Long Before the Rays, Indians Pondered Splitting Cities

Last week, the owners of the Tampa Bay Rays floated the idea of the team calling two cities home, suggesting the team could play a number of games in Montreal, which has been without an MLB team since the Expos were moved to Washington following the 2004 season.

The idea isn’t completely foreign. In the Expos’ last two years of existence, they split time between Montreal and San Juan, Puerto Rico. And while the Dodgers were casting about for a replacement for Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, they played several games across the river in Jersey City.

I guess what I’m saying is that when a team starts playing its home games in more than one stadium, it means a relocation is more than a possibility – the baseball equivalent of Bill Parcells’ maxim that when you have two quarterbacks, you don’t have any.

And it almost happened in Cleveland, 45 years ago.

In 1948, which remains the last year the Indians won a World Series, more than 2.6 million fans came through the turnstiles at Cleveland Stadium. From 1996 to 2001, the Tribe’s attendance was more than 3 million a year. But in between were fallow times for the Tribe, and that was reflected by the thousands of empty seats at Cleveland Stadium.

In fact, starting in the late 1950s and continuing into the mid-1970s, the team was in the news more not for its play, but for the possibility of moving, to a variety of cities, including Minneapolis, Houston and Seattle. Ultimately, as baseball expanded, each of those cities got their own teams.

Football was also expanding in the 1960s. The NFL put teams in Minnesota and Dallas, and a whole new league formed serving cities that weren’t home to NFL teams, like Denver, Cincinnati and Buffalo. For the sake of world peace, the NFL and AFL merged, and that required Congressional approval (football, unlike baseball, wasn’t exempt from antitrust laws). To grease the wheels, New Orleans was promised an NFL team, and Rep. Hale Boggs and Sen. Richard Russell, both of Louisiana, helped shepherd the merger along.
The Saints began play at Tulane Stadium, which remains the answer to a trivia question: It was the home of the two coldest outdoor Super Bowls ever played. But plans were being made for a massive domed stadium that would be home to the Saints … and possibly a baseball team as well.

The Indians were theoretically a Major League team, but they’d shown no signs of fight in 1971, drawing fewer than 600,000 fans for the season, in which they lost 102 games. Owner Vernon Stouffer was looking for a new ballpark to replace Cleveland Stadium, which was already starting to show its age (and neglect). An all-purpose domed facility was considered and then rejected as cost-prohibitive, as was retrofitting a dome on Cleveland Stadium. Nick Mileti, who owned Cleveland Arena and its two main tenants, the American Hockey League’s Barons and the new NBA team, the Cavaliers, was looking for his own arena, and settled on a piece of property near the intersection of Interstate 77 and the Ohio Turnpike in Richfield.

Stouffer would have to go it alone, and in 1971, he at least was willing to test the waters in New Orleans, talking about playing 30 games in the new dome. It seemed like a reasonable plan: The cold-weather games that left Indians fans shivering under blankets on the lakefront would be played in climate-controlled comfort in New Orleans starting in 1974, when the Superdome opened. There might even be some old-time Tribe fans who remembered when the Indians held spring training in New Orleans in the 1910s and 1920s.

But it soon took an ominous turn when people realized that Stouffer was doing this as a prelude to potentially moving the team. He was unwilling to sign a long-term lease at Cleveland Stadium, and in New Orleans, he had a new stadium with a fan base champing at the bit for Major League Baseball.

The idea came to a screeching halt the following spring, when Mileti bought the team from Stouffer, adding to his sports empire in Northeast Ohio. Mileti proclaimed in no uncertain terms that the team would not be playing any regular-season games in New Orleans.

The city continued to bat its eyes at various Major League teams, with exhibitions by the Yankees and a serious effort to try to get the Athletics to New Orleans. But none of it has come to pass.

Photo: StadiumPage.com

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