That Time the Tribe Nearly Moved to Seattle
Bob Toth | On 20, Sep 2015
Last Sunday, Did The Tribe Win Last Night? looked back to 1964 – a year remembered positively in Cleveland as the year of the city’s last professional sports championship. It could have also been the year that the once-beloved Indians left town, had it not been for swift intervention by the Cleveland media and the city’s fans.
When pressed, Gabe Paul continued to skirt the claims of the Indians’ potential relocation, although more and more links between the Tribe’s president, treasurer, and general manager and the Seattle region became apparent.
Paul did not deny receiving a proposal from KOMO, an ABC affiliate television station in Seattle, but was quick to state that the club had received offers from other places as well. One of Paul’s close friends was Dewey Soriano, the president of the Pacific Coast League. That relationship could have provided Paul with the inside track on the level of interest the region had in the game of baseball, beyond just simple minor league attendance numbers. On top of that, the Indians’ top minor league ball club played in Portland, Oregon.
Meanwhile, Paul met with Cleveland Mayor Ralph Locher and, following the meeting, shared with reporters that any team that wished to move to another city that currently housed a minor league franchise needed to notify that locale during the month of October, giving credence to the potential of a move.
The rumors were affecting the players, as did the large number of empty seats throughout the ball park. Players did not appear to like the notion of having to move across the country to deal with the weather of the region. Most, too, saw the reality of the situation and knew that ownership could not afford to keep the team in Cleveland while losing money year after year.
Voices in the press and in the community began to make some noise about the rumors.
An ad in the September 13th edition of The Plain Dealer stated things simply: “LET’S KEEP THE INDIANS IN CLEVELAND Buy Your Tickets For The Final Games AT SEARS” with the four remaining home series indicated. It came underneath an article by writer Russell Schneider that shared his belief that Seattle was not ready to bring in a franchise – yet – but that it did not preclude other cities, such as Atlanta, Oakland, or Dallas, from becoming involved if rumors of the Indians’ financial struggles were as true as they appeared to be.
The Cleveland newspaper inserted a pledge-to-purchase slip in their publication in order to draw attention to the Indians front office about the willingness of the fans to support the team. Those interested were to send in their intentions to The Plain Dealer’s own Hal Lebovitz.
On Tuesday, September 15th, 15 of the directors of the Indians met at the Terminal Tower to discuss the situation. The group agreed that they were willing to keep the Indians in Cleveland, even at huge personal and financial sacrifices, if they were able to receive the commitment from the fans and from the city.
The group admitted that they had received offers from Seattle, Oakland, and Dallas, as well as other unnamed cities, that were enticing to the Indians’ directors. The offers consisted of similar attributes – a great deal of television monies and at least $2 million of advanced season ticket sales. Paul indicated that the group would be “satisfied with a million dollars less in advance revenue [in Cleveland] than [the directors] are offered anywhere else”, according to his quotes from the September 16th edition of The Plain Dealer.
While the situation in Cleveland was publicly beginning to look uncertain, more than 15,000 pledges had been received for individual tickets by The Plain Dealer and had been given to the Indians, a positive effort for those hoping to keep the Tribe in Cleveland. But, despite what appeared to be an optimistic turn of events, all was not yet won by the city.
Paul received multiple offers from individuals not wanting to be named at the time to purchase the club, but he was not interested in selling, despite offers being of a high enough investment that all of the present stockholders would be bought out “dollar for dollar” while also receiving back enough to account for their individual losses in their ownership stakes. One of the groups was even willing to let Paul remain on as the club’s GM while keeping a substantial stake in the stocks if he wanted. Arthur B. Modell, owner of the Browns, was later said to have offered Paul $6.3 million to buy the team to keep it in Cleveland.
In the days preceding a vote by the board on October 6th, doubts still remained about the prospects of Seattle and the ability of the region to be able to adequately house a franchise. On top of that, another team rumored to be on the move, the Milwaukee Braves, wound up with a last minute television and concessions deal that brought in another quarter of a million dollars, which at the time appeared to enable the Braves to stay in Wisconsin for at least another season, but now creating the potential for the Atlanta Indians.
Atlanta had thrown their cards down on the table to bring the Braves to the south, powered by a new stadium and a massive business, the Coca Cola Corporation. The city, coupled with money from its hometown enterprise, could throw together a financial package large enough to entice the Indians or another club to replace the Braves as the team coming to Atlanta.
