When baseball teams go through interminably long periods of losing, fans tend to soothe their distressed psyches by ascribing the poor play or lack of luck to paranormal curses ("Curse of the Bambino" in Boston, the "Billy Goat Curse" in Chicago).
Not in Cleveland. Having seen only two consistently competitive teams (the late 1940's and late 1990's), losing has been too much a regular way of life for Indians' fans to blame it on something supernatural.
Cleveland was a charter member of the American League, winning its first home game 4-3 against Milwaukee on April 29, 1901. They were originally dubbed the Blues, a name once used by Cleveland's National League entry in the 1880's.
The Indians first star was Napoleon Lajoie, one of the greatest hitters in history. Lajoie came to the Indians in 1902 from Philadelphia, and although he hit a robust .368, it represented a 54 point drop in his batting average from the previous season, when he hit an American League record .422.
The Indians contested for only one pennant (unsuccessfully) in the Lajoie era, but the second baseman was so popular the team changed its name to the Naps in his honor. After he departed in 1914, a newspaper contest led to fans renaming the team "Indians" in honor of the "Miracle" run that Boston's Braves made to that year's world championship.
The Tribe made it to the top in 1920, even with the stunning on-field death of their sparkplug shortstop Ray Chapman. He took a direct hit in the head on a fast ball launched by New York's Carl Mays on August 16. Chapman collapsed at home plate, never regained consciousness and died the following morning.
If the shocked Indians stumbled after Chapman's death, the rival White Sox, toppled like Humpty Dumpty. Revelations about the Sox intentionally losing the 1919 World Series exploded in August and eight White Sox players were immediately suspended. The Indians squeaked by the Sox to win their first pennant by two games and then beat Brooklyn in the World Series.
The Indians got a new home in 1932 with the opening of the 70,000 seat Municipal Stadium. For the next 15 years, the Indians split their home schedule between this new park on the shores of Lake Erie and their original home, ancient League Park built in 1891.
Municipal Stadium had a positive effect on the franchise. Not long after it opened, the seeds of the great 1940's teams were planted. First to blossom was 17-year-old Bob Feller, who won five game in his debut season of 1936, then went on to win 261 more games in the next 18 years. He was followed by a shortstop with a rare combination of skill and smarts named Lou Boudreau. By 1942, at the ripe age of 24, he was the team's player-manager.
New owner Bill Veeck made the Indians ultra-competitive by surrounding Feller and Boudreau with first class talent, including Larry Doby, the first black player in the American League, and hard hitting veterans Joe Gordon and Ken Keltner.
The Tribe won it all in 1948 and had a record setting pennant winning team in 1954. Feller was the bridge connecting these two best teams. He and Bob Lemon each won 20 games in 1948 as the Indians finished in a first-place tie with the Red Sox, won the playoff game in Fenway Park, and then dispatched Boston's other team, the Braves, in a six game World Series. The Indians drew 2,620,627 to massive Municipal Stadium that year, a record attendance that stood until the Dodgers broke it in 1962.
The 35-year-old Feller went 13-3 for the 1954 team, which won a then-American League record 111. Lemon and Early Wynn (23 wins each) and Mike Garcia (19 wins) provided stellar pitching. Boudreau was gone to Boston, but new manager Al Lopez had regenerated the Indians' offense with League MVP Al Rosen (24 home runs and 102 runs-batted- in) and batting champion Bobby Avila (.341). Despite their record setting regular season, the Tribe lost the World Series in four straight to Willie Mays and the New York Giants.
After dueling the Yankees for American League prominence in the 1950s, the Indians mostly sailed the gloomy waters of the second division for the next three decades. Their grindingly miserable quality of play, coupled with the low turnout of a disinterested city transformed the cavernous Municipal Stadium into a morgue. The Stadium became known as the "Mistake by the Lake."
A new Indians era began with the opening of Jacobs' Field - the "Jake by the Lake" in 1994. It was a bright, more intimate and friendly ballpark, and in the same way as a new Municipal Stadium rejuvenated the Indians in the 1940's, Jacobs' Field hosted a revitalized team in 1995. They sledge hammered their way to a Central Division record of 100-44 behind Albert Belle, Jim Thome, Carlos Baerga, Eddie Murray, Dave Winfield and Manny Ramirez. The Indians won the Central in 1996-97-98-99-01, while cultivating or trading for sluggers such as Jeromy Burnitz, Richie Sexson, Matt Williams, David Justice and Roberto Alomar.
The team's Achilles heel was a lack of pitching depth in the postseason. They were able to advance to the World Series only twice, losing to the Atlanta Braves (1995) and Florida Marlins (1997). They came close to another Series appearance in 2007, but collapsed after taking a 3-1 lead in the ALCS against Boston.
Although Cleveland enjoyed its renaissance in the 1990's, they still have a record of meager success (five pennants and two world titles). It's just possible fans in Cleveland might consider conjuring up the "Overstaying Your Welcome Curse," since the two times the franchise has fielded good teams, it was shortly after moving from their existing stadium to a new one.