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WORLD SERIES: ATLANTA BRAVES vs. CLEVELAND INDIANS : An Erie Sensation : Did You Hear the One About Cleveland? The Jokes Are Over

October 20, 1995|THOMAS BONK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Those Cleveland Indians and their American League pennants. Every 41 years, just like clockwork, the Indians are in the World Series.

In fact, Indian broadcaster and one-time star pitcher Herb Score, takes exception to anyone even hinting that there was this tiny parched span of more than four decades, from 1954 to 1995.

"We always had good baseball teams in Cleveland," Score said. "Unfortunately, it was the opponents."

Bob Feller, the Hall of Fame pitcher who was 13-2 for the 1954 team, said time hasn't exactly flown.

"It's a long time, I'll be honest," Feller said. "But why don't you talk to somebody from Chicago? The Cubs, they haven't been to the World Series since, well, I guess almost since God was born."

The most surprising thing about the World Series isn't that the Indians are in it, although that would have been pretty laughable not many years ago, but that they seem to have lifted an entire city's sports psyche.

Feller has noticed.

"There aren't any Cleveland jokes anymore," he said.

Bob Lemon was on that '54 staff with Feller and said he never heard jokes then about the Indians.

"They weren't joking about us," he said. "There was always Washington."

The Senators are long gone, of course, but there still is plenty of funny stuff going on in Washington. Not in Cleveland sports, though. Since they turned respectable last season in the new Jacobs Field, the Indians have made sure they are not anything like the Indians of old.

Those Indians, the ones who were lost for 41 years, were often targets of good-natured ribbing. Cleveland Brown tackle Doug Dieken once said of Duane Kuiper, an Indian second baseman, "Duane's game reminds me of a lot of the bars I go to--all singles and no action."

But the new Indians win, and the fans come to see them do it. Their attendance this strike-shortened season, 2,842,725, ranked third in the major leagues, behind only the Colorado Rockies and Baltimore Orioles.

"If you give the fans a contender, they'll show up," said Lemon, who thinks it amusing that everyone has suddenly discovered Cleveland again.

Feller said there is only one real reason the Indians are succeeding.

"They've got money," he said. "That's the name of the game. It's No. 1. It's so far No. 1, I don't think there's even a No. 2."

Being a pro sports fan in Cleveland has been a long, wild ride that would probably have people fainting at Magic Mountain. Cleveland's image as a sports town generally relates to winning or losing, whether it's the Indians, Browns or Cavaliers.

And not a small part of the Cleveland image is shaped where the teams played their games. Take pro basketball, for instance.

Before there was the beautiful, new, downtown Gund Arena, there was the dingy, old, downtown Cleveland Arena, where Herman Munster would have made a perfect usher.

It was the first home court of the Cavaliers in 1970. The NBA expansion team was coached by 37-year-old Bill Fitch, who remembers the place with a peculiar fondness.

"That building should have been condemned," Fitch said. "It was great."

The Arena certainly had its quirks. Fitch said that workmen there would sometimes switch off the lights at night, toss hot dogs onto the floor, then wait awhile. When they brought the lights back up, everyone would shoot the rats that had gathered for a snack. Cagney would have loved it.

One problem visiting players had with the place was that it lacked certain amenities . . . such as showers. Oh, all right, there were showers, and if you bent over real low, you might even get your hair wet. But you probably didn't want to.

"[John] Havlicek said anyone who showered in there would get something terminal," Fitch said.

Covering the floor of the shower area were wooden slats--slippery, splintery wooden slats.

"The splinters would get you before the water did," Fitch said.

In time, most players learned that the best place to shower after a game was in a hotel room.

The Cavaliers got off to sort of a slow start that first year, losing 37 of their first 40 games. Undaunted, the fans showed up. The Cavaliers averaged 3,518 fans, enough to impress Fitch.

"Cleveland not only had the greatest fans, Cleveland had the bravest fans," Fitch said. "We led the league in stolen cars."

After the last rat shoot that season, the Cavaliers wound up 15-67.

"You'd have thought we led the league," Fitch said. "Believe me, those are great fans in that city.

"Problem was, Cleveland was catching a lot of flak as a city. It was a really tough downtown. You just didn't go downtown. The Indians and Browns really suffered from that too. This was about the time the Cuyahoga River burned."

No question, when a large body of water catches on fire in a town, it's not great publicity. At that point, Stephen King should have been named mayor.

Anyway, the line of progression in Cleveland pro basketball moved from a strange building to a strange owner. That would be Ted Stepien, the only owner in the history of the NBA who eventually was barred by the league office from making trades.

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