Chasing the Indians' missing 1948 pennant

Bob Lemon, Gene Bearden and Jim Hegan celebrate the 1948 World Series win over the Boston Braves. AP Photo

The last time the Cleveland Indians won the World Series in 1948, Harry Truman was in the White House. Current manager Terry Francona was not born yet, and would not be for another 11 years. The fabric pennant the Indians received to commemorate their championship 65 years ago would be eligible for retirement this year. That is, if anyone happened to know its whereabouts -- the pennant has been missing for 64 years.

When historical items go missing, it's often a case of something slipping quietly into oblivion. One day you know its location, and the next it's just gone. Sometimes it turns up in a dusty box in a basement, or resurfaces when someone decides to clean their attic. The 1948 pennant went into hiding in the most public way possible; perhaps that's why its disappearance seems so vexing for people who searched for it during the past six decades. The story starts with Bill Veeck, the colorful owner known for his promotional stunts and attention-grabbing antics.

Veeck purchased the Indians in 1946 and soon made his mark with the team, and with history. In July of 1947 he signed Larry Doby, integrating the team and the American League. In the summer of 1948 he signed the legendary Negro Leagues pitcher Satchel Paige to help the team in their push for the pennant. Veeck permanently moved the team from League Park to the much larger Cleveland Municipal Stadium downtown (to that point, the Indians only played a select number of games at Municipal). The 1948 Indians also set a season attendance record -- a record they held until 1962. Everyone often thinks of the 1990s as a golden age for the Indians, both in terms of talent and attendance (the Tribe sold out 455 consecutive games in the '90s). The Indians of the late 1940s and early 1950s were also extremely talented; 1948 was the first of nine consecutive seasons where the club won at least 88 games. Veeck had high hopes for a repeat in 1949, but alas, it was not meant to be.

Not one to miss an opportunity for a stunt, Veeck decided that the team, and fans, should properly mourn the "death" of the Indians' championship aspirations. So on Sept. 23, 1949, a few days after the Indians were officially eliminated from contention, Veeck donned a high, silk hat and labeled himself a "mortician." The "deceased" was the pennant, and it would receive a full funeral. Twenty minutes prior to a game against Detroit, the funeral procession formed behind the right-field wall, near the Cleveland bullpen. A copy of the Sporting News was brought along as a representation of a holy book, since "baseball men refer to (it) as their 'Bible.'" Veeck even arranged for an 1890s-era horse-drawn hearse to take the pennant into the park as a band played a funeral procession. The pennant was entombed in a pine coffin, and a number of coaches and officials acted as "pallbearers" -- player/manager Lou Boudreau, coaches Bill McKechnie, Steve O’Neill and Muddy Ruel, general manager Hank Greenberg, traveling secretary Spud Goldstein, and publicist Marshall Samuel. Players joined the funeral procession as it passed the home dugout, and the 29,646 fans in attendance were told that they were there to mourn the "passing of a pennant." The coffin containing the deceased was buried just beyond the outfield wall with a cardboard tombstone bearing the inscription "Here lies the 1948 champs." It was the last known occasion that anyone saw the pennant. The Indians are still waiting for their next World Series ring.

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One can imagine that it's fairly easy to displace a cloth pennant; it's the kind of object that could be tucked away in the corner of a closet, completely out of view. However, one would think that a full-size pine coffin would be a bit more difficult to lose, especially when it's buried just beyond the outfield wall of a major league stadium. Yet nobody knows what happened to the pennant after that mock funeral; nobody even knows if it was ever exhumed from its grave. Bob DiBiasio, senior vice president of public affairs with the Indians, said that he's fielded a number of pennant-related requests in his 30-plus years working for the team. People are still curious about the whereabouts of the pennant, even after more than six decades.

