by Bruce Dunlavy
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This blog has examined the role of sports in society on several occasions. This time we will delve into the way sporting events can both reflect and dictate the attitude of an entire city and an entire cohort of fans. People whose lives revolve around which professional athlete did or did not perform which athletic task can have their mood determined by a single play or event, sometimes for a day, sometimes for years.
Cleveland, Ohio, has a rich sports history matched by few cities. Professional football’s Browns had, for their first 20 years, some of the most storied achievements in the game. The baseball Indians were an original American League team and are one of only three AL franchises that have been in the same city since the league was founded in 1901.
But there is a dark side to Cleveland sports history. Every time it looks like long-term success is around the corner, something happens. Every time it seems Cleveland will establish itself on the professional sports scene, a crushing failure destroys the hopes of their followers.
As a result, the teams of Cleveland have managed but twelve championships ever, nine of them by the Browns. In 120 years, the Indians have won World Series championships only in 1920 and 1948. After dominating the upstart All-American Football Conference and winning all five of their championship games, the Browns moved to the NFL and won four more championships between 1950 and 1964. That championship, however, was Cleveland’s last until the Cavaliers’ only NBA title, in 2016. The break of 52 years – 147 total seasons – without a championship is a record for any city.
Let us have a look at some of the soul-smashing events. If you are a Cleveland sports fan, I warn you that this will not be anything but agonizing to read. You have been warned.
Several of them are so extraordinary that they have their own individual entries in Wikipedia, with titles such as “The Fumble” or “The Drive,” underscoring how much they stand apart from every other fumble or every other drive – ever.
I will try to rank them from least horrible to most horrible. Arguments can (and will) be made about which hurt worst, but in the end awful is just awful.
Cleveland loses its NHL team.
The National Hockey League’s San Francisco Golden Seals move to Cleveland and become the Cleveland Barons just before the 1976-77 season. Financially precarious, they barely struggle through the year. After the following season, the franchise is absorbed by the equally shaky Minnesota North Stars, and the Barons disappear.
The Ten-Cent Beer Night Fiasco.
When the Indians played in Municipal Stadium, the bad sight lines and cold Lake Erie breezes kept fans away even when the team was not terrible. By 1974, they haven’t drawn a million fans in any season since 1959, and the previous three years have all been under 630,000. Special nights are planned to attract fans. On June 4, 1974, the Indians hold “Ten-Cent Beer Night,” and over 25,000 show up. By the second inning, drunken fans are running onto the field and taking their clothes off. Things go downhill from there. The ninth inning sees a full-fledged riot, with fans taking apart seats to fashion clubs and players using bats for defense. The game is forfeited to the visiting Texas Rangers. For more about it, you can consult Wikipedia’s entry “Ten-Cent Beer Night.”
The Browns top picks go bust.
In 1999 and 2000, the Browns have the first overall draft pick two years in a row. They select Tim Couch and Courtney Brown. No more need be said.
Quarterback Bernie Kosar, from nearby Youngstown, has had a spectacular career at the University of Miami. The Browns draft Kosar with the first pick in the 1985 supplemental draft. As popular as any Cleveland athlete since Jimmy Brown and Rocky Colavito, Kosar is adored by Clevelanders. Nevertheless, when injuries limit his production, the team releases him after losing Game 10 of the 1993 season. Fans are furious; a multitude swear off the Browns forever, and many keep their promise.
Herb Score gets hit by a line drive.
In his first two years in MLB (1955-56), left-handed pitcher Herb Score is as good as just about anyone ever. He wins 36 games and leads the league in strikeouts both seasons. But in his third appearance of 1957, on May 7, he is hit in the eye by a line drive and is never a successful pitcher afterwards. The Indians, too, are never the same. Score’s injury crushes the Indians even more than when catcher Ray Fosse’s career is busted by a shoulder injury when he is knocked over by Pete Rose in the 1970 All-Star Game.
Rutigliano calls “Red Right 88.”
The Browns are in the playoffs on January 4, 1981, against the Oakland Raiders. They are losing 14-12 with 39 seconds remaining, but have the ball on the Raiders 13-yard line. It’s second down, and Don Cockroft has failed to convert two field goal attempts and two extra points, so coach Sam Rutigliano instructs QB Brian Sipe to try a pass play known as “Red Slot Right, Halfback Stay, 88.” He tells Sipe that unless intended receiver Ozzie Newsome is wide open he should “throw the ball into Lake Erie.” Instead, Sipe throws the ball into the arms of the Raiders’ Mike Davis, snuffing out the potential Browns win. Again, visit Wikipedia. You will find an entry for “Red Right 88.”
Jimmy goes to Hollywood.
