The Cleveland Indians will honor another one of their legends of the past on Saturday, when the club unveils a statue of Lou Boudreau, its fifth at Progressive Field and its second to debut this season.
The statue of Boudreau will take up residence alongside two of his former teammates, Bob Feller and Larry Doby, outside of the Gate C entrance to the ballpark. The statues of Jim Thome and this year’s other addition, Frank Robinson, are on display inside the park.
It is not the first time that Boudreau has been honored by his former club or by Major League Baseball. He entered Cooperstown in 1970, ending a long journey on the ballots of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. That same year, his jersey number five was retired as he became the second player in franchise history (Feller) to be recognized in such a way.
Boudreau was also selected as one of the 100 greatest players in franchise history during the Indians’ 100th anniversary celebration, held at Jacobs Field on July 21, 2001. He was unable to attend and would pass away three weeks later at the age of 84.
Boudreau began his path to immortalization on July 17, 1917, when he was born in Harvey, Illinois. A sports star at Thornton High School and later at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he excelled on the basketball court as well as the baseball diamond. He led both squads to Big Ten Conference championships during the 1936-1937 sporting season and his basketball efforts earned him an NCAA All-American honor.
His professional baseball pursuits would eventually interfere with his college athletics eligibility. He attended a baseball tryout in 1937 at Wrigley Field, catching some eyes, but returning to college. The Indians showed their interest in the multi-sport athlete and came to an agreement with his divorced parents that he would sign with the club following his graduation, but he would be deemed ineligible by the Big Ten as a result and he headed to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to begin work with the Indians’ minor league team there in 1938.
The “Boy Wonder” would make his brief big league debut later that season, but got a bigger look in 1939, hitting .258 over 53 games. The next season, he became a staple of the Indians lineup for the next decade as he played in a league-leading 155 games, made the first of eight career All-Star trips, and even earned votes in the Most Valuable Player voting. He ended the season second in the league with 46 doubles and drove in 101 runs from the shortstop position.
Boudreau continued his extra-base contributions in 1941, leading the league in doubles with 45 while adding in eight triples and ten home runs.
His career trajectory took an interesting turn following that season. Indians owner Alva Bradley wanted to promote manager Roger Peckinpaugh to general manager to replace Cy Slapnicka. Boudreau’s name came up as a possible replacement, an unusual suggestion for “The Good Kid”. The Plain Dealer writer Gordon Cobbledick posited in an October 26, 1941, column that “Lou Boudreau is the kind of player who probably will be a good manager some day, but he isn’t ready to tackle the task yet. Nor do any of the veteran members of the team seem to possess the qualifications.”
Cobbledick also mentioned that Boston’s three-time AL MVP Jimmie Foxx, heading into the tail end of his successful career, would make more sense for the club. Foxx did not come to Cleveland at that point, however, and instead would be claimed off of waivers by the Chicago Cubs during the next season before later going on to manage in the minors.
Bradley stuck to his plan to move Peckinpaugh up the front office depth chart and Boudreau applied for the vacant managerial chair in a move that would change his career.
“I was only 24 years old at the time, with just four seasons of professional ball behind me. I figured I had nothing to lose because I didn’t tell anybody about it – not even my wife,” said Boudreau in quotes shared in a story following his death in The New York Times on August 11, 2001.
“I told him I was qualified to handle the job. I thought he might ignore it,” Boudreau shared, recalling the letter he had written to Bradley. “Instead, he called me into a meeting of club directors.”
The Cleveland Plain Dealer told the story in bold across the front page on November 26, 1941 – “BOUDREAU SIGNS TO MANAGE INDIANS”. Cobbledick’s secondary headline noted that the “shortstop is surprise choice after Bradley fails to find suitable leader among other candidates; Tribe seeks coaches to assist infielder; Peckinpaugh succeeds Slapnicka as General Manager”.
“The more I inspected the qualifications of various other candidates the more convinced I became that we couldn’t afford not to take advantage of Lou Boudreau’s natural gift for leadership,” Bradley was quoted in the November 26 story. “I don’t know of another man of whom I could be so certain that he would be thoroughly respected by players, press and public. Lou is smart, he’s a great ball player, a fine young man, a fighter and a leader.”
His new appointment made Boudreau became the youngest manager in baseball history with his two-year contract to manage the Cleveland baseball club. He was three years younger than the previous “boy manager”, Bucky Harris.
The pressures of the job might have gotten to “Old Shufflefoot” a bit in his first season in his dual role, as his numbers were down a bit and the Indians finished 75-79, the exact same record as the season before. They improved to 82-71 the next season but, by 1944, the club continued to find itself smack in the middle of the American League picture, despite a spike in his offensive production with a league-leading .327 average and 45 doubles. The effort earned him a sixth place finish in the MVP vote.
The Indians posted another winning season in 1947 and fans started to support the club, with attendance up nearly one million fans in just two seasons. The improvement was not enough for owner Bill Veeck, who thought that “the best shortstop in baseball was, in [his] opinion, not the best manager,” as he later shared in his book “Veeck as in Wreck”.
Rumor spread like wild fire of Veeck’s intentions to replace Boudreau, with Casey Stengel believed to be one leading candidate for the role. Fan outcry might have altered the change, with local newspaper accounts strongly opposing the move. Letters to the local media outlets from fans protested the proposed move and Boudreau remained at the helm.
Veeck’s decision not to make the move would pay off with a historic Indians season and the best season of Boudreau’s career.
Boudreau was on the bases with regularity throughout the season. He hit .355 with 34 doubles, six triples, and a career-high 18 homers while also setting a new personal-best with 106 RBI. Midseason, he was named to his eighth and final All-Star team. The Indians would win the American League pennant in a one-game playoff against the Boston Red Sox and would defeat the Boston Braves in six games in the World Series for the franchise’s second championship in as many trips.
Boudreau would be named the league’s Most Valuable Player for his efforts, the second Indians player to be honored so.
The Indians fell back to third in the standings the following season with an 89-65 record. Boudreau hit .284 while appearing in 134 games. They finished fourth the following season, despite a 92-62 record, and Boudreau was finished as a player and a manager in Cleveland as he was released after hitting .269 over 81 games.
Boudreau’s career continued in Boston with the Red Sox, where he played a pair of seasons. Injury cut short his 1951 season, limiting him to just 82 games. He played in just four games in 1952, while focusing more on his work as the club’s manager. The season would be his last as a player, but he would spend two more years in the Boston dugout as manager before guiding the Kansas City Athletics for parts of three seasons (1955-57).
His baseball career came full circle, in a way, when his path took him back home to Illinois and to Wrigley Field in 1958 for a position in the broadcast booth. It would be a short-term move, at least initially, as he would later swap roles with the Cubs’ manager, Charlie Grimm, and replaced him briefly in the dugout. Boudreau would be back in a broadcasting role for the Cubs in 1961 and would remain in that capacity with the club through the 1987 season.
The first 12,500 fans in attendance for the Indians game on Saturday will receive a replica of the Boudreau statue.
Photo: Conlon Collection