Saturday, March 10, 2012

What If George Steinbrenner Had Bought the Cleveland Indians?

NOTE: I first posted this one in July 2010, right after George died. I have made corrections for spelling and grammar where needed.

George Steinbrenner grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio. He went to a lot of games at the old Cleveland Municipal Stadium, and loved Indians stars like Bob Lemon (who he would make manager of the Yankees, twice) and Al Rosen (who he would make general manager of the Yankees). He even helped out former Indians pitcher Mike Garcia when Garcia was broke during the illness that would take his life.

And yet, George loved the Yankees. He was always impressed with the way they would professionally go about dismantling the American League. It's easy for someone like me, who did not see the Indians finish within 11 games of first place (except in the split-season strike year of 1981) until he was 25 years old, to overlook that the Indians were a powerhouse team once. In 1948, they won the World Series. In 1954, they won the Pennant. In 1951, '52, '53, '55, '56 and '59, they finished 2nd.

And then... nothing. They weren't even in a Pennant race from 1960 until 1994, when Jacobs Field opened, and they got the crowds back, and were just a game out of first place when the strike hit. They won American League Pennants in 1995 and '97, and have won AL Central Division Titles in '95, '96, '97, '98, '99, 2001 and '07. But all through the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, into the early Nineties, even as the city of Cleveland rebounded from fiscal, environmental and sociological trouble to become one of America's best cities again, the Indians could still be hit with the tag that was once slapped on the city itself: The Mistake On the Lake.

George Michael Steinbrenner III wouldn't have put up with that kind of crap.

In 1971, George formed a group that offered Vernon Stouffer, the frozen-foods magnate who then owned the Indians, $8.6 million. Stouffer, who lost a lot of money in a corporate merger with appliance company Litton, was going to go through with it, but changed his mind. A year later, still needing a lot of cash, Stouffer sold the Indians to Nick Mileti, owner of the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers and the World Hockey Association's Cleveland Crusaders, for $10 million.

Undaunted, Indians president Gabe Paul, who was one of Steinbrenner's investors, told George that CBS (yes, the TV & radio network), which had owned the Yankees since 1964, was interested in selling the team. CBS took $8.8 million, and the deal was done on January 3, 1973.

If Stouffer hadn't lost... excuse me, changed his mind...


Dealing strictly with the Indians (before I get to what would have happened to the Yankees without George's dough), things wouldn't have changed all that much at first. George's legal issues, dealing with his illegal campaign contributions to President Richard Nixon, would have kept him mainly out of the loop until 1976 or so.

But there's no doubt that, as he did in RL, he would still have opened the vault for superstar pitcher Jim "Catfish" Hunter. Catfish, in those bright red uniforms that ex-Oriole Boog Powell (who should've known better, once dressed in Baltimore's bright orange) said made him "look like the world's biggest Bloody Mary"? Why not, Catfish wouldn't have looked any weirder in that uniform than he did in A's green & yellow.

George might have kept Graig Nettles at 3rd base in Cleveland, instead of getting him for the Yankees. He might have kept Chris Chambliss as the Tribe's first baseman. And he still might have made deals to bring in guys like outfielder Lou Piniella, starting pitcher Ed Figueroa and relief pitcher Rich "Goose" Gossage. He probably would've made the same free-agent deal that got 1976 Baltimore 20-game winner Wayne Garland to come to Cleveland, although that would have blown up in his face the same way it blew up in the face of the man who had bought the Indians from Mileti, Ted Bonda.

And, since Bonda, a team vice president in the Mileti regime, would likely still have been one of George's "limited partners," it's worth noting that Bonda traded for Frank Robinson, after Frank wore out his welcome with the California Angels. Bonda wanted to make Frank his manager after the 1974 season, because he respected Frank's leadership skills first and because he wanted the first black manager second. It's not hard to imagine George wanting to burnish his image -- especially after the Nixon conviction -- by hiring the first black manager.

But there's no way in hell that George, or Ted Bonda, or Gabe Paul, or even Frank Robinson, would have been able to lure Reggie Jackson to Cleveland. Most of what George said to bring Reggie to the Yankees was about New York, the flash and dash, the bright lights and the big money, the fans and the endorsements.

Ray Kroc, the McDonald's baron and owner of the San Diego Padres, was offering Reggie gobs of money (by the standards of the time, anyway), McDonald's stock, and Southern California weather.

