Bill Veeck left Cleveland 67 years ago this week.
A year after the Indians reached the pinnacle of baseball with their World Series triumph over the Boston Braves, Veeck had to sell the team to pay for his divorce and establish trust funds for his children.
The $2.2 million sale was finalized November 21, 1949, to a group headed by 45-year-old Ellis Ryan, scion of a prominent Cleveland family. He was described as a polar opposite of Veeck, and although his time at the helm of the Tribe was short, he maintained a deep involvement in Cleveland pro sports throughout his lifetime.
Ryan was born June 7, 1904. His father, William P. Ryan, was a Cincinnati native who had moved to Cleveland after college. He went to work for a local insurance company and within eight years had bought it. The younger Ryan excelled at golf and bowling as a youth.
William Ryan was also an associate of Al Sutphin, who owned a printing company and bought a flagging minor league hockey team, the Cleveland Indians, in 1934. He renamed the team, first the Falcons and then the Barons, and built a state-of-the-art arena in the throes of the Depression on Euclid Avenue. The insurance agency was an investor and tenant in the Cleveland Arena, and Ellis Ryan was vice president of the hockey team.
He (and Sutphin) also owned a share of the Rams, a football team that joined the National Football League after one year in the American Football League. Ellis Ryan attended Ohio State University, but his father’s illness and World War II intervened, and he never graduated. During the war, he served first in the Army Air Corps (forerunner to the U.S. Air Force) and then the Office of Strategic Services (the forerunner to the CIA), in the China-Burma-India Theater.
Ryan returned to Cleveland after the war, and was one of several local businessmen who jumped at the chance to buy the Indians when Veeck had to sell the team. “I hope to be connected to the Indians for the rest of my life,” he said.
A year later, Ryan pulled the trigger on a move Veeck couldn’t or wouldn’t do years earlier. In his autobiography, Lou Boudreau noted that Ryan – not team President Hank Greenberg – called him and told him that they were making a change, and that out of respect for what he’d done, they wouldn’t trade him, instead firing him as a manager and releasing him as a player, allowing him to chart his own course in the days before free agency (Boudreau latched on with the Red Sox).
Ryan was also part of the screening group to select a new commissioner to succeed Happy Chandler, whose contract was not renewed. Chandler, a former Kentucky governor and U.S. Senator, took it as a no confidence vote and resigned. The owners selected Ford Frick, a former sportswriter and the president of the National League, to succeed him. (Among the other candidates mentioned to the press by Ryan were Ohio Gov. Frank Lausche and Gen. Douglas MacArthur.)
Ryan found himself the victim of a similar overthrow a year later, centering around Greenberg. Ryan wanted more of a say in the direction that the team was moving, but a pro-Greenberg faction rose up among the stockholders and installed a majority on the Indians board of directors. Ryan, reading the writing on the wall, sold his shares in the team, netting a tidy profit of $250,000.
Greenberg’s ascent within the Indians organization was a fateful one. Within five years, he would deride Cleveland as not being a baseball town and tried to engineer a move to Minneapolis – which was blocked by other owners. Greenberg was fired as general manager (succeeded by Frank “Trader” Lane) and sold his shares in the team, paving the way for decades of bad management and financial uncertainty.
After selling his shares in the Indians, Ryan was part of a group that paid $800,000 to buy the Browns from their original owner, Arthur “Mickey” McBride, in 1953. He continued to retain an ownership stake in the team when it was sold to Art Modell in 1961. In 1964, Ryan retired to Florida, where he died on August 11, 1966 – three days before the Indians changed hands yet again, with Vernon Stouffer buying full control of the team.
The Plain Dealer marked Ryan’s death by hailing him as “a man who figured prominently in the local sports scene in several major capacities.”
Photo: Cleveland Memory Project