1920: Tragedy and Triumph
Since 2003, Major League Baseball has used the All-Star Game to determine home field advantage for the World Series.
It’s a dumb idea, implemented as a knee-jerk reaction to the 2002 All-Star Game, which ended as a tie as both managers, who treated the game as a glorified exhibition, blew through their rosters as the game went into extra innings.
But it’s really not much dumber than the way home field advantage was determined before that: It simply alternated between leagues, with no consideration for which team assembled the better regular season record.
The 1920 World Championship was the high mark for the Indians, who had reached baseball’s pinnacle after finishing second in the previous two years. It wouldn’t last.
The Yankees’ purchase of Babe Ruth was a game changer. The speed that people thought was lacking on the team as the season dawned turned out to be unnecessary, as it was more than replaced by power. Ruth ended the season with 54 home runs, and would hit 50 or more in a season four more times, including setting the record of 60 in 1927. With six pennants and three World Series wins in the next decade, the Yankees would become the power of the American League for the better part of the next half-century.
Oct. 12, 1920 – Columbus Day – was a beautiful day in Cleveland. It was sunny and approaching 70 degrees as everyone prepared for the final World Series game at League Park.
The Indians had won three straight games at home to take a four games to two lead in the World Series. A win that day would end the series. A loss would send it back to Brooklyn. Tris Speaker danced with the one that brung him, and opted to start Stan Coveleski again. It would be his third start in the series, and he’d won his previous two. Robins manager and namesake Wilbert Robinson opted for Burleigh Grimes, who had won game two at Ebbets Field, but lost game five in Cleveland. Robinson had mentioned possibly starting Rube Marquard, but the Cleveland native was in Brooklyn owner Charles Ebbets’ doghouse after getting arrested for scalping tickets.
Game 6 marked the first World Series game played in Cleveland on a workday. But thousands of people had made plans to be at League Park or someplace that wasn’t work to get regular results from the game.
The box office at League Park opened at 9:30 that morning, and by 10, crowds were starting to fill in the stands – four hours before the scheduled start time. Within an hour of that, boys were climbing trees around the ballpark for a vantage point to see some of the game, and rooftops along Lexington Avenue started to fill with fans. C. A. Reichheld, president of the Acme Awning Co., said the roof of the building was reserved for employees and their friends. “If we let everybody up who wants to get up the building would have collapsed long ago,” he said.
Once again, former Cleveland mayor and then-Secretary of War Newton D. Baker was in the stands. This time he was accompanied by Myron Herrick, the U.S. ambassador to France. Herrick, a Lorain County native, had served as a Cleveland councilman and was governor. Warren Harding, the Marion native running as a Republican for President in 1920, was Herrick’s lieutenant governor.
There are certain World Series games that are instant classics, like Game 6 in 1975, when Carlton Fisk willed a home run fair to keep the Red Sox alive in the series. And Game 6 in 1986, when the Red Sox snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, giving the Mets new life.
And there are some that represent history. Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series was the first and to date only of its kind, and Game 6 in 1977 saw Reggie Jackson hit three home runs in three successive at-bats, each on the first pitch he saw from a different pitcher.
During the first World Series played in Cleveland, police were on the lookout for scalpers, and before Game 5, they found a most unlikely one in their dragnet.
Even though Indians owner Jim Dunn added 6,000 seats to League Park to accommodate crazed fans, ticket prices went well over face value for $6 for a box seat and $5.50, $4.40 and $3.30 for reserved seats. More than 3,000 fans came from Brooklyn without tickets, and secondhand prices went from $15 to $60, as the team hired 50 people to patrol any stores that might be scalping tickets. Dodgers outfielder Zack Wheat was actually approached by someone who offered to sell him four tickets for Game 4.
It was a party nearly 20 years in the making on Oct. 9, 1920. The Fifth City would host its first World Series game as the Indians hosted the Dodgers at League Park.
“Two Ohioans are running for the presidency,” the Plain Dealer wrote, referring to James Cox of Dayton, the Democratic nominee, and Warren Harding, a Republican from Marion. “No one in Cleveland cared.”
Game time was 2 p.m., but the gates opened at 10 a.m., with 9,000 general admission seats available. They sold quickly, and the bleachers filled up by 10:30 a.m. A packed house of 25,734 would watch Stan Coveleski match up against the Dodgers’ Leon Cadore. Among the crowd were about 50 people who were present at a dinner when Jim Dunn bought the Indians. Most of them were employees of the Carlin Rivet Works; owner Anthony Carlin had sponsored the banquet. At it, Dunn promised he would bring a World Series to Cleveland, and everyone in the room would be his guest at the first game. It took four years, but he made good on the promise.
In the summer of 1919, Ray Caldwell was on baseball’s discard pile, having been cut loose by the Red Sox. He was almost universally regarded as talented, but his taste for alcohol and nightlife did him no favors.
Tris Speaker signed Caldwell – with a clause in his contract that he would get drunk after each start. He started six games, winning five – including one where not only was he hit by lightning at League Park, but he got up and finished the game afterward – and remained on the team for 1920, going 20-10. He would be the Indians’ starter for Game 3 of the World Series.
Indians manager Tris Speaker was fortunate enough that for game 2 of the 1920 World Series, he could send a 30-game winner to the mound. Jim Bagby would face off against Burleigh Grimes. Robins manager and namesake Wilbert Robinson pitched Rube Marquard in the opener because Ebbets Field, like League Park, had a short right field. Now down a game in the series, Robinson elected to go with his ace Grimes, who had won 23 games for the Robins that year.
Larry Gardner doubled to left to lead off the second inning. Doc Johnston tried to sacrifice to move Gardner to third, but Grimes fielded and Gardner was caught in a rundown. Joe Sewell popped out and Johnston tried – and failed – to steal second.
Abraham Lincoln had come through the old Union Depot in Clevleand, near where the Shoreway meets West Fourth Street now on the way to Washington to be inaugurated. And his funeral train came through the station on the way to his final resting place in Illinois. And on Oct. 4, 1920, as plans were surreptitiously being made for a new train station on the edge of Public Square – the Terminal Tower – a train carrying the conquering heroes stopped as the American League champion Indians made a brief stopover in Cleveland before heading to Brooklyn for the start of the World Series.
Manager Tris Speaker made it a point to stop in Cleveland for a strategy and recharging session. They would depart by train that evening to arrive in Brooklyn for the World Series. They wouldn’t have a morning practice, seeing Ebbets Field for the first time when they got there for the game.
In July 1920, Mickey Silverman, the night manager of the Associated Press office in Cleveland, spent part of his vacation in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Silverman returned and dutifully reported to Plain Dealer writer that the town was completely crazy over baseball …
The 1920 World Series would feature two teams in search of their first championship. But unlike the Indians, who were making their first appearance in the Fall Classic, their opponent, the Brooklyn Dodgers, were making their second appearance in four years.
The Dodgers had joined the National League in 1890, while Brooklyn was still its own city. The Dodgers – short for Trolley Dodgers, a reference to the streetcars that crossed the city – had been able to survive among several teams within the city, but as Brooklyn became a borough of New York City, the Dodgers played in the shadow of the New York Giants.