I know this is long…but holy fuck
[…] The ‘74 Indians were a smorgasbord of mediocre and forgettable talent playing in an open-air mausoleum. That year, in a city that fielded one of the founding professional teams (the Forest Citys, incorporated there in 1869), 85 percent of the seats at home games went unsold. All those empty seats meant a balance sheet written in red. The team’s executive vice president, Ted Bonda, could put up with losing teams and an ugly stadium (he had inherited both in 1972), but he would not tolerate insolvency. Bonda called a meeting to discuss options for improving attendance, which must have felt a little like trying to figure out how to get people excited about a trip to the orthodontist. Someone, apparently a team employee likely acting out of desperation, suggested copying the Texas Rangers, who had recently hosted a successful “10-Cent Beer Night.” We can imagine the grim silence in the boardroom as the group considered this obviously dangerous remedy. How interested would Cleveland be in such a promotion?
Any rumination on Cleveland’s fortunes in the ’70s must include the woeful state of the Cuyahoga River, which ran a winding course through downtown. In 1952, it caught fire for the ninth time. Years and years of absorbing liberal amounts of industrial waste had turned the Cuyahoga into something more than just a waterway. The fetid river burned with Stygian fury, destroying $1.5 million in property. Despite the significance of the incident, it didn’t attract much national news coverage. But in 1969, when the Cuyahoga caught fire again, flames reached five stories in height and burned for almost a half-hour. Still, they did little more than scorch a rail bridge, and the damage cost just $50,000 to repair. In Cleveland, this was viewed as improvement. Between ‘52 and ‘69, however, the national attitude toward flammable bodies of water had changed.
This time, environmentalists used the city for target practice. National outrage led to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and the passage of the Clean Water Act of 1977. Cleveland could be considered the chief impetus behind these two important and beneficial achievements, which in the ’70s were as close as the city came to a story with a happy ending.
In the decade preceding 1974, more than 600 factories and heavy industrial operations fled Cleveland. The city considered itself lucky when these businesses landed in suburbs near enough for commuter transit. Most companies left the state or shut down permanently.
Cleveland would lose 177,000 inhabitants between 1970 and 1980, bottoming out at three-quarters of its post-WWII high population of 910,000. The city council met to earnestly discuss the prospect of bankruptcy. No municipality in the nation had landed in default since the Great Depression, but in Cleveland, all options were on the table.
Considering the state of the city in 1974, Bonda and his brain trust decided that, yes, Cleveland probably could use a drink.
Accounts vary as to the volume proffered — 8 ounces? 10? 12? — but the price was certain enough: 10 cents per cup. Fans — and we shall use this term for lack of a better one — could buy up to six cups at a time, with no system in place to prevent a designated mule from purchasing a full complement, handing them off to underage clients, and returning for more.
Even though the Indians offered copious amounts of beer at cut-rate prices, a great many attendees opted to play with a handicap, arriving at their seats drunk, stoned or both. The June 4 promotion turned out to be quite popular, drawing 25,134 people, more than double the average crowd that season.
Though the Rangers organization provided the inspiration for the promotion, no love was lost between the two teams. During their previous meeting on May 29 in Texas, a vicious brawl had erupted — featuring head-hunting pitchers, punches thrown and a fair number of beer cups tossed at Indians players. The Tribe lost the game 3-0, and one can understand why Clevelanders’ tempers were a bit on the short side six days later when the Rangers came to town.
Through deliberate coordination or spontaneous groupthink, hundreds of fans showed up with pockets full of firecrackers. Anonymous explosions peppered the stands from the first pitch, lending the game a war-zone ambiance that would seem increasingly appropriate. Though it is not clear whether this impromptu celebration cost anyone a finger or hand, an uneasy je ne sais quoi settled into the stadium along with clouds of exploded gunpowder and marijuana smoke.
The Rangers took the lead in the top of the second inning on a home run by designated hitter Tom Grieve. Just a few pitches later, a heavyset woman sitting near first base jumped the wall, ran to the Indians’ on-deck circle, and bared her enormous, unhindered breasts to appreciative applause from the beer-goggled teenagers who made up the stadium’s primary demographic that night. She then attempted — unsuccessfully — to kiss umpire crew chief Nestor Chylak, who was not in a kissing mood.
This woman was just the scout for a larger exhibitionist force. When Grieve hit his second home run in the fourth inning, he had not yet rounded third base when a man — entirely naked — ran onto the field and slid into second, probably getting dirt in places unsuitable for speculation. In the fifth inning, two men in the outfield got into the act, jumping the wall and mooning the Rangers’ outfielders. The players watched, hands on hips, shaking their heads as park security chased one hooligan after another across the diamond.
