On May 1, 1947 the Indians moved permanently into Cleveland Municipal Stadium, also known as “The Mistake by the Lake.” This would be the first of almost 50 years the team spent the venue.
With their usual level of pomp and circumstance, the Yankees opened their new ballpark this season. To the surprise of nearly everyone, the park has proven thus far to be something of a launching pad. Early results notwithstanding, this trend may yet prove nothing more than a fluke.
Either way, some are under the impression that concerns about dimensions are a new problem. But at this point in baseball history there are few new problems, and unsuitable new stadium dimensions are something baseball history knows well.
When Cleveland Municipal Stadium opened in 1931 (not related to a bid for the 1932 Olympics as is sometimes claimed), the first event it hosted was a heavyweight championship fight featuring Max Schmeling. The first baseball game took place in July of 1932, a 1-0 shutout pitched by Lefty Grove, in front of more than 80,000 people.
The Indians and fans soon found themselves unhappy with the cavernous stadium, however. Even by the standards of the time, Municipal Park was massive. It was nearly 470 feet to dead center field, and more than 430 to the power alleys. By 1934 the Indians had moved most of their games back to League Park, their previous home.
(This is unlikely to be a solution the Yankees choose should the issues at new Yankee Stadium continue.)
While the Indians initially played only weekend and holiday games at Municipal Stadium, they slowly moved games back to the newer park, including all night games, since League Park was not set up for night baseball.
Finally, in 1947, the Indians moved back for good, but not before new owner Bill Veeck installed an interior fence to shorten the gaps and create a more homer-friendly environment for the club. In 1948, just a year into their new home, the Indians won the World Series behind their player-manager Lou Boudreau, the league MVP that year.
The Indians did not secure the title at home but Game 5 (a loss, unfortunately for the team) drew 86,288, filling the park. That set a World Series attendance record which lasted until the Dodgers hosted more than 90,000 at the Los Angeles Coliseum in the 1959 Series.
Obviously crowds of more than 85,000 were not going to be a regular feature for the Indians; that would have entailed almost 10 percent of the city’s population showing up for every game. In 1948, the Indians set a major league attendance record by drawing more than 33,000 per game, still the ninth-highest total by an Indians team.
Unfortunately for the Tribe, years like that were far more the exception than the rule in Municipal Stadium. Many times, the Indians found themselves playing in front of sparse crowds, often as a truly terrible team. Five times the Indians lost 90 or more games in a season while drawing fewer than 10,000 fans per game.
Perhaps nothing was worse than the 1971 season, when the Indians lost 102 games and drew just 7,300 fans per game. Their penultimate game of the ’71 season drew just 2,266, or roughly 3 percent of capacity. I have a hard time imagining playing in front of 2,266 people and 70,000 empty seats. But it must have been quite a sight.
Even defenders of the “Mistake by the Lake” acknowledge its many failings. One fan, while rating the park a seven out of 10, nonetheless describes terrible parking, huge empty sections and an unsafe neighborhood marked by—this is too good not to quote directly—a “peculiar mixture of fish and industry odor wafting through the air.”
But it was not all doom, gloom and bad teams at the park. The stadium hosted four All-Star games with dates from 1935 to 1981. All-Star games in Cleveland seemed to specialize in unusual starting pitchers. While Lefty Gomez and Whitey Ford started games, so did names like Jim O’Toole (career record of 98-84), Bill Walker (97-77) and Ken McBride (40-50).
The stadium also saw some of the stranger promotions in baseball history. In 1949, when it became apparent the Indians would not successfully defend their American League title, Veeck put together a “funeral” for the team’s lost title, one that included burying the actual pennant won the year before.
During that championship year, a fan had written a letter jokingly suggesting that while ball players often had a “day” in their honor (the most famous being the one for Lou Gehrig when he gave his “Luckiest Man” speech) it was really the average fan who deserved such an event.
In response, Veeck hosted “Good Old Joe Earley Night” at the park, giving the man gifts both humorous (an outhouse) and actual (a new car along with a year’s worth of gas). The event was a tremendous success, and won the Indians a feature story in Life magazine.
Less successful was “10-cent Beer Night,” a promotion one commentator dubbed “the worst idea ever.” The idea was as simple as the name suggests. Fans could drink as many 10-cent beers as they could, for as long as the game lasted. The Indians were just three years removed from their notably dreadful 1971 campaign and the city itself less than a decade away from the Cuyahoga River burning for nearly half an hour.
In one sense the promotion achieved exactly what the Indians desired: 25,134 fans filled the park. That would be the only thing that went right as those fans began filling themselves with as much 10-cent beer as possible. Several fans took to the field either to disrobe or already naked, and objects were thrown throughout the game.
Everything came to a head in the ninth inning when a riot broke out on the field. First the visiting Rangers, then the Indians themselves took to the field with bats to defend themselves from fans armed with knives, chains and seats torn out of the stadium. The game was forfeited to the Rangers and order was not restored until Cleveland riot police arrived.
(Astoundingly the Indians actually announced their intention to run more 10-cent beer nights while limiting the number of beers each fan could purchase. League President Lee McPhail put the kibosh on that one.)
The Indians played their last game at the park in 1993, featuring a rendition of “Thanks for the Memories” by Clevelander Bob Hope. The NFL Browns continued to play in the park through 1995, and the park was torn down the next year. Today the site hosts the (new) Cleveland Browns Stadium.