"Ray Kroc's offering me more money to go to San Diego," Reggie told George.

"No," George said, "Kroc's offering you more salary to go to San Diego. This is New York, Reggie. Madison Avenue. You'll make up the difference in endorsements, and then some."

George was right: Reggie got to advertise Puma athletic footwear, Murjani menswear, Panasonic TVs ("They call it Omnivision. I call it Reggievision." He later switched to Hitachi), Volkswagen, Getty gas to put into said cars (An ad during the 1980 gas crisis showed Reggie striking out and saying, "I hate wasting energy"), and, oh yeah, Standard Brands candy and the Reggie! bar that they made. (And don't let these revisionists with their recent books tell you otherwise: The Reggie! bar tasted great. Definitely wasn't less filling, though.)

Seriously, can you think of a Cleveland athlete who made a lot of commercials? Before What's His Name who's in Miami now? Even the lure of having Frank Robinson as a manager wouldn't have gotten Reggie to take his talents to Erieside. Or, as he said at that press conference on RL-11/29/1976, "bringing my star with me."

In RL-1976, the Indians went 81-78, their best record since winning 86 in 1968, and finished 4th in the American League East. (They would be moved to the AL Central in 1994.) Here's their RL starting lineup for that season:

1B, Boog Powell, who would not have been obtained if Chambliss, 7 years younger, hadn't been traded to the Yankees on April 26, 1974.
2B, Duane Kuiper, good field, fair hit but with no power.
SS, Frank Duffy, so George still would've needed an upgrade, like he did with the RL Yankees with Fred "Chicken" Stanley.
3B, Buddy Bell, good player, but not necessary with Nettles still in Cleveland.
LF, George Hendrick, good power, despite "Cavernous Cleveland Stadium."
CF, Rick Manning, contact hitter, runner, fielder, all good, but no power.
RF, Charlie Spikes, really good player in '73 and '74, but fell off dramatically.
DH, Rico Carty, very good hitter, although the Cuban was one of these Caribbean guys whose age would always be a mystery; supposedly, he was 36 in '76.
C, Ray Fosse, he was once really good, but was now done.

The '76 Indians had a starting rotation of Pat Dobson, Jim Bibby, Rick Waits, Jackie Brown and a young Dennis Eckersley; and Dave LaRoche and Jim Kern as the top relievers.

I wonder... Who could George have lured to Cleveland? He needed a catcher... and a certain native of Canton did not like New York...

Here's the TTL-1976 Cleveland Indians lineup, with changes from RL in italics: 1B, Chris Chambliss; 2B, Duane Kuiper; SS, Bert Campaneris; 3B, Graig Nettles; LF, George Hendrick; CF, Rick Manning; RF, Lou Piniella; DH, Rico Carty; C, Thurman Munson; rotation, Pat Dobson, Jim Bibby, Rick Waits, Dennis Eckersley and Ed Figueroa; relievers, Dave LaRoche, Jim Kern and... Goose Gossage.

In RL-1976, the AL East had the Yankees winning 97 games, the Orioles 88, the Boston Red Sox 83, the Indians 81, the Detroit Tigers 74 and the Milwaukee Brewers 66.

With the improvements above, and with the Yankees no longer having Munson, Chambliss, Piniella and Figueroa... presuming, of course, that the Yankees would have augmented in other ways...

It's not hard to imagine a TTL-AL East with the Indians 91 wins, the Yankees 87, the Orioles 86, the Red Sox 81, the Tigers 72 and the Brewers 64. And then, in the Playoffs against Kansas City, it's not hard to imagine ABC Sports' Howard Cosell speaking those immortal words, "Chris Chambliss has won the American League Pennant for the Cleveland Indians!"

But the Indians' first Pennant in 22 years is not followed by their first World Championship in 28 years -- because the first all-Ohio World Series (something that still hasn't happened in RL) is still swept by the Cincinnati Reds in 4 straight. So George goes a little nuts, signing Garland, whose shoulder still gets shredded in spring training. And he signs Don Gullett, who's limited by injury to one good, but not great season, just as he was with the RL-Yankees. The Indians do not win the Pennant again in 1977.