But nobody associated with the team, or even the local historical society, has any idea what happened after 1949. DiBiasio has some theories; that it vanished during any number of minor remodeling projects at the stadium over the years, or perhaps when the field was transferred from baseball to football, and then back to baseball at one point or another. Municipal Stadium was demolished in 1996 after its final tenant, the Cleveland Browns, left for Baltimore. A Browns expansion team was promised a new venue, and the Indians had already moved down the street to Jacobs (now Progressive) Field. Pieces of Municipal Stadium were actually placed in Lake Erie to serve as a habitat for fish. The "mistake on the lake" had actually become a part of the lake whose waters it overlooked for more than 60 years. It is assumed that the pennant was dug up long before that point, and is not in a watery grave with the remains of the building. Nobody knows with certainty.

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This is not the first historical object connected to the Indians to go missing. One of the more famous missing items, however, had a much happier ending. In 1920, tragedy struck the Indians when second baseman Ray Chapman was hit in the head by a pitch and killed. His death placed a dark cloud over an otherwise joyous season (the Indians won the 1920 World Series, their only other championship). The team commissioned a plaque to honor his passing, and to share the story with future generations. When the Indians moved from Municipal Stadium to Jacobs Field, the plaque vanished and was mostly forgotten.

In 2007, the Indians decided to transform a picnic area of the ballpark into Heritage Park, a monument area to honor the team's greats. That same year, the Ray Chapman plaque miraculously re-surfaced. It was cleaned and restored to its original brilliance, and placed in Heritage Park for a new generation of fans to see. Throughout the 2007 season, the Indians battled with the Detroit Tigers for first place. On Aug. 17, the anniversary of Chapman's death, the Indians climbed back into a first-place tie with the Tigers and did not relinquish first for the rest of the season. A complete coincidence, but the type of coincidence that could make a superstitious fan believe their team is somehow destined for greatness, that because this plaque was discovered and restored, it held some form of magic over the team's on-field performance.

Perhaps that's why the missing pennant holds so much intrigue for Indians fans, more than half a century after its disappearance. People believe that objects hold some sort of power, and that curses exist. For years the "Curse of the Bambino" was blamed for the woes of the Red Sox, and a goat is supposedly part of the reason the Cubs have a World Series drought of more than 100 years. Since the Indians have won nothing since 1948, it seems somehow easier to believe that they're cursed because of a missing pennant (or because of the 1960 trade of outfielder Rocky Colavito).

A missing pennant didn't make Frank Lane trade anything that wasn't nailed down in the late 1950s and early 1960s though. It wasn't responsible for a series of bad drafts in the early 2000s, and general ineptitude in the organization during the 1970s and 1980s. When you watch your team blow a lead in the ninth inning of the seventh game of the World Series (as in 1997), you start to feel like a cloud of misfortune hangs above them. Anything you could personally do to try and turn their fortunes, or exorcise the demons, you'd do it. It's like the burying of the pennant is a metaphor for burying the fortunes of the franchise. By finding it, the "curse" on the Indians could somehow be lifted.

Sometimes things that vanish reappear, other times they remain missing for years. Sometimes they happen upon you when least expected. Last fall, during the storms connected to Hurricane Sandy, high winds lashed Lake Erie and water surged over the shoreline. When the waters receded, bricks from Municipal Stadium lay along the shore. Even though they were dumped into the lake more than 15 years prior, the storm brought them to the surface and back into the city's consciousness. Even something that seemed dead and buried was able to rise and return. It remains to be seen if fans will ever see the 1948 pennant again, or if it's gone for good. When it comes down to it, it's just a piece of fabric, though it's a piece of fabric that is a physical reminder of the Indians' last championship. The remains of Richard III were found buried under a parking lot in England recently, more than 500 years after his death. If he could resurface after all that time, perhaps there's hope for another item that is considered lost to the ages.

Although one hopes that if the pennant does turn up in several hundred years, the Indians would have won at least one more World Series by then.

Stephanie Liscio writes for It's Pronounced Lajaway and is the author of the book "Integrating Cleveland Baseball." She's on Twitter @stephanieliscio.