Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Don’t Forget to Write

A note from Paul...
Now 64 (kind of a famous number around town) years and counting since the Tribe’s last World Series Championship, I’d like to welcome longtime Cleveland journalist and sportscaster Dan Coughlin for a guest post on the engine that made that 1948 Indians’ team run, Lou Boudreau, and his magical 1948 season.  In case you didn’t know, Boudreau’s offensive contributions that year rank among the best ever compiled for a SS in a single season as Boudreau captured the league MVP trophy (nearly unanimously, besting both a 33-year-old DiMaggio and a 29-year-old Williams), putting together a season that ranks among baseball’s best in the IntegrationEra (since 1947)…all while managing the Tribe to a World Series victory.
But enough from me, here’s Dan…

I believe that in the year 1948 Indians player-manager Lou Boudreau put together the greatest season in baseball history.

My epiphany occurred one winter day in the late 1990s. The Indians had just signed a free agent and we interviewed him in the Tribe’s empty locker room. All the locker cubicles were cleaned out. But in front of Albert Belle’s former locker was a large cardboard box full of mail. The box was the size of a washing machine and the mail was literally overflowing.

“What are you going to do with Albert’s mail?” I asked one of the clubhouse boys.

“It will be thrown away,” he said. “Albert doesn’t want it.”

I didn’t say anything, but inside I was outraged. Those letters were from kids, love letters to an entirely unlikable human being. They did not send only letters. There were packages. The kids sent Albert their gloves, caps, T-shirts, hoping he would sign them and mail them back.

On the ride back to the television station – I was with Fox 8 at the time – I told this story to our photographer, Ted Pikturna. In 1948 every drugstore in Greater Cleveland had a rack of penny postcards featuring pictures of Cleveland landmarks, such as the Mall, the Art Museum and the Terminal Tower. There also were postcards featuring glossy black and white photographs of the Cleveland Indians stars. Cleveland was in a baseball frenzy that summer. The postcards cost maybe a dime and it cost one cent to mail them.

Well, I bought a Lou Boudreau postcard. I was nine years old and he was my hero. Hell, he was everybody’s hero. I wrote Lou a love letter and enclosed the post card, beseeching him to sign it and send it back.

Three weeks passed. Maybe the Indians were out of town. Finally the post card came back. Lou addressed it to me, signed the picture side and licked the one cent stamp. (Lou had to retrieve my home address from the outside of the envelope I mailed him.) Now I had Lou’s picture, his handwriting and his DNA.

Years later when I was in the Army my sister threw away all my childhood treasurers.

Having told that story, photographer Pikturna suggested that I write a column about it and I thought that was a good idea. That night I called Lou Boudreau at his home outside of Chicago. He picked up the phone on the second ring.

“What are you doing, Lou?” I said.

“I’m sitting here in my living room answering my mail,” he said. “I’ve got a lapfull of mail. Here’s one from Florida. Here’s another from Boston. Isn’t it nice? They still remember me.”

That was unscripted but it was a dramatic response.

Returning to 1948. Baseball hysteria reached its all-time peak that year and Lou was under intense pressure and scrutiny. The Indians, you will recall from your history books, tied the Red Sox for the pennant and had to win a one-game playoff in Boston to propel them into the World Series. The Indians then beat the Boston Braves in six games for the world championship.

Lou was the shortstop. He ran the team from the middle of the infield. Owner Bill Veeck had brought in old timer Bill McKechnie as baseball’s first “bench coach” to advise the young manager, but the responsibility still fell on the shoulders of Boudreau, who turned 31 years old that summer.

That is only part of the story, however. Boudreau responded with the greatest offensive season of any Indians’ shortstop ever – maybe the best year by a shortstop in baseball history.

Boudreau batted .355 – second only to Ted Williams’ .369. Lou hit 18 home runs and 45 doubles. He drove in 106 runs and scored 116. Lou was a shortstop and he put up numbers that would have made Joe DiMaggio proud.

He walked 98 times and struck out only nine times. Put that in upper case. He struck out only NINE times in 152 games.

Frankly, a couple of other player-managers also had great years, including Tris Speaker, the centerfielder who managed the Indians to the 1920 world championship. Speaker batted .388, second to George Sisler’s .407 average. Speaker drove in 107 runs and scored 137 and he had 50 doubles. That pennant race also went down to the last two days of the season but for all practical purposes it was over with a week left when the Chicago Black Sox were exposed for dumping the World Series the previous year and several starters were suspended for the final week of the season.

Rogers Hornsby managed the St. Louis Cardinals to the National League pennant in 1926 while having a hellacious year at the plate. He played second base.

But the atmosphere surrounding the Indians’ 1948 season was unprecedented at the time. The Indians set a major league attendance record with 2.6 million admissions. The cavernous old Stadium often was not big enough.

And most importantly for a nine-year-old kid, Lou answered his mail.

Dan Coughlin has covered the Cleveland sports scene for 45 years, as a sportswriter for The Cleveland Plain Dealer (1964-1982) and on WJW-TV 8 (since 1983). He was twice named Ohio sportswriter of the year and was honored with a television Emmy. Dan has written two books: Crazy, With the Papers to Prove It and Pass the Nuts. He blogs at Coughlin Forever
Photo (c) Danny Vega


Spills said...

Very cool story.

I still remember Belle almost running over my 8 year old sister trying to get her favorite player's autograph in Spring Training one year.

Guy just kept driving past the little girl holding out the foul ball Paul Shuey handed her earlier in the day at the game we went to.

Al Ciammaichella said...

Great story. If they existed in 1948, Bodreau would have likely won the Manager of the Year, Gold Glove and Silver Slugger in addition to the MVP award. Can you imagine that in today's game?