Seventy years ago Wednesday, baseball innovator and mogul Bill Veeck and a small handful of other investors officially purchased the Cleveland Indians organization, setting the stage less than two years later for one of the most exciting pennant chases the game of baseball had ever seen and one of a handful of sports moments forever celebrated in the city of Cleveland.
Veeck, then 32 years old, had spent his life involved in the game of baseball.
His father, William Veeck , Sr., was a sports writer and later the president of the Chicago Cubs. The junior Veeck worked odd jobs with the Cubs before leaving the club in 1941 when he and former Cubs player and manager Charlie Grimm purchased the Triple-A Milwaukee Brewers. In the years that followed, he found himself involved in World War II for nearly three years, where he lost his right foot and later part of his leg as a result of his service. While serving with the Marines in the Third Anti-Aircraft Company, his ankle was shattered by the recoil of a 90-millimeter gun.
The rumor of his interest in the Tribe was reported in The Plain Dealer on May 27, 1946. The front page story was a surprise to many, as his rumored offer of $1,400,000 with Chicago attorney Oscar Salenger and Buffalo concessionaire Louis M. Jacobs contradicted the supposed intentions of Indians president Alva Bradley.
“I haven’t seen Bill Veeck for years and I do not know Salenger or Jacobs,” he was quoted in the newspaper that day. “I never have heard of their reported offer and the rumor is entirely unfounded.”
Veeck’s stealth stance took a similar tone.
“The day before yesterday I was supposed to be buying the Pittsburgh Pirates,” Veeck was quoted from Hinsdale, Illinois. “Tomorrow they may have me buying the Philadelphia Phils. In the first place, where could I get any part of that kind of money?
“I better leave for my home in Tucson, Ariz. As long as I am around here everybody is speculating that I am going back into the baseball business.”
The rumors persisted. As the saying goes, where there is smoke, there is fire, and there was some heated interested by the rumored gentlemen in claiming a stake of the Cleveland franchise.
On June 9, 1946, the Milwaukee Journal indicated that both Salenger and Veeck were in New York to “resume negotiations for the purchase of the Cleveland Indians.” Reached at his home, Bradley reiterated his earlier position, repeating that he knew nothing about any reported sales of the Indians to the group of investors from Wisconsin.
The cat was out of the bag just over a week later, when William Harridge, president of the American League, confirmed on June 18 what neither men was willing to admit when he shared with the Associated Press that the link between the Indians and potential investors was indeed a reality.
“There is a deal on,” the AL president was quoted in the story, “but details must be worked out. Veeck and [Harry] Grabiner are hopeful of completing the deal within a week.”
Bradley and a fellow major stockholder in the Indians franchise, John Sherwin, Jr., denied knowledge of any negotiations when reached for comment, but the rumors continued to fly as Jacobs’ involvement in the pursuit was also confirmed. The Bradley family had approximately a quarter of the stock in the club, and was joined as stockholders by Joseph Hostetler, Francis Sherwin, and I.F. Freiberger, along with the estates of C.L. Bradley, Newton D. Baker, and George A Martin. The team had been run by that ownership group since it was purchased from the wife of the late James Dunn in December of 1927.
While neither Bradley nor Sherwin claimed to have seen Veeck, people within the city had seen the aspiring MLB owner. He had been staying in hotels in the city under pseudonyms, using the aliases Mr. Edwards and Mr. Lewis to try to hide his identity.
Veeck was reported to have raised $700,000 at the time and had been discussing business arrangements with “several New York figures of stage and movie fame”. As the move became more and more a reality, Veeck shared that he had attempted to purchase the team prior to the trading deadline to bulk up the roster both for the rest of the year and the years ahead.
“The Indians have the best pitcher in baseball in Bob Feller,” Veeck was quoted in the June 20 edition of The Plain Dealer. “I also have been very much impressed with Steve Gromek and Allie Reynolds. The team will have to be bolstered in other departments, however, before it can become a serious contender for the pennant.”
Also on June 19, the Cleveland Baseball Co. board of directors elected to take Veeck and company’s offer to the stockholders for a vote. Bradley was vocal about his role in the Indians future.
“I’m pulling out and I’ll sell my stock,” Bradley was quoted in the June 20 edition of The Plain Dealer. “I don’t care to go along with outsiders. If it were the Prince of Wales coming in I still would withdraw. I’m interested in Cleveland first, last and always.”
The new partners all arrived in town to complete the deal on June 22, with Veeck and Grabiner joined by a pair of Chicago bankers, a movie executive, and movie/radio comedian Bob Hope, a late addition to the group.
