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The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

SPORTS - The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

SPORTS. The earliest inhabitants of the WESTERN RESERVE lacked the time, energy, and resources for any but the most basic recreations, and too few people were available for team sports. For many people, what little time could be spared from farming was spent in Sabbath devotions. Even so, the severity of frontier life required some tempering. Rudimentary swimming was popular in the summer months, and impromptu foot and horse races were common, generally with wagers riding on the results. Other competitions pitted individual muscle and skill in woodchopping or furrow plowing; however, these contests were part of larger social events, such as fairs or barnraisings, which drew families in from their lonely farms. The contests, then, served 2 purposes. Not only would a champion, skilled in the arts that the pioneers valued, be chosen, but significant amounts of work would be performed. In the meantime, these communal activities would bind the group together as a society. While early Clevelanders enjoyed their recreations, they did not play games in the modern sense. Such sports, with no discernible outcomes aside from the final score, were extravagances for the pioneers.

That began to change with the construction of the canals in the 1820s. Waterborne transportation reshaped Cleveland's economic role as it increasingly became a center for industry and a transhipment point for trade; the population grew, from approx. 600 in 1820, to just over 1,000 in 1830. Greater wealth and lowered transportation costs allowed the importation of items that had previously been considered luxuries. It is in this period that organized team sports made their first appearance in the historical record, and agriculturally oriented activities began to diminish in the city center. At the same time new industry and commerce allowed additional leisure time for greater numbers of Clevelanders. Therefore, a sufficient number of players could be gathered at a set time to stage matches of rounders or old-one-cat (early forms of BASEBALL) or shinny (an early form of HOCKEY (ICE)).

This period marked a transitional point in the city's economy and culture, as the rugged individualism of the pioneer grew less important for survival. Instead, the new industrialism required an ethic of group cooperation, necessary for the management of complex, interrelated tasks. The new sports taught that ethic, and even hunting and fishing, once crucial as economic activities, now became recreational. Society and culture, however, still placed a high value on personal achievement. Horseracing, BOXING & WRESTLING, and shooting matches continued to pit individual competitors against one another. Thus, by the 1830s the 2 enduring themes of American sports were in place. Cooperative team sports and solitary performance sports mirrored the competing social ethics of individual community and liberty, and these themes remained unchallenged for years., Trends begun in the 1830s continued relatively unchanged into the 1850s, when Cleveland's industrial takeoff financed an expansion of sporting activities.

The decade before the Civil War saw the systematizing of sporting events. Whereas previously matches of all descriptions had been scheduled on a casual basis, with such participants as were available, now organizations set dates and advertised venues. In 1850 the Cleveland Jockey Club was established, and the club hosted an annual 5-day meet of pacing and trotting events (horseback racing was considered vulgar). The next year, the Gymnasium opened on Superior Ave., providing acrobatic and calisthenic equipment as well as track-and-field meets, boxing, and wrestling. Recreational BOATING (RECREATIONAL) grew in popularity, and in 1855 the Ivanhoe Boat Club was formed. Devoted to rowing and sculling, it became the model for the future yachting clubs. In another aspect of gamesmanship, the Cleveland Chess Club was organized in 1858. In the meantime, casual sports remained popular. A craze for mass winter sleigh riding swept northern Ohio in 1856, and huge meets were held throughout the Reserve. Ice skating also became fashionable for winter recreation.

During the Civil War, most organized sporting activities came to a standstill as men were called away to the army. However, the tremendous economic growth that was generated in Cleveland created new impetus and opportunities for sportsmen with the return of peace. Certainly the most important of these changes was the advent of modern professional sports, where the lure of financial reward vastly improved the level of competition. In Cleveland, it began in 1865 with the formation of the FOREST CITY BASEBALL CLUB as an amateur baseball team. Baseball was emerging as the "national pastime," and in short order the influences of money (through gambling) and community rivalry caused abuses of the amateur status of the game. "Ringers" (skilled players posing as local citizens) and "fixed" games were used to control the outcome. In 1869 the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first club to turn from amateur to professional status, legitimizing the importation and payment of talented players. Immediately following the Cincinnati announcement, the Forest City Club reorganized itself as a professional team.

