Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 5: Lou Boudreau
Bob Toth | On 30, Mar 2016
As Did The Tribe Win Last Night helps fans count down the days until the Indians retake the field in an official Major League game, we look back at some of the players who wore the Cleveland jersey with pride.
Countdown to Opening Day – 5 days
Number five on our countdown is one of the handful of players honored in Indians history with a retired number. The man held two very distinct titles during his tenure in Cleveland and several more nicknames for good measure.
Whether you called him “Old Shufflefoot”, “Handsome Lou”, “Boy Wonder”, “The Good Kid”, or skipper, Lou Boudreau was one thing in the end – a Hall of Famer.
Boudreau was born on July 17, 1917 in Harvey, Illinois, and later found athletic success at Thornton High School there and at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He excelled in basketball and baseball, leading both teams to Big Ten Conference championships in the 1936-1937 season. He was later named an NCAA Men’s Basketball All-American.
It was in 1937 that he showed up for a Cubs tryout at Wrigley Field, but despite an interest from the Cubs coaches, Boudreau returned to the University of Illinois. Following his junior season, the Indians expressed an interest and made financial arrangements with his divorced parents for his promise that he would sign with Cleveland after his graduation. That process was sped up some as he was ruled ineligible by the Big Ten and Boudreau joined the Indians’ minor league team in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 1938.
He made a brief debut at the age of 21 for the Indians in 1938, but got a more extended look in 1939, playing in 53 games while hitting .258. The following season is when Boudreau’s career and legend took off as he made the first of eight career All-Star teams and earned votes in the Most Valuable Player award tally at season’s end after appearing in a league-high 155 games, finishing second in the American League with 46 doubles, and driving in 101 runs while holding down the shortstop position for the Tribe.
Always a keen-eyed player at the plate, he drew 85 walks and added a league-leading 45 doubles plus eight triples and ten home runs to his offensive contributions in 1941, the final year before his role on the Indians took a unique turn.
Following the ’41 season, Cleveland owner Alva Bradley was reportedly toying with the idea of promoting Indians manager Roger Peckinpaugh to general manager to fill the spot previously occupied by Cy Slapnicka. As speculation grew about the move, longtime writer for The Plain Dealer, Gordon Cobbledick, pondered in a column (discussing Peckinpaugh’s potential new assignment on October 26, 1941) about the possibility of Boudreau in a player-manager role, stating, “Lou Boudreau is the kind of player who probably will be a good manager some day, but he isn’t ready to tackle the task yet. Nor do any of the veteran members of the team seem to possess the qualifications.” He noted a rumor that a member of the American League Boston club had suggested their three-time AL MVP Jimmie Foxx, who was heading into the twilight of his Red Sox playing career, as a viable candidate for such a role (Foxx was claimed off of waivers by the Chicago Cubs in June of 1942; he later managed and coached in the minors).
Peckinpaugh indeed moved up and Boudreau applied for the job. In a story in The New York Times on August 11, 2001, a prior account by Boudreau of the events leading up to his application were retold.
“I was only 24 years old at the time, with just four seasons of professional ball behind me,” he shared. “I figured I had nothing to lose because I didn’t tell anybody about it – not even my wife.”
“I told him I was qualified to handle the job. I thought he might ignore it,” Boudreau recalled of the letter he had written to Bradley. “Instead, he called me into a meeting of club directors.”
The November 26, 1941, edition of The Cleveland Plain Dealer broke the news to the city in bold across the front page – “BOUDREAU SIGNS TO MANAGE INDIANS” – as Cobbledick’s secondary headline noted the “shortstop is surprise choice after Bradley fails to find suitable leader among other candidates; Tribe seeks coaches to assist infielder; Peckinpaugh succeeds Slapnicka as General Manager”.
“The more I inspected the qualifications of various other candidates the more convinced I became that we couldn’t afford not to take advantage of Lou Boudreau’s natural gift for leadership,” Bradley was quoted in the edition of the addition. “I don’t know of another man of whom I could be so certain that he would be thoroughly respected by players, press and public. Lou is smart, he’s a great ball player, a fine young man, a fighter and a leader.”