Not surprisingly, $140,000 worth of additional television revenue was tacked on to the deal in Cleveland to try to keep the Indians on the shores of Lake Erie, while changes to the team’s lease at the Stadium were to be considered.
While some directors, including Vernon Stouffer and Maurice Saltzman, had shared their intentions to vote against any potential moves, Paul and chairman of the board, William R. Daley, had not made similar statements. Paul owned approximately 20% of the team; Daley 12%. Joseph P. Routh, brought into the fray by Daley, owned 10%, and A. Ray Smith, owner of a 10% stake, had publicly stated he would vote in favor of Paul, regardless of what the Indians president decided to do.
Tuesday, October 6th, 1964. B-Day – Baseball day, bright or bleak, in the city of Cleveland.
On the day that the world was to find out if the Indians would stay or go, they got the answer no one hoped for or expected…
The directors were unable to come to a decision after a four-hour meeting at Cleveland Stadium and elected instead to postpone the vote until Friday, October 16th. Eighteen of the team’s 22 directors were present for the postponement, voting unanimously in that regard.
Out of the meeting, it was learned via Paul that the Indians could not continue to operate at such substantial losses and confirmed that, by his count, the club had lost $2.2 million over the 1963 and 1964 seasons. The directors, however, felt that city officials should be afforded a chance to prove that there would be enough community interest to keep the team in Cleveland moving forward, largely to be done by the sale of as many as 4,500 season tickets by the Cleveland Growth Board.
After initial outrage by the reporting body in Cleveland who interpreted that Paul desired all of the tickets to be sold during the period between the meetings, a nine day span, Paul later clarified that the number sold by the next date would not affect the decision of the directors and that he was confident the number could be met, in time.
While the city was pulling together for its “Keep the Tribe in ‘65” ticket sales drive, Paul and Daley took in Game 2 of the World Series before boarding a plane for Seattle to study the city’s offer before moving on to Oakland and, later, Dallas, home of Daley’s wealthy personal friend and founder of the American Football League, Lamar Hunt, who was reported to have made a sizable offer for the Indians’ franchise. Paul continued to state that the directors of the franchise would prefer to stay in Cleveland at less money than moving elsewhere, as long as they could stay financially alive in Cuyahoga County. But he followed such statement by noting that he would only sign a one-year lease with the Stadium, in the event the ticket drive effort worked for only one season.
With uncertainty still as much in the air as Paul and Daley on their transcontinental shopping spree, others spoke up about the prospective moves. Charles Finley, owner of the Kansas City Athletics, eagerly watched the moves, knowing that Milwaukee or Cleveland could become potential stops for his franchise. Modell, owner of the NFL’s Browns, said that he would make every effort to move a team to the city within two years if the Indians were to in fact depart from the region. Lebovitz even postulated that the Cincinnati Reds, drawing poorly in southern Ohio, could even play a handful of games in Cleveland, stating that the Brooklyn Dodgers did similar in New Jersey prior to moving across the country to Los Angeles.
Just days ahead of the October 16th meeting, the Cleveland Growth Board reported pledges of 605 season tickets for a total of $121,000. Three large department store chains – Higbee’s, May Company, and Sears – took 80 season tickets each, as did The Stouffer Restaurant Corporation. It was seen as an encouraging start to the campaign to keep the Indians in town. There was plenty of motivation for the region to work hard on the drive, as the loss of the MLB club, according to the president of the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce, could cost the area $9 million annually.
By the third day of the drive, ticket sales were reported to have topped the $348,000 mark. A total of 1,833 season tickets had been sold, well on the way to the Growth Board’s target goal of 4,500. The figure was already rapidly approaching the 2,500 season tickets sold for the 1964 season with one more day before the 12:15 P.M. scheduled meeting.
The headline of the Saturday morning edition of The Plain Dealer told readers in Cleveland what it wanted to hear: “Indians Remain Here in 1965″.
Another four hours were spent by 16 of the team’s 22 directors to decide to stay, but the decision came with a built-in escape clause. The Indians’ board inked a ten-year lease with Cleveland to use the Stadium, but either side could cancel within 90 days of the end of any year. Rent at the facility was reduced by one percent while the city would also issue a credit of $32,400 each year for services and another $1 to $2 million for improvements to the facility.
