On April 4, 1994, the new home of the Cleveland Indians opened.
Jacobs Field – the naming rights were bought by team owner Dick Jacobs – was smaller than Cleveland Stadium, but it was brand-new, with state-of-the-art accoutrements like a JumboTron, fancy concession stands and men’s rooms without troughs.
It was a celebration unseen in the city in decades. The stadium was filled to the brim with fans and dignitaries, including President Bill Clinton and Ohio Gov. George Voinovich, a Cleveland native who had served as the city’s mayor in the 1980s.
Voinovich, who died Sunday weeks shy of his 80th birthday, had led the city through one of its most trying times – and had helped usher in the new stadium.
The 1980s were a bleak time for the Indians. They weren’t much better for the city of Cleveland.
The Indians were mired in mediocrity with no apparent way out, playing in a huge, decrepit stadium. As 1980 dawned, the city of Cleveland was little more than a decade removed from its river catching fire, and the city was in default.
Voinovich, a Republican, had been elected mayor in 1979, defeating incumbent Democrat Dennis Kucinich. In the previous decade, the Indians had gone through a succession of owners, including Vernon Stouffer, Nick Mileti, Ted Bonda and Steve O’Neil (not included on that list? George Steinbrenner, whose efforts to buy the team were thwarted; and Donald Trump, who demonstrated some interest but ended up occupying himself by destroying the USFL).
One of the reasons Trump was scared off of buying the Indians in 1983 was because of the home they were in. Cleveland Stadium had opened in 1932, and throughout the 1970s, it was maintained by the Cleveland Stadium Corporation, an organization set up by Browns owner Art Modell. Both the Browns and Indians were shopping around for new homes, with the Cavs ostensibly safely ensconced in the Coliseum in Richfield, the “Palace on the Prairie.”
Modell had bought a piece of property in Strongsville with thoughts of building a new stadium there, but city leaders – including Voinovich – wanted to see new stadiums in a downtown that was already starting to undergo a renaissance, thanks to new construction (underwritten with tax breaks). Cuyahoga County Commissioner Vince Campanella proposed a domed stadium, paid for by property taxes, for use by the Indians, Browns and Cavs, citing the Pontiac Silverdome as a model (not the best one, in retrospect). Another idea floated was known as the “hexatron,” a six-sided stadium with a retractable dome, but that never got off the drawing board.
The property tax issue failed, but the idea took hold as the Greater Cleveland Domed Stadium Corporation, with designs on the site of the old Central Market on the edge of downtown. Because the property was at the entry point for many people coming off the highways serving the city, it took on the name “Gateway.”
Around the same time, the city of Toronto was replacing Exhibition Stadium with a new stadium with a retractable dome. Cleveland leaders watched the costs soar there, and realized a dome in Cleveland, though practical, was not economically feasible.
What was decided was a new baseball-only ballpark for the Indians, next to an arena that would house the Cavs and become a large downtown concert venue – something lacking since the end of the old Cleveland Arena. The project would be paid for by a “sin tax” on alcohol and cigarettes – if voters passed it.
Voinovich, one of the founders of the domed stadium corporation, lobbied for passage of the sin tax in 1990, coinciding with his own run for governor. Voinovich was elected in a landslide, the sin tax passed with 52 percent of the vote, and less than four years later, Jacobs Field opened.
“Clearly, Cleveland is off the rocks and on a roll,” Voinovich said the morning of the stadium’s opening.