How Cleveland and New Orleans Almost Shared a Team

Cleveland nearly saw 30 of its home games played in the Superdome in New Orleans 1970s. (via rulenumberone2)

When the Rays announced efforts earlier this summer to schedule half their games in Montreal, the most charitable reading was that it was an effort to reconnect with a fan base that had been hungry for a team since its own departed 15 years earlier. What it actually appeared to be was an effort to leverage a new stadium in Tampa; Tropicana Field is often derided as one of the worst in the majors. The idea appeared to be dead on arrival–but it’s not a completely unprecedented one.

Between the Braves’ departure from Milwaukee in 1966 and the Seattle Pilots’ relocation to become the Brewers in 1970, Milwaukee County Stadium hosted the Chicago White Sox, possibly in a prelude to relocation from the South Side. The Dodgers famously played a handful of games at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City while casting about for a replacement for Ebbets Field–a replacement they found in Los Angeles.

But the closest approximation to what the Rays are proposing came in the 1970s, when the Cleveland Indians were willing to trade an influx of cash from New Orleans-based investors for 30 home dates at the under-construction Superdome.

In that instance, the Indians, like the Rays, were playing in a stadium that was showing its age. But in the case of the Indians, the plan to play in New Orleans was seen mostly for what it was: A prelude to a move.

In 1955, the Indians were defending American League champions, drawing more than 1.2 million fans through the turnstiles at Cleveland Stadium. With only one exception, it was the last time the team would draw a million fans for the next 20 years, as the team’s fortunes declined precipitously on the field and in the boardroom.

That 1955 team was the sixth Indians team in a row to win at least 92 games. The following year, the Tribe won 88 games, but the team spent most of the next two decades mired in mediocrity. (The lone exception was a second-place finish in 1959; not coincidentally, that was the year they drew more than a million.)

Hall of Fame slugger Hank Greenberg was then general manager of the Indians as well as a minority stockholder. He called Cleveland a difficult place to win and advocated moving the team to Minneapolis, but was outvoted on the board. He was fired as general manager and sold his shares in the team. In 1959, he proclaimed baseball dead in Cleveland, and shortly before his death, when invited to a reunion of the 1954 team, he said, “The closest I ever want to get to Cleveland is 30,000 feet in the air, on my way to somewhere else.”

Throughout the late 1950s and 1960s, the Indians went through a series of owners, and were linked in the city’s papers to any other city that wanted a major league team. Until it received the expansion Astros (nee Colt .45s), Houston was a candidate. Oakland was considered before the Athletics arrived. The Indians were also linked to Milwaukee in between the Braves’ departure and the Brewers’ arrival, and Atlanta before the Braves’ relocation. But the closest the Indians came to moving probably came in 1964. The lease with the city for the stadium was up, and ownership engaged in a very public courtship with Seattle. The Indians were promised a domed stadium–in 1970. Meanwhile, they would have to use Sicks Stadium, a minor-league facility used by the Pilots in their lone year in Seattle (and probably one of the reasons they left). The deal fell apart, and two years later, it appeared the Indians’ hero had arrived.

Vernon Stouffer had bought into the Indians in 1962 and became majority owner in 1966. Flush with cash, Stouffer was an American success story. The son of a dairy farmer, Stouffer helped his family set up a lunch counter in downtown Cleveland. From that grew an empire that included restaurants, hotels and most famously, frozen entrees. Shortly after his purchase of the team (80 percent controlling interest for $5.5 million), Stouffer’s worth was estimated at $21.5 million, thanks to a recent merger with Litton Industries, a company that made microwaves and saw a company making frozen dinners as a natural partner.

But Litton’s stock tanked, and Stouffer all of a sudden was strapped for cash–so much so that he took the rare step of offering stock to manager Alvin Dark. Unsurprisingly, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn had a problem with that.

Stouffer cast about for a buyer, but hit on what he thought was another solution.

When the major league owners met in Boston in September 1971, the main order of business was to vote on the Washington Senators’ proposed relocation to Dallas–another city that had cast a longing eye on the Indians in the 1960s.

But among the attendees that day was Dave Dixon, executive director of the Louisiana Superdome Commission. His mission? To get the other American League owners on board with an agreement reached with Stouffer allowing the Indians to play up to 30 games a year–for 25 years!–in the Superdome, the enormous domed stadium under construction for New Orleans’ new NFL team, the Saints. In return, Stouffer would get new investors and an infusion of $2.5 million.

Unsurprisingly, the idea was an unpopular one, called penny-wise and pound-foolish for adding a new wrinkle to a prospective sale. “If you move 30 games to New Orleans, you’re going to alienate the people in Cleveland and make a bad situation worse,” said Athletics owner Charlie Finley. “I don’t want to come into Cleveland and not even be able to make carfare.” Finley said he’d back the move–but only if the Indians moved to New Orleans full-time.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Among the most vocal opponents of the two-city idea, ironically, was White Sox owner Arthur Allyn, who noted that the games in Milwaukee depressed fan interest and led to even lower attendance at Comiskey Park.

