'Civic asset' is now old, cold and cavernous Built in 1931, facility once was versatile host


November 10, 1995|By Doug Brown | Doug Brown,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Phil Jackman contributed to this article.

By 1934, barely three years after Cleveland Stadium was built, people were saying terrible things about it.

A $3 million dollar white elephant, they said. Virtually unoccupied except for the Indians. A drain on the taxpayers. Very appropriate that it was built on a lakefront landfill.

Known then as Municipal Stadium, it was built in 1931 primarily for the Cleveland Indians, who were turning away thousands on Sundays and holidays from 26,000-capacity League Park. Also, it was hoped that the city would be considered seriously for the 1932 Olympic Games. But in the stadium's early years, not enough other events were staged to produce sufficient income to maintain it.

Only twice was its nearly 80,000 capacity taxed -- for a heavyweight championship fight in its first year and for the 1932 Indians opener. Notre Dame vs. Navy football almost filled it that fall, but events such as Army-Illinois were swallowed up in the cavernous structure.

But once the city emerged from the Depression, the stadium became a versatile and frequent host. By 1949, three years after the Browns arrived, it was in almost daily use. The mayor called it "one of Cleveland's biggest civic assets."

Municipal Stadium and the Indians hold several American League attendance records: most for a night game (78,382, 1948), day game (74,420, 1973) day doubleheader (84,587, 1954) and twi-night doubleheader (65,934, 1986).

In 1948 Bill Veeck was holding sway on the lakefront. The late master innovator recalled one day, "I looked up the previous record for the largest crowd and it belonged to the Yankees. I saw no reason why we couldn't beat it.

"We had a big doubleheader coming up with the Yankees and I thought, 'Wouldn't it be ironic having them involved in breaking their own record?' We advertised everywhere and worked a couple of giveaways in. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a very threatening day early and it ended up raining late in the afternoon. The best laid plans . . .

"I didn't think too much about this failed attempt until not long afterward we had a Sunday doubleheader. It was getting around noontime and I was looking out the window of my office in the stadium and fans started trooping over the bridge [over railroad tracks] from downtown. They just kept coming and coming."

All the way to a then-record 82,781 for a day doubleheader. It was part of a season turnout that numbered 2,620,627, which stood for years as the major-league mark. That autumn, after beating the Red Sox in a one-game playoff for the '48 American League pennant, the Indians faced the Boston Braves in the World Series and set the Series mark (86,288) later eclipsed when 92,706 showed up at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1959 to see the Dodgers and White Sox.

Over the years, it has been the stage for the Metropolitan Opera, the Beatles, religious convocations, circuses, rodeos, big bands, tractor pulls and a host of professional and amateur athletes. In 1991, a Hollywood film crew used the stadium as the setting for the TV movie, "The Babe Ruth Story."

Even during the baseball season, Cleveland Stadium always seemed gloomy and, frequently, unseasonably cold. Late in the football season, the cold air blowing in from Lake Erie is numbing.

On Dec. 22, 1964, five days before the Baltimore Colts were to meet the Browns there for the NFL championship, the field was frozen solid in spots. Only by using 12 gas-fueled heaters to blow hot air through tubes under the tarps was the groundskeeper able to keep the field relatively soft for the game -- which Cleveland won, 27-0.

Eventually, the stadium became a financial strain for the city. Browns owner Art Modell responded in 1974 by forming the RTC Cleveland Stadium Corporation and promising a $10 million improvement plan, which was completed in 1984.

"If the city had held onto the stadium, it probably would be closed today," said Ohio Gov. George Voinovich, a former Cleveland mayor.

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