Indians’ Attendance Issues Have Spanned Over 65 Years
Vince Guerrieri | On 03, Dec 2013
This week the DTTWLN staff is doing an in-depth look at the Cleveland Indians attendance. While everyone knows the Indians have an attendance problem, how they necessarily got to this point appears to be an explanation with many answers including play on the field, population and economic changes and improvements in technology. Regardless of the reasons, one thing is certain, the Indians have an attendance problem. Today, we examine the historical aspect of the Indians’ attendance.
In 1946, new Indians owner Bill Veeck made a decision that in the short term helped the Tribe but in the long term almost ruined them – or forced their relocation.
Veeck headed a syndicate that bought the Indians for $2.2 million, and he took over as managing partner in June 1946. After that year, he decided that the Indians would leave League Park at East 66th and Lexington in favor of Municipal Stadium, at the end of East Ninth Street at the lakefront.
The first baseball game at Municipal Stadium was in 1932, as Mel Harder took the loss in a 1-0 Athletics win in front of more than 80,000 fans, at the time a major league record. Lefty Grove was the winning pitcher for Philadelphia – which was the site of the first modern ballpark a generation earlier.
When Shibe Park opened in 1909, it was the first concrete-and-steel stadium in the United States. Previously, games were played in front of wooden grandstands and a wooden clubhouse structure. But as the sport gained popularity, bigger ballparks were built. After Shibe Park opened, other new ballparks were built, the only two of which still standing are Fenway Park in Boston, which opened in 1912, and Wrigley Field in Chicago, which opened two years later. A new League Park was constructed and opened in 1910.
Yankee Stadium opened in the South Bronx in 1923. By then, every wooden ballpark had been replaced with concrete and steel and the sport took hold as the National Pastime. Cleveland voters passed a bond issue in 1928 to build a new lakefront stadium, and the stadium opened with a boxing match between Max Schmeling and Young Stribling.
The Indians started playing there in 1932, but moved back to League Park after two years. Gradually, more and more of the schedule was played at Municipal Stadium. In 1941, the 56th and final game of Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak was played at League Park. The next day, the two teams played at Municipal Stadium as the streak was ended. Municipal Stadium was the Indians’ nighttime venue too. Lights were never installed at League Park.
Before owning the Indians, Veeck owned the minor league Milwaukee Brewers, where he helped popularize the concept of morning baseball. Veeck believed that everyone should be able to watch a game – even employees at factories who worked midnights. Baseball had been given the green light to continue for morale’s sake during World War II, and Veeck would start some games at 7 a.m., with manager Charlie Grimm being taken onto the field in a four-poster bed and awakened, jumping out of bed in his uniform. Spectators were given a free bowl of Corn Flakes.
Night baseball became a regular occurrence in Cleveland under Veeck’s watch – as did rapidly clicking turnstiles. Veeck’s arrival in Cleveland coincided with one of the best times on the field in Indians history. The Indians won the World Series in 1948, won the pennant in 1954 and in every year between 1948 and 1956 won at least 88 games.
In 1948, the Indians set a major-league attendance record with more than 2.6 million fans. The Indians also set a record for most fans at a night game, as more than 72,000 turned out to watch Satchel Paige, and a World Series game, as more than 86,000 fans watched the Indians lose Game 5.
The period of great success for the Indians also coincided with great attendance. Before 1946, the Indians had never drawn more than 1 million fans. But for the next decade, the Indians drew at least a million every year, and more than 2 million in 1948 and 1949.
By the late 1950s, the talent that led the Indians to so many wins was gone, and the farm system was being depleted as Frank “Trader” Lane lived up to his nickname. For the better part of the next 15 years, the Indians were a hair away from moving as the game expanded.
Prior to 1955, St. Louis was the farthest south and west of the Major League Baseball teams. As demographics changed and the population shifted, the game started to move as well. In 1955, the Athletics left Shibe Park and Philadelphia for Kansas City, and three years later, in a sea change, the Dodgers and Giants abandoned New York City for the West Coast. The Giants played in Seals Stadium until their ballpark was built, and the Dodgers called the Coliseum home until they moved to their new stadium. While at the Coliseum, the Dodgers drew crowds of more than 90,000, breaking most of Cleveland Stadium’s attendance records (it still holds the record for the highest attendance at an All-Star Game, with more than 72,000 fans watching after the strike ended in 1981).
