The CLEVELAND INDIANS baseball team, a charter member of the American League, founded in 1901, was originally named the Blues, then the Broncos, and from 1903-11 was known as the Naps, in honor of player-manager NAPOLEON LAJOIE. From 1912-14 the team was officially named the Molly McGuires but popularly was still called the Naps. In 1915 Lajoie was traded and, based on sportswriters' suggestions, the team became permanently known as the Indians, a nickname used in the 1890s when the Amerindian LOUIS "CHIEF" SOCKALEXIS played for the old National League CLEVELAND SPIDERS.
Under the aegis of the original owners, Cleveland businessmen John Kilfoyle (president, 1901-08) and CHARLES SOMERS (1908-15), the team began to develop a farm system to improve their play. However, the club, which played in LEAGUE PARK at E. 65th St. and Lexington Ave., was a serious pennant contender only in 1908. Major changes in 1915-16 affected the team: the trade of Lajoie, the adoption of the "Indians" nickname, and its sale to a Chicago-based group headed by James Dunn. On the field, things improved under player-manager TRISTRAM "TRIS" SPEAKER; in 1920 the Indians won their first pennant and defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series. In the 1920s and 1930s the team usually finished in the first division, but only challenged for the pennant in 1921 and 1926.
In 1927 a Cleveland syndicate, including the Van Sweringen brothers, NEWTON D. BAKER, and Alva Bradley (who served as president until 1946), purchased the team and participated in the construction of CLEVELAND MUNICIPAL STADIUM on the lakefront. Municipal Stadium, more than twice the capacity of League Park and designed for access by automobile, opened in July 1931. The Indians played their first game there in 1932, but continued to play weekday games at League Park until 1947. Although the club was a preseason favorite to win the pennant in 1940, personal hostilities between manager Oscar Vitt and his leading players, dubbed the "Cry Babies," contributed to a 2nd place finish.
Between 1946 and 1949 Chicago businessman Bill Veeck owned the Indians, selling it to a Cleveland syndicate headed by Ellis Ryan and Hank Greenberg after the 1949 season. His tenure is still remembered as the team's golden age. Veeck brought an uninhibited enthusiasm and imagination to promotional matters, dramatically increasing attendance as the team rapidly improved its play on the field. Under player-managers Lou Boudreau and then Al Lopez, the Indians regularly challenged the New York Yankees for the pennant with the dominant pitching of Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, and Early Wynn, among others. In the memorable 1948 season the Indians, led by Boudreau, beat the Boston Red Sox 8-3 in a 1-game pennant playoff and went on to defeat the Boston Braves in the World Series. The team also won the 1954 pennant under Lopez, setting a record for most regular-season victories (111), but lost the World Series to the New York Giants in a demoralizing 4-game sweep.
From the 1960s on, the Indians had difficulty maintaining consistency and competitive respectability. Declining attendance, frequent managerial changes, and a disintegration of the farm-team and scouting systems all contributed to, and were prompted by, instability in team ownership. Ryan sold out to Myron Wilson in 1953, and he in turn to William Daley. In 1961-62 Gabe Paul became president and general manager until his forced retirement in 1985. Team ownership and the presidency were assumed by VERNON STOUFFER in 1966 and a decade later by Nick Mileti, both of whom lost money amid rumors that the team might move to another city. Hiring Frank Robinson as player-manager in the mid-1970s (baseball's first black manager) failed to reverse the downward trend. In 1978 FRANCIS JOSEPH "STEVE" O'NEILL became the principal owner of the club, but by the mid-1980s the O'Neill heirs sought new ownership for the team. In 1986 Richard E. and DAVID H. JACOBS purchased the team. In the mid-1980s the Indians had two winning seasons under new ownership and new president Peter Bavasi, and the Jacobs brothers began to revitalize the Indians farm system. When the club moved from the stadium to Jacobs field at Gateway in 1994, their minor league organization consisted of the Buffalo Bisons of the American Assn. (Class AAA), Canton-Akron Indians, Eastern League (Class AA), and 3 Class A teams. The 1994 realignment of the American League teams placed the Indians in the newly formed Central Division, which expanded the opportunities to participate in the playoffs for the pennant. Unfortunately, the major league players' strike of 1994 resulted in the cancellation of the 1994 season. In the shortened 1995 season the Indians, led by manager Mike Hargrove and star players Orel Hershiser, Omar Vizquel, Kenny Lofton, and Carlos Baerga, captured the Central Division title by 30 games with a 100-44 record. Left-fielder Albert Belle hit 50 home runs and 52 doubles, a major league first, while relief pitcher Jose Mesa broke the consecutive-saves record with 38 straight saves, finishing with 46 for the season. The Indians advanced to the World Series for the first time in 41 years with victories in the divisional and league championship series over the Boston Red Sox and the Seattle Mariners, respectively, although they fell short in the World Series as they were defeated by the Atlanta Braves 4 games to 2 (see BASEBALL WORLD SERIES).
