The Cleveland Indians have a storied franchise that began back in 1901 when they were established in the American League. Over the years players have come and gone through the organization that have made a lasting impact. Some of these players have been talked up and others have not been talked about enough. I have decided to put a stamp on who I believe the best Tribe players were at their respective positions. Over the next several weeks I will be posting my Top Five Tribe Players at each position. Through research, analysis and opinion I will rank the players I see to be the best. I have a specific criteria I am looking for. For starters, I will only include players that played from 1901 and on. No Cy Young type players. Second, the pitchers eligible needed to have played at least five seasons and position players needed at least three seasons in a Cleveland uniform. Last, I took into account comparisons of what might have been. Sometimes players play so long that their legend becomes inflated or they play on terrible teams that do not get their accomplishments recognized like they should be. With that said I hope you enjoy these lists and I encourage you to give your own opinions as well. So without further adieu, I give you the top five Indians players of all-time at each position.
5. Joe Carter (1984-1989)
During the 1980s the Cleveland Indians did not win very many games. However, they did have some very good ballplayers that produced All-Star calibur numbers. One of those players was Joe Carter. During his time in a Tribe uniform he was one of the more consistent players and was considered to be the team’s superstar. He bounced around positions a bit but became their full time center fielder in 1988 when Brett Butler left. Carter was a great power hitter and from ’86-’89 he hit at least 27 homers and drove in no fewer than 98 runs. He led the league in RBI in 1986 with 121 and hit higher than .300 for the first time in his career. He also had 200 hits that year to go along with 108 runs and 29 home runs. Surprisingly, Carter never made an All-Star team in Cleveland but it could certainly be attributed to the team’s record because his numbers were there.
4. Kenny Lofton (1992-1996, 1998-2001, 2007)
Surprised to see Lofton so low on the list? Don’t be. Cleveland has had a rich history at the center fielder position and the three players above Lofton are all Hall of Famers. Lofton spent three separate stints in a Tribe uniform and all were memorable in their own way. The guy knew how to win and did it wherever he went. His specialty was getting on base and wreaking havoc on the basepaths. He led the league in stolen bases five straight seasons from ’92-’96. He set a career high in 1996 when he stole 75 bases, which was also a franchise record. In fact Lofton holds the top three spots for stolen bases in a season for the Cleveland franchise and is the all-time career leader as well with 452, 173 higher than the second place total. The 1994 season was probably Lofton’s best, or at least most productive. That year he hit .349 with 12 home runs, 57 RBI, a league leading 60 stolen bases, 32 doubles, 9 triples, 105 runs and 160 hits which also led the league. Lofton was also a whiz in the field winning four Gold Gloves. Fans were heartbroken when the team traded him away to the Atlanta Braves before the 1997 season but equally ecstatic when he returned as a free agent the following season. During the team’s 2007 playoff run, Lofton returned for the final time to help push the team into the ALCS where they lost in seven games to the Red Sox.
3. Larry Doby (1947-1955, 1958)
Larry Doby holds the honorable distinction as being the first African-American ballplayer to play in the American League. Doby did not disappoint on the field as he became one of the league’s premier center fielders and power hitters. While with Cleveland Doby led the league in home runs twice and led in runs batted in for the 1954 season. He made seven straight All-Star appearances from ’49-’55 and finished second in the MVP voting for 1954, behind New York’s Yogi Berra. Though Doby was extremely consistent, he did have one season that stood out from the others. In 1950 he had a very strong and balanced season statistically. That year Doby hit .326, the highest of his career, with 25 homeruns, 102 RBI, 25 doubles, 164 hits and 110 runs. Doby also came through in the clutch as a 24 year old rookie during the 1948 World Series championship. In that series Doby hit .318 with seven hits, a home run and two RBI. The Indians retired Doby’s number 14 in 1994.
2. Tris Speaker (1916-1926)
By far this was the hardest list to compile and if you were to take a look through the Indians’ all-time leaders you will easily see why. Speaker and the man at the top of the list are amazingly close in almost every offensive category. In the end I put Speaker at two because he lacked home run power but also because his time spent in Cleveland was not during his true prime. Regardless, “The Grey Eagle” is considered one of the best players to ever play the game and he put up huge numbers while with the Tribe. He led the league in doubles six times and hit under .300 only once (.296). Speaker was a master at getting on base, shown by his franchise high .444 on base percentage. He also specialized in hitting doubles and is the franchise’s all-time leader in that category as well with 486. Speaker never really had a “down” year but you could probably pinpoint 1923 as his most productive. That season he hit a staggering .380 with 17 homers, 130 runs batted in, 59 doubles, 11 triples, 218 hits and 133 runs scored. Though Speaker was known in his career to be a prolific base stealer, he started to fade in that category as he aged in Cleveland. His highest total while with the Tribe was 35 in his first season with the club and he progressively dipped each season after. Still, Speaker is easily one of the best players to ever don a Cleveland uniform and I hope that one day he will get proper recognition at the ballpark.
1. Earl Averill (1929-1939)
Earl Averill is one of those ballplayers that just had it. He was a superstar for the Tribe through the decade of the ’30s and put up gaudy numbers. Some of the records he set still stand today. The lone single season record he holds is runs scored with 140 in 1931. However he holds quite a few career records for the franchise including plate appearances, runs scored, triples, runs batted in, extra base hits and when he left Cleveland in 1939 he was the all-time franchise leader in home runs. A record that would stand until the 1990s. Averill was a six-time All-Star and finished in the top five in MVP voting three separate times. His 1931, 1932 and 1936 seasons are ones of legend. In 1931 he hit .333 with 32 home runs and 143 RBI. The following year he nearly matched those numbers, this time hitting .314 with 32 home runs and 124 RBI. Still, the best was yet to come. The 1936 season may have been his best year as an Indian. That season he hit an astonishing .378 with 28 homers, 126 runs batted in, 39 doubles, a league leading 15 triples, scored 136 runs and had a league topping 232 hits. The 232 hits were just one shy of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson’s franchise record. Averill would be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1975, that same year the Indians would retire his number 3.
So there is the list….who do you think should be number 1?