“We considered the best purchase possibilities among major league teams and listed Cleveland and Pittsburgh,” shared Veeck in The Plain Dealer on the day the move became official. “It was decided that I make a trip to Cleveland to get an ‘estimate of the situation’. I never went any further. I learned that the club could be bought and I was sold on Cleveland as a sports city and a center of diversified industry.”
Veeck began work on rebuilding his ball club, hoping to get the team into the World Series in less than four years while seeking to bring a pennant to Cleveland quicker than Dunn did during his ownership tenure. After several small moves to close out the season, he made his first big splash by trading Reynolds, one of the starting pitchers that he had shared an appreciation for, to the New York Yankees for second baseman Joe Gordon.
And so began the building of the contender that the Indians would become, and in impressive time.
He made a third trade in a three-month span with the Yankees that December, trading Sherm Lollar and Ray Mack for Gene Bearden, Al Gettel, and Hal Peck. All three would have some sort of role in the 1948 Indians team that would shock the city, the game of baseball, and the world.
In his first full season of ownership, Veeck’s Indians finished 80-74, in fourth place in the American League and heading in a positive direction after a 68-86 finish in 1946. It wasn’t the way that the season ended that was the most noteworthy thing for the Indians that year; it was the signing of the American League’s first African-American ball player, Larry Doby, who debuted a short time after Jackie Robinson first put on a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform.
Doby’s effect, at least from a purely baseball standpoint, would not be felt until the next season, when he would hit .301 in 121 games with 23 doubles, nine triples, 14 homers and 66 RBI in his first full season in the Majors while learning the outfield position on the fly.
Following the 1947 season, the career of Mel Harder came to an end. The Tribe made some more moves, adding Wally Judnich, Bob Muncrief, and Johnny Berardino from St. Louis in a pair of trades. They added Allie Clark from the Yankees in December and Thurman Tucker from the Chicago White Sox in January of 1948, while also bringing on board several names that would affect the Indians of the future, including Ray Narleski, Bobby Avila, and Minnie Minoso.
In April, he purchased reliever Russ Christopher from Philadelphia and in June, he made two big trades to acquire outfielder Bob Kennedy and pitcher Sam Zoldak from Chicago and St. Louis, respectively. He was criticized nationally by some for his “publicity stunt” signing of Negro League star Satchel Paige in the first week of July, but his solid showing over the second half of the season proved the doubters wrong.
The pitching staff, with breakout seasons from Bob Lemon and Bearden and a rough one from Feller, kept the Indians going. Their lineup, with the likes of Lou Boudreau, Ken Keltner, Gordon, Doby, and others, was nothing to slouch on.
Veeck’s Indians would fight back and forth all season long, losing briefly their claim to first place in July and again in late August after they retook the top spot during an eight-game winning streak. Two separate seven-game winning streaks in September got them right back into the pennant push, culminating in a first place tie on October 3 that forced baseball’s first one-game playoff for the American League pennant.
The Indians claimed the win and the pennant, 8-3, backed by Bearden and a pair of homers from shortstop/manager Boudreau, to send the team to their second World Series in their 48-year history. They would win the World Series on the road, taking the series four games to two, to complete their historic season and the last World Championship for the Cleveland franchise in baseball.
Upon their arrival via train from Boston on October 12, 1948, the Indians players and personnel climbed aboard a dozen vehicles that made their slow procession from the Cleveland Union Terminal to University Circle, starting at 8:30 in the morning. Estimates were rough, with anywhere from 200,000 to 500,000 fans turning out to celebrate the first baseball championship in Cleveland in 28 years.
In their title defense the following season, the Indians came up short, with Veeck famously burying the 1948 pennant flag in a ceremony that year while the team finished 89-65 and in third place in the AL, eight games in back of the Yankees. Late in the year, Veeck and his first wife divorced. With much of his money tied up in his ownership of the Indians, he sold the team to help pay the divorce settlement, ending his time with the Cleveland Indians.
The great showman returned to the game in 1951, remarried and with the St. Louis Browns. He later spent many years with the Chicago White Sox, lasting through the 1980 season. He died in 1986 and entered the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991.
The Indians would return to the World Series a few short years later, but would be swept by the New York Giants in 1954. Two other attempts at bringing home a title to Cleveland fell short, leaving the task to the NBA’s Cavaliers on June 19, 2016, ending the 52-year drought between professional sports titles in the much-maligned town.
Photo: Plain Dealer file photo