And what of the Yankees? Who would have bought them from CBS? How about a Jersey guy? Jersey City native and Montclair resident, Dr. John J. McMullen, Ph.D., for example? In RL, he was one of George's limited partners, which led him to say, "Nothing is so limited as being one of George's limited partners." From 1979 to 1993, he owned the Houston Astros. In 1982, he bought the NHL's Colorado Rockies, moved them to the Meadowlands, and renamed them the New Jersey Devils, owning them until his death in 2005.

It's not hard to imagine McMullen leading a group that buys the Yankees from CBS in 1973, but without Munson behind the plate, Reggie and Piniella in the outfield, Chambliss at first, Nettles at third, and Figueroa and Gossage on the mound, the Yankees sure don't win the Pennant in 1976, '77 or '78.

In spring training of 1978, Eckersley's wife left him for Manning. It's not hard to imagine Steinbrenner trading the "immoral" (not to mention weak-hitting) Manning rather than the strong-pitching Eck. Of course, George would want Eck to get a haircut... And thus, while the Red Sox probably win the AL East in '77, there is no Playoff between the Yankees and Red Sox for the Division in '78, because both are short of pitching.

So from 1978 to 1983, the AL East becomes a dogfight between 3 teams: The Indians, the Orioles, and the Brewers, who got really good in '78 and stayed good for most of the Eighties.

Let me address the elephant in the room right now: If George Steinbrenner had not been the owner of the New York Yankees in the late 1970s, the Yankees, while not exactly stinking, as the Mets were then doing, would still have been New York's second-most popular team behind the Mets. So would I still have been a Yankee fan? Maybe not, there were, just down the New Jersey Turnpike, the Phillies... or would they have been too frustrating? Maybe I wouldn't have become a sports fan at all. And you wouldn't be reading this.

So... In the 1977 World Series, the Dodgers take advantage of the Curse of the Bambino, and beat the Red Sox; the Indians, with Catfish winning and the Goose saving the clincher, beat the Dodgers in 1978, and have their first World Championship in 30 years, George finally getting his title; the Pittsburgh Pirates still beat the Orioles in 1979; the Phillies still beat the Royals in 1980; the Brewers would have beaten the Expos in 1981 and, with the boost in their confidence, beat the Cardinals in 1982; and then, as several of the RL-Yankees/TTL-Indians got older, "history reasserts itself," and the Orioles beat the Phillies in '83, and so on.

Wait... Did I say the Montreal Expos would have won the 1981 National League Pennant? Yes, because that's where Reggie was most likely to go if he turned down the Yankees. He had considered San Diego, but the liquor-magnate Bronfman family owned the Expos then, and they could pay Reggie even more than Kroc could. I think the French fans of Quebec, used to the Montreal Canadiens' Stanley Cup-winning "Flying Frenchmen" style, would have loved Monsieur Octubre. They probably wouldn't have gotten past the Phillies in '77 or '78, or the Pirates in '79, and I don't want to take the '80 Series away from the Phillies (maybe there's a Playoff for the NL East title), but in '81, the Expos might have been the best team in baseball.

In RL-1986, the Indians won 84 games, their best performance since 1968, but injuries derailed them the next season and they lost 101. But I doubt that George would have left them so bench-bereft. In TTL-1987, the Indians beat out the Tigers for the Division before losing to the Minnesota Twins. In 1988, they go all the way, beating out the Red Sox, shocking the Oakland Athletics' "Bash Brothers," and a newly-sober, still-starting Dennis Eckersley pitches a complete game in Game 1 of the World Series, striking out Kirk Gibson for the last out, as the Tribe take the Series in 5 games.

Opening Day of the 1989 season shows the raising of the 1920, 1948, 1978 and 1988 World Championship banners at... the Ohiodome in downtown Cleveland, at the RL-location of Jacobs (Progressive) Field. Seems George wanted real grass but also a retractable roof to keep out Cleveland's frequently nasty weather. It's not a great old-timey ballpark like the one the RL-Indians have, but it gets them out of Municipal Stadium 4 years sooner. The Indians would also win Pennants in 1995, 1997 and 2007, winning the World Series on the latter two occasions.

