Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 21
Bob Toth | On 13, Mar 2017
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Countdown to Opening Day – 21
In 1998, Cleveland retired the number 21 in honor of longtime Tribe member Bob Lemon, whose transition from a position player to a quality starting pitcher led to seven trips to the Midsummer Classic, a leading role in the 1948 and 1954 American League champion Indians teams, and ultimately, a spot in Cooperstown in the Hall of Fame.
But while Lemon last wore the number on the field as a player with the Indians in 1958, several big names would honor the work that he had done in the jersey with quality careers in a Cleveland uniform in the years to come.
The number was dormant for a half decade before nearly 40 years of consistent time on the diamond, beginning when Bob Chance claimed it for two years in 1963 and 1964. After his second season in Cleveland, he was traded after a breakout campaign with Woodie Held to the Washington Senators for Chuck Hinton.
Twenty-one then found a new home, albeit a brief one, on the body of fan favorite Rocky Colavito. “The Rock” returned to Cleveland a month and a half after Chance was dealt as part of a three-team trade involving the Chicago White Sox and Kansas City Ahtletics.
Colavito had worn 38 and 6 in his first stint in Cleveland before his memorable and regrettable trade by Frank Lane to the Detroit Tigers. Now 31 years old and coming off of a productive All-Star season with the Athletics in his only year with the club (.274 average, .366 on-base percentage, 31 doubles, 34 homers, 102 RBI), Colavito would appear in every game for the Tribe in 1965 while leading the league with 93 walks and 108 RBI. He also chipped in 25 doubles and 26 homers while hitting .287, making his second straight All-Star team and fifth of his career, and finishing fifth in the AL MVP voting.
Some of Colavito’s numbers declined the following season, despite a third consecutive trip to the Midsummer Classic. He hit 30 home runs, but had just 13 doubles and 72 RBI while hitting a career-low .238. He returned to the corner outfield spots again for the Indians in 1967, but after hitting .241 with nine doubles, five homers, and 21 RBI in 63 games, he was traded on July 29 to the Chicago White Sox for Jim King and player-to-be-named-later Marv Staehle.
His career was on the downswing at this point, as he was sold to the Los Angeles Dodgers just prior to the 1968 season and was released by July after hitting .204 in 40 games. He signed with the New York Yankees and hit .220 in 39 games in the Big Apple before being released at the end of September, but not before making his second and final appearance on the mound, earning a win with two and two-thirds innings of one-hit relief. Major League Baseball would not see another win by a position player until 2000.
His short career, done at the age of 35, left his numbers short for most people’s consideration for the Hall of Fame, despite hitting 374 home runs over 14 years (including 190 in parts of eight seasons with Cleveland). He followed his career with a stint in the broadcast booth for the Indians and later returned to the field as a coach for the club and for the Kansas City Royals.
The man he was traded for when he was dealt to the White Sox, King, took the number 21 for one season, as did Tommy Harper in 1968. Frank Baker wore it for three years from 1969 to 1971 and George Hendrick did the same in 1975 and 1976. It continued its moderate use as Johnny Grubb had it in 1977 and Tom Veryzer took it in 1978 and 1979. The latter switched to the number 15 during the ’79 season.
That year, Mike Hargrove came to Cleveland in a trade from the San Diego Padres. The former 1974 AL Rookie of the Year had spent just a half season in California after playing each of his first five seasons with the Texas Rangers, but the Indians scooped him up in the middle of June straight up for Paul Dade. The speedy utility man’s time in the Majors was short after that, but Hargrove became a regular in the Cleveland lineup at first base.
“Grover”, or even better remembered as “The Human Rain Delay” for his pre-pitch readjustments at the plate, hit .325 with 10 homers and 56 RBI for the Tribe in 1979 and would hit .304 with eleven homers and 85 RBI in 160 games in 1980. He led the league in on-base percentage the following year, drawing 60 walks while striking out just 16 times in 94 games.
He matched his career-high of 160 games of work in 1982, hitting .271 with a .377 OBP courtesy of 101 walks, but his power was tapped, hitting just four homers and 26 doubles for the season. His production and his appearances on the field would continue to dwindle from there, as he hit .286 with three homers and 57 RBI in 134 games in 1983, .267 with two homers and 44 RBI in 133 games in 1984, and .285 with one homer and 27 RBI in the final 107 games of his 12-year career.
He later went on to a long coaching career in the minors and in the Majors, with much of his success coming with the resurgent Tribe club of the 1990s.
Greg Swindell did not let the number stay cold for long, as he would become the final Indians player to wear it on the diamond. The former second overall pick of the 1986 draft got fast-tracked through the club’s minor league system and debuted on August 21 that season in a loss to the Boston Red Sox. He won 18 games for the club in 1988 and was an All-Star the following season. Coming off the worst season of his professional career to date in 1991, he was traded with a minor leaguer to the Cincinnati Reds for pitchers Jack Armstrong and Scott Scudder.
He spent one year in the Queen City before signing a free agent deal with the Houston Astros. After three and a half seasons there, he returned to Cleveland in 1996, making two starts and 11 relief appearances for the Tribe while wearing the number 12 before signing with Minnesota in the offseason. A year and a half later, he was traded to the Boston Red Sox and made his first career trip to the postseason, something he would do again the following season with the Arizona Diamondbacks. The D’Backs would return to the playoffs in 2001 and 2002, bringing home the title in a World Series victory over the Yankees in 2001. He hung around with Arizona until early in the 2003 season when he was released.
