CLEVELAND BEARS - The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History
The CLEVELAND BEARS were a Negro League baseball team in 1939 and 1940 and were members of the Negro American League. This league was formed in 1937 and held the western Negro League teams; it lasted in some form until 1960. Even though the Bears did not survive beyond the 1940 season, they managed a .500 record for both of their seasons in the league. The Bears were formed when the Jacksonville Red Caps moved to Cleveland for the 1939 season.
When the remnants of the Red Caps moved to Cleveland, the new owners of the team held a contest to determine the new name of the franchise. It was unclear how much influence the fan vote had over the chosen name of "Bears." The Red Caps were initially founded by a group of train station red caps in Jacksonville, Florida, and the team was owned by their white boss at the train station, J.B. Greer. Once they moved to Cleveland the team had trouble finding a location for their home games. The Bears initially planned to share LEAGUE PARK with the CLEVELAND INDIANS, but the plan fell through when they could not settle on a rent agreement with the team. At the last minute the Bears announced that they would play their home games at CLEVELAND MUNICIPAL STADIUM in 1939. Even though the Bears averaged about 3,000 to 6,000 fans per game, those figures still seemed like nothing in the cavernous Stadium.
The Bears supposedly played hard for nine innings, a fact that set them apart from their predecessors. They also appeared to have better public relations than the previous Negro League teams in Cleveland. In addition to the team name contest, the Bears also offered free tickets to the first 50 women to visit a local music store and had several promotional events with JESSE OWENS at their games. They sent three players and their manager, Alonzo Mitchell, to the East-West All Star Game in 1939, quite a feat for a young team (all players were under the age of 30). Despite their steady play through the first half of the season, the Bears fired general manager and team advertising agent Lem Williams in August of 1939. Williams was blamed for a steady drop in attendance throughout the season, as well as the Bears' failure to secure League Park before the season started.
The Bears were able to make a deal with Indians officials for the 1940 season and planned to play their home games at League Park. When the Bears performed poorly during their season opener, new manager Jim Williams said that a bus accident in Florida during spring training was to blame. Several players played injured, while others were still too badly injured to play at all. The Bears struggled during the first month of the season, and the CLEVELAND CALL & POST said that the team lacked its usual hustle. In an attempt to rescue the Bears, Cleveland native Harry Walker became involved with the team. Walker was a, prominent figure in African American sports in Cleveland who worked as an announcer for several sports, and as a Negro League umpire. In fact, he worked as an umpire for the 1939 Bears, but was appointed the business manager of the 1940 Bears.
Neither the hiring of Walker or the rehiring of Alonzo Mitchell in June, after Jim Williams was fired, could save the Bears. By mid July the team was out of the league, right after they were no-shows for a game at League Park against the Birmingham Black Barons. Even though the 1939 squad was complimented for its hard work, the 1940 squad supposedly "conducted themselves like a bunch of third rate sandlotters." Fan support dwindled throughout the second season, likely due to the team's losing record and poor play. Once the team disappeared, they left Harry Walker to clean up the mess they left behind in Cleveland. Walker had to settle debts and explain the team's collapse to frustrated fans. Walker eventually became the umpire for the CLEVELAND BUCKEYES, the final Negro League team in the city.Last Modified: 24 Jun 2009 09:11:26 PM
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