Each Texas player received a lusty chorus of boos as he stepped to the plate, and Fort Worth Star-Telegram beat writer Mike Shropshire noticed that the war drums beating from the nosebleed seats kept a quicker-than-usual tempo. Interest in the game itself peaked in the fourth inning, when Indians batter Leron Lee swatted a line drive back to Rangers pitcher Fergie Jenkins. Jenkins could not get out of the way and caught the ball with his stomach. As he writhed in pain, the fans began to clap. A chant began:
“Hit him again, harder!”
Later that inning, Lee was called safe in a close play at third. Rangers manager Billy Martin, no stranger to disruption and very much in his element that evening, came out to argue. A large number of the plastic cups sold to that point, many still full of beer, were thrown back onto the field by fans who found Martin’s very presence offensive. As he returned to the dugout, the Rangers manager blew kisses into the stands.
As the night wore on, the crowds grew bolder, and packs of fans frequently scurried across the outfield. One man tossed a tennis ball into center field, then scrambled after it. After throwing the ball back into the seats, he led park security on a little jog, pausing at one point to hug another fan, perhaps a long-lost relative, who had jumped out to greet him. Ushers dragged away one of the two, while the other leaped into the stands and was borne away by dozens of gleeful, anonymous hands. The rain of beer became a hail of rocks, batteries, golf balls and anything not bolted down.
Just a few years later, such a barrage would prompt the involvement of municipal police in large numbers. During the 1980 World Series in Philadelphia, officers clad in riot gear trotted out of the tunnels and along the baselines in a pre-emptive maneuver, their German shepherds flitting behind home plate like shadows as Phillies closer Tug McGraw tried desperately to close things out. In 1974, it did not occur to the Indians organization to request an additional police presence at the ballpark for their beer-fueled promotion. If any municipal police were in the stadium that night, they were off duty and quite possibly as drunk as anyone else.
Early on, the demand for beer surpassed the Indians’ capacity to ferry it to concession stands, and a luminary, perhaps the same person who suggested the promotion in the first place, decided to allow fans to line up behind the outfield fences and have their cups filled directly from Stroh’s company trucks. The promotion achieved critical mass at that moment, as weaving, hooting queues of people refilled via industrial spigot.
The public address announcer reminded spectators not to litter onto the field, and refuse rained down harder. The grounds crew had not sat down since the second inning, and outfield fans used them as moving targets. Another woman jumped out of the stands waving, and though she did not disrobe, the crowd urged her to consider it. When ushers arrived to end the discussion, she attacked them. The surprised ushers forced her to the ground, prompting a storm of boos and shouts of “police brutality!”
One enterprising fan threw lit firecrackers into the Rangers’ bullpen like grenades. Chylak ordered both bullpens evacuated, but little short of an authentic grenade would deter the crew chief from seeing the contest completed. He told the relievers to warm up on the mound itself.
Mike Hargrove came on to play first base for the Rangers. The baseline fans greeted him with a half-full jug of Thunderbird wine that missed his head by inches.
As the ushers flagged, streakers stripped leisurely on the field of play, abandoning their clothes in a pile in left-center. A contingent of fans along the third-base side began removing the padding on the left-field wall. Either through numbers or sheer force of will, they nearly succeeded in taking a large chunk into the stands. The grounds crew abandoned its trash-collection duties and mustered to save the padding, an effort that occupied them the rest of the night.
In the seventh inning, radio announcers Joe Tait and Herb Score watched as the baseball fans in the crowd gathered their families and left the stadium like refugees. In the eighth, they noticed Bonda and other members of the Indians front office leaving the ballpark, doing their best to look casual.
In the ninth, the Indians mounted a rally, scoring two runs to tie the game at 5. The winning run stood on second base when a young man jumped from the outfield seats and (perhaps searching for a memento to mark the occasion) flipped the cap off Rangers outfielder Jeff Burroughs’ head. The outfielder turned to confront the fan and tripped over his own feet in the process. For the first time that evening, the chaos enveloped a player.
The slope of the diamond made it impossible for Martin to see below the level of an outfielder’s knees from his station in the dugout. The legendary manager, in a moment that does not get large enough print on his long and colorful résumé, did not hesitate after Burroughs fell from view.
“Let’s go get ‘em, boys,” he said, arming himself with a fungo bat and sprinting toward right-center field. The Rangers, understandably inspired, followed him.
