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The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

BASEBALL - The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

BASEBALL. Professional baseball in Cleveland emerged in the late 1860s from the area's informal amateur baseball circuit. Initially, the line between amateur and professional play was tenuous. In 1865 the FOREST CITY BASEBALL CLUB was organized to support an amateur team, the Forest Citys, which in 1869 turned partly professional and played its first professional game against the Cincinnati Red Stockings on 2 June. By Dec. 1870 it was apparent to observers that baseball was becoming a business, and the association's stockholders resolved to "organize the very best baseball team that could be secured." As a result, the Forest Citys joined the new National Assn. of Professional Baseball players in March 1871 and played in that league until forced to drop out in mid-1872 for financial reasons. Another team known as the Forest Citys played in the National League 1879-84. In 1889 Cleveland fielded another NL team: the CLEVELAND SPIDERS, owned by Frank Robison and his brother, Stanley, who together owned and operated the horse-drawn trolley system in Cleveland. Led by a local farm boy named DENTON TRUE "CY" YOUNG†, the Spiders won the 1895 Temple Cup by defeating the Baltimore Orioles in 4 of 5 playoff games; they lost the cup to Baltimore in 4 straight games the following year. But these glory days had ended by 1899, when the Robisons shuttled the team's talented players to their NL team in St. Louis, and the Spiders finished the season 20-134. As a result, Cleveland was one of 4 teams eliminated by the NL in 1899.

When Ban Johnson laid the foundations for a new American League in 1900, he found CHARLES W. SOMERS†, who was in the coal business, and John F. Kilfoyle, owner of a men's furnishings store, ready to finance a professional franchise in the Forest City (see CLEVELAND INDIANS). Somers had ready cash, and in 3 years he bankrolled the new league, its teams, and its players to the tune of nearly $1 million. Second baseman NAPOLEON LAJOIE†, probably the greatest player of his time, attracted the largest weekday baseball crowd in the city's history soon after his arrival in 1902, and in 1903 the team took the name "Naps" in his honor. The Naps, managed by Lajoie, finished 2nd in the league in 1908, but the heady years under Lajoie ended in 1914 as the team performed badly, and he was released. But in no sense was baseball dead in Cleveland. The amateur competition that had spawned the pro game in the last half of the 1860s expanded and became more vigorous in the next 50 years. In 1910 the Cleveland Amateur Baseball Assn. was formed to bring greater organization to amateur baseball in the area. As the performance of the local pros became less appealing to fans, they turned out to see amateur baseball in record numbers. Games at Brookside Park Stadium regularly drew 6,000-8,000 fans and special games attracted audiences of , 80,000-100,000 to the natural amphitheater.

In 1915-16 major changes set Cleveland's professional team on a new course. Somers was nearly $2 million in debt, and AL president Ban Johnson arranged the team's sale to a Chicago group led by James C. Dunn, partner in a railroad construction firm, for $500,000. The team took on a new nickname, the Indians, and signed TRISTRAM (TRIS) SPEAKER†. The 1920 season of the Cleveland Indians was a triumph born of tragedy. In August, star shortstop RAY CHAPMAN† was hit in the head by a pitched ball and died the same day of a crushed skull. That year, Cleveland also won the American League pennant and defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers in a best-of-9 World Series. Fans witnessed Speaker's great fielding, STANLEY COVELESKI†'s 3 victories, and 2 "firsts" in World Series history: the first unassisted triple play, by Bill Wambsganss, and the first grand-slam home run by Elmer Smith. In 1927 the team was purchased for $975,000 by a group of prominent Clevelanders: John Sherwin, Sr., Percy Morgan, NEWTON D. BAKER†, JOSEPH C. HOSTETLER†, and 2 sets of brothers: Charles and ALVA BRADLEY†, and O. P. and M. J. VAN SWERINGEN†. Reporters claimed that the team would now be operated as a "civic enterprise" as well as a business venture. In 1932 the Indians played 31 games in the new CLEVELAND MUNICIPAL STADIUM, bringing baseball fans downtown where the new owners of the Tribe had numerous business interests.

Clevelanders were interested in more than just professional baseball, however. The city has long claimed to be the "Sandlot Capital of the World." The Cleveland Baseball Federation (formerly the Cleveland Amateur Baseball Assn.) in cooperation with the city's Recreation Department was the major force in promoting baseball as a summer pastime for men and boys. In 1938 the amateur sport received a boost when night sandlot baseball was introduced. Also in the late 1930s, I. S. "NIG" ROSE†, active for years in the Baseball Federation, took the lead in the formation of the Cleveland Municipal Softball Assn., which adopted baseball rules and streamlined the game to make it more exciting for spectators and players. Amateur baseball and softball (both slow pitch and fast pitch) continued to be extremely popular summer pastimes, attracting thousands of players and spectators. Women's softball teams were equally outstanding. Cleveland's Bloomer Girls team won the Ladies World Championship in 1935 followed by the ladies team from the National Screw & Manufacturing Co., which won the same championship in 1936 and 1937. In addition to the amateur program, Cleveland supported the CLEVELAND BUCKEYES of the Negro American League. A series of teams in the Negro baseball leagues called Cleveland home for brief periods in the, 1920s and 1930s, but the Buckeyes lasted the longest and were the most successful.

