Indians, Warriors United as Historically Great Teams Who Fell Short of Title

Pity the Golden State Warriors.

They were a win away from immortality in the pantheon of all-time great teams when the Cavaliers completed a historic comeback from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals to beat the Warriors for the first sports title in Cleveland since before the days of color television.

The Warriors won a record 73 games in the regular season, and with Sunday’s Game 7 loss to the Cavs, became the first team in NBA history to lose as many playoff games (9) as regular season game. It’s the type of crushing defeat that Cleveland fans are used to, only in baseball – and from the other side.

In 1948, the Indians won what’s turned out to be their most recent World Series title. Their 97 regular-season wins that year sparked a nine-year run of seasons with at least 88 wins. Unfortunately, their rise coincided with that of the Yankees. In 1949, the Yankees hired journeyman manager Casey Stengel (who was allegedly waiting in the wings to be the Tribe manager if Bill Veeck had gone through with trading Lou Boudreau), who set the Yankees on a path to success unprecedented – and unrepeated – in Major League History.

The Yankees won the American League pennant every year from 1949 to 1953 – and went on to win the World Series each year, too, beating the Dodgers three times and the Phillies and Giants once each.

But in 1954, it all came together for the Indians, behind a pitching rotation that included Mike Garcia, Bob Feller, Bob Lemon and Early Wynn, and offensive firepower from Larry Doby, Al Rosen and Bobby Avila. The Indians roared to 111 wins, an American League record at the time, and eight games ahead of the Yankees (in a sublime irony, the 103 wins by the Bronx Bombers that year were the most in one season in Stengel’s managerial career). They were installed as heavy favorites in the World Series, against a Giants team just three years removed from a World Series loss to the Yankees.

The series began at the Polo Grounds – and effectively ended there. Vic Wertz hit a towering shot more than 440 feet to center field, but the Harlem ballpark had the longest center field in the majors, and Willie Mays was able to catch up what could have been a run-scoring hit and turn it into a flyout. In extra innings, pinch-hitter Dusty Rhodes hit a home run down the short right-field line – less than 250 feet into the overhang – to win the game. The win utterly deflated the Indians, who were meekly swept and went into 40 years of oblivion.

But the team showed signs of life in the early 1990s, thanks to some shrewd dealing by General Manager Hank Peters and his successor, John Hart. A move to a new stadium, Jacobs Field, in 1994, jump-started fan interest and coincided with a marked improvement by the team, which was in line for the wild card before a players’ strike ended the 1994 season and forced the 1995 season to start later.

The 1995 Indians won 100 games, the only team to hit triple digits in wins in a shortened season. Of those 100 wins, 27 came in the team’s final at-bat. Again, the team was loaded with offensive firepower, and the starting rotation didn’t boast three future Hall of Famers like the 1954 team did, but the pitching was some of the best in the American League.

The problem was that the Indians went up against the Atlanta Braves, a team that DID have three future Hall of Fame pitchers: Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz.

The Indians took the Braves to six games before succumbing. It was the start of a period unseen in Cleveland baseball since the late 1940s and 1950s, but unlike that era, didn’t result in a World Series win (ironically, in beating the Tribe for what remains their only World Series win in Atlanta, the Braves eluded the fate of being another great team that couldn’t win it all).

Twice the Indians were looked upon as juggernauts. And twice they fell. It’s a fate the Warriors can relate to – and in a little poetic justice, this time it’s been inflicted by a Cleveland team.

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