In 1996, the Indians won its second Central Division championship and a league leading 99 games. However hopes to advance to its second straight World Series were put to an end by a ninth-inning RBI single and 12th-inning homerun by Baltimore's Roberto Alomar in the fourth game of the American League Division Series. The off-season saw major changes as Albert Belle signed with the Chicago White Sox as a free agent and Kenny Lofton was traded to the Atlanta Braves in a deal that brought Marquis Grissom and David Justice to Cleveland. Catcher Sandy Alomar, Jr. sparkled for the Indians during the 1997 regular season, winning the MVP honors at the 68th All-Star Game held at Jacobs Field and piecing together a 30-game hitting streak. After winning a third straight Central Division Championship title, the Indians advanced to the World Series by beating the Yankees in the divisional series and Baltimore in the American League Championship Series. The Indians faced the Florida Marlins in the World Series. The Indians were an inning away from winning the series in the seventh game when Jose Mesa gave up a ninth inning RBI single, squandering a 2-1 lead. The Marlins won the game in the bottom of the 11th inning off of a two-out bases loaded single by Edgar Renteria. In 1998, the Indians captured the Central Division title once again, but lost to the Yankees in the American League Championship series, after getting past the Red Sox in the divisional series. The 1999 season was marked by an incredible display of offensive power, aided by the addition of free-agent Roberto Alomar in the off-season. A team-record 1009 runs were scored as the Indians won 97 games. Manny Ramirez's 165 RBIs were the most by any player since 1935. Setting a franchise record, the Indians also led the American League in attendance for the first time since 1948. Unfortunately the team's pitching broke down as the Indians lost to the Red Sox in the divisional series.
Following the Indians' collapse in the 1999 playoffs, Mike Hargrove was fired as team skipper by general manager John Hart. Hargrove led the Indians to two World Series and five Central Division titles in eight seasons. Charlie Manuel, the Indians' popular hitting coach, was given his first chance to manage a big-league team after 37 years of coaching pro ball. Manuel became the 37th manager of the Cleveland Indians. Days after Manuel was hired, Larry Dolan, became the 16th owner of the franchise, buying the team from Richard E. Jacobs for $320 million, at the time the most ever paid for a baseball team. Under Jacobs the Indians had turned from a moribund team into a perennial powerhouse. In addition to its success on the field, the team had run its major-league record for consecutive sell-outs to 373. In 1998, Jacobs had turned the team into the only publicly traded baseball team, while he retained full control of its operations. The sale was finalized when the shareholders formally voted in the Spring of 2000 to sell their shares to Dolan. A fair amount of success marked the beginning of the Dolan era: The Tribe missed the playoffs by one game in 2000, but won its sixth American League Central Division crown in 2001, losing to the Seattle Mariners in the playoffs. However, it was clear by 2002 that the team was in a "rebuilding period": John Hart had left in 2001 to join the Texas Rangers (replaced by Mark Shapiro), and Charlie Manuel was fired in 2002, replaced by Joel Skinner. Throughout the year, Tribe notables, such as Roberto Alomar, Bartolo Colon and Kenny Lofton were traded, and the team came nowhere close to reaching the playoffs.
At the close of the 2002 season, Eric Wedge was called up from the Indian's Triple A affiliate the Buffalo Bisons and replaced Jim Leyland as 39th manager of the Cleveland Indians. At age 35, Wedge became one of the youngest managers in baseball history. Wedge focused on the development of the young talents of Victor Martinez, Travis Hafner, Jhonny Peralta, Grady Sizemore and pitching ace C.C. Sabathia, improving the Indians from a fourth place finish his freshman season to a division championship in 2007.
In January of 2008, the franchise entered a sixteen year agreement with Cleveland-based Progressive Insurance for naming rights to Jacobs Field at an average annual cost of $3.6 million. As part of the deal, Progressive also gained sponsorship rights as the official auto insurer of the team.
In 2008 Cliff Lee became Cleveland’s second straight American League Cy Young winner following C.C. Sabathia’s 2007 campaign. However, Cleveland’s status as a “small market” club led them to trade Sabathia and Lee within a year of each of their Cy Young seasons instead of looking to resign or extend them. Eric Wedge was fired following a fourth place finish in 2009 and Manny Acta was hired to replace him in October of that year. However, the Indians’ poor luck continued as they finished with three straight losing seasons from 2010-2012 under Acta. These years were also marked by the rise and fall of star center fielder Grady Sizemore who never fulfilled MVP potential due to several major injuries.
