All I have to do is mention the Cleveland Crybabies and people’s ears perk up.
The name is a sure attention getter. The reaction is always the same. There was a big-league baseball team called the Crybabies? For real? Well, yes and no.
I tell folks it was a baseball team and it once held spring training in Fort Myers, right at Terry Park, just east of downtown.
They were known derisively as a “bawl team.” Fans supposedly threw baby bottles at them around the American League one season. Their manager was a man named Ossie Vitt and the team was also called the Half-Vitts.
Their official name was the Cleveland Indians and a couple of months after they left Fort Myers for the 1940 season the diapers hit the fan.
Players revolted. They pleaded with team owner Alva Bradley to get rid of Vitt, who they viewed as a meanie.
Now, Vitt was old school. If he was old school in 1940 his school had to be so old he learned at the feet or Plato. Or least Ty Cobb. Actually Vitt and Cobb were teammates on the Detroit Tigers in the 1910s.
The June day after a contingent of players met with Bradley, the Cleveland Plain Dealer had the story. It’s tough to keep something like that a secret.
As Gordon Cobbledick wrote in the paper on June 14, 1940, “The Indians say it is difficult to hustle for Vitt. They charge that he has destroyed their spirit and weakened the incentive to play winning baseball.”
Well, Vitt was apparently a difficult man.
As Vitt said, “I don’t want any lazy players on my club. If the boys don’t hustle, out they go.”
When Vitt went to the mound to see pitcher Mel Harder on June 11, 1940, he told the veteran, “When are you going to start earning your salary?”
Harder was no bum. He pitched 20 years in the majors, compiling a 223-186 record. He won four more games than Pedro Martinez and one fewer than Catfish Hunter and Jim Bunning.
And what was Harder’s salary? I looked Harder up on baseball-reference.com. It doesn’t list a salary for 1940 but in 1938 he made $12,000.
That moment was one of many that spurred Harder and other players to see the owner about Vitt.
Harder reportedly told Bradley, “We think we have a good chance to win the pennant, but we’ll never win it with Vitt as the manager. If we can get rid of him, we can win. We feel sure about that.”
This was a very talented team. As baseball historian and writer Bill Nowlin pointed out in a Society for American Baseball Research profile on Vitt staff ace Bob Feller threw a no-hitter on Opening Day.
Feller was 27-11 that year, leading the American League in wins, ERA (2.61), complete games (31), innings pitched (320 1/3) strikeouts (261) and shutouts (4).
Pretty impressive, huh?
Vitt wasn’t always impressed.
I found this quote from Vitt about Feller on baseball-reference.com: “Look at him! He’s supposed to be my ace. I’m supposed to win a pennant with that kind of pitching?”
The player revolt was big news. The Associated Press reported at the time, according to Nowlin’s SABR piece on Vitt, it was “believed unprecedented in major league baseball.”
Now, nearly 80 years later, the story is nearly forgotten. When I bring it up people love hearing it.
I spoke to a Fort Myers gated community last week about local spring training history and mentioned the Crybabies. The folks there lapped up the story.
In my role as president of the Southwest Florida Historical Society, I gave a general talk on local history this morning in a mobile home park that touched on numerous topics. I was able to weave the Crybabies into that talk as well.
How can you not like a story about a team called Crybabies?
By the way, the Indians finished second in the American League that year, one game behind the Detroit Tigers.
Vitt’s contract was not renewed after the season.
The Indians trained only one more year in Fort Myers.
Feller is in the Hall of Fame.
As a personal aside, I have a very tenuous, literary connection to the Crybabies. Cleveland’s slugging first baseman then was a man named Hal Trosky.
In my novel “Grabmore” some scenes are set in the present day at Terry Park and one of my characters is a shuffleboard-obsessed woman named Troxie Trosky, a great-granddaughter of the slugger. She learns as the “Grabmore” story unfolds that her great-grandfather was a “Crybaby.”
Troxie Trosky is fictional.
But the 1940 Cleveland Crybabies were real, a real “bawl team.”