A 14-10 record last September gained Cleveland a tie for fifth place, a much-needed lift for a team that had been hard hit by injuries and almost deserted by its fans.
Adding to the chill wind that blows in off Lake Erie were the breezes created last season as the Indians struck out 1,102 times, a league record. The Cleveland batters were so busy swinging for the fences that they almost forgot about ordinary base hits (ninth in BA) and walks (only 2.9 a game), with the result that, despite 169 home runs, the Indians scored less than four runs a game (seventh in the AL). With Leon Wagner (.291, 26 HRs, 90 RBIs as an Angel) now an Indian, and with Fred Whitfield (21 HRs) playing full time, there may be even more homers this year. Also, hopefully, quite a few more runs. Right-handed power will come from Max Alvis, the team's leader in batting (.274), homers (22) and RBIs (67), and Catchers Joe Azcue (14 HRs) and John Romano (10 HRs). Picking a lead-off man should be easy for Acting Manager George Strickland, who will be in charge until Birdie Tebbetts recovers from his recent heart attack. The Indians feel that if Dick Howser leads off and gets on, pitchers will have to feed fast balls to Vic Davalillo to hold the speedy Howser close to the bag. That will help Davalillo, since he is a fast-ball hitter. If Davalillo, also a threat to steal, leads off and gets on, the pitchers will have to throw strikes to Howser or walk him and have two men on base. With Howser and Davalillo healthy and on base, those Cleveland homers will carry extra sting. When one of them is not playing right field, Wally Post, Al Smith and Al Luplow join Utility Men Woodie Held and Tito Francona to make up a bench that should improve on last year's .198 team pinch-hitting average. Best of the newcomers are Bob Chance and Chico Salmon. Chance led the Eastern League with 26 homers and 114 RBIs while hitting .343. Salmon has a four-year minor league average of .325 and a fear of ghosts (when he goes to bed he leaves the lights on and stuffs chewing gum in the keyhole). This could be the most exciting Indian offense in a decade.
In 1954 Early Wynn won 23 games for Cleveland. Now he is the team's new pitching coach, replacing Mel Harder. Under Harder, last year's staff set a league mark by striking out 1,018 batters, but these same strong-armed pitchers were sixth in ERA (3.79). Wynn's job is finally to make winners of this talented crew. "When it comes to pitchers, I am more worried about a miser than anything else," says General Manager Gabe Paul. "A miser is afraid of the batters; he puts a dollar sign on each pitch. A good pitcher says to the batter, 'Get up there and hit,' and then concentrates on his job. Wynn was that kind of a pitcher." Wynn has no revolutionary plans for helping the Cleveland pitchers, but his firmness and let's-get-down-to-business attitude may be what some of them need. "A pitcher has to look at a hitter as his mortal enemy," Wynn says. "Respect him but don't fear him. I'll try to impress on the boys the prestige that goes with winning and how much mental comfort and financial value there is in it. I know it was always easier for me to face the neighbors if I had won than if I had lost." One pitcher who took some of Wynn's advice last year was Pedro Ramos. "A lot of guys talk to me about pitching, and Harder helped my curve," Ramos says. "But Wynn I listen to more. The highest I can say is that whatever he say, I do with my eyes closed. Always I think I throw harder and harder and then I get the man out. 'No,' says Wynn. 'By little things you win or lose.' After a game I am in bed the next morning and I am thinking and I know he is right. He show me how to mix pitches. This make my fast ball look better and help my Cuban palm ball. [A Cuban palm ball is what some people call a spitter.] After a game he go over every pitch with me. He know better what I do than I do. So I think, from now on every pitch I will remember so next day I am ready. The last two months were my best in the big leagues." Ramos' 3.11 ERA was also the best of his nine-year career and, although his 9-8 record was mediocre, it was the first time since 1956 that he was a winning pitcher. Wynn must find a left-handed starter to back up Jack Kralick (14-13, 3.03 ERA). Both Sam McDowell and Rookie Tommy John have excellent stuff—and sore left arms. If they fail, Gabe Paul will try for a trade. Other starters will be Jim Grant (13-14, 3.69), Dick Donovan (11-13, 4.24) and Ramos. Gary Bell, who had an 8-5 record and a fine 2.95 ERA despite being both a starter and reliever, may have to double again. Also in the bullpen are submariner Ted Abernathy (7-2, 2.90), Jerry Walker (6-6, 4.91), Don McMahon (1-5, 4.05 with Houston last season) and rookies Gordon Seyfried and Sonny Siebert. If the pitchers do not hold up, it won't be for lack of exercise. During the winter Tebbetts sent them isometric-contraction exercisers paid for out of a kitty built up by $25 donations from players who made "unforgivable" errors.
Cutting down on errors (the Indians were seventh in fielding last season) and improving on the eighth-place ranking in double plays are two of Cleveland's top-priority projects. Shortstop Dick Howser is a slightly better-than-average fielder, and Jerry Kindall is a smooth second baseman, but heavier hitting by Held, Salmon or Larry Brown could earn one of them the second-base job. First Baseman Whitfield's bad arm is the result of an old injury, but Third Baseman Alvis has no excuse. He seems to enjoy throwing baseballs at the customers behind first base. Watching Davalillo in center field is a joy. He uses his 150 pounds swiftly, gracefully and efficiently. Wagner is at times more frightening than exciting in left field and the right fielders range from good (Luplow) to iffy (Post).
Tips from Coach Early Wynn and added batting support will help Cleveland pitchers win more often, perhaps often enough to put the team in the first division.