Tribe Was Talk of Town as Browns Kicked Off ’64 Season

It was September of 1964 and the Major League Baseball season was winding down. The Cleveland Indians were ten years removed from their last trip to the postseason. Usually, with the Indians fading from the discussion, the conversations amongst sports fanatics in the town could turn to the National Football League’s Cleveland Browns as a source of amusement and attention. After all, the Browns were set to begin their 19th season on September 13th against the Washington Redskins and had already appeared in eleven championship games, winning seven of them.

This year was different. There was trouble brewing in the city and many around the town could sense it. Close observers of what was transpiring at Cleveland Stadium throughout the season could see the little warning signs.

The Indians were in trouble. The potential resolution offered was one in which the loyal denizens of Cleveland were not going to enjoy.

The Wahoo Warriors were now far removed from their successes of the late 1940’s through the mid-1950’s. Starting in 1947, the season prior to the Indians surprising baseball diehards around the country by ousting the Boston Red Sox in a one-game playoff before taking the Braves of Beantown out in a six-game series for the second title in franchise history, the team put together a solid run of 14 years during which time they resided in the top half of the American League standings nearly every season. It was easily one of the better stretches in the history of the Cleveland baseball club.

After winning a franchise-record 111 games in 1954 before an embarrassing defeat at the hands of the New York Giants on the grandest stage in the World Series, the Tribe put together two more strong second-place seasons before settling back into the pack some. They gave it a good go in 1959, but finished five games in back of the Chicago White Sox for the pennant. Since then, they had been a mediocre team – sporting a sub .500 winning percentage while finishing smack dab in the middle of the final standings.

Fans endured the Frank Lane years, watching their favorite players and even a successful manager get traded out of town as the man with the moniker “Trader” seemed more like a traitor to those in town. As things unraveled after the 1959 campaign, so did fans’ interests – at least in person. After drawing nearly a million and a half fans in their second place ’59 season, they drew 950,985 the next season, falling from the second-best attendance in the AL to the sixth. With Lane gone in 1961 and Gabe Paul in as general manager and Jimmy Dykes as manager in an expanded league, attendance fell to 725,547. In 1962, the sixth place Indians drew the ninth-most fans in the ten-team AL as 716,076 fans was the final tally. With 562,507 in 1963, the second-worst draw in the league, there were clear financial ramifications of the issues at the turnstiles.

The 1964 season had been no different.

The season actually started out well, especially with the Indians spending the bulk of the first three weeks of the year on the road under first time manager George Strickland, who was operating in an interim role for Birdie Tebbetts, who had suffered a heart attack towards the end of spring training. They returned home on May 6th in first place with a 9-5 record and, over the next two games against Baltimore, did not draw 10,000 combined. They won both games.

New York arrived for four straight. Attendance peaked some, including a Sunday doubleheader that saw the team draw 28,694. It wrapped a four-game losing skid. They would draw just over 9,500 combined for a three-game series with Boston before hitting the road to Detroit. They would hit a season-high five-game winning streak halfway through their series with the Tigers and would reclaim a half-game lead in the division, but things would quickly spiral. They were 21-16 at the end of May, 33-37 at the end of June, and 34-42 at the All-Star break. A 12-20 July, even with manager Tebbetts back at the helm, sent them to a 45-57 record, in eighth place and 17 ½ games out of first.

One of the more curious moves of the early portion of the season involved Jim “Mudcat” Grant being dealt to the Minnesota Twins in mid-June. The well-liked right-hander was part of Cleveland’s new “Big Four” – made up of Grant, Pedro Ramos, Dick Donovan, and Jack Kralick. “Mudcat”, after an All-Star appearance in 1963 and finishing the season with a career-best 3.69 ERA, found himself demoted to the bullpen in the weeks prior to the trade.

Paul had been noted for several sound trades, a welcomed look after the years of Lane pulling the trigger on deal after curious deal. Paul filled needs. He traded Doc Edwards and $100,000 in 1963 to get a leadoff hitter in Dick Howser and a needed catcher in Joe Azcue. He picked up Leon Wagner in the offseason to give the Indians their needed right-handed power bat. For Grant, he got pitcher Lee Stange and utility man George Banks, hardly a haul for a pitching piece for the future. Not as notable in the deal at the time was the acquisition by the Tribe of $75,000 from Minnesota.

Grant would become an All-Star again in 1965 for the Twins, winning a league-high 21 games with an AL-best six shutouts. Stange won 13 in three seasons in Cleveland and became a bullpen piece in the years to come.

