Cleveland’s Somers Kept American League Afloat
Vince Guerrieri | On 17, Aug 2016
He was called the silent partner of the American League.
Charles Somers, the original owner of the team now called the Indians, was a seminal figure in the early days of the junior circuit, keeping not just the Cleveland team afloat, but other teams within the league.
But all the goodwill he engendered couldn’t keep the lights on or the paychecks from bouncing, and so he was thrown over without the one goal that eluded him – a world championship, or even a pennant.
Charles Somers was born October 13, 1868, in Newark, Ohio, but when he was a teenager, his family moved to Cleveland. The city was becoming a metropolis because of its proximity to transportation, with its access to the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie, as well as serving as a railroad hub. Somers’ father, Joseph, was the owner and namesake of the J.H. Somers Coal Company. By 1899, Charles Somers’ worth was estimated around $1 million.
He was also a fan of baseball, and enjoyed attending Cleveland Spiders games at League Park. However, the Spiders were undone by their owners, who took everything worth taking to their other National League team in St. Louis, and left the Spiders to become one of the worst teams in baseball history. The Spiders folded (mercifully) after going 20-134 in 1899, and teams in several other National League cities did the same.
Another Ohio native, Norwalk-born sportswriter Byron Bancroft Johnson, saw an opening, and wanted to start another major league. He enlisted the support and deep pockets of Somers, and a Western League team in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was bought and moved to Cleveland.
In 1901, the American League began play as a major league, with Cleveland being one of the eight cities in the circuit. John Kilfoyl was the new team’s president, and Somers became its vice president, as well as vice president of the league. (He also was briefly a stockholder in the Philadelphia team.)
Somers transferred full ownership of the team to Kilfoyl the next year so he could take over operations of a new American League team in Boston. In fact, some sportswriters referred to the team as the Somersets in his honor. He bought the land on Huntington Avenue that became the Boston team’s home – and was the site of the first World Series between the American and National Leagues in 1903.
Somers also floated loans to the teams in Chicago and Philadelphia to build new stadiums. In fact, he wired Ban Johnson saying, “Tell Connie Mack to find the grounds and I’ll put up the money.” And in 1910, the wooden grandstand that served as the home for the team, by then called the Naps, had been replaced with a steel-and-concrete structure at the same site.
“Cleveland had been one of the doubtful cities of the American League,” Johnson said at a dinner after the first opener at the new League Park. “But it is now one of the most solid in our circuit.”
Somers also owned several minor league clubs – in Toledo and Ironton in Ohio, and teams in Portland, Oregon; Waterbury, Connecticut; and New Orleans. In 1910, Kilfoyl sold his interest in the team, and Somers was regarded as an owner that was hands-on or meddlesome, depending on how much you liked him (he was supposedly the one who vetoed the Ty Cobb-for-Elmer Flick deal in 1907).
The success of the American League led to an attempt at a third major league, the Federal League. There were rumors that Somers would be one of the owners in the league, but Johnson said, “You couldn’t pull Somers away from the American League with a derrick.”
Instead, he moved the Toledo team to Cleveland, to play on off-days, keeping League Park from being available for a Federal League team. But the Federal League brought with it rising salaries, and that, combined with his own financial setbacks, put Somers in dire straits.
He started selling off his minor league teams, and dealing players from the Naps, including its namesake Napoleon Lajoie and Shoeless Joe Jackson (Somers had to promise fans that he wasn’t going to deal fan favorite Ray Chapman).
“I want to retain the club, and President Johnson is with me,” Somers said in 1915. “I am up against a wall, but will fight to the limit.”
Johnson tried to solicit loans from the owners that he’d kept afloat in the league’s early years, but to no avail. Finally, in 1916, Somers was forced to sell the team to Jim Dunn, an Iowa native who’d done work in Cleveland. The closest the team – by then the Indians – came to a title was in 1908, when it finished in second place, half a game behind Detroit.
Somers held on to the New Orleans team, the Pelicans, who won five Southern Association pennants between 1915 and 1927. And by the time he died in 1934, at his island home on Put-in-Bay, he was worth millions again. His obituary called him the last of the Big Three that founded the American League, with Ban Johnson and Charles Comiskey. And he remains the most obscure.
Photo: Cleveland Memory Project