To replace Acta, the club hired Terry Francona in 2012 who came in with an incredibly strong resume having won two World Series Championships as the manager of the Boston Red Sox. Under Francona, Cleveland’s luck began to turn. In 2013 they hosted the American League Wild Card Game after rattling off ten straight wins to close the season. However, they lost 4-0 to the Tampa Bay Rays ending their playoff run.
In 2014 and 2015 the Indians finished above .500 but failed to make the playoffs in each season. During this time Corey Kluber emerged as one of the best pitchers in the MLB. He won the Cy Young Award in 2014 to make it three for Cleveland in eight seasons. Outfielder Michael Brantley also emerged as a star in 2014 and finished third in AL MVP voting after batting .327 with 20 home runs and 23 stolen bases.
In 2016 the Indians broke into the playoffs winning the AL Central with a well rounded lineup of young talent and an elite pitching staff. Infielders Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor both batted above .300 while Mike Napoli and Carlos Santana added 34 home runs apiece. With the playoffs already in their grasp, the Indians suffered several major injuries. Starting pitchers Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco were each unable to log a start in the playoffs and starting catcher Yan Gomes missed nearly the entire postseason as well. In the American League Division Series the Indians swept the Red Sox with strong performances from all three of their healthy starters of Kluber, Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin. In the American League Championship series against the Toronto Blue Jays the pitching remained strong as they held Toronto to two runs or less in four of the five games which led to a lopsided 4-1 series win. In the 2016 World Series against the Chicago Cubs the Indians jumped out to a 3-1 series lead but the Cubs took back two games to send the series to a Game 7 which was the first winner take all World Series game ever hosted in Cleveland. The game went back and forth with Indians outfielder Rajai Davis hitting a dramatic home run off Cubs’ closer Aroldis Chapman to tie the game in the 8th. However, the Cubs ultimately won in the 10th inning. It marked the fourth straight World Series loss for the Indians and with the Cubs breaking their 108 year World Series championship drought, it gave the Indians the longest active championship drought in the MLB. Standouts of the 2016 postseason included Corey Kluber who started six games and had a 1.83 ERA. Reliever Andrew Miller also excelled in the playoffs striking out 30 with a 1.40 ERA in 19 ⅓ innings of work.
In 2017 the Indians were destined for more success with players recovering from injuries as well as the free agent addition of Edwin Encarnacion. The team won the AL Central and had the best record in baseball going 102-60. The Indians also had an American League record 22 game win streak during August and September. Once again the pitching excelled as Kluber won his second career AL Cy Young Award while Lindor, Ramirez, Brantley and Encarnacion led the offense. After gaining a 2-0 lead on the New York Yankees in the ALDS they bowed out of the playoffs as the offense went dormant and they lost three straight.
The Indians won their third straight AL Central title in 2018 and the starting rotation made history as the club became the first MLB team to have four pitchers finish with at least 200 strikeouts: Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer and Mike Clevinger. For the second straight year the Indians exited the playoffs in the first round after getting swept by the Houston Astros.
Following the 2018 season, the Indians retired the offensive Native American caricature logo CHIEF WAHOO from their uniforms.
In 2019 the Indians went 93-69 but failed to make the playoffs. In July of that year Progressive Field hosted the All Star Game and Indians starter Shane Bieber won the game’s MVP after striking out the side in the 5th inning en route to a 4-3 victory for the American League. In 2020 the Indians made it back to the playoffs after going 35-25 in the COVID-19 pandemic shortened season. It marked the eighth straight season that Terry Francona led the club to a winning season. Jose Ramirez finished second in AL MVP voting after batting .292 with 17 home runs and 46 RBIs. Shane Bieber won the AL Cy Young award to make it five for Cleveland in 14 years as he finished with a league leading 1.63 ERA and 122 strikeouts in just 12 starts. In the 2020 expanded Wild Card round of the MLB playoffs the Indians hosted the New York Yankees for a three game series but lost in two games extending the club’s playoff losing streak to eight.
In December 2020 team CEO and Chairman Paul Dolan announced the club would move to change the team’s name from Indians due to its offensive nature within the next few seasons.
From 2019 to 2021 the Indians made several trades that dealt the four starting pitchers that reached 200 strikeouts in 2018. In January 2021 along with Carlos Carrasco, Cleveland also traded star shortstop Francisco Lindor to the New York Mets leaving only Jose Ramirez and Roberto Perez as members of the 2016 World Series roster still on the team.
In 2021, the team announced that it was being renamed as the Cleveland Guardians, in a reference to the HOPE MEMORIAL BRIDGE that stands just outside Progressive Field. The new name would appear on uniforms and branded items in the 2022 season.
Updated by John Elrod
Lewis, Franklin. The Cleveland Indians (1949).
Torry, Jack. Endless Summers: The Fall and Rise of the Cleveland Indians (1995).