‘Cleveland Crybabies’ – An Indians Team Of Missed Chances

1940 Cleveland Indians team photo [photo: Scott Longert Collection]
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One of the best teams the Cleveland Indians ever fielded had a nickname, but it was hardly flattering. The 1940 Tribe squad was dubbed the “Cleveland Crybabies.”

The story behind how the team landed this unpleasant sobriquet is one of many writer Scott H. Longert explores in “Bad Boys, Bad Times: The Cleveland Indians and Baseball in the Prewar Years, 1937-1941.” (Ohio University Press)

After winning the World Series in 1920, the Indians spent the next decade and a half fielding mostly mediocre squads, but as the 1937 season approached there was cause for optimism.

“They had a pretty good foundation. (Pitcher) Bob Feller was just getting started. He was a junior in high school but on the ball club. (In 1936) Feller tied the Major League strikeout record (for a single game) as a 17-year-old. They had centerfielder Earl Averill, an All-Star for five straight years. They had hard-hitting first baseman Hal Trosky. Mel Harder was in around his 11th season with the team but was still pitching well. There were hopes and expectations that they could challenge the Yankees and get into the World Series,” Longert said.

 Bob Feller (center) after throwing no-hitter  Opening Day 1940 [photo: Bruce Milla Collection]

 Longert said Feller was the biggest reason that the team’s front office and fans were excited about the future.

“He was phenomenal from day one. He did have a problem with his control. He walked a lot of people, but his strikeout ratio was amazing. He developed his curveball fairly quickly, so he was a formidable guy by eighteen. He was as good as anybody in the Major Leagues.”

The Indians finished in fourth place in 1937, which caused owner Alva Bradley to make what would prove to be a fateful decision for the club at the end of the season. He dismissed manager Steve O’Neill and replaced him with former major league player and minor league manager Oscar Vitt.

“It was a slightly controversial choice because the Indians general manager Cy Slapnicka was totally against the move and normally it would have been his decision, but for some reason Mr. Bradley had the guy he really wanted. I guess because Vitt had a tremendous year in the International League, with his ball club winning the pennant by over twenty games. For some reason Bradley thought this is the guy who could whip them into shape and he could lead them on to the first division and possibly to a pennant,” Longert said.

There was just one problem. Vitt had a terrible temper and a propensity to be openly critical and often abusive toward his players and he didn’t care who heard it, be it fans, opposing players or sportswriters. This proved to be a combustible mix with a team filled with players who were known for getting in trouble on the field and off.

Three players in particular proved to be more than a handful. Catcher Rollie Hemsley suffered from alcoholism, so he often showed up for games drunk. Teammates Johnny Allen and Jeff Heath brawled with teammates, umpires, opponents and fans.

Jeff Heath [photo: Scott Longert Collection]

Vitt not only verbally castigated players with disciplinary issues, he also made disparaging remarks about those who were well-respected, most notably Harder.

The volatile situation came to a head during a road trip in early June 1940 as the Indians were locked in a pennant race with the Detroit Tigers.

“Bob Feller had already won eight games and was on his way to a great season when Vitt chewed him out when he didn’t have it against Boston. The players felt that was enough, that they could win a pennant but not with this guy managing us,” Longert said.

Indians manager Oscar Vitt [photo: Scott Longert Collection]

When the team returned to Cleveland a dozen players, including Feller, went to Bradley demanding Vitt’s dismissal. A shocked Bradley promised to investigate the matter, but made the players promise to not talk to the press about the discussion.

“The last thing Bradley wanted was for this to get into the newspapers. They would be the laughingstock of baseball. The players agreed not to say anything, but one of the guys the next day leaked the story to Gordon Cobbledick, the sports editor of the ‘Cleveland Plain Dealer.’ It was front page news the next day and national news the day after and this started the ‘crybabies’ and the ridicule for the rest of the season,” Longert said

Ridicule was putting it mildly.

“When the Indians came to Detroit or New York, they would yell ‘Crybabies! Crybabies!’ They would hold up baby bottles and baby dolls. In Detroit, several guys wheeled baby carriages onto the field. They would keep this up all game long,” Longert said.

As the season came to a close, the Indians trailed the Tigers by half a game with six games left against Detroit, the first three of which were in the Motor City. The Tigers fans didn’t exactly roll out the red carpet for the visiting team.

“The (Detroit) fans gave them a heck of a welcome by throwing tomatoes and eggs at them at the train station. When they got to their hotel there were guys in the lobby and outside with megaphones doing the ‘crybaby’ chant keeping the players up all night long,” Longert said.

Longert feels the constant barrage of heckling wore the Indians down.

“When they got on the field they weren’t ready to play ball and Detroit won the series, putting the guys two games back with three to play. The Indians had a shot at the end to beat Detroit by winning three straight, but they couldn’t quite do it. I think their energy was sapped, because some of the guys played uncharacteristically awful,” Longert said.

Like many Indians squads, the 1940 season was one of missed opportunities.

“Their pitching was lights out, it was good enough to win a pennant and a World Series. They had good hitting too. They had the horses to do it but internal issues wore them down. I really believe strongly, if Bradley had bent to the players will and fired Vitt they would have won the pennant going away,” Longert said.

That elusive pennant was just around the corner in 1948, a story Longert looks forward to sharing in his next book.

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