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Cleveland's Three Great Pitchers




For nearly a decade, the city of Cleveland enjoyed the rare privilege of having three future Hall of Famers taking the pitcher's mound. With Bob Feller, Bob Lemon and Early Wynn pitching, the Indians enjoyed an era of success that they have rarely seen since.


The Build-Up



Bob Feller was born on November 3, 1918 in Van Meter, Iowa. As a shortstop and outfield as a youth, he mimicked Rogers Hornsby's batting stance, dreaming of the day that he would be able to bash a mighty homer deep into the bleachers of major league ballparks near and far.


But life is full of unexpected turns and by the time he turned 15, Feller was thrust onto the pitcher's mound due to an injury to one of his teammates. He quickly developed an aptitude for the position and grew comfortable throwing to his American Legion catcher, Nile Kinnick, the future Heisman Trophy winner and World War II casualty.




He starred on the Van Meter High School baseball team, drawing the attention of numerous major league teams. Ultimately, Bob Feller signed with the Cleveland Indians before he walked the stage at graduation.


He was an instant hit once he reached the majors in 1936, earning four straight All-Star Game invitations between 1938-1941. But by the time he reached the last of those All-Star Games, the world was in the thick of war and by December 7 of that same year, the United States would join the rest of the world in war. World War II had begun.


Bob Feller joined a slew of fellow major leaguers in the conflict, mostly serving at the Great Lakes Naval Station by pitching for its baseball team. By the time he returned to Cleveland in 1946, he was a grizzled veteran ready to resume the once-promising career he had left behind. Little did he know of the reinforcements that were on the way, ready to show their stuff in front of the crowd of the cavernous Municipal Stadium.


An Era of Excellence



Bob Lemon was itching for an opportunity. Growing up in Long Beach, California, he had excelled as a shortstop for most of his life, even earning state player of the year honors in 1938 while starring at Wilson Classical High School.


After signing with Cleveland out of high school and being called up late in 1941, he spent the last five games of the season (and the last five of the next) standing at third base. At the conclusion of the 1942 season, he joined America's war effort and entered the Navy. When he returned in 1946, Cleveland's staff started to wonder how he would do on the pitcher's mound and approached him on the subject. Soon, the lifelong outfielder was practicing his throws to home plate.


While he only posted a 4-5 record in that abbreviated 1946 campaign, his 2.49 ERA and lone allowed home run convinced his coaches that he may be worth keeping in the rotation. While Lemon was still finding his groove on the mound, Feller picked up right where he left off at the beginning of the war, winning a league best 26 games, leading both leagues with 36 complete games and ten shutouts and recording a career best 2.18 ERA.


Meanwhile, Bob Lemon proved to be better than advertised when he went 11-5 the following year, a fine compliment of Bob Feller's 20-11, five shutouts and scintillating 2.68 ERA. While each of these statistics carried weight, the team had yet to surpass the mighty New York Yankees.


One Special Season


1948 was a good year for both Bobs. While Feller went 19-15 with a 3.56 ERA, Lemon went 20-14 with a 2.82 ERA while leading both leagues with 10 shutouts and leading the American League with a 1.22 WHIP.


With them leading the charge, the Indians won their first six games of the season. It was an omen of the things to come. The Indians didn't lose consecutive games from May 6 through June 13, launching them into the stratosphere of the upper echelon of the American League and fortifying them during the dog days of summer.



It all came down to the final game of the season. Tied atop the A.L. with Boston, the two teams were forced into a one game playoff to determine the pennant winner. Cleveland dug deep within their soul and pummeled the Red Sox to the tune of 8-3.


The World Series began with a classic pitcher's dual, pitting Bob Feller against the Boston Braves' Johnny Sain, who, at 24 victories, was the National League's leader in wins. Back and forth the two pitchers went with both teams failing to cross home plate through much of the first eight innings.


Although it appeared that Feller picked off pinch runner Phil Masi at second base, the umpire refused to believe that Lou Boudreau had tagged him in time. A few pitches later, Tommy Holmes drove Masi home on a single. It was the only score of the game. It was a disappointing end to an other-wise masterful day as Feller had allowed just two hits.


All he could do was hope that Lemon would pick up the slack. Although he allowed eight hits and a run, Bob Lemon stuck with it and led Cleveland past Boston for a 4-1 decision in Game 2. After a 2-0 victory in Games 3 and 4, Feller lost what could have been the deciding game 11-5 against Warren Spahn.


Once again, Bob Lemon picked up the slack and led Cleveland to a decisive 4-3 victory. While it was the last World Series triumph for the Cleveland Indians, reinforcements were on the way for the turn of the decade.


The Glory Years



Early Wynn had promise, but having played for the Washington Senators since 1939, he only had a single All-Star appearance to his name along with a not-so-stellar 69-84 record and 4.00 ERA. By the end of 1948, he and Washington both felt that he needed a different environment, so he was traded to the Indians.


He played well for the defending champs that first year, going 11-7 with a 4.15 ERA. He led the A.L. with a 3.20 ERA in 1950 while going 18-8, a good compliment to Feller's 16-11 and Lemon's 23-11. But while his statistics were impressive, Wynn was left off the All Star roster and was forced to watch as Lemon and Feller attended the Midsummer Classic.


He had to wait for his All-Star opportunity with the Indians until 1955, at which point Bob Lemon had reached an additional four All-Star Games while Feller had reached his peak all the way back in 1950. But through all this time, no matter all of the games won and the strikeouts made, the Indians always seemed to find themselves watching the World Series from home as the Yankees waltzed to another title.



That changed in 1954. While Bob Lemon went 23-7 with a 2.72 ERA and Early Wynn went 23-11 with a 2.73 ERA, Bob Feller was the outlier of the Hall of Fame group, showing his age with a 13-3 record and 3.09 ERA. It was his last winning record in the major leagues.


The pennant race was no contest in 1954. Despite the Yankees winning 103 games, they fell to the Indians by eight games. At the time, Cleveland's 111 victories was the most in American League history and remains a record to this day for a 154 game season.


Indeed, the Cleveland Indians were juggernaut with a pitching staff most teams would envy. But baseball is a game that can turn on a single moment. With Game 1 tied at two at the top of the eighth, Giants outfielder Willie Mays dashed deep into center-field, seemingly with no chance at catching Vic Wertz's blast.


But the "Say Hey Kid" never lost focus, at once snatching the ball and launching it towards the infield to complete one of the greatest double plays in history. The Giants hung on through the ninth and scored three in the tenth to win the game 5-2. They would go on to ride the momentum to surprisingly sweep the mighty Indians and their deep pitching staff.


Aftermath


After the sweep, Bob Feller's career quickly drew to a close as he retired after 1956 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1962. Early Wynn lasted the longest. After earning his first All-Star appearance with Cleveland in 1955, he earned two more in 1956 and 1957. He moved on to the Chicago White Sox after that, earning his final three All-Star invitations and fortifying his argument as a future Hall of Famer. After returning to Cleveland in 1963, he retire and was inducted into the Hall of Fame nine years later. Lemon was the next to go, retiring after 1958 and being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1976, cementing their status as one of the greatest pitching trio's in baseball history.





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