Choosing Cleveland’s “Franchise Four”

Major League Baseball is currently asking its fans to determine the four most impactful players who have best represented the history of each of its 30 teams. The winners of the fan vote for the “Franchise Four” will be revealed on July 14th before this year’s All-Star Game in Cincinnati.

The Cleveland Indians, one of the charter members of the American League in 1901, have a storied past littered with very mixed success while easily replacing the city’s epically and embarrassingly dismantled 1899 National League Cleveland Spiders club. That has not stopped some of the best players throughout baseball history from adorning a Cleveland jersey while representing the franchise on the field.

The MLB has narrowed the list down for fans to eight players, representing several eras across the history. The list is as follows, in alphabetical order.

Earl Averill, a 13-year Major League veteran who spent eleven seasons in Cleveland, was a small but steady outfielder in the Indians lineup from 1929 to 1939. “Rock”, or the “Earl of Snohomish”, got a late start on his career at the big league level after spending time in the minors in the Pacific Coast League. The left-handed hitting center fielder was bought by the Indians from the San Francisco Seals of the PCL for $50,000 and he immediately made a splash in his MLB debut, just one month before his 27th birthday, when he homered in his first at bat. His abilities were noticed around the league, where he was the only outfielder in the game to make each of the first six All-Star teams. As injuries began to catch up with him, he was dealt to Detroit in 1939 and spent a season and a half with the club before eight games with the Boston Braves in 1941.

Averill was a lifetime .322 hitter with the Indians and .318 over the course of his career. He led the league in at bats in 1931, times hit by pitch in 1932, games played in 1934, and both hits and triples in 1936. He was selected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1975 by the Veterans Committee and his number three was retired by the Indians that same season. He died at the age of 81 from pneumonia in 1983.

Lou Boudreau spent 15 seasons in the Majors during his Hall of Fame career and took the Indians to a World Championship in 1948 behind the second of three Most Valuable Player seasons in the history of the franchise while also handling double duty as the team’s player-manager.

Boudreau broke into the game in 1938, appearing in just one game. By 1940, he was a regular in the lineup and on his way to multiple All-Star games while consistently having his name on the end of year MVP balloting. He led the league in games played and batting average once, sacrifices twice, and doubles in three different years. During his undeniably best season in 1948, he hit .355 with 18 home runs and 106 RBI, all career bests, and took home the hardware as an All-Star for the seventh time and was the league’s MVP. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1970 and his number five was retired by the team the same year. He passed away in 2001.

Larry Doby made baseball and American history in 1947 when, at the age of 23, he joined the Cleveland Indians roster as a seldom used infielder. By the next season, he was playing on the biggest stage of them all as he helped lead the Indians to their World Series victory over the Boston Braves. From 1949 to 1955, he was one of the best in the game, making seven straight AL All-Star teams and finishing second in the MVP voting in 1954, another notable season in Indians history. That year, he led the league and tied his career best with 32 home runs (set in 1952) and set a new best while leading the AL with 126 RBI. He spent ten of his 13 seasons in Cleveland while also playing with the Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers.

He was inducted into the Hall of Fame by the Veteran’s Committee in 1998 and, like each of the previous players mentioned, had his number 14 retired by the Indians. He passed away in 2003.

Bob Feller is the only pitcher of the eight Cleveland players represented on the list, but his inclusion is for obvious and good reason. One of the all-time greats, Feller’s career on the field lasted long past his playing days as he was a visible representative of the franchise up until his death at the end of 2010.

