Second Hall of Fame Class in 1937 Had Cleveland Feel to it
Vince Guerrieri | On 05, Jan 2016
The concept of a baseball hall of fame had been used as a literary device by sportswriters for 25 years before plans were announced in 1935 for a hall of fame and museum in Cooperstown, New York.
The first year’s inductees were five of the game’s all-time greats: Ty Cobb, then and for a long time thereafter baseball’s batting leader; pitchers Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson; Honus Wagner, who could lay claim to the title of the best shortstop of all-time (and still has a strong case), and Babe Ruth, who had retired just a year earlier (although the Baseball Writers Association of America, then as now, was tasked with voting for players, under largely the same rules, the five-year waiting period after retirement had yet to be formally imposed).
But no Indians. That oversight would be rectified in a major way with the following year’s election, as all three players elected by the BBWAA were already Cleveland baseball legends.
Leading the way in the voting was Napoleon Lajoie, who got 83.6 percent of the vote. Lajoie broke in to the major leagues with the Phillies, but he spent the bulk of his career – 12 of his 20 years – in Cleveland, as well as its peak. He won four of his five batting titles with League Park as his home field, and doubtless would have won more were he not overshadowed by Cobb (he was second in hits when he retired, but both he and leader Honus Wagner were soon passed by the Georgia Peach). Lajoie also spent four years as the team’s manager, and he was so popular that the team was called the Naps in his honor.
Second on the balloting was Tris Speaker who, like Lajoie, served as player and manager for the Indians after coming from another team. Spoke, as he was called, broke in with the Red Sox, but was dealt to the Indians before the 1916 season after holding out in spring training. The $55,000 paid for Speaker was the highest cash payment for a player in league history (an amount that would be eclipsed four years later when the Yankees bought Babe Ruth for what was then regarded as a ridiculous sum, but in retrospect, worth every penny: $125,000). In fact, the move was hailed as the biggest transaction in Cleveland baseball since Lajoie came from Philadelphia. And Speaker proved to be worth the money, patrolling center field at League Park for years to come – and continuing his torrid hitting there. He was also made the team’s manager midway through the 1919 World Series and in his first full season as Tribe skipper, led the team to a World Championship.
Speaker resigned as manager suddenly after the 1926 season amid rumors of gambling and game-fixing (the same rumors dogged Cobb, who left the Tigers as a player and manager). He spent a year playing for the Senators and the following year joined Cobb as teammates on the Athletics before retiring. He returned to the Cleveland area, and at the time of his election, was serving as the city’s boxing commissioner.
Cy Young received 76.1 percent of the vote, the lowest total of the three inductees – remarkable for a man who now has a pitching award named for him. The induction came at a time when he was professionally and personally adrift. After retiring from a 21-year career, which had included stints with the Cleveland Spiders of the National League and the Indians in the American League, he returned to his farm in Peoli, not far from his birthplace of Newcomerstown, Ohio. His wife died in 1933, and they had no children. He sold the farm and was living with friends in exchange for doing odd jobs for them while receiving a meager stipend from his investments in those pre-pension days.
Upon their election, the Plain Dealer noted wistfully that “the fortunes of professional baseball in Cleveland have suffered enormously in recent years because there has been no one to take the place in the public’s fancy that was made vacant by the retirement of Tris Speaker, who had come along shortly after the great Lajoie had been forced out by advancing years.” (The next – and to date, last – great player-manager in Indians history was at the time a student at the University of Illinois: Lou Boudreau.)
Also receiving votes were former Indians Joe Sewell (who was just four years removed from playing, and would get elected in 1977) and Addie Joss (who would get elected a year later, and remains the only inductee to have played fewer than ten years).
The news was greeted with a muted reception, since there was no hall of fame at that point. But there was an Old-Timers Day for the benefit of local sandlot baseball. Speaker was mobbed in the stands by autograph seekers, and Young was willing to put on a uniform and sling a few pitches – none with the speed that had earned him his nickname from throwing fastballs into a fence and making it look like it had been hit by a cyclone. Lajoie was asked to join, but did not.
But on June 12, 1939, Lajoie, Young and Speaker took their place in the Hall of Fame, which opened its doors to the public. The year was selected as the centennial of the establishment of the game (a story of dubious veracity). Legendary Athletics Manager Connie Mack (elected by the veterans committee in 1937) gave a brief speech, and Speaker, who followed, said “Connie Mack said it all. Thank you.”
Young, the longest-retired of the eleven living inductees, had an indifferent crowd for his speech – until he said, “I hope baseball climbs to even greater success in the next 100 years than it had in the first 100.”