The success of the Indians means that, in 1989, the film Major League is made about the Chicago White Sox, rather than the Indians. True, in RL, the White Sox had been in a few Pennant races, but hadn't won a Pennant since 1959 (beating out the Indians) and hadn't won a World Series since 1917, and were then in a crumbling old ballpark (Comiskey Park) and had nearly moved to Milwaukee for 1970, to Seattle for 1976, and to Tampa Bay for 1989. And, unlike the Indians, who trailed the Browns (and maybe Ohio State football) for sports supremacy in their hometown, were, at least, the only big-league baseball team, a luxury the White Sox have never had. So Jake Taylor, Ricky "Wild Thing" Vaughn, Willie Mays Hayes, Pedro Cerrano and the rest make the White Sox, once again, the South Side Hit Men, if only onscreen, followed by the ChiSox, in RL, nearly making life imitate art by staying in the AL West race until the end in 1990.

The Ohiodome also enables Art Modell to keep the Browns in Cleveland, and they beat the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV, and, never having moved the team, Modell becomes a beloved elder statesman in Cleveland. Maybe the Browns even host, if not play in, a Super Bowl at the Ohiodome. George would have insisted on it. He might even have insisted on the dome hosting an Ohio State-Notre Dame football game in front of 100,000 people, and a postseason Buckeye Bowl and the Big 10 Conference Championship Game.

So, with Baltimore's Memorial Stadium already in place as a stopgap facility before a new stadium can be built, Robert Kraft gets frustrated with plans to build a new stadium next to Foxboro Stadium (which, in RL, did get built and became Gillette Stadium) or in East Hartford, Connecticut (RL-Rentschler Field, which got scaled back to 40,000 as the home only of the University of Connecticut and not a pro team), and sells the New England Patriots to Steve Bisciotti. The Patriots are renamed the Baltimore Ravens, and win 3 Super Bowls under coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady, but have now lost 2 Super Bowls to the New York Giants. The Boston area is still trying to get a new NFL team, but, just as with the plans for a new Fenway Park, Massachusetts politics has thus far killed the plan.


And what of the Yankees? Dr. McMullen would take until 1985 to get the right people to build the Yankees into a championship-ready team, including Billy Martin, less-stressed due to not having Steinbrenner to watch his every move.

They win the Division against the Blue Jays in 1985, but lose the ALCS to the Royals. But in 1986, with Dave Winfield and Don Mattingly leading the way, and with just enough starting pitching, they finish ahead of the Red Sox, beat the Angels in the ALCS, and... well, let's just say that Dave Righetti was better than Bob Stanley, and Mattingly was not Bill Buckner. The date the Yankees first clinch the World Championship at Shea Stadium is October 25, 1986. In other words, the Yankees win their 21st World Championship, and the Mets have not won the World Series since the Miracle of '69... The Curse of Joe Foy, anyone?

If McMullen builds the TTL-Yankees as well as he built the RL-Devils -- and not only as well as he built the RL-Astros, which resulted in just 2 Division titles under his ownership, and no Pennants -- then maybe they beat out the Blue Jays again in 1993, and it's Bernie Williams, not Joe Carter, who hits the home run off Mitch Williams of the Phillies to win the 1993 World Series. Becoming consistent like the RL-Devils, the Yanks won the Series in 1996, and again in '98 after an ALCS dogfight with George's Indians, and again in '99 and 2000.

But with the Yanks-Sox rivalry not really happening in the 1970s, the Sox don't measure themselves against the Yankees, and also don't end up with it being vice versa. Therefore, the Sox win the Pennant in 2003 -- and Aaron Boone is remembered mainly for being Bret Boone's brother and for briefly playing again after open-heart surgery -- before losing the World Series to the Expos (who take the place of the Florida Marlins, as Jeffrey Loria doesn't need to sell the TTL-more successful Montreal team). It takes the Yankees until 2009 to win another Pennant and their 27th World Series -- they have the same number, but with 1977 and 1978 replaced by 1985 and 1993.

Meanwhile, the Indians have 6 World Championships -- 1 less than RL-Steinbrenner had, but 4 more than the RL-Tribe.

And it's the Florida Marlins who move to D.C. to become the Washington Nationals, while Reggie Jackson, unable for whatever reason to do so in RL, leads an ownership group that buys his TTL-former team, the Montreal Expos, from Loria's group, and throws out the ceremonial first pitch at Parc Labatt, across from the Bell Centre and Windsor Station, on Opening Day 2004.

Is it a better world, this world in which George Steinbrenner owned the Cleveland Indians instead of the New York Yankees? Maybe, maybe not. But it's certainly a different one.

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