Dunn Ushered in New Era with Indians Purchase
Vince Guerrieri | On 04, Nov 2014
In 1916, Cleveland Indians owner Charles Somers was looking for someone – anyone – to buy his team.
Somers bought into the American League when it was founded as a major league in 1901. In addition to the team then called the Blues, he also owned Boston’s American League club – ultimately divesting of it in 1908 – and floated loans to the St. Louis Browns, Chicago White Sox and Philadelphia Athletics.
Somers also owned several minor league teams, including the Toledo Mud Hens, which he moved to Cleveland in 1914 to forestall a Federal League team from playing in League Park. The Federal League had operated as a minor league in 1913, but was going to challenge Major League Baseball’s supremacy starting the next year.
Cleveland fielded a Federal League team in 1913, as the Green Sox played at Luna Park, one of the city’s amusement parks, but Cleveland couldn’t field a Federal League entry in 1914 precisely because the team couldn’t find a home field with higher capacity. The Federal League didn’t abide by baseball’s reserve clause, which bound players to their teams even without a contract, and salaries skyrocketed. The 1914 Indians payroll was $100,000. Federal League owners found themselves with cash flow problems, and sued Major League Baseball as a monopoly, hoping to force a settlement, but the league ran out of money and folded first, after the 1915 season.
Ultimately, the case went to the Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously in 1922 that baseball was a sport, not a business, and thus exempt from antitrust laws. But that decision did no good to Somers in 1915, who was teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. As it was, in 1915, he sold Shoeless Joe Jackson to the White Sox – not quite Babe Ruth to the Yankees, but a horrible move at the time and in retrospect.
Somers was looking for a buyer, and couldn’t find one within the confines of Cleveland, by then the sixth biggest city in the country. In fact, American League President Ban Johnson believed that the city was big enough to support two major league teams.
“I am greatly surprised that no Cleveland capitalists saw what a splendid proposition it was,” Johnson said. “I gave them all the chance there was, but they did not see fit to acquire the club.”
Finally, he found a willing buyer, as the Indians and League Park were sold for $500,000 to James C. Dunn, a native of Marshalltown, Iowa, who made his fortune as a railroad construction contractor. Dunn had lived in Cleveland for a time in 1907 and 1908, on East 84th Street. He was able to visit League Park, at Lexington and East 66th, and watch the Indians fight, but ultimately come up short, for the 1908 pennant.
Johnson had high hopes that Dunn would succeed. “All the city needs is a winner,” he said. And Dunn was going to do whatever he could to bring it.
“I will not stand for a tail-ender” in the standings, he told the Plain Dealer. “If I thought the Cleveland club was destined to remain a second division team I would not buy it, but I believe it can be turned into a first division team with the expenditure of some money, and that is what I intend to do.”
Shoeless Joe was gone to the White Sox, and that couldn’t be prevented. Comiskey, who had no problems taking money from Somers to keep his own club afloat a decade ago, now had no problems taking Somers’ players and effectively shooing him from the league. And Dunn was too late to the party to make a serious bid for Frank “Home Run” Baker, a player in the days when 10 round-trippers a year were enough to earn that nickname. Connie Mack – who had also been kept afloat by Somers in the early years of the American League – was breaking up his “Million-Dollar Infield,” with a fire sale just two years removed from the Athletics playing in the World Series.
Baker went to the Yankees, who had been bought a year earlier by a syndicate headed by Jacob Ruppert, a former Congressman, brewer and colonel in the U.S. National Guard. Ruppert was ready to make an offer to the Indians to buy shortstop Ray Chapman for $25,000, but Dunn was more flush than Somers, and was able to withstand the offer, with great dividends but ultimately tragedy for Chapman and the Indians.
Dunn bought Chick Gandil (who at the time had a .335 career average at League Park, soon to be renamed Dunn Field for the new owner) from the Senators, Smoky Joe Wood from the Red Sox, Tom Daly from the White Sox and Ivan Howard. He wasn’t content to talk about building a winner, he was ready to spend to do so. But the biggest acquisition would come in April 1916, when Dunn added a future Hall of Famer and one of the greatest players of the dead ball era.
Photo: Library of Congress photo file