Stop me if you’ve heard this one: After a miserable year, the Indians spend some money, work the offseason and get a highly-touted new manager.
Sure, it describes this year. But it also describes the 1968 Indians, one of the few good baseball teams in Cleveland between the pennant contenders of the 1950s, and the renaissance years of the 1990s.
The 1967 Indians finished eighth in the American League, their worst spot in more than 50 years since 1914. (That was the team that lost 24 games in a month, a feat unequaled by the Indians until August 2012.) Out went Joe Adcock as Indians manager, and in came Alvin Dark.
Dark, a football and baseball player at Louisiana State University known as the Swamp Fox, was National League Rookie of the Year in 1948 for the Boston Braves. He hit .322 during the regular season, but was shut down by Indians pitching in the World Series, batting just .167. (Six years later, he hit .412 in the World Series as the New York Giants swept the Tribe.) Dark went on to manage the Giants – by then in San Francisco – to the World Series in 1962, losing to the Yankees in seven games. Dark was fired by the Giants in 1964 (he later titled his autobiography, “When In Doubt, Fire the Manager”), and was hired by the Kansas City Athletics.
Athletics owner Charlie Finley fired him before the 1967 season was over, and Dark was snapped up by Indians president Gabe Paul, who was excited to get him, saying he was the best manager available to hire – and one of the best in the majors. Paul had offered the job to Dark the year before after Birdie Tebbetts resigned as manager, but Dark turned it down. Dark was also excited to be hired by the Indians, saying that they had a great pitching staff and would be able to contend.
“The surprise team of the league could be the Cleveland Indians,” Sports Illustrated wrote in its annual baseball preview – not the last time SI would inflate Tribe fans’ hopes. “Cleveland’s catching is better than adequate, its infield suspect and the outfield made up of elements of speed and power that Manager Dark can juggle around to suit the situation. That strong pitching, though, will be Cleveland’s principal forte.”
The Indians had a starting rotation that year of Sudden Sam McDowell, Luis Tiant, Sonny Siebert, Stan Williams and Steve Hargan. Tiant had a career year, going 21-9 with an American League-leading 1.60 ERA and an opponent’s batting average of .168, still a record. McDowell won 15 games, Williams 13 and Siebert 12. Hargan went 8-15.
But on May 10, the Tigers took over first place. The Indians, a game over .500, were 3.5 games back. The Tigers would hold on to the league lead for the rest of the year – the last without any kind of regularly scheduled playoff before the World Series. The Tigers finished the year 103-59, as Denny McLain led the majors going 31-6, the last pitcher to win 30 games in a season. The Tigers went on to win the World Series in seven games, beating the Cardinals.
The Indians finished 86-75, good for third place, but 16.5 games behind the Tigers. Paul and owner Vernon Stouffer were ecstatic, and Dark was given general manager duties as well. But the Indians tumbled mightily in 1969, finishing 62-99, good for last in the new American League Eastern Division. Stouffer was facing financial setbacks, and the Indians’ scouting department – the pride of the majors a generation earlier – was gutted. Dark was fired with a 42-61 record in the 1971 season. He landed in Oakland, working once again for Charlie Finley and winning the World Series with the Athletics in 1974, and then becoming the first man to manage the American League and National League all-star teams.
The Indians, meanwhile, sank further and further into the morass. Stouffer ended up selling the team, as ownership changed several times in the next decade. The 86 wins were the best by the team until the 1995 team won 100 on its way to the World Series.
Between Tiant, McLain and Bob Gibson, who led the majors with a 1.12 ERA, 1968 became known as the year of the pitcher. Carl Yastrzemski, a Triple Crown winner the year before, was the only player in the major leagues to hit above .300. No-hitters were thrown on back-to-back nights in Candlestick Park.
But for Indians fans, 1968 was an outlier, a rare good year in a sea of awful ones.