As for Lemon, he may have owed his Hall of Fame career to former Indians teammate Mel Harder. “Chief” spent 20 years on the field as a player and 16 more as a coach in Cleveland, yet despite seeing his own number 18 retired, Harder would never join Lemon in the Hall of Fame despite several efforts over the years to see him honored with more than just a retired number.
Lemon debuted with Cleveland in 1941 as a 20-year-old third baseman. He appeared in five games that season and five more the next year before joining so many of his countrymen in serving in the Navy during World War II. Despite the war, many stayed in shape and filled down time with baseball, and Lemon spent some time working as a pitcher.
He returned stateside in 1946 and resumed his baseball career, but third base was not going to be his path to regular playing time with Ken Keltner in the fold. He started the season in center field and made a diving catch to preserve Bob Feller’s 1-0 win in the season opener. Playing time began to dwindle in May and on the 12th of the month with a .180 batting average, manager Lou Boudreau called upon his live-armed outfielder to make his first professional appearance on the mound in a loss to the St. Louis Browns. He made two more relief appearances in the month, including a wild six-walk, six-strikeout game in six innings against Washington on May 17.
He made a handful of starts, but worked largely in relief while accumulating a 4-5 record with a 2.49 ERA, while his batting average remained a paltry .180. He split time again in 1947 between the outfield and the pitching staff, posting an 11-5 record in 37 games (15 starts) with a 3.44 ERA. By the middle of the year, he was working heavily in relief and, on July 31, he began regular work in the starting rotation. His .321 batting average for the year was deceiving, as 13 of his 18 hits for the season came during a hot stretch during the final two and a half weeks of the season. It erased what was a .152 average entering play before his seven-game hitting streak to wrap up the year.
Lemon truly made his mark in 1948, when he made his first of seven straight All-Star teams while winning 20 games, something he would also do seven times in his career. He threw a no-hitter midseason, led the league in complete games and innings pitched, and led baseball in shutouts with what would be a career-high ten. He won 22 games for the Indians in 1949 and 23 the following year while leading the league in starts, complete games, innings pitched, and strikeouts. He would win 22 games again in 1952 and 21 in 1953, both times while leading the American League in innings pitched, and was a key piece of the 1954 starting rotation that helped the Indians claim the AL pennant as he went 23-7 with a 2.72 ERA with 21 complete games in 36 total appearances.
Entering the twilight of his career, Lemon continued strong work on the mound with a league-best 18 wins in 1955 before winning 20 games again in 1956. He tailed off with a 6-11 mark in 1957, taking the mound 21 times, and worked almost exclusively in relief in 1958 in what would be his final season in the Majors. He finished his 15-year career with a 207-128 mark with a 3.23 ERA during his 13 years of pitching and added 37 homers and a .232 average over his 15 years swinging a bat.
Lemon remained in the game after his career, as he worked as both a minor league and Major League manager and as a scout.
Despite a decade and a half of play for the Indians and his induction to the Hall of Fame in 1976, the Indians had yet to retire 21 when the calendar turned to 1998. Hargrove had reclaimed the number as his own again when he took over in the Indians dugout as manager of the club, as 21 was the only number that he had worn during his playing career. But in ’98, the Indians decided that the 50th anniversary season of the team’s last championship in 1948 was the time to honor Lemon by adding his name and number to the list of his former teammates (Feller’s 19, Boudreau’s 5, Harder’s 18, and Larry Doby’s 14) and legend Earl Averill’s 3 as those permanently recognized with their removal from the numeric rotation.
Hargrove struggled with the notion of relinquishing the number, sharing in a June 18, 1998, article in The Plain Dealer, “I’ve worn this number my whole big league career.”
But as the season went on, he changed his mind.
“When the Indians approached me before the start of the season about changing numbers, I was inclined to keep it,” he shared in the story. “But before we left on our last trip to New York, I called [Indians’ senior vice president of business] Dennis Lehman and told him I was considering giving it up.”
Hargrove switched to the number 30, the same number that he wore in college and the one that his son Andy was wearing for St. Ignatius High School.
“I respect Bob Lemon,” Grover said in the same story. “I respect what he’s done as a pitcher for the Indians. He wore the number, and I’m honored I wore it. I kept it warm for him.”
Lemon’s affiliation with the Yankees and disappointment about not being selected as manager of the Indians in the late-1960s may have delayed his number from being retired earlier, but his name and number 21 joined those of his teammates in the right field mezzanine area of Jacobs Field on June 20, 1998. Lemon was joined in attendance by teammates from the Indians’ 1948 team and was presented a framed replica of his uniform by Hargrove and team president Richard Jacobs before a standing ovation.
“This is a great thrill,” Lemon shared during the ceremony. “I’ve been in baseball 50 years. It doesn’t seem like it but it feels like it.”
Lemon passed away a year and a half later at the age of 79. The Indians have yet to retire another number (for a player) since honoring him.
“He was a great pitcher and a great teammate,” shared Feller with The Plain Dealer in a story on January 13, 2000, just days after Lemon’s death. “He never had an enemy. Too bad he wasn’t a pitcher when he first started. He would have won over 300 games.”
Photo: AP Photo