As Indians fans we are used to frustration and near misses. One team that came close, but no cigar, was a team that included a Francona, a fan favorite slugger and some of the most memorable and colorful players in Indians history.
They were number two in the American League, but were number one in our hearts: the 1959 Cleveland Indians.
The '59 Indians may have been the last hurrah for the franchise until the glory days of the 90's. They finished with an 89-55 record, fading a little at the end and finishing five games behind the AL Champ Go-Go White Sox. But it was quite a ride. The Indians had a collection of players that ranged from colorful to memorable to historic.
That summer the team did capture the favor of the fans. Everybody had their favorites. I remember you could collect some Indian baseball cards from inside a pack of Kahn’s Hot Dogs. (Known as “The Wieiner the World Awaited!”) Keep the hot dog juice off that Colavito card! Somewhere there is a family picture of me riding my first bike wearing my Tito Francona T-shirt (the original Tito).
The Indians drew just under one and a half million fans that year, good for the second best attendance in the American League. That's one and a half million people to old Cleveland Municipal Stadium. For those readers that are 25 years or younger, Municipal Stadium was no baseball palace. There was no color jumbotron, no luxury suites, no right-field district. Actually, there were barely any urinals. But there was good baseball that year, and plenty of seats available. If you liked baseball and the aroma of cigar smoke, Municipal Stadium was the place to be.
It seemed that there was a story to tell about every player on the team. The biggest story that year may have been Tito Francona. He did not begin the year as a starter, but eventually played an everyday utility role in the outfield and first base. Sort of an early day Jose Ramirez.
Francona hit .363 that year with 20 homers. He missed winning the batting title because of not having the minimum at bats required, but he finished fifth in the MVP voting. But Francona was not the only story. He was just the beginning.
• In 1959 Rocky Colavito became a household name and a legend in Cleveland sports. He hit a career high 42 homers that year. He hit four in one game against the Orioles in June. Rocky finished fourth in the MVP vote.
• Vic Power was the slickest fielding first basemen ever to play for the Indians. He was a colorful player that had a pretty good bat too. He rarely struck out. To this day he is one of the baseball heroes of Puerto Rico.
• Minnie Minoso hit .302 that year. He was a smart player that also got MVP votes.
• Shortstop Woodie Held slammed 29 homers that year. No other shortstop has come close to hitting that many for the Indians, though Asdrubal Cabrera came close with 25 homers in 2011.
• Jimmy Piersall had a major motion picture made about his career. But he was just another colorful guy on the '59 Indians. He covered centerfield.
• Scrappy Billy Martin played some second base here before he invented Billy Ball.
• At 33 years old Cal McLish led the team with a career high 19 victories.
• 22-year old Gary Bell won a career high 16 games.
• Some guy named Herb Score led the staff with 147 strikeouts.
The Indians and the White Sox had a dogfight for the league lead for most of the season. On a Wednesday night on August 26th, the Indians beat the Mantle and Berra led New York Yankees 5-4 in front of over 31,000 at Municipal Stadium. The Indians climbed to within one game of the White Sox. But that was as close as they got. The White Sox finished strong.
After that season, the Indians entered the Dark Ages. Fan favorite Rocky Colavito was mind-blowingly traded to the Tigers. It ripped the fans hearts out. The Indians hit the skids and only finished above .500 a handful of times over the next 30 years.
The Indians didn't win it all in '59, but they gave us the next best thing: stories. Stories that live on for generations. Stories about games, players, and kids having a good time at that big stadium by the lake.