When the Astros dispatched the Yankees on Saturday night to close out the American League Championship Series, not only did they become the first team to represent each league in the World Series, they put an end to a strange coincidence in baseball history.
Six times the Indians have to the World Series, the most recent time last year. And until this year, the Yankees had always advanced to the Fall Classic in the following year.
Now admittedly, part of that is percentages. No team has gone to (or won) the World Series more than the Yankees. But it also represents the fortunes of the Indians that their times of great success coincided with similar success by New York – and indeed, in several occasions, the Tribe thwarted New York from even loftier heights.
Prior to the 1920 season, the Yankees made the bold purchase of Babe Ruth from the Red Sox for $125,000, then the most expensive price paid for one player (the Indians previously held that record, paying $55,000 for Tris Speaker – also sold by the Red Sox). A lot of writers saw the move as folly, saying that one player couldn’t make that much difference, even with Ruth, who had set a record with 29 home runs in 1919, playing the field instead of pitching. But sportswriter-turned-umpire Billy Evans, who still wrote a regular column, said of the Yankees, “there is so much offensive strength on the club that it seems unbeatable.”
The Yankees at that time were an afterthought in New York City, sharing the Polo Grounds with the Giants. But they fought for most of the year for the American League pennant. Eventually, the Indians won to advance to their first World Series, which they won, dispatching the Brooklyn Dodgers (then called the Robins in honor of their manager, Wilbert Robinson) in seven games in a best-of-nine series.
The next year, the Yankees would not be denied. They advanced to their first World Series, succumbing to the Giants in eight games in the last best-of-nine Fall Classic. It also marked the first time every game of a World Series was played in the same ballpark – a feat duplicated the following year, when the Yankees and Giants met again in October. Again, the Giants prevailed, this time in five games. The two teams met for a third time in 1923. By then, the Yankees had their own ballpark in the Bronx, called “The House that Ruth Built.” And this time, the Yankees won, the first of their 27 world championships.
The Indians, meanwhile, were sinking into mediocrity, a position they’d held by and large until the team was purchased in 1946 by impresario Bill Veeck. In 1947, the Yankees went to the World Series and won, beating the Dodgers, and contended for the pennant in 1948, but even with 94 wins, they finished out of the money as the Red Sox and Indians played a one-game tiebreaker at Fenway Park. The Tribe won to take the pennant, and then beat the Boston Braves in six games.
Bucky Harris had become manager of the Yankees in 1947, and stayed on for 1948 despite a change in ownership. But after the 1948 season, he was fired and replaced by a baseball lifer who didn’t have a notable track record: Casey Stengel, who had come from Oakland in the Pacific Coast League. When rumors swirled that Veeck was going to trade player-manager Lou Boudreau, Stengel was one of the rumored successors.
Under Stengel’s guidance, the Yankees went on an unparalleled streak, winning five straight World Series. In three of those years, the Indians finished second, and in all five, the Tribe won no fewer than 89 games.
Finally, in 1954, the Indians broke through, winning 111 games. This time, the Yankees finished second with 103 wins (ironically, Stengel’s highest win total in a single season). But the Indians were swept in the 1954 World Series.
The Yankees won the next two pennants – both times with the Indians finishing second – and met the Dodgers each year in the World Series, losing in 1955 (the Dodgers’ only title in Brooklyn) and winning the following year.
But the Indians were on borrowed time, as their farm system, once the envy of the major leagues, went into decline. The Yankees were also on borrowed time, but had a little more. After Stengel was fired following the 1960 series (the official reason was that he’d reached a retirement age, causing him to quip, “I’ll never make the mistake of turning 70 again”), the Yankees started their decline, culminating in fallow years in the late 1960s and early 1970s as the Athletics – who in their Kansas City days were regarded as a de facto Yankees farm team – rose to prominence.
The Indians wandered the metaphorical desert for 40 years, but the arrival of a new stadium brought with it a change in the team’s fortunes – including a World Series appearance in 1995. The Indians lost to the Braves, but it felt like a new era was dawning.
Unfortunately, a new era was also dawning in the Bronx. The Yankees were able to spend more money than the Indians – or really, anyone in the league – and their “core four” of homegrown talent of Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera all came of age at once. (Probably not coincidentally, all became part of the Yankees while George Steinbrenner was serving a three-year “lifetime” suspension.)
In 1996, the Indians had the best record in the major leagues, but were dispatched in the division round by the Orioles. The Yankees then beat Baltimore to advance to their first World Series in 15 years – which they won, beating the Braves.
The following year, the Indians limped into the postseason but got hot at the right time, beating the Yankees in the division series before beating the Orioles in the championship series. It was the last Indians appearance in the World Series until last year.
In 1998, the Yankees returned. They beat the Indians in the championship series and advanced to the World Series, beating the Padres. The Indians won division titles in 1999 and 2001, but each time failed to advance out of the first round. In both those years – and in 2000 – the Yankees represented the American League in the World Series. All told, the Yankees won five pennants in six years – and won all but one of those World Series. Only the Indians in 1997 kept them from a streak unparalleled since the 1950s.