“I sincerely hope we can stay in Cleveland forever,” Paul said following the meeting, “and I’m sure every director feels the same way.”
In a statement from the Tribe’s board published in the October 17th issue of The Plain Dealer, it was stated that, “From the very beginning it has been our earnest desire to stay in Cleveland. In view of our financial experience, however, it would not have been fair to our stockholders to ignore proposals made by other cities. The board is aware that the decision to remain represents a considerable financial sacrifice, but the cooperation of city officials and the support of the Growth Board, the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce and the community encourages us to feel that we can succeed and operate on a sound basis here.”
And thus ended a discouraging time in the history of Indians baseball.
While the out clause left some fans on edge moving forward, Paul eased those concerns by reacquiring outfielder and longtime fan favorite Rocky Colavito as part of a three-team trade with the Kansas City Athletics and Chicago White Sox on January 20th.
The ticket drive would sell more than $900,000 worth of tickets for the 1965 season.
The Indians would draw 934,786 fans to Cleveland Stadium in 1965, good for fifth amongst the ten AL teams. They would also finish fifth in the standings with an 87-75 record. A total of 44,335 filled the park for the home opener, a 6-5 walkoff win in ten innings on a homer from Leon Wagner.
Colavito would hit .287 with 26 homers and 108 RBI in his return home. First baseman Fred Whitfield would hit .293 with 26 homers and 90 RBI. Wagner, in his second season with the club, would lead the team with 28 homers to go with his .294 average and 79 RBI. Max Alvis, third baseman, would add 21 homers and Chuck Hinton, who was picked up in a trade from Washington after his All-Star season in 1964, would hit a career-high 18 homers of his own.
A deliberation and vote on the continuation of the lease agreement occurred on Friday, September 17th, 1965. The vote would take just 39 minutes.
The Browns, who began play on September 13th of that 1964 season in the midst of the relocation rumors flying, would be undeterred by the distracted city. They would breeze through the regular season, beaten by a double digit tally just once, on the way to a 10-3-1 record. They would host Baltimore on December 27th at Cleveland Stadium and would shock the football world by upsetting the Colts, 27-0.
Seattle would get their team, twice. They would get the expansion Pilots in 1969, but would lose them in relocation after the season. They would get the Mariners in expansion in 1977.
Milwaukee would lose the Braves to Atlanta following the 1965 season. They would get baseball back from Seattle in the form of the Pilots for the 1970 season. They would be renamed the Brewers.
Interestingly enough, famed local writer Chuck Heaton shared an exchange that he had had with a Clevelander, drawing similarities between the then state of the Indians franchise and the future of the Cleveland Browns in his column, “Plain Talk”, on September 18th, 1964.
The Indians, 16 years removed from their second title in 1948 when they drew a league-best 2,620,627 fans, were at the brink of relocation and were hemorrhaging money. The Browns, a top performer in the National Football League and an early championship contender for the 1964 season, had drawn well and were beloved in the city after appearing in championship contests in eleven of their first 12 seasons from 1946 to 1957.
The fan, in true Cleveland fashion, questioned Heaton as to what he and the others at The Plain Dealer were going to do about saving the Browns.
“Saving the Browns?” Heaton and others responded. “That’s ridiculous. They don’t need any rescuing…This team even might win the championship. The Browns are a fixture in Cleveland. Didn’t they draw over 80,000 a couple of weeks ago to a double-header? Didn’t they set all kinds of attendance records last season. Didn’t they get a new television contract worth a million a year.”
The gentleman replied, “But remember what was happening to the Indians a few years ago? Wasn’t it 1948 when they drew over two and a half million fans? Next thing you know I hear Hank Greenberg’s planning to take ‘em to California. I think I read something later about a switch to Minneapolis. FIVE YEARS AGO they draw a million and a half. Now I see they’re that much in the red. You never know. Wouldn’t surprise me a bit if the Browns were looking for greener pastures.”
“Hogwash,” was the reply from Heaton et al. “Arthur Modell knows when he has a good thing. Aren’t the fans behind him.”
My, how drastically things would change.
Photo: Cleveland Memory Project (identified persons in the picture include Paul, Mayor Locher, & Stouffer)