Why haven't the Cleveland Indians won the World Series since 1948?

In 2004, the Boston Red Sox won a World Series for the first time since 1918. They won again in 2007, and 2013.

In 2010, the San Francisco Giants finally won their first World Series, more than a half-century after leaving New York; like the Red Sox, the Giants proceeded to win two more World Series (2012, 2014) in short order.

In 2016, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series for the first time since 1908.

Lou Boudreau, Rocky Colavito, Manny Ramirez, and Francisco Lindor
Left to right: Lou Boudreau, Rocky Colavito, Manny Ramirez and Francisco Lindor. (AP)

I don’t believe in curses. But just as we used to hear too much about “The Curse of the Bambino” and “The Curse of the Billy Goat” — before the Red Sox and the Cubs finally cast off those imaginary shackles – we’ll hear about “The Curse of Rocky Colavito” until the Cleveland Indians break their championship drought, which now stands at 68 seasons.

And counting.

THE NEGLIGENCE AND MISMANAGEMENT OF THE ’50s and ’60s

The Indians’ failure to win a World Series in nearly 70 years has very little to do with the beloved Colavito, and very much to do with negligence and mismanagement, bookended by some bad luck near the beginning of the drought and toward the end.

When the Indians won the American League pennant, then beat the Boston Braves in the 1948 World Series, they’d come largely from nowhere, having not finished within 10 games of first place since 1940.

The Indians had hardly been a joke; they just weren’t the New York Yankees, who won almost every year. Baseball impresario Bill Veeck purchased the franchise in 1946, and almost instantly the Indians became interesting, thanks to gimmicky promotional stunts and the acquisition of great Negro Leaguers Larry Doby and Satchel Paige. The championship in 1948 was keyed, though, by career seasons from player-manager Lou Boudreau and rookie knuckleball pitcher Gene Bearden.

The Indians weren’t nearly as good in 1949, as both Boudreau and Bearden slumped. But they remained competitive, thanks largely to Doby and a tremendous quartet of starting pitchers. Veeck’s divorce compelled him to sell his stake in the club, but the club seemed in good hands when ex-Detroit Tigers slugger Hank Greenberg took over as co-owner and general manager. Beginning in 1949, the Yankees would win five straight American League pennants, but the Indians were usually within shouting distance, averaging 92 wins per season during those years.

Then came 1954. The Yankees won 103 games — the most for any team Casey Stengel ever managed — but it wasn’t nearly enough, because the Indians set an American League record with 111 wins … before getting swept by the New York Giants in the World Series.

The Indians could have won the 1954 World Series.

They didn’t.

They could have finished ahead of the first-place in Yankees in 1952, when they wound up just two games behind, or in 1955, when they finished three games out.

They didn’t.

After a few desultory seasons, there was an opening in 1959, when the Yankees nearly suffered their first losing season since the mid-‘20s. But the Chicago White Sox filled that opening, finishing five games ahead of the second-place Indians.

That season, the Indians drew nearly 1.5 million fans to cavernous Cleveland Stadium; just one year earlier, the club hadn’t managed even half that. Despite the disappointing finish — after spending most of the first half in first place, the Tribe spent most of the second half chasing Chicago — things seemed to be looking up for the franchise. And it’s not like 1954, or even 1948, were so terribly long ago. Every franchise, even the Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers, had their ups and downs.

Then Trader Frank traded the Rock.

Rocky Colavito
In 1959, Rocky Colavito led the American League in home runs. (AP)

The Rock was Rocky Colavito, the 26-year-old outfielder who’d just led the American League with 42 home runs. Trader Frank was Indians general manager Frank Lane, who was famous for (you guessed it) making trades. Just two days before opening day in 1960, Lane traded Colavito straight up to the Tigers for outfielder Harvey Kuenn, who’d just led the American League with a .353 batting average. “I say we swapped a hamburger for a steak,” Lane said at the time. “Colavito will hit a home run every 14 at-bats. It’s the other 13 at-bats that are frustrating. It’s a home run or nothing with him … and there was plenty of nothing.”

Kuenn, though, was a few years older than Colavito, and his best years were behind him. Colavito continued his slugging over four years in Detroit, hit 34 homers in a purgatorial season with the Kansas City A’s and finally returned to the Indians in a terrible three-team trade that cost them two future stars in pitcher Tommy John and future Rookie of the Year Tommie Agee.

The best thing you can say about that trade is that Lane didn’t make it. Gabe Paul, who would also become a co-owner of the franchise, succeeded him, but Paul’s regime lasted just a few years, beginning a trend that would persist for some decades.

OWNERSHIP WOES IN CLEVELAND

Historically, there’s been one common trait for woebegotten sports franchises: poor ownership. Sometimes it’s one lousy owner, and sometimes it’s a series of them. The Indians suffered from the latter. First, there was the under-financed Paul, then the under-financed “frozen food king” Vernon Stouffer, then the under-financed “sports entrepreneur” Nick Mileti, then the under-financed “computer magnate” Ted Bonda, then the under-financed “transportation tycoon” Steve O’Neill, and finally the under-financed estate of Steve O’Neill.

If there’s one thing we know about sports ownership, it’s that estate ownership is practically never a good thing.

