Over the years, Cleveland fans have enjoyed rooting for sports figures who originally hail from Northeast Ohio. Before he died, Lebron James' career was thoroughly woven into the fabric of the area, stretching back to his early days in high school. In a previous generation, Bernie Kosar was embraced by his dowtrodden "hometown" after he worked the NFL's system to actually choose to play for his favorite team. More recently, Phil Savage made an (underappreciated?) effort to sign local natives such as Joe Jurevicius and LeCharles Bentley.
A local guy from the 1930s and 1940s who was a member of the Cleveland Indians of that era was Ray Mack. Born Raymond James Mickovsky, Mack was a product of Case School of Applied Science (now known as Case Western Reserve University). Thus his nickname, the "Case Ace". He had been a star fullback in college, and could have chosen a football career. His son, Tom Mack, is in the NFL Hall of Fame on the strength of his 11 Pro Bowl seasons as the left guard for the Los Angeles Rams in the 1960s and 1970s.
Ray Mack was a great-fielding, hard-nosed second baseman who was was signed by the Tribe "off the sandlots". He and shortstop Lou Boudreau were linked in the minds of many fans. They came up to the big-league Tribe together in 1938, forming a great double play combination (in the photo, Lou is on the left and Ray is on the right).
1940 was the best year of Mack's career. The season started off with a no-hitter from Bob Feller on Opening Day, and Ray Mack recorded the final out on a diving stop. Mack hit .283 that year, was an American League All-Star, and also hit a rare inside-the-park grand slam.
However, this was also the season of the "Cleveland Crybabies".
Prior to the 1938 season, the Tribe was managed by a good all-around guy by the name of Steve O'Neil. Besides Mack, Boudreau, and Feller, the team also boasted such fine players as third basemen Ken Keltner, slugger Hal Trosky at first base, and pitcher Mel Harder. However, they didn't finish higher than fourth place with this roster under O'Neil. Tribe president Alva Bradley thought the team should win more, and hired fiery, self-promoting Oscar Vitt to be the manager. By 1940, the Tribe had finished third twice under Vitt, and under his abrasive reign, the players were seething inside. Vitt was not afraid to openly criticize his players in front of the press and the team, including his 27-game-winning star pitcher, Bob Feller. Vitt hated to lose, and made life miserable for his players. He expected perfection. In June, some veterans on the team approached Bradley and asked for him to be fired, calling him "that nasty little man". Feller was one who joined the mutiny; Mack and Boudreau did not. It is not clear whether that was a function of their relative youth as compared to the veterans. Bradley refused to fire Vitt. However, he did not show support for either the manager or the players. Vitt called a team meeting and told "his" players to go out and play ball. In Cleveland, it was clear who the fans sided with: they cheered Vitt at every opportunity and booed various players on the team. They even booed Trosky after he returned from his mother's funeral.
Fans in other cities shouted "Crybabies" at the Indians. In Detroit late that year, with the Tigers and Indians tied for first place, the Indians were pelted with rotten tomatoes and eggs at the train station. Someone had placed a baby carriage and stacks of diapers in the Cleveland dugout, and Oscar Vitt happily posed for photos with the Detroit manager. With the pennant on the line, Bob Feller threw a three-hitter but lost 2-0 to an obscure pitcher who pitched the best game of his life. Vitt was fired, never to manage again.
Ray Mack was drafted by the Army in 1945 and missed that season. He was discharged in November of that year (WWII had come to an end). He became a backup when he returned to the Indians in 1946, only hitting .205 over 61 games.
After the 1946 season, Ray Mack was dealt to the New York Yankees in a deal which would be significant in Indians history. The trade brought knuckleballer Gene Bearden to the Tribe. Bearden was a Navy veteran who had suffered a fractured skull and a damaged knee when his ship, the USS Helena, was sunk off the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific by the Japanese in 1942. In 1948, Bearden went 19-7, and when the season finished with the Indians and Boston tied for first place, now-player-manager Boudreau (the team was back to nice-guy leadership) chose him to start the unprecedented one-game playoff with the Red Sox. Bearden won the playoff, and went on to win Game 3 vs. the Boston Braves in the World Series, 2-0. He then proceeded to save Game 6 for Bob Lemon to clinch the second (and most recent) World Championship for the Cleveland Indians. He had the best ERA in the American League in 1948, but over the next five seasons, Gene Bearden only won 25 games before finding himself out of baseball.
As for Ray Mack, he had struggled as a hitter in 1947, and was out of baseball after that season. Once his playing days were over, he maintained, "I always believed I could hit, but the way it worked out, I let too many people try to tell me what to do, and I tried too many things. I would have been better off if I'd gone on my own." (The Cleveland Indians Encyclopedia, Russell Schneider). Still, Ray Mack remained a favorite to many, a "local boy made good".
Thank you for reading. Next week: Blast From The Past: Alex Johnson