I am a former sports editor and currently serve as a historian with the Society of American Baseball Research and manage a valet operation.
What Are the Greatest Seasons in Cleveland Indians History?
As a charter member of the American League, the Cleveland Indians have one of the longest track records in baseball history, and they've also been one of the most successful franchises ever. The Indians are the seventh winningiest franchise in baseball history (.512) and will become the second or third American League franchise to win 10,000 games in the near future (the New York Yankees have won 10,411 games; the Boston Red Sox have won 9,626; and the Indians have won 9,512).
Along the way, the Indians have made 15 playoff appearances, won the American League six times and won a pair of World Series championships. Those successes have produced plenty of exciting seasons. In this article, I'll count down the 10 greatest seasons in the history of the Indians. Seasons were selected on overall accomplishments within the campaign and the team's standing within baseball at the time.
- Key Additions: Terry Francona (hired as manager), Mike Aviles and Yan Gomes (traded from Blue Jays), Nick Swisher (signed as free agent), Michael Bourn (signed as free agent), Drew Stubbs (traded from Reds) and Jason Giambi (signed as free agent)
- Key Losses: Shin-Soo Choo (traded to Reds)
- Regular-Season Record: 92–70 (.568)
- Postseason: Lost to Tampa Bay Rays in Wild Card round (1–0)
- All-Stars: Justin Masterson and Jason Kipnis
- Award Winners: Terry Francona (Manager of the Year)
- League Leaders: Justin Masterson (3 shutouts) and Michael Brantley (1.000 fielding percentage)
After five straight losing seasons, the Indians made wholesale changes to their roster for the 2013 season. The front office committed millions of dollars to multiple free agents and also hired Terry Francona as manager. The result with the team's return to the playoffs for the first time since 2007, as Cleveland went from 94 losses the year before to 92 victories, but were they winless in the postseason. Many of the primary contributors to the team failed to make a lasting impact on the Indians, but Fracona has continued on to post a winning record every season he has managed.
- Key Additions: Omar Vizquel (traded from Mariners), Eddie Murray (signed as free agent), Dennis Martinez (signed as free agent) and Tony Pena (signed as free agent)
- Key Losses: Reggie Jefferson and Felix Fermin (traded to Mariners), and Junior Ortiz (traded to Rangers)
- Regular-Season Record: 66–47 (.586)
- Postseason: Playoffs canceled due to player strike
- All-Stars: Albert Belle and Kenny Lofton
- Award Winners: Kenny Lofton and Omar Vizquel (Gold Glove), and Albert Belle and Carlos Baerga (Silver Slugger)
- League Leaders: Kenny Lofton (160 hits, 60 stolen bases and 13 outfield assists), and Albert Belle (294 total bases)
In the early 1990s, Indians general manager John Hart instituted a new plan for his club. Under his approach, the franchise signed its young players to contract extensions to keep them in Cleveland and avoid arbitration. This strategy began to pay off in 1994, when the Indians recorded their first winning season since 1986. The excitement of a winning team combined with the opening of Jacobs Field to usher in what would become arguably the greatest dynasty in franchise history throughout the rest of the decade (much more on that later). Had a players' strike not cut the 1994 season short, there's no telling what could have happened if the Indians had made that year's postseason.
- Key Additions: Joe Borowski (signed as free agent), Trot Nixon (signed as free agent), Josh Barfield (traded from Padres), Asdrubal Cabrera (rookie) and Kenny Lofton (traded from Rangers mid-season)
- Key Losses: Aaron Boone (signed with Marlins)
- Regular-Season Record: 96–66 (.564)
- Postseason: Won Division Series (3–1 over Yankees); Lost Championship Series (4–3 to Red Sox)
- All-Stars: C.C. Sabathia, Grady Sizemore and Victor Martinez
- Award Winners: C.C. Sabathia (Cy Young Award), Eric Wedge (Manager of the Year) and Grady Sizemore (Gold Glove)
- League Leaders: C.C. Sabathia (241 innings), Grady Sizemore (748 plate appearances) and Joe Borowski (45 saves)
The Indians were one of Major League Baseball's surprises in 2007, piling up 96 victories and nearly making the World Series. Led by a core of young talent, the Indians had an interesting start to the season when they had to move the home-opening series to Milwaukee due to snowy weather in Cleveland. Plenty of winning followed, and the Indians wrapped up their first Central Division championship since 2001 on Sept. 23. The postseason ended in heartbreak, however, as the Indians blew a 3-1 ALCS lead (built in part by a 20-1 rout in Game 4).
