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Houston, Minneapolis Potential Landing Spots for Tribe in 1958

Houston, Minneapolis Potential Landing Spots for Tribe in 1958

| On 19, Aug 2014

After the 1948 season, the Indians were the kings of the baseball world. They had advanced to the World Series after beating the Red Sox in a one-game playoff at Fenway Park, then dispatched the Braves to win their first world title since 1920. In the process, the Tribe had drawn more than 2.6 million fans, and the team they built would contend through the mid-1950s.

But a decade later, the Indians – and baseball in general – were on the decline in Cleveland. Hank Greenberg, the former Tigers slugger who helped assemble the 1948 world champions and the 1954 pennant winner, had declared Cleveland dead as a baseball town, and the turnstiles appeared to agree with him. In 1958, the Indians drew less than 700,000 fans.

William Daley, the team’s managing partner, said they were listening to offers from other cities, as a result of the precipitous drop in attendance, and after the 1958 season, the Indians were legitimately in danger of moving – either to Minneapolis or Houston, both outposts for minor league baseball and both actively seeking a major league team. Dallas and Toronto were also rumored to be considered.

Minnesota promised more than a million fans yearly for at least the first three years, and a group from Houston wanted to buy the team, ostensibly to relocate it there. Plain Dealer sportswriter Jimmy Doyle said in August 1958 that the likelihood of a move to Minnesota was slim, since the Washington Senators would probably end up in the Twin Cities.

Owner William Daley said the team was being wooed by various cities, and the attendance problems the Indians had been having made them listen, particularly since a change of scenery had worked for the Indians’ World Series opponents in 1948. The Braves left Boston for Milwaukee, and instantly started drawing fans. That fall, they were playing in their second straight World Series. Daley said there would be a meeting of the board of directors to discuss the best course of action.

Plain Dealer sports editor Gordon Cobbledick said movement was in the air. In the previous five years, the St. Louis Browns had relocated to Baltimore to become the Orioles, the Dodgers and Giants were leaving New York City for the West Coast, and the Braves had left for Milwaukee. Cobbledick mused that if the Indians could talk about moving 10 years after a record-breaking season, what would keep the Braves in Milwaukee? (As it turns out, he was right; the Braves decamped for Atlanta in 1966.)

Cobbledick pleaded for the Indians to stay in Cleveland, saying that continuously relocating franchises were bad for Major League Baseball, and a bad stretch for Cleveland didn’t make it a bad town for baseball.

“I know that success can be achieved here,” he wrote. “It has been achieved before. Cleveland is, demonstrably, the greatest baseball market in the world. But it is like all other markets in that the customers are reluctant to buy an inferior product.

“Let the owners improve the product, let them sell it aggressively, let them show a proper consideration for the rights and wishes of the buyers, and I guarantee that within three years, they’ll be wondering why they ever were afraid that Cleveland wouldn’t support baseball.”

On the morning of Oct. 17, Plain Dealer readers saw a banner headline: ‘Civic Loyalty’ Keeps Indians in Cleveland. There would be no move. Hank Greenberg had been fired as general manager a year earlier, but still owned roughly 30 percent of the team. He advocated the move. Daley and the other shareholders were content to stay put, and ended up buying Greenberg out a month later.

Daley said remaining in Cleveland had more long-term benefits than any short-term gain from relocation. “The potential here is as great – if not greater – than anyplace else,” he said. “I’m fairly certain that if we have a team in the pennant race next season plus a good promotional program, we can hit a million.” Daley also said he hoped that the idea of moving the team will never be brought up again.

Attendance did increase in 1959, as the Indians drew nearly 1.5 million fans – but the Indians wouldn’t draw a million fans after that for 15 years. And despite Daley’s entreaties, throughout the 1960s, the Indians teetered on the brink of moving, listening to offers from Seattle, Kansas City and New Orleans.

But Major League Baseball saw potential new markets, and the 1960s became the expansion era, as teams were added in Houston, Los Angeles, Montreal, San Diego and Seattle – and returned to Washington D.C., Kansas City and New York City. Daley, who had sold the Indians in 1962, became one of the financial backers for the team in Seattle, the Pilots. The Pilots only lasted one year there before the ownership group was bought out by a syndicate fronted by a car dealer from Milwaukee, Allan “Bud” Selig. The Pilots returned Major League Baseball to Milwaukee, becoming the Brewers.

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