Sports became an industry, providing a livelihood for players and profits for owners and facility operators. The increasingly heterogeneous population of the city found a common rallying point in the performance of "their" team. An important new communitarian theme, however, was also introduced to sports, in direct competition with the older ones of individualism and team play. In 1867 the German community founded the Social Turn-Verein, a combined athletic club and social center that deemphasized sports competition. Instead, the "Turner" valued the aesthetics of gymnastics and the social bonding of group activities. This new theme would be reworked by succeeding, East European immigrants in the Sokol movement to provide a familiar reference point in a bewildering culture.

Other sports continued to organize. Another horseracing track, the Cleveland Driving Club, was founded in 1867. Also that year, the Forest City Skating Rink was built; as the area's first indoor rink, it became a hub of wintertime social gatherings. In 1871 the Forest City Club joined the National Assn. of Professional Baseball Players. Sports competition at all levels of society was becoming structured. In 1872 the first bowling alley was built on Bank (W. 6th) St. Popular among workingmen, BOWLING was inexpensive, could be played individually or as part of a team, and usually featured a saloon on the premises. At the other end of the social spectrum, the UNION CLUB OF CLEVELAND also was founded that year, for the promotion of "physical training and education." However, over the years the club's role as an "old boys" network came to the fore as its predominant function. Professional baseball was reintroduced in 1878, with the Cleveland Baseball Club of the National League. The communal sports movement also grew with the foundation of the Sokol Czech in 1879.

The 1880s brought increased participation in sports and a wider variety of games to play. TENNIS, roller skating, and bicycling were adopted by the social elite in the first half of the decade. The first FOOTBALL game was played in 1887, when CENTRAL HIGH SCHOOL defeated Case School of Applied Science. The modern era of Cleveland sports began in the last decade of the 19th century. In 1891 the first great sports stadium, LEAGUE PARK, opened. Three notable, and ultimately profitable, games were introduced: BASKETBALL in 1894 by the YMCA; GOLF in 1895 by SAMUEL MATHER† and hockey at an indeterminate date by amateur sportsmen. The cult of the star player was established in the career of DENTON TRUE "CY" YOUNG†, who led the CLEVELAND SPIDERS baseball team to the Temple Cup national championship. Collectively, sports could be divided into 3 categories: the spectator-sports business; elite participatory sports; and amateur participatory sports. The first included baseball, boxing prizefights, and exhibitions in a variety of games--a representative selection of all social classes could be found at these events. The second included horse and sleigh racing, tennis, golf, yacht racing, bicycling, and whist (later bridge). These games demanded either a large capital outlay, or an equal commitment of leisure time. Finally, the less-well-off could find recreation through amateur clubs, organizations, schools, or casual games, in which the financial burden was spread among a large number of people. This pattern remained true, with modifications,, into the 1980s. However, the modifications proved to have important social, economic, and political ramifications.

Cleveland entered its most expansive years at the turn of the century, and sports shared in the growth. Stars were found to symbolize the city's industrial strength. NAPOLEON LAJOIE†, the best baseball player of the period, bolstered the sagging Cleveland team, which was renamed the "Naps" in his honor. More important, he restored attendance, which prevented the team from leaving Cleveland and losing its "major league" status. Amateur leagues in all sports were founded at the municipal, collegiate, and high school levels. The city's first professional football and basketball games were played during the 1900s as exhibition matches. Auto racing and rallying began with the Cleveland Auto Club's Century Runs in 1901 and the Glidden Tours in 1905.

Two interesting sidelights occurred in the decade. First, Cleveland's blacks (see AFRICAN AMERICANS) invaded the previously all-white domain of major sports when Ted Green led Case School to the state football championship in 1902. Next, the growing political and economic power of sportsmen was displayed when horse racers and players created the town of NORTH RANDALL in 1908. Cleveland had annexed the independent village of GLENVILLE, the old center of racing, in 1905, and made gambling illegal. Women's involvement in sports also increased during the 1900s. The newer sports, golf, tennis, and badminton, were seen as sufficiently decorous to allow female players. This partial enfranchisement in the sporting world reflected the larger issues of suffragism and feminism under discussion in general society at the time.

