The New York Yankees and Cleveland Guardians (formerly the Cleveland Indians) have been rivals in the playoffs a lot of times in recent years. Since 1997, they have faced each other six times in the playoffs, which is tied for the most playoff matchups between two teams since 1981.
In recent memory, the rivalry (which has largely been one-sided on Cleveland’s side) has been fueled by the playoffs but the genesis of the rivalry started much earlier than the club’s meeting for the first time in the postseason in 1997. In fact, it started more than a century ago.
Tomorrow (Tuesday, Nov. 15), a documentary on the rivalry and its history of it will be released.
“War on the Diamond” was directed by Andy Billman, who is best known for being a producer for ESPN’s 30 for 30 and the director of Believeland, a 30 for 30 episode from 2016 about Cleveland and how they had yet to have a major championship win in over four decades (it was broken just a month later by the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers).
“War on the Diamond” is also based on Mike Sowell’s award-winning book “The Pitch That Killed,” and the story of Ray Chapman.
War on the Diamond: Yankees, Guardians/Indians rivalry starts with the Ray Chapman incident in 1920
All the way back in 1920, the New York Yankees and Cleveland Guardians were two teams that were very similar to each other. Both were teams in a booming metropolis (Cleveland was the fifth-largest city in the U.S. at the time and New York City was first).
Both had not done a thing as neither team had even made it to the World Series, let alone win it.
Entering play on August 16, both the Yankees and Indians as well as the Chicago White Sox (coming off throwing the World Series the year prior) were in a dead-heat for first place. The Indians and White Sox were in a virtual tie for first place at 70-40 and 72-42. The Yankees were a half-game back at 72-43.
Cleveland headed to New York to start a four-city road trip and in the first game, fate struck. Cleveland’s star shortstop Ray Chapman was hit in the head with a fastball from Yankees right-handed pitcher Carl Mays.
Due to many circumstances of the time, Chapman didn’t receive the attention that a player in today’s era would. At the time, players didn’t even wear helmets. To date, Chapman is the only MLB player to die of an on-field injury.
After he died, the Indians struggled for much of the rest of the road trip (losing eight of their next 11 games) but they came back to win the American League after going 20-6 in September. The Yankees finished in third but just three games back of Cleveland.
After that incident, the Yankees, of course, became the most successful team in the sport. In the 1940s and early 1950s, the Yankees and Indians had a strong rivalry because both teams played well.
The Yankees won the World Series eight times between 1947 and 1958 and appeared two more times (1955, 1957). From 1948 through 1956, the Indians were the AL team in the World Series in the only two seasons that the Yankees weren’t in, finished second five times, and won at least 88 games in each season.
In May 1957, Cleveland Indians ace Herb Score (who was an All-Star in his first two seasons in the majors in 1955 and 1956 and also won the AL Rookie of the Year Award in 1955) had his career altered after a liner off Yankees shortstop Gil McDougald hit Score in the eye. While his vision was restored, Score missed the rest of the season and he was never the same on the mound.
Thus started the dark era for Cleveland. Cleveland only finished as high as second place two times (1959, 1994) until they made the postseason again in 1995.
The Indians nearly had their fortunes turned around when Vernon Stouffer (of Stouffer’s Food acclaim) nearly sold the team to a person his son, Jim, was co-owners of a minor league basketball in Cleveland with (before the Cavaliers were established). However, due to an issue that Billman dives into in the documentary that happened during nearly a decade prior, Stouffer did not sell the team to that person.
That person was George Steinbrenner.
Steinbrenner, who was a Cleveland native, ended up buying the New York Yankees from CBS before the 1973 season. From then until his death in 2010, the Yankees won seven World Series titles. Meanwhile, Cleveland hasn’t won one since 1948.
Steinbrenner’s story with the Indians was the genesis of Billman wanting to make the documentary.
“Through Believeland, I started to learn, which I did not know going into Believeland, that George Steinbrenner was from Cleveland and try to buy the Indians in 1971,” Billman told Call To The Pen. “I didn’t know that. So I started researching that and in fact, at one point after Believeland came out, I pitched to my bosses (at ESPN) at the time. They said ‘no, not happening.’
Then, in 2020, Billman explained that he learned more about the story of Ray Chapman through Sowell’s book. That’s when he decided to intertwine Steinbrenner trying to buy the Indians in 1971 and Chapman.
"“(I decided to do a) much deeper dive into the history of Indians and Yankees because I think there’s a lot of history here that needs to be told. And I know the story is pretty well (Billman grew up a fan of the Indians as he was born in Elyria, Ohio and was raised in North Olmsted, Ohio, which are about 30 and 20 miles away from Cleveland). And so that’s how it all began. The book is a wonderful book. It’s kind of a thread throughout the film. And then what I did was take the (2007 ALDS Game 2) bugs game, 1997, 1998, (Bob) Feller (and Joe) DiMaggio (and their rivalry in the 1940s), 1948, 1954, and then what happened was Steinbrenner throughout the timeline there to kind of weave in 100 years of Yankees-Indians."
Throughout the documentary, Billman has a wide-range of interviews of people intertwined with the history. He has audio from interviews that Carl Mays (the pitcher that hit Ray Chapman) from just before he passed away in 1971.
One of the most intriguing interviews was with Mays’ stepson, Jerry Bartow, who is still alive today. Bartow became a baseball coach at Southwestern Community College for nealry 40 years and is in his late 80s now.
His stepfather said how he didn’t blame himself for Chapman dying and he even had some questionable comments about the situation.
“I think Carl Mays had some really poor moments. And then Carl Mays had some moments where he just was too competitive … That doesn’t mean he’s a terrible, horrible, rotten guy,” Billman said.
In talking with Bartow, Billman found out more about Mays off the field and it’s conveyed in what the audience sees.
“(Carl Mays) did do some good things,” Billman said. “And certainly one of them as he grew older was he’s taking kids and to help them further their baseball careers. You can’t can’t shame that at all.”
Ironically enough, Mays became a scout after he retired and he became a scout with the Indians.
Among others interviewed were Indians and Yankees players from the past including Andre Thornton, Sandy Alomar Jr., Jim Abbott, Jim Leyritz, Kenny Lofton, current Indians manager and former player Terry Francona, Baseball Hall of Famer Bob Feller in archival interviews. U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown, MLB Network’s Tom Verducci and Christopher Russo, and many others offer their insight on the rivalry as well.
You can check out the documentary with the presale link here on iTunes/Apple. It will be available tomorrow for the public to watch on iTunes/Apple, Amazon, Google, Vudu, YouTube, Microsoft, and cable and satellite VOD platforms everywhere.