- Key Additions: Brian Giles (rookie), Jack McDowell (signed as free agent) and Julio Franco (signed as free agent)
- Key Losses: Carlos Baerga (traded to Mets midseason), Paul Sorrento (signed with Mariners), Mark Clark (traded to Mets) and Jim Poole (traded to Giants midseason)
- Regular-Season Record: 99–63 (.611)
- Postseason: Lost Division Series (3–1 to Orioles)
- All-Stars: Charles Nagy (starter), Kenny Lofton (starter), Albert Belle (starter), Sandy Alomar Jr. and Jose Mesa
- Award Winners: Kenny Lofton and Omar Vizquel (Gold Gloves), Jim Thome and Albert Belle (Silver Sluggers)
- League Leaders: Albert Belle (148 RBI), Kenny Lofton (75 stolen bases) and Manny Ramirez (19 outfield assists)
A year after making the World Series, the Indians didn't make too many changes to their roster for 1996 and were rewarded with baseball's best record for a second straight season. But one of the league's top offenses couldn't find a way past a pesky Orioles squad in the Division Series. Cleveland fell behind 2–0 before winning Game 3, but Roberto Alomar hit a home run in the top of the 12th of Game 4 to secure the series win for Baltimore. The crushing defeat ranks among the bigger disappointments in team history, but the overall season is still one of the best ever for Cleveland.
- Key Additions: Jaret Wright (rookie), Bartolo Colon (rookie), Matt Williams (traded from Giants), David Justice (traded from Braves), Marquis Grissom (traded from Braves) and Tony Fernandez (signed as free agent)
- Key Losses: Albert Belle (signed with White Sox), Kenny Lofton (traded to Braves), Jullian Tavarez (traded to Giants), Jeff Kent (traded to Giants), Dennis Martinez (signed with Mariners) and Tony Pena (signed with White Sox)
- Regular-Season Record: 86–75 (.531)
- Postseason: Won Division Series (3–2 over Yankees); Won Championship Series (4–2 over Orioles); Lost World Series (4–3 to Marlins)
- All-Stars: Sandy Alomar Jr. (MVP), David Justice and Jim Thome
- Award Winners: Marquis Grissom (ALCS MVP), Matt Williams (Gold Glove and Silver Slugger), Omar Vizquel (Gold Glove) and David Justice (Silver Slugger)
- League Leaders: Jim Thome (120 walks)
Despite losing two All-Star outfielders from the year before, the Indians used new acquisitions and some young pitchers to put together a surprising World Series run in 1997. "Things didn't come as easy in '97 as they did in the previous seasons," manager Mike Hargrove recalled to ESPN in 2016. "Probably not until late in the '97 season, I felt like we finally found our identity and came together." That was evident in the postseason when the Indians found several clutch moments to advance to Game 7 of the World Series. Included were Jaret Wright outdueling Andy Pettitte twice and Sandy Alomar Jr. homering off of Mariano Rivera in the ALDS, and two walk-off wins and Tony Fernandez's series-winning home run in Game 6 of the ALCS. Against the Marlins in the World Series, Cleveland battled to Game 7, but lost in extra innings on a walk-off single by Edgar Renteria.
Also during the season, Cleveland hosted the All-Star Game, which saw Alomar Jr. claim MVP honors after his two-run home run pushed the American League to a 3–1 victory. Additionally, interleague play began, opening up a new rivalry, the "Battle of Ohio," between the Indians and Reds.
- Key Additions: Rajai Davis (signed as free agent), Mike Napoli (signed as free agent), Dan Otero (purchased from Phillies) and Andrew Miller (traded from Yankees midseason)
- Key Losses: Mike Aviles (signed with Tigers)
- Regular-Season Record: 94–67 (.580)
- Postseason: Won Division Series (3–0 over Red Sox); Won Championship Series (4–1 over Blue Jays); Lost World Series (4–3 to Cubs)
- All-Stars: Corey Kulber, Francisco Lindor and Danny Salazar
- Award Winners: Francisco Lindor (Gold Glove) and Andrew Miller (ALCS MVP)
- League Leaders: Rajai Davis (43 stolen bases) and Bryan Shaw (75 appearances)
The 2016 season felt different in Cleveland from the early stages. A strong regular season was aided by a 14-game winning streak from June 17–July 1, and the Indians fended off the Tigers for their first Central Division title since 2007. A memorable postseason followed with a sweep of the Red Sox in the Division Series and a quick dispatch of the Blule Jays for the American League pennant. Each of Cleveland's wins against Toronto ended in a save, as the Indians hit just .168 as a team during the series but were rescued by fantastic pitching.
