More than Witnesses: A Brief History of Cleveland Sports

Cleveland is half its population since the epitome of itself as a winner. The year was 1948. The Indians had won the crown with a player-manager, and with Satchel Paige: the first black pitcher to appear in a World Series.

A model team then, for a model city.

In fact it’s said a town’s teams can mirror in play the state of its locale’s mindset—like a kid rounding third through the awareness that his dad won’t scream if he’s called out. And so the bounty of life symbolized back then was tremendous—the city like the belly of a suckling, honest-to-god infant; and like the puffed chest of an honest-to-god hard-ass. A city, then, with lights and people and bridges impressive in their capacity to let order pass across the fullness of their steel frames.

Things change, though. Yet it’s hard to believe that when things are going your way. And even when they aren’t, there is the illusion of winning. Charlie Sheen now, Cleveland in the 60’s: they had much in common in this regard.

After all, Cleveland had the Browns. It had Jim Brown. Otto Graham.  And it looked certain that the Browns would be good forever. As they had been, and then came the title against the Colts in 1964. That title in the cold of the huge concrete-and-column shell that was Municipal Stadium. That win despite the noisy reality going on outside the game in the city: people dripping into the suburbs, with each white person gone the entry of city eating its inside out.

The Browns would never win another championship again.

And the devaluation thereafter would only spread out, and the uptick in fear rose due to the reality of what we’d been doing to our reality. Like what we did to our river in ’69. Catching it on fire like that. In effect, Cleveland literally began drinking its own demise, and it shown on the field. In fact the ’69 Tribe lost 99 games. Its worst winning percentage since 1915.

And then in 1974 it all came to a head. The Indians had been straight bad for almost two decades. The owner needed a crowd. The concept was ten-cent beer night. Then, the city finally flooded into its own projection of itself, and hating its own image. Like a person with a horrible imagination only, and no pastime left. An account, according to Wikipedia:

A woman ran out to the Indians’ on-deck circle and flashed her breasts…A father and son pair ran onto the outfield and mooned the fans in the bleachers…Mike Hargrove was pelted with hot dogs and spit…and was nearly struck with an empty gallon jug of Thunderbird…In the ninth inning, a fan attempted to steal Texas outfielder Jeff Burroughs’ cap…Burroughs tripped, and Texas manager Billy Martin…charged onto the field, his players right behind… A large number of intoxicated fans…surged onto the field…Realizing that the Rangers’ lives might be in danger…the Indians’ manager ordered his players to grab bats and help the Rangers…As Joe Tait and Herb Score called the riot live on radio, Score mentioned the lack of police protection; a riot squad…finally arrived to restore order.”

Of course order here meant to put back in the box what had been festering for some time now—or that clarity that Cleveland was dying. And so as the fans left the field to emerge from the tunnels into a city uncovered with night, the only thing left to do was to keep going—or to leave this sinking, shrinking vessel of homes and factories for the vultures that live on the after, after-party.

177,000 plus left Cleveland in the 70’s alone.

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But often when what you’ve feared has finally arrived you got a chance to be fearless. Said C.S. Lewis: “(Pain) removes the veil; it plants the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul”. In the 1980’s one could say Cleveland’s rebel soul came out.

There was Harvey Pekar giving it to Letterman. There was the post-punk, industrial rock band Peru Ubu. There was WMMS and Murray Saul. And Daffy Dan t-shirts. And then the fight with New York to be the capital of rock. In all, Cleveland was becoming accustomed to finding its pride in the result of having few illusions left.

Such was the essence of the era’s Browns teams too. There was the Kardiac Kids: a team that took their name from their comebacks if not an implicit understanding that Cleveland was thrashing on the gurney. And later on, the Bernie Kosar team with Mack and Newsome and Dixon et al. They called themselves the Dawgs—an identity derived less from rabidness than from the fact that what increasingly existed in the Rust Belt was an impossibility of cushioning. And yes: both teams did break our hearts. But it wasn’t regret. And to this day we long for that time when there was nothing to fear because reality killed any apprehension we had. And so we barked, cheered, and threw batteries and bones.

