I grew up in southern Indiana, but thanks to my dad and his work driving a moving truck I became a Cleveland Indians fan…through a set of discarded baseball cards. Years later, I’ve graduated to a set of vintage hats. I’ll be rooting for them against Toronto.
Cincinnati – It started with a baseball card, a 1957 Topps. There he was looking dead at the camera, arm drawn back to throw. He had a boxer’s face, sort of mean looking—big dark eyes, not a hint of fear; not a thread of doubt.
On the card it said, “Rocco Colavito.” They called him “Rocky”.
This was the treasure in a new batch of cards my dad had salvaged on a truck run. He drove for Mayflower, a moving company, and folks were always throwing out boxes of cards. Dad would take them out of the trash and bring them back home.
I ask Dad about this Colavito. Even to young eyes—I was maybe six or seven years old—he looked like a player.
In his way with broken sentences, Dad explained. These cards, he said, came from trip up around Cleveland. That was Ohio, where the Indians played.
Indians? I was immediately intrigued.
Sure, he said, look at the hat.
There was a fancy “C” and inside the letter, a smiling Indian.
“Chief Wahoo,” Dad said.
He described Colavito as a “boy with a big arm and a big bat. He started out as a pitcher.”
For some reason, that Colavito card—everything about it; the man, but especially the hat and that name, the Indians—took my fancy and, in a way, they have held it ever since.
The other night when the Indians made it a three-game sweep over the heavily favored Red Sox, the memories came floating back like long-lost friends—this, despite the fact I’ve always had leanings toward Boston, another seed planted by my father due to his respect for Ted Williams. Greatest hitter who ever lived, Dad said.
Watching the Indians celebrate—Mike Napoli, Jason Kipnis, Lonnie Chisenhall, Corey Kluber, Francisco Lindor and the rest—I thought of that first acquaintance with The Tribe, the cards in that beat-up shoebox. I could see them as clearly as the young, jubilant faces on the flat-screen.
There was: Early Wynn, Herb Score, Vic Wertz, Tito Francona and Jim Hegan. Dad said Hegan was one of those “no stick” catchers who could “handle” a pitching staff.
Deeper in the box there were older cards: George Strickland, Larry Doby, Gene Woodling and Don Mossi, a left-handed pitcher whose ears looked like someone left the kitchen cabinet drawers open.
From that day, shuffling through those cards, I took a liking to the Indians, but I took my dad’s advice. They were a team I watched out of the corner of my eye because for all the reasons to like them, they always found a way to trail somebody—mostly the Yankees.
Back then, Frank “Trader” Lane ran the show and he was forever trading away the store. He gave up Colavito, a bona fide home run hitter and all-star, for an aging Harvey Kuenn, better known in those days for his “chaw” than his bat or his glove.
Still, they always had fun guys: Jim “Mudcat” Grant and Minnie Minoso for a spell. They had Jimmy Piersall, Woody Held, Vic Power, as good a first baseman as there ever was, Johnny Romano, Johnny Temple, the former Red, and the well-traveled Willie Kirkland. They had Jim Perry, whose younger brother, Gaylord, was coming up, and Mike de la Hoz, an infielder who always looked like he needed a nap—and real bad.
There was always a reason to keep track of the Indians and in southern Indiana on a clear night you could pull in the games on WERE with Jimmy Dudley and Bob Neal, and if they fell behind early, you could twirl around on the transistor and find the Cardinals or the Reds, maybe the Cubs, Tigers or the Pirates.
We were lucky that way, out there in the flatlands. It was like having cable, when cable was something you hooked up to the back of the Farmall or somebody’s pick-up, just a big, old, steel wire.
By the time I was in college, they had Chris Chambliss and Graig Nettles, who would make their names with the Yankees; Ray Fosse, best known for getting clocked by Pete Rose in the 1970 All-Star Game at Riverfront Stadium, and “Sudden Sam” McDowell, a lanky lefty who delivered more smoke than Phillip Morris.
Somewhere along the way there was: Sonny Siebert, Max Alvis, Duke Sims, Buddy Bell, Rick Manning, Toby Harrah, Duane Kuiper, Charlie Spikes, “Dr. Lo”—John Lowenstein, Dennis Eckersley and Jim Bibby.
Yet, they didn’t win. I remember telling a young lady, “Watching the Indians is like reading Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, ’cause Godot never shows up.”
About that time, life got fast and—living in Atlanta—I lost track of The Tribe, though I remember reading with pleasure about Joe Charboneau, who stormed into baseball and then, before the ink was dry on the headlines he generated, was gone.
In Georgia, it was hard to get news about any body but the Braves and UGA, but Charboneau’s star was so bright it garnered the attention of Furman Bisher, the famed columnist at the Atlanta Constituion.
Seems like the next thing I knew, I was a kid reporter on my way to an interview with the Indians’ brain trust—Gabe Paul and Phil Seghi—when PR man Bobby DiBiasio and I ran into an obstacle. Russell Means and members of AIM, the American Indian Movement, were holding a sit-in near the executive offices. They sat in complete silence and dignified posture.
“They don’t like the logo,” DiBiasio said.
“They are good people,” Paul said. “They come by ever so often. Russell and I will talk. We always do.”
That was 1983.
I had an Indians cap back then, and I have several, still—all with Chief Wahoo, smiling that iconic smile at a world filled with drama and so many so willing to fan the fires of dissention when no slight, no harm is intended. Sometimes, a spade is just a spade. That’s all there is to it.
Years passed, and then came Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome; Roberto Alomar and Omar Vizquel, maybe the best double-play combination I’ve ever seen, Carlos Baerga, Kenny Lofton and a reinvigorated Orel Hershiser.
Now, that—that was a good baseball team. Yet, they never won the big prize. Close, but no cigar. But they were what they’ve always have been, and continue to be, a damned entertaining bunch: scrappy, determined, taking extra bases, scratching out base hits, playing good defense and underrated.
Was there one, single expert outside Cuyahoga County who gave The Tribe a shot against Boston, and, yet, we get a sweep—the Sox lulled, perhaps, into the sleepy presumption they were the better team.
And here they are headed to the ALCS against Toronto. How will it come out? No idea. But it will be entertaining. If nothing else, the Indians have always been entertaining.
Lord willing, I will watch every out, and I will remember the stories my dad told me about Lou Boudreau and the ball Wertz hit in 1954, Willie Mays and that catch.
And, come hell or high water, I will wear my cap. Yeah, that one!