The Indians pulled another head-scratcher on September 5th, when they dealt Ramos, another quarter of the new Big Four, to the rival New York Yankees. He passed through waivers unclaimed by both Baltimore and Chicago, but in the thick of the pennant chase, the guys in the Bronx added the arm of Pete to their bullpen.

Ramos was 7-10 with a 5.14 ERA and, like Grant, had pitched his way out of the rotation into the bullpen. An All-Star in 1959 with the Washington Senators, the right-hander was in his third season in Cleveland. He would work in 13 games down the stretch for the Yankees, posting a 1-0 record with a 1.25 ERA. His Yankees would win the AL by one over Chicago, but would lose the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven.

Cleveland’s return for a former building block of their starting rotation? Two players to be named later and $75,000.

It was within days that the rumors started out of Seattle that Paul was already plotting to move the Indians to the Great Northwest.

Hy Zimmerman, the sports editor of the Seattle Times, reported his prediction that the Indians would relocate to Washington in the Sporting News. He had been on the record stating that the Indians had been interested in using Seattle as a new place to play as many as three years earlier. The chief complication would be the undersized Sick’s Stadium, at the time just a 12,000 seat facility.

Paul held his tongue, refusing to comment.

But the acclaimed columnist Hal Lebovitz shared in the Tuesday morning edition of the Cleveland Plain Dealer on September 8th his opinion of why Ramos was traded – money – and brought further validity to the claims of the Seattle writer.

Lebovitz wrote that the Indians were in desperate need of money to pay the bills. Ramos was expendable after being a disappointing addition overall, but relinquishing his services to a rival in the thick of the playoff push seemed suspect and was contrary to how Paul had operated. The Tribe GM was noted as making moves that best benefitted the team and, with two moves made bringing in minor players and larger sums of money, he may have been focusing in helping the organization as a whole as opposed to the product on the field.

Poor attendance in 1963 was said to have drained all of the Indians’ capital, somewhere near a half of a million dollars lost. The directors of the club fronted $300,000 of their own just to provide working money for the current season. Bank loans were unpaid. Things were ugly with a dozen home gates left to cash in on. They were on pace to outdraw their previous season total, but not by a large sum.

Lebovitz speculated that there were two possible outcomes of the Indians’ financial crisis – that the team moves to a city that could provide both the working capital through upfront cash or a large advanced sale of season tickets, or that a substantial campaign by the citizens of Cleveland generating an increased number of sales commitments for the 1965 season were made to provide the club with the money needed to at least move forward for another season.

With headlines announcing the arrival of Hurricane Dora to the Florida coastline, the remaining byline of the September 9th edition of The Plain Dealer said it all – Seattle Intent on Obtaining Indians’ Franchise for ’65.

The cat was out of the bag, with the story front page fodder instead of a minor notation dozens of pages deep in the publication. This time, it was The Plain Dealer’s Baseball Writer Russell Schneider sharing the news with the facts to back it – Seattle was ready for baseball and the city leaders were confident that they would have a team. Whether or not that team would be the Indians remained to be seen.

This potential move may have had more traction than the rumored one in 1957, when Hank Greenberg and two major stockholders heavily considered moving the Indians to Minneapolis, something eventually done by the Washington Senators prior to the 1961 season.

Three primary leaders in Seattle – William Adams II, William P. Woods, and Bert West – were leading the drive for Major League Baseball in Washington in an area large enough to have been the site of the 1962 World’s Fair. A ticket selling campaign, led by more than 150 volunteers on foot with the goal to sell between $2 and $3 million worth of tickets before the end of the month, had already built up $200,000 in sales in just two weeks’ time. At the top of the trio’s list of accomplishments was a proposal for a multi-use $25 million domed stadium with a capacity of 50,000. Financially-beneficial radio and television deals could bring in another million or more in additional revenue each year, including one reported contract that would pay the Indians $1 million each year for at least five seasons.

The combined total of the Indians’ radio and television contracts in 1964 was approximately $600,000.

Adams was quoted as saying “We’re asking people to buy tickets for a team we don’t have to see games in a stadium that must be built” by selling the community on some of the star players of the era coming to Seattle for the first time. The region was familiar with minor league baseball and seemed to be hungry for the real deal.

Some newspaper sports editors and radio hosts in Seattle were already stating it a done deal – and there was nothing that Cleveland could do to stop it.

Next Sunday: A look at the ties between Paul and Seattle; how two different cities united individually in similar and conflicting causes; and the B-Day – Baseball Day, bright or bleak vote and its aftermath in both Cleveland and in various spots around the country. Here’s a hint: Cleveland still has its Indians.

Photo: Cleveland Press Collection/United Press International Telephoto

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