Surviving the 50 Year War of Mediocrity in Cleveland
Bob Toth | On 28, Dec 2014
Fifty years. Fifty long years.
Fifty years without a celebratory parade. Fifty years without the hoisting of a trophy by the owner, the coach, and the players. Fifty years without untamed jubilation filling the streets of Cleveland, the surrounding neighborhoods, and the homes of displaced Cleveland loyalists across the world.
Being a fan of Cleveland sports may take fifty years off of one’s lifespan. It is a birthright bestowed on the unlucky. It is a blessing to be part of such a passionate fan base, but it is a curse to not know the joys of winning.
Much is made about the long championship drought of the Chicago Cubs, who last celebrated a title in 1908 after taking four of five from the Detroit Tigers. They returned to the title game two years later. They did it again eight years later. And again eleven years after that in 1929 and in three year spans in 1932, 1935, and 1938. Seven trips in all have been made since their last title, but every time since aught eight, they have been denied.
But it is not as though those in Chicagoland have gone without the euphoria of a world title.
The cross town White Sox have won as recently as 2005 in a four game sweep over the Houston Astros. Their absence from a victorious championship series was lengthy, having lost in 1959 and 1919 before that. Like the Cleveland Indians, they won each of their first two World Series appearances in 1906 and 1917.
The NFL’s Chicago Bears reached the Super Bowl in 2006, losing to the Indianapolis Colts, but knocked off the New England Patriots in 1985. They also won the NFL Championship the season before the Browns last won and had won seven others prior dating back to 1921.
The NBA’s Chicago Bulls won six Finals appearances in a span of eight years under the watch of Hall of Famer Phil Jackson and arguably the greatest player to play the game and break Clevelanders’ hearts, Michael Jordan.
Even the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks have won a pair of titles in the last six years.
Chicago knows winning, unless you’re a Cubs fan. But if you’re a Clevelander under the age of 55, you have never experienced that satisfaction in your life or were much too young to remember it.
Saturday marked the last title in the history of the major professional sports in the city of Cleveland since 1964. On what has been described in the archives as a chilly and windy afternoon on the lakefront, the underdog 10-3-1 Cleveland Browns blanked the 12-2 Baltimore Colts by a 27-0 final in front of 79,544 spectators. Quarterback Frank Ryan threw three touchdown passes to receiver Gary Collins in the second half while Lou Groza booted in a pair of field goals. Fullback Jim Brown rushed for 114 yards and added a few receptions. The defense stifled future Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas, one of seven future residents of the Canton NFL Hall of Fame, by limiting him to just 95 yards passing on the day.
For those old enough to remember the game, their recollections may be a bit hazy with fifty years of new memories pushing out some of the fine details of that day. For those like me, we only know of it through the retelling of stories and the publication of pictures capturing the day’s events.
Despite what children of this generation may think, the Browns were once a successful NFL franchise. In 16 years since returning to the NFL after the Art Modell problem, the Browns have had just two seasons with a winning record and one trip to the postseason.
This was a far cry from the team that entered existence in 1946 in the eight-team All-America Football Conference and won championships in each of their first five seasons and seven of their first ten. After another lost championship game in 1957, they were held out of the title game until their victorious 1964 season. They returned in 1965 with a chance to win it all again, but lost 23-12 to the Green Bay Packers, despite having the league’s best record. The Browns have not played in a championship game since and never in a Super Bowl, which was established for the 1966 season.
Since that last title, the Browns have made the postseason 15 times in 47 seasons and have finished with more wins than losses in 19 of them. Unfortunately for football fans in Cleveland, the latter has happened just twice in the last 16 years with one Wild Card loss.
The Cavs, in their 45th season now, appear to be Cleveland’s next big hope after the return of LeBron James and the trade for Kevin Love to complement Kyrie Irving. The NBA Finals, however, are foreign ground to the organization, which was swept in the 2006-2007 season in four games by the San Antonio Spurs. Three other potential trips to the Finals were denied in the 2008-2009, 1991-1992, and 1975-1976 seasons.
The Indians won in 1920 in their first trip. It took a while, but they completed the task again in the World Series in 1948. A heartbreaking sweep at the hands of the New York Giants in 1954, after having the best record in the regular season, would be the last trip to the postseason for the Tribe until 1995. Meanwhile, the Browns would make the playoffs 20 times between the Indians’ trips, including a 3-2 record in championship games in 1954, 1955, 1957, 1964, and 1965. This exists as one of many reasons Cleveland remains a Browns Town to this day, even with a decade and a half of suck on the shores of Lake Erie.
Since winning their last title in 1948, the Indians have reached the postseason nine times, including World Series losses three times. Eight of these times have occurred in the last 21 years, dating back to the strike-shortened 1994 campaign. The club has finished above the .500 mark on a dozen separate occasions in that span.
From the year following their World Series loss to the Giants in 1954 to the final year of Cleveland Stadium in 1993, fans were treated to subpar play and disappointing results. Ten times in 39 years the team finished with winning records. Four of those seasons occurred in the first five years following the ’54 sweep. The Tribe had winning records no more than twice per decade (1965 and 1968, 1976 and 1979, and 1981 and 1986) until the closure of the Stadium and the glory days of the ‘90s.
If there is one thing Cleveland knows well, it is losing. We have been subjected to it day after day, Sunday after Sunday, and year after year.
There is optimism in the air, though.
The Browns have played better than some had thought this season. While the season seems to be ending with more questions than answers, they did accumulate their highest win total since 2007.
In regards to the Cavs, LBJ alone gives hope, but the star power of Irving and Love and an aggressive owner gives a general feeling to the populous that the playoffs will return to Quicken Loans Arena for the first time since the spring of 2010.
The Indians posted consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 2000-2001 and by no surprise, both were under the guidance of manager Terry Francona. While the team slipped seven games off of their previous pace in the win column from 2013 to 2014, the team was riddled with injuries and poor play from some of the bigger names on the club. A pair of veteran offseason additions in Brandon Moss and Gavin Floyd could help strengthen the roster while the many younger members of the team should continue to see improvements over their career numbers. Pitcher Corey Kluber earned the team their third Cy Young Award in eight years, while outfielder Michael Brantley made his first All-Star team and finished in the top three in the AL MVP race.
Francona ended the long title drought in Boston. He somehow finds a way to get the best out of his players each and every year. In his time in Cleveland, he has seen the careers of Ubaldo Jimenez, Scott Kazmir, and Carlos Carrasco turn around while getting career production from Kluber and Brantley. If baseball is the sport that ends Cleveland’s torture, Francona may just be the man to do it.
How many more generations of young children will be ushered in to the woes and heartache that is being a Cleveland fan? The return of James to the Cleveland Cavaliers this offseason via free agency has instilled a level of hope into this city of despair and agony and its loyal fans, but nothing is ever guaranteed.
As history has shown us, we are always just one play, one of The Shot, The Drive, The Fumble, Red Right 88, or Jose Mesa away from watching it all slip through our fingers.
While most people might place their hopes on James to end the fifty years of pain and suffering in the Forest City, the Indians continue to lurk in the shadows, one breakout season or surprising run away from creating some havoc in an October run to remember.
Doing so would be exactly what the city of Cleveland needs. While the town may be more energized by a resurgence of the Browns on the playing field, the Indians have given the city the best sports years it has seen since the late 1940s and 1950s. Who knows, maybe the most recent class of Cleveland sports fans will be indoctrinated with what it feels like to support a champion.
Photo: AP Photo