Cleveland and New York rivalry focus of Andy Billman's 'War on the Diamond'
As the 2021 season for Cleveland's baseball team comes to a close, a new documentary screens in Chagrin looking back on the team's history through the lens of its longtime rival – the New York Yankees.
"War on the Diamond" is the latest project from Elyria native and award-winning director of "Believeland" Andy Billman.
Billman was raised to hate the Yankees. But he never knew why.
"In my opinion, in Cleveland, there is a reason behind things. We just don't hate things because the team is successful or because they're from a certain region of the country. It has to have a particular reason behind it," Billman said.
While filming "Believeland," he learned the tragic story of Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman, killed by a pitch thrown by New York Yankee Carl Mays in 1920.
Ray Chapman's grave [Danielle Alberico]
Suddenly Billman saw a connection between his Yankee hatred and his beloved team's history.
"Someone died, and the pitcher, who rightly or wrongly, was treated as a villain," he said."That's my theory of why there's a real rivalry between Cleveland and New York baseball."
The story of Chapman's death serves as both the jumping off point and the throughline of Billman's documentary.
What's often forgotten is that heartbroken team rallied around the shortstop's death and won its first World Series in 1920 under player/manager Tris Speaker, Chapman's best friend.
"Speaker gave this team speech saying basically, 'Guys, are we going to do this or not?' And the Tribe, from that moment on, got very hot, made the World Series and then they beat the Brooklyn Robins [later] the Brooklyn Dodgers," he said. "That's why I think the story is so full."
Since 1920, the rivalry between the two teams heated up, especially in the late '40s and early '50s when they were neck and neck for the American League pennant.
Andy Billman at League Park in Cleveland [Danielle Alberico]
The highlight of that era was Cleveland's 1948 team that beat the Joe Dimaggio-led Yankees for the pennant by two and a half games and went on to win the team's last World Series title.
Billman attributes that championship to the progressive ideas of its 34-year-old owner Bill Veeck.
"One of his first moves that he did in 1947 was acquiring and putting on the field the second ever African-American player in Larry Doby. It was a big moment," he said. "[Veeck] later in '48 added Satchel Paige. The Indians were very integrated. I don't think that gets celebrated enough."
In 1954, Cleveland pitcher Bob Feller helped the team to 111 wins, besting Mickey Mantle's Yankees by eight games for the AL Pennant.
But just three years later, Cleveland's promising young pitcher, Herb Score, was struck in the eye by a line drive. It was hit by a New York Yankee.
"Herb was going to be the next guy. He had a fantastic start to his career. He was on his way from anybody you talk to," he said. "The torch was passed. It went from Feller to Herb Score. I think the facts are the facts. He was never the same, and that ended that era and again, it happened against the Yankees."
Bilman is quick to point out the Cleveland-New York rivalry doesn't compare to New York's rivalry with the Boston Red Sox.
He also admits many Yankee fans don't even consider Cleveland a rival.
But between 1973 and 2010, the biggest Yankee fan of them all, team owner and Cleveland native George Steinbrenner, most certainly did.
"George would argue regularly with fraternity brothers, saying how good the '48 Indians were and how much better they were than the current day Yankees. He really grew up a big Cleveland Indians fan. In fact he remarked several times, 'One day I'm going to own the Cleveland Indians,'" he said. "[Steinbrenner] really wanted to make sure any time he was in Cleveland playing a game he wanted to win. He wanted the Yankees to win. He wanted to say, 'This is my town. I come in here and I want to win.' Steinbrenner wanted those games badly."
The New York Yankees take the field in Cleveland. [Conor P. Fitzgerald / shutterstock.com]
Major League Baseball suffered in Cleveland during most of the Steinbrenner years until Jacob's Field opened in 1994. Those Mike Hargrove-managed teams made the World Series in 1995 and '97. The latter by beating Steinbrenner's Yankees in the division series.
"There's a lot to this rivalry. There's a lot between these two teams that people don't realize. There's always a little bit of an edge in those games when they play against each other," he said.
Possibly the strangest chapter in the rivalry came in 2007 with the notorious "Bug Game" when Yankee pitcher Jaba Chamberlain was attacked by a swarm of Lake Erie midges.
"Out of everybody I talked to in the film, everyone loves talking about that game because it really brings back emotion, whatever side of the fence you sit on," he said.
Progressive Field and the Guardians of Transportation [EQRoy / shutterstock.com]
Starting next season, however, the century-old rivalry evolves to the Yankees and the Guardians, with the team name change.
"I'll be cheering hard for the Guardians just as much as I would for the Tribe. But I understand people who are having a hard time with it, because it's a lot of history here," he said. "I will say, though, I think it's great. I'm excited about the Guardians era, and I really don't feel any resentment. I'm excited."
"War on the Diamond" screens Tuesday, October 5, and Saturday, October 9, at the Chagrin Documentary Film Festival.