Indians, Dodgers Missed Chances at True Rivalry

Because of the Indians’ quick – dare I say premature – playoff exit, we were deprived of a potential rematch of the 1920 World Series.

That was the first appearance in the Fall Classic for both teams, with the Indians prevailing in seven games (in the penultimate best-of-nine World Series). That World Series is also notable for being the first pitting two brothers against each other. Doc Johnston played for the Indians; his brother Jimmy played for the Dodgers.

The teams remained apart for most of the 20th century – with the distance increased after the Dodgers left Brooklyn for Los Angeles, their home since 1958.

But for a few small changes in fortune, the Indians and Dodgers could have been rivals in the 1950s and 1960s.

The 1950s Dodgers – heroes for integration and the apple of an entire borough’s eyes – were immortalized as “The Boys of Summer,” but they made frequent trips to the Fall Classic, winning pennants in 1949, 1952, 1953, 1955, and 1956. They lost the pennant on the last day of the 1950 season and lost in a memorable three-game playoff in 1951.

And in every World Series appearance in that span, they played the Yankees, then in the midst of a historic run of success. The pinstripers won five straight World Series from 1949 to 1953, bookended by Indians appearances in 1948 (their last win to date) and 1954 (an ignominious four-game sweep by the Giants). In 1948, the Dodgers finished third, seven and a half games behind Boston, and in 1954, they finished second, five games behind the Giants.

The Indians finished third in 1949 and fourth in 1950, but then finished second in each of the next five years but 1954, when they won 111 games and the pennant. In 1955, the Dodgers won their first and, as it turns out, only World Series in Brooklyn. Two years later, they moved west to Los Angeles after owner Walter O’Malley duked it out with New York power broker Robert Moses about a proposed new stadium in New York.

The Dodgers took to the West Coast well, winning a pennant (and ultimately a World Series) in 1959. Their opponent that October was the White Sox, a team bought by former Indians owner Bill Veeck, managed by former Indians manager Al Lopez, and with a staff ace of former Indians pitcher Early Wynn. That year, the Indians finished second in the American League.

The 1959 Dodgers team was a bridge between the Boys of Summer and the teams of the 1960s, led by the intimidating pitching duo of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. There was one more matchup with the Yankees, in 1963, a Dodgers sweep. The Yankees were in the twilight of their empire at that point, and would play in the 1964 World Series before falling into oblivion for the next decade, rescued only by free agency, which allowed owner George Steinbrenner to spend to his heart’s content in pursuit of a title.

Over the next four years, four different American League teams won the pennant. None of them were the Indians, who by then had sunk into the mire. The farm system was decimated in the 1950s, and the list of players dealt away comprises a pretty good team – one that could have challenged for the pennant if it was kept together: Norm Cash, Tommy John, Lou Piniella, and of course, Rocky Colavito. And imagine a pitching staff including Luis Tiant and Sam McDowell – guided by the steady hand of Herb Score, if he had escaped injury and reached the potential that was so great, the Red Sox were willing to offer $1 million for him to the Indians.

The Dodgers won the pennant in 1965 and 1966, but the premature retirements of Koufax and Drysdale set them back several years.

The Indians emerged from their 40 years in the desert in the 1990s, not long after the Dodgers had won an improbable World Series against the vaunted Athletics in 1988. In fact, one of the keys for the Indians was Orel Hershiser, the ace of that Dodgers team. But by then, the Dodgers were in disarray, and hadn’t fully emerged until the past couple years.

Maybe next year?

Photo: Cleveland Memory Project

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