Dispute Between Burke, Veeck Opened Door for Unlikely Suitor for Indians
Vince Guerrieri | On 20, Jul 2016
In the late 1950s and 1960s, the Indians perpetually seemed to be candidates for a move, with cities like Houston, Minneapolis, New Orleans, Seattle and Oakland mentioned as possible landing spots.
But a dispute over Cleveland Stadium opened the door for a suitor to potentially make the Indians the FOURTH team in New York City.
At the beginning of 1947, the Indians moved full-time to Cleveland Stadium from League Park. Cleveland Stadium had 60,000 more seats – and lights for hosting night games. Those factors made new owner Bill Veeck feel like he was leaving money on the table when the team played at League Park.
A month into the tenure, though, Veeck found himself at odds with Cleveland Mayor Thomas Burke. The city owned and operated the stadium, and workers were installing a track for midget auto racing. That, combined with rain in the area, left a field that might not be playable for the Indians’ first night game of the season, and Veeck said American League President Will Harridge told him that the team could forfeit if that was the case.
“Burke can salvage nothing but a headache,” said Plain Dealer Sports Editor Gordon Cobbledick. “How serious a headache will depend upon developments in the immediate future. It seems possible that it could become a headache of major proportions, affecting the mayor’s entire political future.”
Veeck came up with a host of alternatives, suggesting a game at League Park – or even playing in another location. He suggested Los Angeles, which didn’t have a major league team at the time.
Queens Borough President James A. Burke sent a telegram to Veeck suggesting a move there: “Queens would welcome you and your baseball club. Three boroughs of New York City have big league teams. Two are in the National League and one in the American, and another American League team would balance the picture.”
Burke also pointed out that Queens had a population higher than Cleveland, of 1.5 million, and plenty of land to build a stadium. However, the borough would also have to contend with territorial rights of the other three teams: the Dodgers, Giants and Yankees.
Ultimately, a deal was ironed out between Veeck and Cleveland, and Burke came out relatively unscathed politically. He served four terms as Cleveland mayor, with his lasting contribution being the lakefront airport later named for him and the adjoining lot, known to legions of Browns fans, and finished Bob Taft’s term as U.S. Senator before returning to private practice.
But Queens eventually did get its Major League team. In 1955, Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley began seeking a new home to replace Ebbets Field. Robert Moses, the head of the city’s park commission but really one of the most powerful men in New York, essentially blocked O’Malley’s Brooklyn plans, instead suggested a stadium in Flushing Meadows in Queens under a flight path at what was then called Idlewild Airport.
Ultimately, the Dodgers moved to the west coast, taking the Giants from Harlem with them. The loss of National League baseball in New York City was treated as a crisis, and talks came about for a new major league. But those calls fell by the wayside after the National League agreed to expand in 1962. The team, to be called the Mets, would play for two years in the Polo Grounds before moving into a new stadium – in Flushing Meadows, under a flight path from the airport.
Photo: Cleveland Memory Project