One of my unofficial duties with this website is as its book reviewer.
I’ve read plenty of books about baseball history and talked to a lot of authors. The most recent was “No Money, No Beer, No Pennants,” a book by Scott Longert about the Indians during the Depression.
Also on my list of books to read is James Sulecki’s book, “The Cleveland Rams: The NFL Champs Who Left Too Soon.” It’s about the football team that called Cleveland home and in fact won the NFL championship in 1945 before decamping for the West Coast (the people of Cleveland weren’t too disappointed by their depature; a new team in a new league was coming into existence with a deeper connection to the city: the Browns).
Obviously, the books cover similar time periods, so there is a certain amount of overlap, but there’s one person who figures into the history of both the Rams and the Indians – and Cleveland sports in general: Billy Evans.
Evans was a Youngstown native who went to work as sports editor of the local newspaper, the Vindicator (a position now more than capably filled by my erstwhile colleague, Ed Puskas). Like many other journalists, Evans discovered that there’s no money in the profession. He turned to umpiring and, before long, he was the youngest umpire in the major leagues at the age of 22 (a record he still holds).
He continued as a writer, with a syndicated column commenting on sports and occasionally covering the World Series. After his retirement, he was hired by the Indians in 1927, after the team changed hands from the estate of Jim Dunn to local millionaires fronted by Alva Bradley. He spent eight years as general manager – the first person in the major leagues with that title. They were lean years for the Indians, as the Great Depression took its toll on them and Major League Baseball in general.
He departed the team with manager Walter Johnson in 1935 and then joined the scouting department of the Red Sox. While there, he uncovered a shortstop playing for his hometown team in Louisville. The problem was that Boston’s player-manager, Joe Cronin, was also a shortstop, and the prospect, Harold Reese – known as Pee-Wee for his skill at shooting marbles – was sold to the Dodgers, causing a rift between Evans and Cronin and hastening his departure.
Evans returned to the Cleveland area and found a job as general manager with the Rams, the city’s NFL team. It, too, had just been sold, to Dan Reeves, a young New Yorker who had come into fortune when his family sold their chain of grocery stores. Reeves bought a seat on the New York Stock Exchange and an NFL team, focusing on the Rams simply because “they were for sale.”
Evans spent a year working for the Rams. He also served as president of the Southern Association and president and general manager for the Tigers. He kept a home in Beachwood while spending his winters in Florida, where he died in 1956. He’s buried in the area, at Knollwood Cemetery in Mayfield Heights.
In 1973, Evans was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame for his duties as an umpire, but there have been no such honors in Cleveland. Longert said he’ll pitch Evans as a potential candidate for the Indians Hall of Fame.
I’ve pitched him as a candidate for the Greater Cleveland Sports Hall of Fame. Surprisingly, he’s not a member of that august body either. I encourage you to do the same through their nominating form. Hopefully, a critical mass of people can attract the committee’s attention.
Photo: Cleveland Memory Project