But again—nothing lasts. Because with success comes the desire for permanence: winning. Re-enter illusions, or more exactly: Andre Rison, and the Downtown Cleveland renaissance.

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The early 90’s saw Cleveland’s new life after its denial of death. And it used the method of the new mostly: the new buildings and city malls, the new sports stadiums. And then the new Indians. It was a big market’s team now. A team of old superstars (Eddie Murray) and young superstars (Manny Ramirez) and salty-ass superstars in their prime (Albert Belle). They broke records. Just missed winning the Series. And there was a short period when all this new gave everyone the relief that the last 30 years were a fake nightmare. Gettin’ that effin’ swag back…

Swag. It always fit Cleveland like pearls on an iron worker. Enter Andre Rison in a Browns uniform.

The Browns owner Art Modell saw the cash that was being thrown around him. His home was still Municipal Stadium where you pissed in a trough, though.  But it was Cleveland, and it was the chapel of us.  Still, Modell didn’t care. He wanted new too. So he threw the largest wide receiver contract to date at a person voluntarily nicknamed “Bad Moon” Rison in March of 1995. Modell took out a personal loan to the pay the guy. The dude sucked. Modell’s gambit didn’t pay off, and so he took his talents to a town (Baltimore) that had taken took their talents to another town (Indianapolis). The Cleveland Browns, the fucking Cleveland Browns—no longer. It was a death.

Of course the irony of it all was the timing of it. Modell announced he was moving on November 6th, 1995, a fucking week after Cleveland’s first World Series appearance in 41 years. To that end, Cleveland was always a city that could never deal with its own success. Perhaps this is because the concept of “success” has grown so far away from what is Cleveland: heritage, hard work, bowling and bridges. Regardless, our demise is self-inflicted usually—an infliction that often proves to be more about returning to the source of our belonging than our desire to run away from where we came from. Even Modell, a Brooklyn New York native with a Super Bowl ring, even he can’t stay away—stay away from the pain, the heritage, the hope—saying recently: “I still love Cleveland. Nobody could ever take that love away from me. Nobody.”

The self-infliction and longing, the draping in the comfort of wanting to return to the source—so Cleveland, typically…

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The legacy of the 90’s still hangs over this city like a bad tattoo. We ran into the arms of the late 90’s Tribe like a rebound b who never cried. Juan “Gone” Gonzalez was our end point here. And the Browns, the new ones, well, the Stadium is gone—the team’s colors are there—there is a billionaire owner—and so much losing—and people wearing so much Steelers gear and cheese hats in the stands that it’s enough to make one sick. Like seeing your sister’s ass of a boyfriend in your dead grandpa’s favorite chair.

And we have seen a whole generation grow up into it. In the exurbs—in the culture of a City that keeps forgetting it will always be Rob Lowe as “Soda” as opposed to Rob Lowe as a dick. The result? Yankees fans, Cowboys fans—or a whole grip of young with a threadbare attachment to place.

The rootlessness had even begun trickling up into the older as well. Cleveland being demolished around us. Loss after loss after loss after loss. Us a tiny afterthought in a global economy. Us getting cheap even if it was local by shifting our hopes from the team to the one.

And we can remain illusory by pretending it was just his fault. But the projection was ours, and it was a projection which ultimately succumbed to what Cleveland wasn’t: a city that witnessed things rather than being a part of their happening—or a city that lived through the efforts of the child so much that the child finally became connected to his land in the feeling of all that has left.

–By Richey Piiparinen

(Thanks to Shit City Comic writer Colignon Porc-Epic, an a alias I presume, for indirectly encouraging me to dust off this piece. Go read his stuff. Skillfully understated like a roofie, i.e., it gets in  you before you even know it.)

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