100 Greatest Indians: Albert Belle

100 Greatest Indians: Albert Belle

In 2003, a panel of writers, historians and baseball officials got together and named the "100 Greatest Indians," and the organization then held a season-long celebration in honor of the men who made the team.

Those men will be honored and their feats chronicled in an ongoing series of stories about each of them. Each month a story will appear that takes fans back through Memory Lane as one by one the legends of Cleveland baseball have their stories told.

The series began in March with a story on Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller, the most heralded player in team history. Here in installment two of the series is a tribute to Albert Belle.

CLEVELAND -- Few athletes played with the intensity and single-mindedness that described Albert Belle.

As a ballplayer, Belle seemed always on edge. His laser-like focus was seen too often as anger. But whatever fueled the engine inside Belle, it drove him to greatness, because no man's performance did more to put the spotlight on Cleveland and Indians baseball in the mid-1990s than his did.

"I feel like myself and the city of Cleveland are in the same boat," Belle told USA TODAY in 1995. "We're made for each other."

He was right. For few baseball towns were looking as desperately as Cleveland was for someone to call their own -- a star who could turn a ballgame around with one swing of the bat.

Cleveland hadn't had that kind of star ballplayer since Rocky Colavito in the late 1950s and early '60s, which was a generation ago to most Indians fans.

So they poured their adulation on Belle, and he repaid them with the kinds of success that seemed destined to earn him a plaque in Cooperstown. Game after game Belle, who grew up admiring the stoic Eddie Murray, created more lore. With the game's outcome on the line, no hitter in baseball was as dangerous as Belle. He drove in runs by the truckload, and he reveled inside in the personal acclaim that went with it.

"RBIs win games; and they can make you a ton of money," he once said.

He was right here, too. For he won a lot of games with his RBIs, and he made a ton of money playing the game. But to Tribe fans, it was more about the games won than it was about the money Belle was being paid.

To them, he was the embodiment of the city's spirit: a ballplayer who came seemingly from nowhere to establish himself as a star. His was a success story built around hard work and dedication.

His personal success spelled success for the Indians, because in 1994, 1995 and 1996, Belle helped turn the Indians into one of baseball's best teams. But like stars throughout the game, he would eventually take his game elsewhere.

"Leaving wasn't a personal thing where I intentionally wanted to stick it to management or anyone," he told Sport magazine in 1997. "This is business. I felt I should have been rewarded for helping the Indians turn around a half century of losing. It was a shame they decided to treat me that way, after all I did for them. I helped this team go from 106 losses to basically 106 wins and into the World Series. And what do I get for it? Nothing."

That was a bittersweet way of seeing his time in Cleveland, and his leaving town opened him up to harsh criticism, which Belle decried as mean-spirited. He was accused of everything that had ever gone wrong in the city, aside from setting fire to the Cuyahoga River.

"We've all heard endless discussions about Belle's surliness and his tirades against reporters, but we haven't heard any of the good stuff," said Eric Enders in an essay titled "In Defense of Albert Belle." "Why not? You'll have to decide that for yourself. Is Albert Belle really the monster the media portrays, or is he, as he has claimed, 'just an ordinary guy who can hit a baseball'?"

His faults notwithstanding, Belle could hit a baseball -- and hit it far. For that, he got from Cleveland and its fans what he would never get elsewhere in his baseball travels: a hero's appreciation.

In at least one form, that appreciation will continue forever, because Belle's career with the Tribe earned him recognition as one of the "100 Greatest Indians."

Belle's career stats

Games: 1,539
Average: .295
At-Bats: 5,853
Hits: 1,726
RBIs: 1,239
Homers: 381
Runs: 974
Steals: 88

Justice B. Hill is a senior writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.