In the World Series, Cleveland met the Cubs, pitting the two longest championship droughts in baseball against each other. The Indians bolted out to a 3–1 series lead before the Cubs became the fifth team to ever recover from that deficit following a memorable Game 7. Cleveland's Rajai Davis belted a two-run home run in the eighth to tie the game at 6–6, but a 17-minute rain delay as the 10th inning was about to begin shifted the game's dynamic. The Cubs scratched out two runs after the delay and went on to win 8–6.
- Key Additions: Dick Niehaus (traded from American Association's St. Paul Saints; later traded away midseason)
- Key Losses: Duster Mills (traded from Pacific Coast League's Sacramento Senators) and Hi Jasper (final season was 1919)
- Regular-Season Record: 98–56 (.636)
- Postseason: Won World Series (5–2 over Brooklyn Robins)
- League Leaders: Jim Bagby (31 wins and 339 2/3 inings), Stan Covelski (133 strikeouts) and Tris Speaker (50 doubles)
Led by a trio of ace pitchers and a steady offense, the 1920 Indians picked up the franchise's first American League pennant and World Series championship. Jim Bagby (31), Stan Coveleski (24) and Ray Caldwell (20) each won at least 20 games, and all but two of the team's regulars on offense hit better than .300 (led by a .388 mark from Tris Speaker) to help Cleveland reign over the AL, which featured three teams with at least 95 wins. Not to be discounted is pitcher Duster Mills, who was acquired in a trade on Aug. 20 and won seven of his eight starts and pitched a shutout during the World Series. The Indians met the Brooklyn Robins in the World Series, and accomplished multiple firsts in Game 5. Bill Wambsganss turned an unassisted triple play (which remains the only one in World Series history), Elmer Smith hit the first grand slam in World Series history and Bagby became the first pitcher to hit a home run during the World Series.
In a somber moment of the season, however, shortstop Ray Chapman died after being hit in the head by a pitch against the Yankees on Aug. 16. Chapman is one of just two players to die as a direct result of something that occurred on a Major League Baseball field.
- Key Additions: Orel Hershiser (signed as free agent), Julian Tavarez (rookie), Paul Assenmacher (signed as free agent), Jim Poole (signed as free agent), Dave Winfield (signed as free agent) and Ken Hill (traded from Cardinals midseason)
- Key Losses: Mark Lewis (traded to Reds) and Jeff Russell (signed with Rangers)
- Regular-Season Record: 100-44 (.694)
- Postseason: Won Division Series (3–0 over Red Sox); Won Championship Series (4–2 over Mariners); Lost World Series (4–2 to Braves)
- All-Stars: Carlos Baerga (starter), Albert Belle (starter), Kenny Lofton (starter), Dennis Martinez, Jose Mesa and Manny Ramirez
- Award Winners: Jose Mesa (Rolaids Reliever of the Year), Orel Hershiser (ALCS MVP), Kenny Lofton and Omar Vizquel (Gold Gloves), and Manny Ramirez and Albert Belle (Silver Sluggers)
- League Leaders: Albert Belle (50 home runs, 52 doubles, 121 runs and 126 RBI); Kenny Lofton (54 stolen bases and 13 triples); and Jose Mesa (46 saves)
The Indians produced one of the finest seasons in baseball history in 1995, powering their way to 100 victories in a strike-shortened season to return to the playoffs for the first time since 1954. Led by Albert Belle, who became the first player to ever hit 50 home runs and 50 doubles in the same season, the offense exploded to help Cleveland wrap up the Central Division with a 30-game lead, one of the largest margins in baseball history. Offensively, Cleveland led the Major Leagues in several categories (.291 average, 207 home runs, 803 RBI and 840 runs).
Starting pitching, however, was the team's weakness. It's not that Cleveland's pitchers were bad (the entire pitching staff led the American League with a 3.83 earned-run average), the starters just didn't match the intensity of the offense. That caught up with the Indians in the World Series, where they lost to the Braves, who brought three Hall of Famers at the top of their rotation along with an offense which had enough firepower to match up with Cleveland's. Indians closer Jose Mesa finished as the runner-up in Cy Young Award voting after leading the Majors with 46 saves, and also out of the bullpen was rookie Julian Tavarez, who racked up 10 wins.