If nothing else, the Cleveland Browns could always take pride in running back Jim Brown, widely considered the best football player of all time. In his nine-year career, Brown is the league MVP three times and sets a career record for rushing yardage. He leads the league eight times and averages over 100 yards per game. But he never plays after age 29, retiring in 1966 at the peak of his greatness to pursue a more lucrative movie-acting career. The team’s success retires with him.
LeBron leaves. Twice.
It is 2003, and the Cavaliers have the great stroke of luck to win the draft lottery to get LeBron James, the best player available and a product of nearby Akron. After failing to bring a championship to the Cavs, in 2010 James smirkingly makes “The Decision” (yeah, it’s a Wikipedia entry) to sign with the Miami Heat. His teams there win two NBA titles. He returns to Cleveland for the 2014-15 season and they win the championship the next year, but it isn’t the same. In 2018 he opts out of his contract and heads to the Lakers.
“Traitor” Lane gives away Rocky Colavito.
There has rarely been an Indians player as popular as Rocky Colavito. In 1959, he leads the AL in homers and is lionized in Cleveland. Nevertheless, two days before the 1960 season starts, GM Frank “Trader” (or “Traitor”) Lane sends Colavito to Detroit for Harvey Kuenn, the 1959 batting champion. Colavito spends the next four years with the Tigers, amassing 139 home runs and 430 RBIs. Kuenn has a decent season for Cleveland in 1960, but in December he is traded to the Giants for two players who never pan out. The Indians stink for the next 30-plus years, attributed by some to “The Curse of Rocky Colavito.” Yeah, there’s a Wikipedia entry for that.
Byner makes “The Fumble.”
On January 17, 1988, in the AFC Championship game, the Browns face the Broncos for the second straight year. Behind 38-31 with 1:12 to play, Cleveland is driving for the potential game-tying touchdown when running back Earnest Byner fumbles away the ball on the Denver one-yard line. Wikipedia has an entry for that, too. Just look up “The Fumble.”
Mays makes “The Catch.”
In 1954, the Tribe sets an all-time American League record with 111 victories to win the pennant. They meet the New York Giants in the World Series. In the eighth inning of Game One, with the score tied 2-2 and two Indians on base, the Indians’ Vic Wertz hits a 420-foot drive into the unusually deep center field of the Polo Grounds. Giants center fielder Willie Mays chases it down and catches it with his back to the plate. The Giants win in extra innings, and the demoralized Indians lose the Series in four straight games, not returning to post-season play for 41 years. The photo of Mays’s catch (see Wikipedia’s entry “The Catch (baseball”) is still one of the most iconic images in baseball lore.
Elway executes “The Drive.”
January 11, 1987 – another Cleveland sports let-down that gets it own Wikipedia entry, as “The Drive.” Some still consider this the unkindest cut of all. In the AFC championship game, with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, the Browns score to lead 20-13 with just 5:39 to play and Denver mishandles the kickoff at their own two-yard line. Quarterback John Elway leads the Broncos 98 yards in 15 plays to tie the score with 37 seconds left. The Browns lose in overtime.
Mesa blows the save.
It is October 26, 1997, and the Indians are in the World Series. They are leading in Game Seven, two outs away from their first World Series championship since 1948. Jose Mesa blows the save and the game goes to extra innings. Bottom of the 11th, one out, ace Charles Nagy pitching. The normally reliable Tony Fernandez boots a ground ball and the Marlins eventually score a two-out, walk-off unearned run to win the game and the Series. (P.S., the Indians got back to the World Series in 2016, and after taking a three-games-to-one lead, dropped the last three, capped by an extra-inning loss in Game 7.)
Jordan makes “The Shot.”
In the first round of the 1989 playoffs, the third-seeded Cavaliers face Michael Jordan and the sixth-seeded Bulls. The Cavs, who were 6-0 against Chicago during the regular season, lead 100-99 in the deciding game with three seconds to play. Jordan nails a buzzer-beater over Craig Ehlo that is so widely celebrated it, too, has its own Wikipedia entry under “The Shot.” You don’t want to watch it again, but you will, because you’re a Cleveland fan, so here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dk0aErTKtqI
(P.S. Jordan did it to the Cavs in the 1993 playoffs, too.)
A** M***** makes “The Move.”
The owner of the Cleveland Browns – one of the NFL’s most storied franchises – picks up the team and moves it to Baltimore in 1996. This also has its own Wikipedia entry. Adding insult to injury, the relocated Browns (now the Ravens) win the Super Bowl four years later. To this day, the owner’s name is not spoken in Cleveland, except perhaps in reference to something else, as in an episode of the Cleveland-based sitcom The Drew Carey Show, in which the lead character mentions finding a bathroom to “take a Modell.”
Cleveland fans, I told you this was going to be agonizing, didn’t I? Didn’t I tell you it would make you miserable? But you read it anyway, didn’t you – just like the Cleveland fan you are. We all feel for you, we really do.