A new era for Indians baseball arrived in 1936 with the debut of Bob Feller, who made his first major-league start on 23 Aug. 1936, striking out 15 St. Louis Browns, 1 short of the AL record. He opened the 1940 season by pitching the first opening-day no-hitter in major league history. Behind Feller's pitching exploits, the Indians were exciting and competitive, finishing the 1940 season just 1 game out of first place. In June 1946 Bill Veeck from Chicago put together a syndicate and bought the team for $1.5 million. A master showman and promoter, Veeck attracted paying customers with strolling bands, fireworks displays, and orchids and nylons for the ladies. But he also put together a team of talented baseball players, one of whom was a 22-year-old rookie named Larry Doby. Doby had played for the Newark Eagles of the Negro League and in 1947 made his debut in the AL, becoming its first black player. In 1948 the Indians established new major league records for the largest crowds at a single game, doubleheader, night game, and opening-day game, and for a season: 2,620,627 fans at the lakefront municipal stadium while the team defeated the Boston Braves to win the World Series. The next year Veeck experienced personal financial difficulties and sold the team for $2.2 million to a syndicate headed by Ellis Ryan and Hank Greenberg. The Indians won the pennant again in 1954, amassing a record 111 victories, including a pennant triumph over the Yankees on 12 Sept. 1954 in front of the largest regular-season crowd in organized baseball history (84,587). This event was followed by a loss of 4 straight World Series games to the New York Giants.

The Indians organization then embarked on several decades of instability. In Feb. 1956 local businessmen William R. Daley and Ignatius A. O'Shaughnessy bought the Tribe for $3.96 million. Despite the addition of new stars such as Herb Score and Rocky Colavito, performance and attendance lagged: in 1959 attendance dropped below 1 million for the first time since Veeck had come on the scene. In 1958 Cleveland baseball fans witnessed what would become a common pattern for the next 3 decades: shrinking crowds; threats to move the team to other cities; campaigns by business, civic, and political leaders to sell tickets and save the "civic enterprise" and maintain the city's image; and owners' claims that they kept the Indians in Cleveland, despite financial hardships, out of "civic loyalty." The Tribe changed hands again in Nov. 1962; a 19-man syndicate that included VERNON STOUFFER†, Thomas J. Burke, F. J. O'Neill, and Gabe Paul paid $6 million for the team. By 1964 there was more talk of moving to another city, and the team's 5th place finish was typical in the 1960s. To end the threats of a move, Vernon Stouffer bought control of the Indians in Aug. 1966; the team was then valued at $8 million. Attendance at the stadium fell to 619,970 in 1969 as the team, finished in last place. Although the team was faring poorly and attendance was slipping, escalating television contracts made the baseball franchise itself valuable; a succession of owners were able to sell the team for more than they had paid for it. In March 1972 Stouffer sold the Indians for $9.7 million to a group of local investors headed by Nick Mileti. Mileti's ownership was an eventful one: it included a players' strike in 1972; an extremely unruly crowd and a forfeited game on Beer Night ($.10 a glass) on 4 June 1974; and major league baseball's first black manager, Frank Robinson, who managed the Indians from 3 Oct. 1974 until he was fired on 19 June 1977. The Indians continued to play poorly during the 1970s, finishing above .500 only twice. In Feb. 1978, amid more rumors of an impending move, FRANCIS JOSEPH (STEVE) O'NEILL† became principal owner.

By 1985 talk of moving the team resurfaced, countered by new proposals for a domed stadium; the team finished the year in last place (60-102), and its debt had grown to more than $11 million. But in 1986 a talented and exciting young team (84-78, 11.5 games behind), boosted attendance to nearly 1.5 million for the year. Adding to the excitement was the announcement in July that the O'Neill heirs had reached an agreement to sell the team for $35-40 million to Richard E. and DAVID H. JACOBS†, local developers who vowed to keep the Tribe in Cleveland. Although the club's farm system was dramatically improved under the new owners, the team's won-lost record remained under .500 until 1994. In 1994 the American and National Leagues each realigned their 14 teams into 3 divisions to increase the number of participants in the pennant playoffs, with Cleveland moving to the newly organized AL Central Division. Although the Indians moved to Jacobs Field in the new Gateway sports complex for the 1994 season, major league baseball was halted 12 Aug. by a players' strike. Issues included the baseball owners' proposals for a cap on salaries and the elimination of binding arbitration in salary disputes, which the players opposed. When subsequent negotiations produced no agreement, the owners cancelled the 1994 World Series, the first time it had been done since 1904, and unilaterally implemented their salary cap proposal. The stalemate was temporarily broken 31 Mar. 1995 when the court approved an NLRB injunction ordering owners to restore the free-agent bidding, salary arbitration, and anti-collusion provisions contained in the expired labor agreement. Satisfied, the major league players returned for spring training and the start of the 1995 baseball season was delayed until 25 April. Despite the shortened season, the Indians captured the AL Central Division title by 30 games (a new major league record) with a 100-44 record. Advancing through the playoffs to the World Series (their first post-season in 41 years), the American League champion Indians were defeated by the Atlanta Braves 4 games to 2 (see, BASEBALL WORLD SERIES).

The Indians won the American League Central division in 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2001 and 2007. In 1997 they lost the World Series to the Florida Marlins in the bottom of the eleventh inning of game seven.

Craig S. Miller

Society for American Baseball Research Archives, WRHS

Lewis, Franklin. The Cleveland Indians (1949).

Torry, Jack. Endless Summers: The Fall and Rise of the Cleveland Indians (1995).

Cleveland Professional Baseball Players in the Hall of Fame ( 2 Kbytes ) Last Modified: 21 Sep 2008 11:58:56 PM

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