1920: Tragedy and Triumph
The Indians departed Cleveland for St. Louis on Sept. 25 hanging on to a half-game lead in the American League. If ever there was a time to put it away, it would be against the Browns, a fourth-place team that the Indians had been able to handle throughout the year.
The Indians scored three in the first inning, but Ray Caldwell got shelled in the bottom half of the frame, giving up five runs. Indians player-manager Tris Speaker turned to George Uhle, a second-year player who had won 10 games in 1919. Uhle had made just six starts that year, and his ERA was up over 5. But that day, he threw six shutout innings and helped start a third-inning rally with a two-run double. Stan Coveleski came on for the save and the Indians won 7-5. Meanwhile, the White Sox beat the Tigers 8-1 to keep pace.
Duster Mails took the hill for the Indians at Sportsman’s Park on Sept. 27, and the Browns countered with Dixie Davis. Mails gave up a bases-loaded single to George Sisler, putting the Browns up 2-0, but settled in for his seventh win of the season as the Indians won 8-4. Charlie Jamieson picked a great time for his first home run, hitting a three-run shot in the top of the eighth. The White Sox shut out the Tigers that day, 2-0, and once again, the Indians remained half a game up.
On Sept. 23, the Indians were clinging to a 1 ½ game lead over the White Sox as the two teams started a three-game series at League Park. There were 10 games left to play, and the pennant was still up for grabs.
But the White Sox had other things to worry about. The grand jury impaneled to look into allegations of the fixing of a Phillies-Cubs game had started hearing testimony that was regarded as unthinkable: That the White Sox had thrown the previous year’s World Series.
“The last World Series between the Chicago White Sox and Cincinnati Reds was not on the square,” Assistant State’s Attorney Hartley Replogle said. “From five to seven players on the White Sox team are involved.”
On Sept. 9, as the Yankees came to Cleveland for a crucial series, several brokerage houses received urgent telegrams saying that Babe Ruth, the Yankees’ feared slugger, was incapacitated in a car wreck that killed two of his teammates.
It was Ruth’s second near-death experience that year. One was real and one was rumored.
Ruth, who had become a celebrity upon his arrival in New York City, thanks in no small part to the princely paycheck he would receive, bought a Packard Twin Six. The company, which emphasized its engineering and luxury with an ad campaign saying, “Ask the Man Who Owns One,” made the first production V-12, a powerful engine. And Ruth was determined to drive it as fast as he could, making regular appearances in New York courts for speeding tickets.
On Sept. 6, the Indians made a move that would reap dividends for them in the short term for that season and pay off in the long run as well.
The Indians signed a 21-year-old shortstop from New Orleans named Joe Sewell. He would soon be their starting shortstop.
On Sept. 3, the Indians returned to Cleveland following a 15-game road swing. The eight-team American League was informally divided into a western group of cities – Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago and St. Louis – and an eastern group consisting of New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington D.C.
The Indians had just gone through the eastern cities, starting with the Yankees at the Polo Grounds. Ray Chapman was fatally beaned in the first game of the road trip, and the rescheduling had played havoc with the team, which had lost eight of the first 12 games of the trip, dropping them into third place, trailing the Yankees and White Sox.
Editor’s note: This interview appeared in the November 1920 issue of Baseball Magazine.
Carl Mays is unpopular. And his big league career has been stormy beyond all precedent. But a fair minded public knows there are always two sides to a story. The case against Mays has been thoroughly aired. We thought it but fair to allow Mays to state his side of the case. And this he has done with unusual frankness in the following remarkable interview with the Editor of the Baseball Magazine.
“Mays should be strung up,” Doc Johnston said.
Mays was given the news by a Yankees secretary around 10 a.m. Aug. 17 – just as Katy Chapman’s train was arriving from Cleveland. Shortly after that, Mays’ apartment in Coogan’s Bluff had a pair of police officers and a lawyer on retainer from the Yankees. Chapman would have to make a statement.
He was taken to the district attorney’s office. Although this was the first – and to date, only – fatal beaning in the major leagues, it had happened in the minor leagues before, and charges were not filed in any previous incident.
Tris Speaker didn’t sleep a wink the night Ray Chapman died. He stayed up in his room, along with Jack Graney and Steve O’Neill, hoping for the best but fearing the worst. Their worst fears were confirmed when Ray Chapman died at 4:40 a.m., Aug. 17, 1920.
The team visited the mortuary that day for a viewing. Graney and O’Neill passed out. Chapman’s teammates wept as they recollected his playing skill and his sunny disposition.
“It is not the baseball player I mourn,” Speaker said. “It is the pal, the truest pal man ever had.”
After a four-game sweep by the Yankees at League Park, the Indians had watched their lead in the American league dwindle from 4 ½ games down to just half a game. A loss to the St. Louis Browns put the Indians half a game back of the Yankees, who were demonstrating that they didn’t need speed when they had power. The Indians were able to put an end to the five-game skid with a shutout by Bob Clark, the pitcher from Susquehanna, Pa., who had thrown batting practice and came on in relief in the exhibition in July against the Reds. It was Clark’s first – and only – major league win.
The Indians rolled into New York City for a make-or-break series with the Yankees, but they were still optimistic enough to take requests for World Series tickets. Stan Coveleski would take the mound for the Tribe in the Polo Grounds, facing submariner Carl Mays. It was an unpleasant day in Harlem, with temperatures in the 80s and humidity beyond that, but 23,000 people had shown up for the game.
Aug. 5, 1920, was a happy day for Indians fans. The Yankees had gone 4-8 in their last 12 after keeping pace with the Tribe for so long, and had dropped to four games back of the Indians in the American League standings. In fact, they were in danger of being overtaken by the third-place White Sox, who were just half a game back of the Yankees.
The four-game lead was the largest of the year for the Indians, and three days later, they held a 4 ½ game lead as the Yankees were coming to town again. The Yankees limped into Cleveland, having lost eight of their last 13. It represented a chance for the Indians to finish off their pesky pursuers, who like the Indians, had never won a pennant.
By the time the Yankees came to town, Babe Ruth had clubbed 41 home runs, a number that was simply incomprehensible to fans. Ruth was hitting more home runs than entire teams were that year. He had become one of the biggest draws in sports, so much so that he was offered an all-expense paid trip to Cuba in the offseason to play baseball. The Plain Dealer suggested that the series would break attendance records for an all-weekday series.
The Indians went 20-12 in their month-long road trip, having left Cleveland clinging to a 1 ½-game lead. In that time, they’d visited every city in the American League , finishing up with a four-game set at the Polo Grounds. The Yankees had took three of four from the Indians, but the Tribe escaped Harlem with a win on July 24, the last day of the series, and held on to a tie for first.
The Indians would start a 21-game homestand before another trip to New York (which would turn out to be a fateful one) with a game against the White Sox. Stan Coveleski took the hill in the friendly confines of League Park on July 25, and got all the run support he needed, with a home run by Tris Speaker and doubles by Ray Chapman, Larry Gardner, Doc Johnston and Steve O’Neill. Coveleski himself doubled as well as the Indians won 7-2. Lefty Williams took the loss for the White Sox, who promptly left town after playing just one game.
The Yankees, an also-ran in the American League since they relocated to New York from Baltimore in 1903, might not have fully formed in 1920 as the dynasty they would become, but they were already the biggest draw in Major …