Veeck had sold the team after the 1949 season to finance his divorce, and Hank Greenberg served as general manager and part owner. Greenberg unsuccessfully tried to move the team to Minneapolis, and then left the team, declaring Cleveland dead as a baseball town. The Indians were also linked to possibly moving to Houston.
In the early 1960s, Major League Baseball responded to threats of a third major league, the Continental League, by expanding. New American League teams were put in Washington – after the Senators left for Minneapolis – and Los Angeles, and the National League expanded to Houston and returned to New York City.
The second major building boom for baseball stadiums was on. The first building boom in the early 20th century begat historic ballparks like Shibe Park, Forbes Field and Crosley Field. The second boom saw those stadiums – in neighborhoods that had grown sketchier as the population started to abandon cities for suburbs – replaced by multipurpose stadiums, some with a new artificial surface. At the time, the city of Cleveland floated a $3.375 million bond issue for improvements to the stadium, but that barely stemmed the tide of rumors about the team moving.
The Braves, beaten by the Indians in the 1948 World Series, left Boston for Milwaukee in 1953. After seeing a spike in attendance there followed by a decline, the Braves then moved to Atlanta in 1966 — putting to rest rumors that the Indians would move there. As the Indians’ lease was set to expire in 1964, team officials considered offers from Oakland, Dallas and Seattle. The city of Seattle offered to build a domed stadium for the Indians by 1970.
But in the meantime, the Indians – who were largely playing and drawing poorly – would play in minor league stadiums too small for them. Ultimately, they decided to stay in Cleveland, but were working on a deal to play some home games in New Orleans in the early 1970s before Nick Mileti bought the team. The city was watching its industrial base – and its tax base – decline, and stadium maintenance suffered as a result, even after the city leased the stadium to Browns owner Art Modell. In the 1980s, Municipal Stadium was showing its age and fell into disrepair. Modell, who had made a fortune on other people’s money and rented the stadium to the Indians, said he didn’t have enough money to make the needed repairs to Municipal Stadium. Both the Browns and Indians were looking for new homes. Modell bought a piece of property in Strongsville, but nothing came of it. Plans were floated for a domed stadium, but never came to pass.
But another idea did take hold – a stadium complex on the site of the old Central Market downtown. Modell wanted no part of it, but the Indians were happy for the chance, as were the Cavs, who had been playing most of their existence in Richfield, a dot on the map between Cleveland, Akron and Youngstown.
Cuyahoga County voters approved a sin tax on alcohol and cigarettes to fund stadium construction – after Commissioner Fay Vincent strongly hinted that the Indians might be forced to move if a new stadium wasn’t built. By the early 1990s, Major League Baseball had extended from coast to coast and into Canada, but the new promised land was Florida. The White Sox had made overtures about a move to the Sunshine State, and the Giants actually had a deal in place to move to the Tampa area after the 1992 season, but the National League blocked the sale. Peter Magowan bought the team instead and kept it in San Francisco.
Jacobs Field opened in 1994. The Indians drew more than 2 million fans the year before, the first time since 1949, to say good bye (or good riddance) to Municipal Stadium. They were on pace to do the same before a strike ended the season in August. The next year, more than 2.8 million fans turned out to see the Indians make their first World Series appearance in 41 years, and a record-setting sellout streak started, going 455 games over seven seasons.
From 1996 to 2001, the Indians drew more than 3 million fans each year. There are eight teams in the major leagues that have NEVER drawn 3 million fans. Also in that time, the Indians won at least 86 games every year, including five Central Division crowns.
The Indians were able to catch lightning in a bottle twice, first in the 1940s and 1950s and then in the 1990s. It’s no coincidence that those were the most successful times in team history. There were moments in between when the Indians played well, but most of the time, it was little more than a one-year wonder. And when attendance spiked because of it, it quickly fell back when play declined as well.