unfamiliar names who come and go until the Indians win the Series.
In between, Longert recounts the effects of World War I on baseball, the shrewd moves made by team general manager Bob McRoy and the tragic death of a fan favorite, shortstop Ray Chapman, who was felled by a pitch late in the 1920 season.
The passages on Chapman are especially interesting as Longert delves into the impact his death had on teammates, right up to the day of his funeral when players clashed as emotions spilled over.
The book picks up after the cash-poor Indians hit rock bottom in 1915.
That summer, the Tribe lost 95 games and traded the popular “Shoeless” Joe Jackson to American League rival Chicago for three players and most importantly $31,500 in cash.
Charles Sommers, the original owner of the 1901 Cleveland entry into the fledgling American League, was left broke by 1915, thanks to rising salaries and weak attendance. He needed a bailout.
Enter “Sunny” Jim Dunn, a Chicago railroad builder with a desire — and the cash — to get into major league baseball. Over the next five summers, Dunn becomes the hero in the hearts of Indians fans and the centerpiece of Longert’s book.
To replace Jackson, Dunn smacked a home run with fans by acquiring future hall of famer Tris Speaker before the 1916 season. Dunn knew he had to spend money to make money, and he purchased Speaker for $50,000, or 10 percent of what he paid for the entire franchise. He then paid more when Speaker held out for a bonus before agreeing to come to Cleveland.
Year by year, the Indians slowly moved upward in the standings and at the gate under Dunn’s ownership. They added names like “Smoky” Joe Wood, Elmer Smith and Doc Johnston to go with homegrown pitching greats Stan Coveleski and Jim Bagby, second baseman Bill Wambsganss, new shortstop Joe Sewell, catcher Steve O’Neill and outfielder Charlie Jamieson.
Two straight second-place finishes culminated in the summer of ’20 with a pennant race that brought Cleveland its first AL title and a World Series matchup with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Longert, who lives in Beachwood, gives Cleveland its due as the city went bonkers with Indians fever in the fall of 1920. An expanded League Park couldn’t hold the enthusiasm, and the Indians went on to claim the Series at the corner of Lexington and 66th Street.
Phil Trexler is the author of Cleveland Indians: Yesterday & Today and Ballparks: Yesterday & Today. He can be reached at 330-996-3717 or firstname.lastname@example.org.