“Rapid Robert” debuted at the age of 17, a nearly impossible feat in and of itself in this day. Feller was frequently at the top of the pitching statistics leaderboard throughout his career, leading the league in strikeouts seven times, wins six different times, innings pitched and games started five, shutouts four times, complete games three times, and ERA once. He threw three no-hitters, still a franchise best, and owns the only Opening Day no-hitter in baseball history in 1940. He also flirted with several more on the way to eleven other nine inning one-hitters. He was named to eight separate All-Star teams and was a member of the AL pennant winning 1948 and 1954 teams. Sixty years after he retired following 18 seasons with the Indians, he remains the franchise leader in career wins (266), innings pitched (3,827), complete games (279), and strikeouts (2,581), all of which he will continue to hold for many years to come. He did all of this despite giving up all of his 1942 through 1944 seasons and almost all of 1945, in the prime of his career, while serving with the U.S. Navy during World War II. He was elected with Jackie Robinson in the Hall of Fame class of 1962 and his uniform number 19 was retired on June 20, 1998, although it had not been worn by any other player after Feller first put it on in 1939.

It is uncommon for a franchise to be named after a player. Even rarer would that franchise take its own nickname from that of an active player on its roster. Nap Lajoie held such accolade when he joined the Cleveland Bronchos in 1902.

He began his career at the age of 21 with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1896 and was immediately sound at the plate. After hitting .345 with the Phillies in his first five seasons, he jumped ship into the Junior Circuit with the upstart Philadelphia Athletics franchise with a significantly improved salary from Connie Mack and proceeded to hit .426 while leading the league in nearly all offensive categories, including homers (14), RBI (125), runs scored (145), hits (232), and doubles (48). Legal action by the Phillies to prevent him from playing in the city of Philadelphia after his abrupt departure led to him coming to Cleveland to play in 1902. He became one of the best second basemen in the game and took over as the Naps manager in 1905 when the team took on his moniker. By 1910, the managerial duties were lifted from him and he beat out Ty Cobb for the batting title with a .384 mark. He remained in Cleveland through the 1914 season before returning to Philadelphia with the Athletics for two more years.

Lajoie was elected to the Baseball Hall as part of its second class of inductees. He died at the age of 84 in 1959.

Tris Speaker came to Cleveland in 1916 already a well-polished professional baseball player after spending his first nine seasons in Boston with the Americans/Red Sox franchise with two World Series trips and titles under his belt. He debuted for Boston in 1907 and by 1909 was a regular outfielder in their lineup. In 1912 at the age of 24, he was named league MVP after hitting .383, a then-career best, while leading the league with ten homers and 53 doubles. Doubles were a staple of his game and “The Grey Eagle” would top the AL in the stat eight different times. When he came to Cleveland, he made his presence felt, hitting .386 with a league-best 211 hits and 41 doubles. Like Boudreau after him, he wore multiple hats for Cleveland, playing as the team’s center fielder while also its manager starting in 1919. He was the man in charge when the Indians set a new franchise high in wins with 98 and defeated the Brooklyn Robins in the 1920 World Series, the team’s first of two titles. He held a dual role with the club through 1926.

He was released by the Indians following that season and he went on to play for the Washington Senators and Philadelphia Athletics before hanging up his playing cleats as baseball’s all-time leader in doubles, a stat he still owns 87 years later. He entered the Hall in its second class in 1937 alongside a pair of legendary Clevelanders – Lajoie and Cy Young. He also remained around the game, eventually working with Doby on his transition to the outfield and making sure his skills translated to the Major League game effectively during the 1948 spring training.

Jim Thome is a man who needs no introduction in the city of Cleveland after 13 years with the club scattered over two tours of a 22-year career.

He came up in 1991 at the age of 20, just a little over two years and two months after he signed with the Indians after they drafted him in the 13th round of the 1989 draft. He became a regular at the hot corner for the club in the strike-shortened 1994 season when he erupted for 20 homers and 52 RBI in his first 98 games. He reached 38 homers and 116 RBI in 1996 in a stretch of eight straight 30+ homer seasons. He was eventually transitioned over to first base and made three straight All-Star seasons from 1997 to 1999 to make room for available third base additions to the club while his power continued to blossom at the plate.

He left the city on a bit of bad terms following the 2002 season and landed in Philadelphia for three years before hitting Chicago with the White Sox for parts of four. He also played for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Minnesota Twins, and Baltimore Orioles. He is the Indians franchise leader in career home runs with 337 and both walked and struck out more than any other man to put on a Cleveland jersey while driving in the second-most runs. He retired with the seventh most home runs in MLB history and his statue joins one of Feller and one of Doby coming soon at the gates of Progressive Field.