The major innovation in Cleveland in the 1910s was the introduction of professional football. A team called the Cleveland Indians was organized in 1916, but proved a financial failure. But the success of the CLEVELAND TIGERS, created in 1919, convinced the investors to buy into the American Professional Football League. This league became the modern National Football League. In addition, the growth of amateur-league structures continued. These often served specific constituencies, such as the Old Boys Workers Group basketball league of 1915, the Cleveland District Golf Assn. of 1917, or the Cleveland Women's Bowling Assn. of 1918. These groups were often clearly defined along class, racial, or sexual lines.

The 1920s are frequently represented as a great turning point in the history of sports. The years 1850-1920 have been called the "Age of the Player," in which the athletes controlled the rules of the games; the years after 1920 have been designated the "Age of the Spectator." That seems to have been particularly true in Cleveland's professional sports; the 1920s saw the greatest expansion of professional sports in the history of the city. Golf clubs and courses sprang up throughout, Cuyahoga County, and the first major golf tournament, the Western Open, was held in 1921. Three football teams represented the city, in sequence, in the APFL. The baseball Indians won the World Series in 1920. The basketball Rosenblums won the first championship of the American Basketball League in 1925, and repeated in 1928 and 1929. The hockey Indians also debuted with a championship in 1929. The NATIONAL AIR RACES were launched that year. General prosperity gave the spectators dollars to spend, and the owners rushed to service the fans, creating a buyer's market for athletes' services. Considerations other than the bottom line also were served. Ethnic Clevelanders found athlete heroes whose skills and success marked them as typical Americans. The IRISH had boxer JOHNNY KILBANE†, the JEWS & JUDAISM, football quarterback BENJAMIN (BENNY) FRIEDMAN†, the POLES, STELLA WALSH†, and the SLOVAKS, the Benedictine High School football team. The Newman-Stearn Co. team won the World Women's Basketball Championship in 1926. The air races presented science in action. Sports, more than ever, symbolized the city's growth, civic cohesiveness, and technological prowess.

The economic catastrophe of the Depression was uneven in its effect on Cleveland sports in the 1930s. While some professional sports enterprises went bankrupt (the basketball Rosenblums and the football Indians), others drew enough spectators to continue profitable operations (the baseball Indians and the hockey Indians/Falcons/Barons), and still others found new demand for their services (the football Rams). The upper-class recreations continued a leisurely expansion. The Cleveland Open golf tournament of 1938 offered a purse of $10,000. The city continued to produce national and international bridge champions. Nonetheless, undercurrents of the social turmoil were evident. JESSE OWENS† came out of Cleveland to shatter Nazi theories of racial superiority at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, only to discover in later life that athletic triumph did not guarantee success in white society. Bowling was popular, and the great unionizing drives of the 1930s led the city's bowling pinboys and billiard racksetters to organize as Local 48A of the Building Service Employees. Finally, the communal sport movement reached its peak with the 1936 Workers' Olympiad. The event, sponsored by the Czech Socialist WORKERS GYMNASTIC UNION, drew hundreds of Sokol-style gymnasts to protest the competitive nature of both traditional sports and capitalist economics. Two improved sports facilities were also constructed, CLEVELAND MUNICIPAL STADIUM in 1931 and the CLEVELAND ARENA in 1937. Baseball began radio broadcasts over WHK in 1931. The federal WPA, constructed nearly $12 million of recreational improvement in the CLEVELAND METROPARKS, providing jobs in the process.

Although most sports stagnated during World War II, pent-up demand and a reinvigorated economy brought changes in work standards, labor laws, and productivity, which produced more leisure time. In addition, radio (see RADIO) and, more important, TELEVISION needed material to fill air time. All of these worked on sports, beginning just after the end of the war.

