1968: 'Dark Days' for the Tribe

Last issue, as I was rambling on about how I had missed the opportunities to witness some rare history-making moments as an Indians fan, it also reminded me of how consistently bad the Cleveland franchise actually was. Whether under-capitalized, under-manned or under-managed – typically, a combination of all three –  the Indians of the sixties, seventies, eighties, and the early nineties were consistently bad – with a few exceptions.

With spring training now officially underway, and optimism permeating the air (unless it's someone in the neighborhood and they're back to smoking that 'funny stuff' again), I thought it would be a perfect time to take a look back at a team which had been a major disappointment the previous year, and whose expectations were not particularly rosy for the following season. Sound familiar, Cleveland?

But first, let's set this up properly:

The previous season, 1967, began with a new manager, much fanfare and unbridled enthusiasm. Unfortunately the manager, Joe Adcock – who had no managerial experience – created a firestorm by deciding to platoon Rocky Colavito and Leon Wagner, the two best hitters and biggest fan favorites the Indians had at the time. Adcock also invented a 10-foot "high chair" which he mounted behind plate for inter-squad games, so he could better see the break on the pitches Tribe hurlers were throwing as the pitches approached the plate. Adcock must have been ahead of his time, because nothing he did worked, and the Indians lost 87 games that season, Manager Adcock's first – and last – as skipper.

It was 45 years ago this spring when the 1968 Cleveland Indians took the field in Chicago and waltzed to a 9-0 victory over the White Sox. That's not to say the victory set the tone for the season, as they would then only go 5-11 the rest of the month to finish April with a very Tribe-like 6-11 record. But they flexed their muscles in May, going 20-9, and didn't have another losing month until August, when the Detroit Tigers – maybe you've heard of 'em – rode Denny McLain's 31-game-winning right arm to the World Series against Bob Gibson and the St. Louis Cardinals.

Little did anyone know that 1968 would be a breakout year for Tribe ace Luis Tiant, or that 1968 would become known in baseball as the "Year of the Pitcher." Tiant led the American League with a microscopic ERA of 1.60, including three consecutive shutouts. Sam McDowell went 15-14 with a second-best ERA of 1.81, and the team ERA was an incredible 2.66! Much of the credit went to new Tribe manager Alvin Dark, who'd had success with the San Francisco Giants in the early '60s, taking them to the World Series in 1962.

The 1968 Indians went 86-75-1 (yes, they played the Yankees to a 2-2 tie), and everyone in the city looked to 1969 as a year with great expectations.

However, this being Cleveland and all, Tiant hurt his arm early in the season, and never got his arm strength back. He lost 20 games in 1969, and then we traded him – of course – and then he pitched great baseball for another dozen years or so – of course – primarily with the Red Sox. Tiant's woes seemed to mirror those of the entire team. In 1969 the Indians lost 99 games (a legitimate shot at 100 losses was snatched from their grasp by an ill-timed rain-out) and it was "back to the drawing board" in Cleveland.

But to those of us who witnessed it – for one fleeting year anyway – the "Dark Days" of 1968 were truly special.

Jeff Bing

Lifelong Westlake resident who dabbles in writing whenever the real world permits. My forte is humor and horror...What a combo!

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Volume 5, Issue 4, Posted 9:50 AM, 02.19.2013