If the Indians of the late 1930s and early 1940s are known for anything to casual fans, it’s for the skill of a youthful Bob Feller.
But there’s so much more to those teams, as Scott Longert wrote in his latest book, “Bad Boys, Bad Times,” the follow-up to “No Money, No Beer, No Pennants,” a history from Alva Bradley’s purchase of the team in 1927 to Feller’s arrival in 1936. Longert plans on a third book about baseball during World War II, culminating with Bill Veeck’s purchase of the team and its subsequent championship.
“If all goes well, I’ll take it to 1948,” said Longert, who in the meantime just completed work on a children’s book about Cy Young. “I think that will complete the trilogy.”
The “Bad Boys” of the title can refer to so many people. The book starts with Indians General Manager Cy Slapnicka getting called on the carpet for less than legal proceedings with Feller and Massillon native Tommy Henrich, who was actually declared a free agent and signed with the Yankees. The book also mentions how scout Harold Irelan essentially took advantage of Lou Boudreau’s naivete and essentially cost him his college eligibility.
It talks about pitcher Johnny Allen’s truculence, Ben Chapman’s bench jockeying (he would go down in infamy as the Phillies manager who derided Jackie Robinson during his rookie year) and Rollie Hemsley’s alcoholism. But the centerpiece of the book – and indeed, the entire era in Indians history – is a player revolt against manager Ossie Vitt in 1940. Vitt was hired to replace Steve O’Neill, a longtime Indians catcher who spent two seasons and change as Tribe manager.
By most accounts, it was a disaster. Vitt was an angry man, prone to publicly mocking his players. Longert, who pointed out that Vitt never managed or coached on the major league level after his time in Cleveland, noted that in his research, he found a Sporting News interview with Jeff Heath from the 1960s, and Heath still harbored ill will.
“Guys really hated him with a passion,” Longert said of Vitt. “It was a major issue and it undid the team.”
The team came to Bradley seeking his firing in the middle of the 1940 season. Bradley feared the precedent it would set, but the damage was done. The Indians had a disastrous September, derided as crybabies in the press, and ended up finishing second to the Tigers.
“When Bradley sold the team, he said it was his one lasting regret that he didn’t make a move,” Longert said. “I think it would have resulted in the pennant.”
The book ends with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the United States’ entry into World War II. Feller joined the Navy, and many other ballplayers also enlisted. The following January, Franklin Roosevelt wrote his “green light letter” to Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, saying that baseball was vital for the national morale.
“There was a legitimate concern there would be no baseball during World War II,” Longert said.
Photo: Ohio University Press