The idea wasn’t rejected out of hand, though.

“The group made a fine presentation and we’re appointing a committee to look into the main details before the league makes a determination,” American League President Joe Cronin was quoted as saying in The Sporting News.

Meanwhile, Stouffer continued to seek a buyer for the team, at one point listening to an investment group from Washington D.C., now without a major league team. One name that kept coming up was the scion of a Cleveland shipbuilding family, who’d been an assistant football coach at several Big Ten colleges, but whose only foray into sports ownership had been an unmitigated disaster.

George Steinbrenner was a graduate assistant for Woody Hayes at Ohio State, and served as an assistant coach at Purdue and Northwestern before his father called him home to take his place in the family business. But the sporting itch remained, and in 1961, Steinbrenner bought the Cleveland Pipers, an industrial league team, and entered them into the American Basketball League, a rival to the NBA organized by Harlem Globetrotters owner Abe Saperstein.

Steinbrenner’s first sports ownership attempt was a disaster. The Pipers won the ABL title, but Steinbrenner meddled constantly in the team’s affairs, running off legendary coach John McLendon. Ultimately, Steinbrenner tried to sign Ohio State’s Jerry Lucas and join the NBA. The efforts failed, and both the team and the ABL folded.

Steinbrenner was part of an ownership group–whose public face was former Indians slugger Al Rosen–that bid $9 million for the Indians. “Steinbrenner would give the Indians the same type of vigorous leadership which Art Modell has supplied for the Browns and Nick Mileti has brought to the Arena enterprises,” wrote Plain Dealer columnist Chuck Heaton.

It appeared that Steinbrenner would become the new Indians owner in 1972, but at the last minute, Stouffer backed out. Because of his interest, Steinbrenner was told of another owner that was looking to unload a team bought with high expectations that never materialized, and later that year, started negotiations with CBS over the New York Yankees. He was able to consummate that deal, becoming the owner of the Bronx Bombers in 1973.

Eventually, Stouffer did find a buyer: Cleveland sports impresario Nick Mileti, who bought the team in April 1972. Mileti owned the city’s NBA team and was building a new state-of-the-art arena for basketball out in Richfield. He also owned a minor-league hockey team, the Cleveland Arena and several area radio stations.

His first order of business as Indians owner? To put an end to the idea of playing any games in New Orleans. “I made it clear that it’s not that we are not sharing our games with New Orleans; it’s that we are not sharing our games with anyone.”

It soon became apparent that he was stretched too thin–later in 1972, he also bought a franchise for Cleveland in the World Hockey Association–and was doing it with other people’s money. In fact, his purchase of the Indians was delayed as he took on new partners. He had originally planned a stock issuance to raise capital but was told it was against MLB rules.

The action he took, though, effectively saved baseball in Cleveland.

Mileti’s purchase of the team put an end to talk of potential games in New Orleans, but the fact remains that his predecessor as Indians owner, Vernon Stouffer, would have faced an uphill battle for approval. Even if he waited until his lease ended at Cleveland Stadium, he would have had to get approval from other owners, who were weary of franchise shifts (there had been one roughly every two years since 1966. After the Senators’ relocation to Texas in 1972, it would be 33 years before another team moved–ironically, to Washington).

Rays ownership will likely face similar pushback–and unlike the Indians in the 1970s, faces another obstacle. Cities then were able to offer the sun, moon and stars for a major league team. Now, the market is saturated and we appear to have reached the point where publicly funded stadiums are falling out of favor. The suggestion of splitting time between Tampa and Montreal–which wouldn’t happen for almost a decade, based on the Rays’ current agreement–seems to be a Hail Mary. And while we’re making football metaphors, to paraphrase Bill Parcells, when you have two home cities, you don’t have any.

Journalist, author, Indians fan.
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3 years ago

“In 1959, he proclaimed baseball dead in Cleveland, and shortly before his death, when invited to a reunion of the 1954 team, he said, “The closest I ever want to get to Cleveland is 30,000 feet in the air, on my way to somewhere else.””

This phrasing is confusing. It seems to suggest that Greenberg died around 1959 when he actually died in 1986.

3 years ago
Reply to  MichaelD

But I should have added this was a really interesting article.

3 years ago
Reply to  MichaelD

Cleveland over the last few decades may have had a less-than-great record on the field and at the gate, but it certainly has inspired some great quotes from great ballplpayers who don’t want to re-visit it.

3 years ago

“If you move 30 games to New Orleans, you’re going to alienate the people in Cleveland and make a bad situation worse,” said Athletics owner Charlie Finley. “I don’t want to come into Cleveland and not even be able to make carfare.”

Ah, the quaint old days when an owner’s revenue was directly dependent on the spectators coming through the turnstiles both home and away.

3 years ago

“If you move 30 games to New Orleans, you’re going to alienate the people in Cleveland and make a bad situation worse,” said Athletics owner Charlie Finley. “I don’t want to come into Cleveland and not even be able to make carfare.”

Very few people knew more about alienating fans and making bad situations worse than Charlie O.

3 years ago

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