Martin and his team stormed the diamond, infielders filling out their ranks. When they reached the outfield, the Rangers found Burroughs flustered but unharmed. More worrisome was the effect of their charge on the assembly: The jovial, frolicking nudists had disappeared. The mob that replaced them kept its clothes on and brandished an arsenal that made Martin’s Louisville Slugger look like a child’s toy. The Rangers manager spotted people wielding chains, knives and clubs fashioned from pieces of stadium seats. The 25 Texas players quickly found themselves surrounded by 200 angry drunks, and more were tumbling over the wall onto the field. The Texas Rangers had been ambushed.
Then the riot began. Indians manager Ken Aspromonte, his own defining moment upon him, realized that the Texas franchise might be on the verge of decimation. He too ordered his players onto the field. The bat racks in the home dugout emptied as the Indians mounted their own rescue. Announcers Tait and Score have the call, as recorded by Akron Beacon-Journal writer Bob Dyer:
Tait: Tom Hilgendorf has been hit on the head. Hilgy is in definite pain. He’s bent over, holding his head … Aw, this is an absolute tragedy. Absolute tragedy … I’ve been in this business for over 20 years, and I have never seen anything as disgusting as this.
Broadcasters often employ the “always a few bad apples” defense in these situations, but when confronted with the sight of an entire stadium of such rotten fruit, Joe Tait finds himself at a loss.
Tait: And I’ll be perfectly honest with you: I just don’t know what to say.
Score: I don’t think this game will continue, Joe … The unbelievable thing is people keep jumping out of the stands after they see what’s going on!
Tait: Well, that shows you the complete lack of brainpower on the parts of some people. There’s no way I’m going to run out onto the field if I see some baseball player waving a bat out there looking for somebody. This is tragic … The whole thing has degenerated now into just — now we’ve got another fight going with fans and ballplayers. Hargrove has got some kid on the ground and he is really administering a beating.
Score: Well, that fellow came up and hit him from behind is what happened.
Tait: Boy, Hargrove really wants a piece of him — and I don’t blame him.
Score: Look at Duke Sims down there going at it.
Tait: Yeah, Duke is in on it. Here we go again.
The sight of 50 angry professional athletes slowly killed the buzz, and the tide in the outfield turned. Taking advantage of what might be their only opportunity to escape alive, Martin and Aspromonte led their players out through the dugouts and down the tunnels, assisting their wounded as needed, with bench players forming a rearguard. After the teams departed, the mob found itself alone on the diamond, with many securing souvenirs to mark the occasion.
Score: They’ve stolen the bases.
Here, Score undersold. They stole more than just the bases. Anything not secured or already taken disappeared. The mob swarmed like locusts as the doors to both clubhouses were shut and locked. With no baseball plays or players left to describe, Tait and Score stared down at the melee, which continued for another 20 minutes.
Tait: The security people here are just totally incapable of handling this crowd. They just — well, short of the National Guard, I’m not sure what would handle this crowd right now. It’s unbelievable. Just unbelievable.
Score: People go back into the seats and others jump down to take their place.
Tait: The bases are gone.
Perhaps attempting to soothe the riotous beast, the organist then played “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
Chylak then had a moment of profundity in which he realized that there will be days when the mail just does not go through. A hunting knife has landed, blade down, in the grass behind his leg. He forfeits the game to the Rangers and runs.
The beat reporters worked overtime that night, particularly Dan Coughlin, from the Chronicle-Telegram of Lorain County, Ohio, who was punched in the face twice while interviewing fans. Those reporters smart enough to follow the teams into the safety of their clubhouses got more than stock responses about looking forward to the next contest.
Said Martin: “That was the closest you’re ever going to be to seeing someone get killed in this game of baseball. [Given the hectic circumstances, Martin can be forgiven for overlooking the death of shortstop Ray Chapman, who was wearing an Indians uniform in 1920 when he was fatally struck by a Carl Mays fastball.] Burroughs seemed to be surrounded. Maybe it was silly for us to go out there, but we weren’t about to leave a man on the field unprotected. It seemed that he might be destroyed.”
For someone who had just escaped destruction, Burroughs kept his calm. He hopefully asked one reporter whether a forfeit would erase his 0-for-3 at the plate that night. The writer informed him that it would not.
Aspromonte took a wider view of events, wondering whether Cleveland had lost more than a game that night.
“It’s not just baseball,” he said. “It’s the society we live in. Nobody seems to care about anything. We complained about their people in Arlington last week when they threw beer on us and taunted us to fight. But look at our people — they were worse. I don’t know what it was, and I don’t know who’s to blame, but I’m scared.”