His new appointment made Boudreau the youngest manager in baseball history, after he inked a two-year contract to manage the Cleveland baseball club. He was three years younger than the previous “boy manager”, Bucky Harris.
Boudreau was quick to the task and knew what he wanted of his teammates and fellow ball players.
“I want ball players who will eat, drink and sleep baseball,” he was quoted at his “introductory” press conference at League Park, “and if I find we’ve got some of the other kind I’ll get rid of them.”
His numbers took an ever-so-slight hit in his first season at the helm of the Tribe as some growing pains were no doubt to be expected. His club finished with an identical 75-79 record as the season before and again in fourth place in the American League. The next season they finished in third with an 82-71 record as he remained an ever-present fixture in the Indians lineup. By 1944, the club was still treading water in the middle of the pack in the American League, but Boudreau’s offensive contributions had returned to the form of his first full season in the pros as he hit an AL-best .327 and led the junior circuit with 45 doubles while finishing sixth in the MVP voting.
In 1947, the Tribe was back on the positive side of the win column behind an 80-74 record and finished in fourth place. Fans were starting to get behind the club as attendance figures had climbed by nearly one million fans from just two years earlier. Despite a team trending in the right direction, owner Bill Veeck was not convinced that “the best shortstop in baseball was, in [his] opinion, not the best manager,” as he later shared in his book “Veeck as in Wreck”. The Indians owner had his eyes set on Casey Stengel, who had not managed in the Majors since 1943.
Rumor spread like wild fire of Veeck’s intentions, with local newspaper accounts opposing the possible move and letters arriving in droves protesting the rumor. Boudreau remained skipper and rewarded Veeck’s decision with the best season of his career.
It would be the last great year of Boudreau’s career, but it would go down as one of the best in Indians history. He hit .355 with 34 doubles, six triples, and set career highs in homers with 18 and RBI with 106. He was recognized midseason with his final trip to the All-Star Game and the Indians would win the AL pennant (97-58) in a one-game playoff with the Boston Red Sox. In six games, they would capture the World Series from the Boston Braves, the second in as many trips for the Indians franchise.
He was named the MVP of the 1948 season, becoming the second Indians player to receive the honor. He became the second player-manager to win a title in Cleveland, joining another legend, Tris Speaker.
Boudreau played in 134 games in 1949, hitting .284 while the Tribe finished 89-65 and in third place. They fell to fourth in the AL in 1950, despite an improved 92-62 record while Boudreau played in just 81 games while batting .269. He was released in the offseason and joined the Red Sox for a pair of seasons, playing 82 games in an injury-shortened 1951 campaign (after missing more than a month after getting hit by a Virgil Trucks pitch while pinch-hitting on August 5) and just four in 1952 while working as the club’s manager. He retired from playing that season, but spent two more seasons at the helm of the Sox before leading the Kansas City Athletics for parts of three years from 1955 to 1957.
He finally made Wrigley his home in 1958, when he worked for a pair of seasons in the team’s broadcast booth before returning to the field in 1960, swapping roles with Charlie Grimm as the Cubs manager (Grimm replaced him in the booth). Boudreau was back behind the mic in 1961 and remained there until his retirement from broadcasting after the 1987 season.
In 1970, after a long run on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s ballots, he was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame with 77.3% of the votes needed. The Indians retired his number five that year, making him just the second player in franchise history to have such an honor bestowed upon him (joining his longtime Cleveland teammate and a fellow Hall of Famer, Bob Feller).
His wife and high school sweetheart, Della, passed away in 1999 after 62 years of marriage. Boudreau was selected as one of the members of the Indians’ 100th anniversary celebration of the franchise’s 100 greatest players, held at Jacobs Field on July 21, 2001, but was unable to attend.
He died three weeks later on August 10, 2001, at the age of 84.
Photo: Cleveland Memory Project