Indians were Political Football in the 1920s, 1930s
Vince Guerrieri | On 21, Dec 2016
On Monday, the Electoral College certified the results of the presidential election, and barring something weird happening (OK, something weirder than we’re all used to right now), Donald Trump will be the next president of the United States.
In the early 1980s, Trump made overtures to buy several Major League Baseball teams, and at one point was in talks to buy the Indians. The deal fell through, in part because Trump wouldn’t commit to a long-term lease at Cleveland Stadium, leading to fears that he’d move the team. Trump also possessed a short attention span, and cast his eyes toward professional football, buying the New Jersey Generals of the USFL and mounting what turned out to be a quixotic challenge against the NFL.
At the time, the idea of a Donald Trump presidency was as far-fetched as the Indians in the World Series or the Browns leaving town. But on a couple other occasions in the team’s history, it’s mixed with political power.
In 1920, four years after he’d bought the team, Jim Dunn delivered on his promise to bring a world champion to Cleveland. Less than two years later, he was dead at the age of 57. The family held on to the team as its fortunes sank, but sought local buyers (Dunn, an Iowa native who was living in Chicago, was brought in to buy the team when original owner Charles Somers ran into cash flow problems).
They finally found the local buyers in 1927, led by Alva Bradley, scion of a Cleveland shipbuilding family and one of the largest property owners in a booming downtown Cleveland. Stockholders read like a who’s who of Cleveland money, but one man had political power to trump them all: Newton D. Baker.
Baker was a West Virginia native who had come to Cleveland in 1899 to work in the law office of former Congressman Martin Foran. From there, he had become Cleveland law director and served two two-year terms as mayor. Active in the Democratic Party, he campaigned for Woodrow Wilson in 1912 and after he was elected president, Wilson offered the job of secretary of the interior to Baker, who declined. After Baker completed his term as mayor in 1915, he became Wilson’s Secretary of War (now called the Secretary of Defense).
Ironically, Baker might have had something to do with the Indians losing the 1918 pennant. As secretary of war, he was responsible for the “Work or Fight” decree that shortened the season that year after the United States had entered World War I. The Indians had fallen out of first place in the league in July, and were in second place on Labor Day, when the season was forced to end. There was talk of suspending the major leagues in 1919, but an armistice was reached ending the war. As Secretary of War, Baker was a tireless advocate for the United States to enter the League of Nations. His name was thrown around as a potential presidential candidate in 1920, but he returned to Cleveland and resumed private practice in the law firm that still bears his name today – Baker Hostetler.
Baker, a season ticket holder at League Park, was one of the minority shareholders Bradley brought on. His name surfaced again as a presidential candidate in 1932, but the nomination – and eventually the election – was won by New York Gov. Franklin Roosevelt.
Almost immediately, Roosevelt faced a challenge from a Southern politician, Huey Long – who was also an Indians stockholder.
After World War I, the Indians started holding spring training in New Orleans. When Bradley took over, one of his first moves was to install former umpire Billy Evans as the team’s general manager – the first person ever to have that title with a baseball team. Evans considered a move to California for spring training, but Long, the populist governor, interceded to make sure the team stayed in New Orleans. He even received some stock in the team – and at least once, put on an Indians uniform. Evans and Bradley were named honorary colonels in Long’s cabinet.
Long, who would go on to inspire the main character in “All the King’s Men,” ascended to the U.S. Senate in 1932, and announced a challenge to Roosevelt for president in 1936. But a month later, he was assassinated in the state capitol. After that, while political office holders would advocate for the Indians to remain in publicly funded stadiums in Cleveland, they wouldn’t really take part in a team’s ownership.
Photo: Cleveland Memory Project