Omar Vizquel may be a bit of a curious addition to the above list of seven, but his place in Indians lore has been cemented with his acrobatic and flashy on-the-field style and his all out hustle.

Vizquel famously came to Cleveland after his first Gold Glove winning season with the Seattle Mariners in 1993 in a swap for Felix Fermin and Reggie Jefferson. The Indians would win the deal, as Vizquel slotted in as the team’s regular shortstop for eleven seasons through the 2004 campaign. With Cleveland, he won eight straight Gold Glove awards and made three All-Star teams. He stole more than 40 bases twice while hitting .283 over the length of his time in Cleveland. He was proficient with the sacrifice, three times leading the AL in the stat. He did all while maintaining a career .985 fielding percentage at short.

He followed up his time in Cleveland with four years with the San Francisco Giants, a brief stop in Texas with the Rangers, a pair of seasons with the White Sox, and one final year in Toronto at the age of 45 with the Blue Jays. He retired with 2,877 career hits over his 24-year career, one that will lead to an interesting discussion one day about his place inside or out of Cooperstown.

As of April 22nd, Feller, Thome, Vizquel, and Doby were the leaders of the pack, according to an update from the Indians. It is no surprise that several of the legends of yesteryear are being overlooked and overshadowed in regards to their contributions to the Cleveland franchise, especially with much more visible and recent figures in Thome and Vizquel up for consideration.

Lajoie was one of the best of his era and at his position and made it into the Hall only one year after names like Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, and Walter Johnson made up the first class, and ahead of 49 other future Hall of Fame players who received votes on that 1937 ballot. To be one of the first eight players into the Hall of Fame does not just make him a legend in Cleveland, but a legend in the game itself. Regarding Speaker, he remains the Majors and Indians franchise leader in doubles, 87 years after last playing in an MLB game.

The list is also notably absent of several Hall of Fame standouts with the club and other players who were long successful members of the game. That partial list of other deserving candidates includes, but is certainly not limited to: Albert Belle, Rocky Colavito, Stan Coveleski, Elmer Flick, Mel Harder, Addie Joss, Ken Keltner, Bob Lemon, Kenny Lofton, Sam McDowell, Al Rosen, Joe Sewell, and Andre Thornton.

An opportunity for write-in votes is available.

Feller should be an automatic selection on all ballots cast. After him, a case can be made for each of the other seven. Personally, I find myself leaning towards Doby for his on- and off-the-field contributions, Speaker as one of the forgotten franchise stars of the ‘teens and twenties, and Lajoie as being the first true star of the franchise. But a solid case could be made for me for Boudreau as an MVP and team leader up the middle and in the dugout during the memorable 1948 season as well as Thome for his role in the resurgence of the franchise in the 1990s and 2000s as well as his charitable work behind the scenes around the country.

Major League Baseball also has several other groups up for consideration separate from the individual ballots for the league’s 30 teams.

A group of eight former and living players are up for consideration for the top four greatest living players in baseball history. The list includes starting pitchers Sandy Koufax, Pedro Martinez, and Tom Seaver, catcher Johnny Bench, and outfielders Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson, and Willie Mays. None of the eight spent any time in a Cleveland uniform.

Nominees for the four greatest MLB pioneers include Grover Cleveland Alexander, Cap Anson, Buck Ewing, Wee Willie Keeler, King Kelly, Kid Nichols, George Sisler, and George Wright. To be eligible for this list, playing careers must have begun in 1915 or earlier.

A category with eight former Negro Leaguers is also available and includes Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston, Martin Dihigo, Josh Gibson, Judy Johnson, Buck Leonard, Buck O’Neil, and one-time Cleveland Indians pitcher Satchel Paige.

Voting within all categories for all 30 teams as well as the three special categories ends on May 8th.

Photo: Getty Images

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