- Key Additions: Allie Clark (traded from Yankees), Russ Christopher (purchased from Athletics), Bob Muncrief (traded from St. Louis Browns), Satchel Paige (signed as free agent) and Sam Zoldak (traded from St. Louis Browns midseason)
- Key Losses: Red Embree (traded to Yankees), George Metkovich (traded to Pacific Coast League's Oakland Oaks), Les Fleming (traded to Pirates), Bryan Stephens (traded to St. Louis Browns), Mel Harder (final season was 1947) and Al Lopez (1947 was final season)
- Regular-Season Record: 97–58 (.610)
- Postseason: Won World Series (4–2 over Boston Braves)
- All-Stars: Joe Gordon (starter), Ken Keltner (starter), Lou Boudreau (starter), Bob Feller and Bob Lemon
- Award Winners: Lou Boudreau (MVP) and Bob Lemon (Sporting News Pitcher of the Year)
- League Leaders: Gene Bearden (2.43 ERA), Bob Feller (164 strikeouts), Bob Lemon (293 2/3 innings) and Russ Christopher (17 saves)
Loaded with Hall of Famers, the Indians battled the Red Sox and Yankees throughout the season for the American League championship. With about a week to go, all three teams held a 91–56 record, and the regular season ultimately ended in a tie between Cleveland and Boston. In the league's first-ever one-game playoff, the Indians won, 8–3, to advance to the World Series. There, Cleveland knocked off the Boston Braves in six games, which remains the team's last championship. The 72-year drought is the longest in baseball and second longest in major professional sports (the NFL's Arizona Cardinals have gone 73 years without a championship).
The Indians led baseball with a .282 batting average, and their 155 home runs were tops in the American League. From the mound, Cleveland's team ERA of 3.22 also led all of baseball.
- Key Additions: Ray Narleski (rookie), Don Mossi (rookie), Hal Newhouser (signed as free agent), Dave Philley (traded from Athletics) and Vic Wertz (traded from Orioles midseason)
- Key Losses: Harry Simpson (injured) and Bob Kennedy (traded to Orioles)
- Regular-Season Record: 111–43 (.721)
- Postseason: Lost World Series (4–0 to New York Giants)
- All-Stars: Al Rosen (starter), Bobby Avila (starter), Larry Doby, Mike Garcia and Bob Lemon
- Award Winners: Bob Lemon (Sporting News Pitcher of the Year)
- League Leaders: Larry Doby (32 home runs and 126 RBI), Bobby Avila (.347 average), Bob Lemon (23 wins), Early Wynn (23 wins) and Mike Garcia (2.64 ERA)
The 1954 Cleveland Indians are one of the best teams in Major League history, as the team still holds the American League record for single-season winning percentage. During the season, Cleveland had two 11-game winning streaks, one from May 13–23 and another from Sept. 8–20, and never lost more than four games in a row. The Indians led the AL with 156 home runs and were second with 746 runs, but pitching was their strongest suit. Cleveland led all of baseball with a 2.78 earned-run average and sported three Hall of Famers in its rotation (Bob Lemon, Early Wynn and Bob Feller).
The Indians solidly won the American League, even though the Yankees were winners of 103 games and became just the fourth team ever to win 100 games and miss the postseason. The Yankees appeared in every other World Series from 1949–58. Cleveland, however, found a formidable foe in the battle for the championship, and the Indians were swept by the New York Giants. The Series is most known for "The Catch" by Willie Mays in Game 1, but was also remembered by Clevelanders in a somewhat negative light, considering it would take the Indians more than 40 years to return to the postseason (1995).
The most memorable seasons in Cleveland Indians history are listed above, but here are a few more that fell just outside of the Top 10.
Highlighted by a 22-game winning streak, the Indians wrapped up 102 victories and the best record in the American League in 2017. That wasn't enough to get far in the postseason, as the Yankees crushed Cleveland's hopes of a second straight World Series appearance by winning a Division Series matchup in five games.
Amidst a rivalry with the Yankees, the Indians almost squeaked out an American League championship in 1952. Boasting three 20-game winners in its rotation to help post a 93–61 record, Cleveland fell just two games short of New York for a bid to what would have been the third World Series appearance in team history.
One year removed from a World Series championship, the Indians finished a respectable 94–60 in 1921, but the Yankees picked up the American League title by 4 1/2 games in the standings.
How Many Winning Seasons Have the Cleveland Indians Had?
The Indians have recorded 65 winning seasons throughout their 120-year history, and have finished at an even .500 three other times. Cleveland's first winning season came in 1902, when the Cleveland Bronchos finished 69-67-1. Most recently, the Indians finished the COVID-19 shortened 2020 season at 35-25, extending a streak of consecutive winning seasons to eight. The longest stretch of winning seasons in franchise history came during the 10 seasons from 1947–56.
Cleveland has an all-time record of 9,512–9,062–91 (seventh all-time in baseball history) and has made 15 postseason appearances.
© 2020 Andrew Harner