Sports Illustrated Inspires More Asking of “What if?”
Vince Guerrieri | On 26, Apr 2017
They’re the two most tantalizing words in the English language, allowing flights of fancy that are leap-years away from reality but for a small turn of events could have happened.
Sports Illustrated took that direction with a recent series of articles presenting alternate scenarios throughout sports history – including a few with a Cleveland connection. One wonders about Ray Chapman not being fatally beaned in 1920, another ponders LeBron playing soccer instead of basketball, and another presents an alternate history of the 2004 NFL Draft, with the Browns possibly taking Larry Fitzgerald (he’s still on the board because the Cardinals drafted Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger went to the Giants).
But the big one develops an alternate timeline with George Steinbrenner becoming a titan in Cleveland sports.
Steinbrenner, the scion of a prominent Lake Erie shipbuilding family, was a Cleveland native. His first foray into sports ownership was the Cleveland Pipers, a basketball team in the old American Basketball League. He appeared to have a deal in place to join the NBA in the early 1960s, but the deal collapsed and the team and the league folded. In 1971, he tried to buy the Indians, but the offer was rebuffed by owner Vernon Stouffer, who ended up selling the team to Nick Mileti. Steinbrenner then made overtures to buy the Detroit Tigers, but found out that CBS was looking to unload the Yankees. The rest, as they say, is history.
But what if the Pipers joined the NBA, and Steinbrenner had been successful in buying the Indians? The article posits that he would be able to talk Art Modell out of fining Jim Brown (the event that precipitated the running back’s retirement), get a domed stadium built in downtown Cleveland (which leads to the phrase “Red Right 88” never entering the Cleveland sports doom lexicon), and generally lead Cleveland into an era of success unsurpassed in sports history.
Of course, that’s one theory. Mine has always been that if Steinbrenner bought the Indians, they would have ended up in Tampa instead of the city getting an expansion team (if he was willing to rattle the saber about leaving the Bronx and the House that Ruth Built for New Jersey, he surely would have demonstrated no loyalty to Cleveland Stadium). But it’s intriguing to think about. Would this have left Nick Mileti cut out of the sports scene in Cleveland in the 1970s? Would the Coliseum in Richfield never have been built? Instead of chasing an NBA expansion team in the late 1960s, would Cleveland have been able to focus its energy on the NHL?
It’s almost as intriguing to think about what-if scenarios involving the Indians (in fact, the team used that phrase as its marketing slogan in 2012. But the less said about that season, the better). Here are a couple I’ve been left to ponder:
- What if the team had traded for Ty Cobb? After his rookie season, the Tigers appreciated Cobb’s talent, but weren’t sure they could live with him. They offered him straight up to Cleveland for Elmer Flick, just two years removed from a batting title and one of the better players in the league. The Naps turned down the deal (the Highlanders, not yet the Yankees, also turned it down), and Cobb went on to a Hall of Fame career.
Cobb in a Cleveland uniform would probably have made the difference in 1908, when the team lost the pennant by half a game to the Tigers, and he could have made the Indians, which won the 1920 World Series after two straight second place finishes, the dynasty of the late 1910s.
- What if the team had kept Shoeless Joe Jackson? Owner Charles Somers had a series of financial setbacks in the 1910s, and he was forced to sell off assets of the team, chief among them being Joe Jackson. Six months after dealing Shoeless Joe to Chicago, he found a buyer, Jim Dunn, who was willing to spend money to bring the pennant to Cleveland.
Joe Jackson in Cleveland would have been another piece to help put the Indians over the top in the late 1910s (it’s mind-boggling to think of a potential outfield of Jackson, Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker). And were he not in Chicago, he would not have had his reputation besmirched by the Black Sox scandal. It’s not a stretch to believe that not only would he be in the Hall of Fame, he would have been in by the time the building opened in 1939.
- What if Bill Veeck had traded Lou Boudreau? In a story where it’s difficult to separate myth from fact, Veeck was shopping around the team’s player-manager. The deal never came to pass, but if it had, one of the candidates to replace Boudreau as manager was Casey Stengel, who hadn’t done much in stints managing the Brooklyn Dodgers or Boston Braves, and was then managing Oakland in the Pacific Coast League.
It’s just as likely that if Boudreau was out, he could have been replaced by Jimmie Dykes or possibly Charlie Grimm, who had managed for Veeck in Milwaukee. But the idea of Stengel is a tantalizing one, mostly because he was hired by the Yankees and went on to win 10 pennants in 12 years, including seven World Series – five in a row from 1949 to 1953 (bookended on both ends by losing the pennant to the Indians). If nothing else, Stengel managing the Indians probably would have extended Gene Bearden’s career. Bearden ended up being a one-year wonder because Stengel, who had seen him in the PCL, told his players just how to hit him.
- What if Herb Score hadn’t been injured? The fireballing lefty was on the verge of a potential Hall of Fame career before he was hit by a nasty comebacker from Gil McDougald. The slow recovery from that injury, combined with arm troubles that could have come from altering his pitching stance so he wouldn’t run the risk of getting hit like that, derailed a promising career.
Score himself might not have made the difference in some weak years in the 1960s, but he would be the guiding hand in a pitching rotation that at one point or another would have included Luis Tiant, Sam McDowell, and potentially Tommy John. (It’s worth reminding you that the Indians were also in the mix for the rights to Tom Seaver as well.) A rotation like that would have contended throughout the 1960s, especially with the Yankees in decline. Even a World Series appearance in that decade would have altered the destiny of the team.
- What if efforts to move the Indians had been successful? For a period starting shortly after the Indians’ 1954 pennant and ending with the Indians’ sale to Mileti, the Indians were seemingly in perpetual danger of moving. Hank Greenberg tried to engineer a move to Minneapolis, and it seemed like virtually every city that eventually got an expansion team (or a relocated one) was mentioned as a possible home for the Indians. The closest the Indians came to moving was probably 1964, with Seattle as the potential destination. But the Indians didn’t want to play in a minor-league stadium for two years until a new one was built, and the team was able to sign a new lease with the city. Additionally, under Stouffer’s ownership, a deal was struck to play some “home” games in New Orleans, which generations earlier was the site for spring training. That deal was killed with Mileti’s ownership.
But what would have happened with a move out of town? Would the city have received an expansion team somewhere down the line, or would there be no summer sports in Cleveland? And without the Indians, Cleveland Stadium would have lost its biggest tenant. It’s entirely possible that with no baseball team, Art Modell would have moved sooner than he did. But on the other hand, it’s possible that with no baseball team to build a new stadium for, a deal would have gotten done sooner and we wouldn’t have been subjected to 17 years and counting of what passes for pro football in Northeast Ohio.
Photo: Associated Press