Dennis Eckersley
Dennis Eckersley is on the long list of former Indians that were traded away. (Getty)

Through all those years, the Indians made any number of lousy trades, and very few good ones. Both Colavito deals were disastrous. But they also traded Roger Maris, Norm Cash, Luis Tiant, Graig Nettles, Chris Chambliss and Dennis Eckersley, generally receiving (as things turned out) little in return.

About the best you could say about all those owners? They didn’t move the Indians, or sell the Indians to someone who wanted to move them, to Denver or Florida or New Orleans or some other damned place. But the constant shuffling of ownership led to constant shufflings of general managers and managers, along with a general inability or unwillingness to invest in the major league roster, the farm system or the physical plant.

After a surprising (and illusory) third-place finish in the 10-team American League in 1968, the Indians fell to last place in 1969 and wouldn’t finish higher than fourth in their division during the next quarter of a century. In 1981, baseball historian Bill James wrote, “Trying to get rid of a losing attitude in Cleveland must be like trying to stamp out venereal disease around an army base.”

By the spring of 1987, though, it seemed that the franchise’s fortunes finally were turning. The Indians had brand-new owners — brothers Dick and David Jacobs, who made real fortunes building shopping malls — and were coming off a season in which they’d actually led the American League in scoring. Which led Sports Illustrated to infamously proclaim on their baseball preview cover, “Believe it! Cleveland is the best team in the American League.”

This, as James would point out the next winter, constituted the M.P.E. — Maximum Possible Error — for the Indians, who finished with the American League’s worst record in 1987, 61-101. And that wouldn’t even be the worst of it. After a few respectable seasons — shades of the late 1950s — the Indians hit bottom in 1991 with a franchise-record 105 losses.

THE UNLUCKY ’90s

Better times really were coming, though, thanks to a productive farm system and a new general manager, John Hart, who knew what to do with a bushel of exciting young hitters. Just three seasons later, the Indians finished with the third-best record in the American League and (not coincidentally) the fourth-biggest attendance in the league. By then, the Indians’ lineup included homegrown hitters Sandy Alomar, Carlos Baerga, Jim Thome, Albert Belle, and Manny Ramirez. Hart had also snagged future All-Stars (and Gold Glovers) Omar Vizquel and Kenny Lofton in canny trades.

Remember at the top, when I said the Indians’ long period of general ineptitude and fecklessness was bookended by poor luck? Well, the poor luck resumed in 1994. When the season ended, the Indians were one game behind the White Sox. This was the first season with the new three-division format, with the best second-place team qualifying for the postseason as the wild card. And Cleveland was in line for that slot. Except it’s 1994, so the season ends in the middle of August because of the player strike and ultimately there isn’t a postseason at all.

1995 Cleveland Indians
In 1995, the Indians went 100-44; their .694 winning percentage ranks today as the fourth highest since World War II. (The Sporting News)

This was followed by run-of-the-mill bad luck for the American League’s best team. The Indians won five straight division titles, but lost closely contested World Series in both 1995 and 1997. In 2000, they finished just one game behind the Mariners in the wild-card standings. In 2001, they won another division title but fell to Seattle in their Division Series, despite outscoring the M’s 26-16. That made eight straight years in which the Indians were certainly talented enough to win a World Series.

They just didn’t. It wasn’t anyone’s fault.

Since then, the Indians have merely been a generally well-run franchise, with stable ownership and management, usually winning more than they’ve lost. In 2007, they had the Red Sox on the ropes in the ALCS but got routed in Games 6 and 7; the Sox went on to sweep the Colorado Rockies in the World Series. In 2016, of course, they came within an inch or two from beating the heavily favored Cubs in the World Series.

WHY NOT THE INDIANS?

Since 1995 the Red Sox have won three World Series, the Giants have won three World Series, the Marlins have won twice, and the Kansas City Royals and Cubs have won. So you can hardly blame Indians fans, especially those born before 1975, for wondering, “Why not us?”

Why not, indeed.

It’s tempting to say the Indians are due, which they obviously are. It’s also tempting to assume that since they’re so obviously due, they’ll obviously win soon. Maybe this year, as they’ve been hailed as the American League’s best team. Or maybe next year, or the year after. Or maybe in 2022, as these things seem to happen every six years.

Except baseball doesn’t work that way. Hell, life doesn’t work that way. The Indians’ clock doesn’t start in 1948. It starts today. The Baseball Gods don’t care that the Indians haven’t won in 68 seasons, just as they don’t care that the Mariners, Rangers, Brewers, Padres, and Astros have never won.

Last year, the Cubs made it look relatively easy. Just two seasons removed from finishing fifth for the fifth straight season, Chicago won the World Series. Yes, it helped that they probably were the best team in the majors. But that’s hardly any sort of guarantee, as the Indians well-proved in both 1954 and 1995. Even if you win your division, you still have to win 14 more games against good (or great) teams to win the World Series.

Cleveland Indians
The Cleveland Indians came within an inch or two from winning the World Series in 2016. (Getty)

Will the Indians win another World Series before the sun explodes? Or we’re all vaporized by atomic Armageddon? Or the Indians finally retire Chief Wahoo?

Perhaps?

But I wouldn’t bet the house on it. Despite what the Red Sox or the Giants or even the Cubs might tell you, winning’s not easy.

Or inevitable.

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