Publicity Stunt made Tribe Player Record Holder
Vince Guerrieri | On 04, Feb 2014
On Aug. 20, 1938, Ken Keltner climbed to the top of the Terminal Tower. The rookie Indians third baseman was part of an effort to set a world record. On the ground, another rookie, Hank Helf, was waiting, wearing street clothes – and a metal helmet, just in case.
The tower, then the tallest building in Ohio and the tallest in America outside of New York City, had been built by the wealthy but reclusive Van Sweringen brothers. They started in land development and extended their reach into railroads, building the Cleveland Interurban Railroad to take people from downtown to a new suburb developed by the Van Sweringens called Shaker Heights.
The Van Sweringens bought up track throughout Cuyahoga County, all of which met near Public Square. They then made plans in the Roaring 20s to build a train station for unified handling of all the city’s freight and passenger trains, and proposed building an office tower on top of it. The first caissons were sunk in 1926, and the Terminal Tower opened in 1930 – by which time the brothers fortunes had eroded in the wake of the Great Depression.
In 1908, Washington Senators catcher Gabby Street caught a ball dropped from the top of the Washington Monument, a distance of more than 555 feet. Thirty years later, the Come to Cleveland Committee decided to make some history of its own.
The committee was formed in the teeth of the Great Depression in 1932 a combination of forces of the city’s convention board and advertising club. It made as its centerpiece the shimmering new stadium built on the shores of Lake Erie, suitable for baseball, football, boxing, Christian revivals or concerts. The committee also helped bring the Great Lakes Exposition to Cleveland in 1936 and 1937. The festival drew more than 7 million visitors in the two years it was open, but after it left, the committee was looking for other ways to get people to come to Cleveland. Or, as the Brooklyn Eagle more cynically put it, “let the world know that Cleveland has other things besides torso murders.” (Death masks of the unidentified victims were among the items on display at the Great Lakes Exposition, and are currently property of the Cleveland Police Museum.)
Keltner started dropping baseballs. Helf told Sports Illustrated years later that he didn’t think a ball would come near him. But he ended up catching one, calculated to be traveling around 138 mph. “They looked like aspirin coming down,” he said. Pytlak also caught one.
Helf played in six games in 1938 for the Indians, and had one at-bat for the Indians in 1940. That year, the Come to Cleveland Committee tried unsuccessfully to lure the 1940 Summer Olympics to Cleveland. Tokyo, Japan was supposed to host, but the outbreak of World War II precluded those plans. The Games would have gone to Helsinki, second in the bidding, but were ultimately canceled, and were not resumed until 1948.
Helf played briefly for the St. Louis Browns in 1946 after returning from military service in World War II. He died in 1984.
In 1980, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Terminal Tower – still the tallest building in Ohio –Ted Stepien planned another stunt. Stepien, who was so incompetent as owner of the Cavaliers that he couldn’t make trades without league approval, also owned the Cleveland Competitors, a slow-pitch softball team. He wanted to throw softballs out a window to recreate the record.
Two people were injured and a car was damaged. Stepien had to pay out $36,000 in a settlement.