Opening Days at the Old Stadium

For some summer begins with the end of the school year, for others it’s Memorial Day, and for others it starts as early as St. Patrick’s Day. For me winter ends and summer begins with the start of the baseball season and Opening Day for the Cleveland Indians.

Since I have played or coached football for almost my whole life most people assume that I come from a family with a strong football background. That isn’t true. The most popular sport in my family has always been baseball. My maternal grandfather was a major league and amateur catcher of note during the 1920′s and ’30′s, and often reminisced about playing against the likes of Satchel Paige. When my father came back from World War II and got his first real job working the steel mills, his passion was following the great Indians teams of the late 40′s and 50′s. He would often tell stories about catching the street car for the ride downtown to see the Indians play the Yankees with the pennant on the line. And even though he was a die hard Indians fan and, consequently, hated the Yankees, Joe DiMaggio was his favorite player. He would tell me that Joe was the most fluent athlete he had ever seen. Baseball hasn’t only been the passion of the men in my family. My mother and my sisters all know their way around the ball field, as did my recently deceased ninety-three year old grandmother.

Here in Northern Ohio the generation of my parents, those people now in their early 60′s to late 70′s, grew up in the Golden Era of Cleveland sports. Harrison Dillard, Jesse Owens, and Stella Walsh were all Olympic heroes. The Browns were founded and dominated pro football for almost two decades. The Stadium was built and considered one of the finest facilities in the country. The Barons were considered the ninth best hockey team in the world, behind only the then eight NHL teams.

But the Cleveland of the 30’s, 40′s, and 50′s was, above all, a baseball town. The Indians roster was filled with the names Boudreau, Feller, Doby, Rosen, and Paige and the Indians were the second best team in baseball behind the mighty but hated Yankees. Whether it was April or July or September the Indians drew strong and supportive crowds. Photographers from the 1954 World Series show fans standing five deep behind the out field fence to watch games.

If you weren’t at the game, or if the team was on the road, you listened to the game on the radio. You could follow the game going in and out of stories on a Saturday afternoon because the game would be on everywhere. Have you ever noticed there are some people who still prefer to listen to baseball on the radio instead of watching it on TV? My grandfather was like that. He’d sit at the picnic table on the patio in his backyard smoking a cigar and reading the newspaper or the Sporting News, listening to the ball game on the radio. When Bob Neal or Jimmy Dudley’s voice would raise in excitement, (they were the Tribe announcers of my youth), he’d look up and gaze off into space, envisioning the play in his mind. He’d see the exact the spot where the ball bounced, or the seat where the home run landed, or how the second baseman missed the tag. He’d see it all and then explain it to me. I saw my first opener with my grandfather who always treated the day as a major holiday. Jimmy Buffett sings about sailing with his grandfather and Hemingway wrote about hunting and fishing with his. I went to Cleveland Indians Openers with mine.

There’s a great time in every young man’s life, before he discovers girls and learns how to drink beer with his buddies, when his passion in life is sports. During that time in my life, my father spent the week out of town hustling business. He’d promise my brother and I that when he returned he’d take us to the Indians game on Friday if we behaved ourselves. I looked forward to going to those Friday games with great anticipation, but as I’ve gotten older and have thought about a father who’s no longer with us, I realize that he probably look forward to them more. Monday through Friday in a strange town, living out of a suitcase in a hotel room, eating dinner alone each night and missing his sons’ little league games. He’d turn the ball game on the radio and it’d be the Cubs, or the White Sox or the Cardinals, but not the Indians.

Years later I realized too late what those Fridays meant to him. He’d have dinner with his family, and then we’d all pile into the station wagon and drive to my grandparents’ house. My mom and sisters would stay with my grandmother as ‘the men’ would go down to the stadium. We’d stop in a few places down in Dad’s old neighborhood, shot and beer joints near West 25 and Denison Avenue. My dad and my grandfather would have a few short ones with their buddies at the bar, while my brother and I would drink Cokes, eat bags of cheese corn, and play the bowling machine.

When we got to the game we’d sit in left field near my favorite Indian, Leon “Daddy Wags” Wagner. My grandfather would buy my brother and me anything we wanted, and my Dad would very meticulously keep score. The night would end at the old Baron’s Cafe, burned down years now, with my brother and I delegated to a booth to feast on Baron Burgers and thick, greasy onion rings, while my Dad and grandfather sat at the bar for night caps and talked baseball. Years later I realized how much my dad probably hated his job, and how he must have looked forward to those Friday night games.

When I was younger a lot of the attraction and anticipation of the Opener, or any Indians game, was that it happened at the Stadium. The same stadium that my grandparents and parents when they were young and went and saw the Indians play in, we went and saw the Indians play in. And although it constantly got ripped by politicians and sports writers (many of whom grew up someplace else), most real fans found it to be a good place to watch baseball. Real grass, cheap seating, a great location, and lots of history and tradition. Too bad management couldn’t occasionally put a fresh coat of paint on the place or, God forbid, fix the plumbing. I appreciate it more now that the Stadium has gone the way of Cleveland’s Millionaire’s Row, League Park, and inner city neighborhoods. Let’s ignore something until it’s too late then rip it down.