It is difficult to determine which was more significant, the advent of the black athlete in the professional major leagues or the impact of electronic media. In Cleveland the "color line" was broken when Bill Willis and Marion Motley debuted with the CLEVELAND BROWNS in 1946. Like previous minority ethnics, blacks hoped to use athletic success to legitimate themselves. The electronic media brought athletes directly into the home. Enthusiastic commentators raised their status to the heroic, as they became role models for the country's young people. In the late 1940s INDUSTRY boomed as never before, and the succession of championship professional teams seemed to confirm the city's enduring vitality and its central role in the national economy. However, increased income and fear of black integration led whites to leave the city for the suburbs in search of better housing and shared communal values. For many, Cleveland became a destination rather than a residence. The decay of the urban core was a gradual process, in both the city and the professional sports teams. The Indians won 1 last American League pennant (1954) before lapsing into long years of ineptitude. The Browns remained a contender in the NFL in the 1960s. The CLEVELAND BARONS were denied entry into the National Hockey League in 1952 and again in 1968, in part because the NHL owners suspected that Cleveland did not have "major league potential."

The social changes also affected amateur and scholastic sports. The rapidly growing suburbs quickly established recreational programs for both classes of participants. Within Cleveland's city limits, a similar expansion occurred, but with some important differences. Municipal leagues were funded in several sports, with an express intention of providing diversion to school-age children and combating juvenile delinquency. In the 1960s inner city programs staggered along, beset by a declining financial base, as games were played under police supervision. High school games became racial, ethnic, or neighborhood contests, underlining the tension between races, and Cleveland's high school Senate was reorganized into North and South groupings in order to minimize the visibility of the east-west racial division. City residents were afraid to attend athletic events because of crime or racial violence.

Local colleges and universities began to, experience problems maintaining student sports in the face of competition from the major "sports factory" schools. Attendance began to fall steadily at Indians games, and instances of crowd violence were reported at Browns games. The aging Municipal Stadium and the arena were seen as decrepit embarrassments, and the Richfield Coliseum was built in 1974 to service the more affluent suburbs. Suburban sports participation increased; soccer became a popular team sport there, and the Wolstein's organized the CLEVELAND FORCE SOCCER TEAM to tap into that enthusiasm by attracting a metropolitan audience.

In the 1980s the sports establishment attempted to revive itself, although not without catastrophes along the way. In 1983-84 it was learned that several Browns players were undergoing treatment for cocaine addiction. It came as a shock to many fans that the heroes of the playing field were subject to the problems of the larger society. The Indians lost 102 games in 1985, the worst record in modern baseball at that time. Finally, the cocaine overdose of the Browns' Don Rodgers renewed questions about the role of sports and athletes in society. Nonetheless, the city's sports operations in 1986 were suddenly successful. Although it appeared that the Indians would be moved from the city that year, Clevelanders turned out at the stadium in large numbers, as the Indians fielded their strongest team in years and finished above .500 for the season. The Browns, the Cavaliers, the Force, and the Cleveland State Univ. Vikings basketball team all contended for championships in their respective sports leagues. In 1994 the CLEVELAND CRUNCH soccer franchise of the Major Soccer League brought Cleveland its first pro-sports championship since the 1964 Browns.

Despite the varying views of what sports should be, the games remain primarily a business of monumental proportions. In 1994 Financial World magazine estimated the Cleveland Browns were worth $165 million (5th in the NFL); the Cleveland Cavaliers, $118 million (6th in the NBA); and the Cleveland Indians, $100 million (13th in the major leagues). Recognizing the importance of sports, the greater Cleveland community cooperated in making the Gateway sports stadium and arena possible as the linchpin of a major downtown redevelopment program (see GATEWAY ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT CORP.). Gateway began to take shape when the Cuyahoga County voters approved a sin tax to help finance the new downtown ballpark and arena in May 1990. Indians owner Richard Jacobs signed a 20-year lease to play in the new stadium that December; the Cavs signed a 30-year lease to play in the new gateway arena the following year. In April 1994, the Cleveland Indians began regular season play at Jacobs Field, and in the fall of 1994 the Cavaliers and the CLEVELAND LUMBERJACKS inaugurated professional basketball and hockey play in Gateway's Gund Arena. Popular TRACK AND FIELD SPORTS events, such as the REVCO CLEVELAND MARATHON AND 10K, the Keycorp Classic, and the National City Triathlon, reinforced the business side of athletic entertainment, as each brought important corporate and sports marketing to the city by 1995.

Michael McCormick

Western Reserve Historical Society

Grabowski, John J. Sports In Cleveland: An Illustrated History (1992).

Last Modified: 04 Mar 1998 05:10:40 PM

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