6: FAN FOIBLES
In 1974, the Cleveland Indians were a solid, healthy organization, as long as you ignored the fact that the team was on the brink of bankruptcy and working on a practically unbroken, two-decade long streak of suckitude.
The Indians played their home games in cavernous Cleveland Municipal Stadium, the worst facility in baseball. Built in 1932, the Stadium was the first fully publicly funded facility of its kind, which wasn't surprising: only a government project could produce something so enormous, ugly, and unsuited for its eventual purpose. Cold, dank, with seats for more than seventy thousand—many of which were blocked by steel poles—the Stadium was itself an impediment to the fortunes of a team that had long proven that it didn't need any help screwing things up.
Twenty years had passed since the Indians last won an American League pennant. Six had passed since the team's last winning season. And in 1973, the Tribe had assumed the position to which its fans, ownership, and players had grown accustomed: last place in the American League East. Accordingly, the team also finished last in the league in attendance, and by a wide margin. (An average of slightly more than seventy-five hundred went out to Tribe games in'73.) The team wouldn't have sold out Volunteer Stadium in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, let alone the monstrosity it called home.
So the consortium that ran the Indians had a problem. The club had lost $1.4 million in 1973. Being as cash-strapped as it got among ownership groups at the time, they needed to get the turnstiles a-spinning, and quickly. The problem was, Cleveland fans weren’t terribly keen on shelling out their hard-earned Rust Belt money on an uninspiring team that played in a place equipped with possibly the worst bathroom facilities in the history of American sporting venues.
Thus was born Ten-Cent Beer Night. Three of these libation-induced evening of delight were scheduled for the 1974 season. The first came on Tuesday, June 4, when the Texas Rangers arrived to begin a three-game series. There had been recent trouble between the Tribe and the Rangers: a week earlier, Cleveland first baseman John Ellis and Texas utility man Lenny Randle had come to blows during a game in Arlington. Fueled by their own team’s cheap beer promotion, Rangers fans doused Indians players with discounted suds, moving Ranger Toby Harrah to compare them to the rowdy beisbol fans of Latin American winter leagues. He hadn’t seen nuthin’ yet.
A total of 25,134 paying customers were on hand that Tuesday in Cleveland, the largest attendance for a weeknight game in nearly two years. It didn’t take long to figure out that the bulk of the crowd wasn’t there for baseball. It was about the fire-brewed Stroh’s to be had at just ten cents per cold, frosty cup. You could even carry off six at a time, if you were up to the challenge. And if you spilled, a dime was all it took to make the party foul fair. Fans who may already have been lubricated when they got to the Stadium formed long, weaving, sometimes peeing lines to beer trucks that had been parked beyond the center-field fence.
The first breach of the playing field came early, when an overweight woman lifted her shirt upon reaching the Tribe’s on-deck circle and planted a kiss on home plate umpire and crew chief Nestor Chylak. Fan incursions onto the field this night were repeated and excessive, even by the relaxed standards of the 1970s. They began early, and although they varied in intent and levels of bonhomie, they never really stopped throughout the course of the game. Smoke bombs and firecrackers went off periodically in the stands, and fights broke out between members of the predominantly male and predominantly intoxicated crowd.
As for the game, right out of the gate it shaped up as a Texas runaway. After a scoreless first inning, the Rangers began chipping away at Tribe starter Fritz Peterson (who somewhat famously traded wives with a teammate while playing for the Yankees). A Tom Grieve home run and back-to-back doubles by Jim Sundberg and Cesar Tovar chased Peterson in the third inning. Grieve's second home run, a fourth-inning solo shot off Dick Bosman, made it 3-0. As Grieve rounded the bases, a naked man dashed out onto the field and slid into second base. The umpires didn't acknowledge it, but he was safe.
A run-scoring single by the Tribe's Oscar Gamble, owner of one of the more renowned 'fros of the period, cut the deficit to 3-1, but the Rangers came back with two in the sixth and led 5-1. By then, fans were pelting denizens of the Texas bull pen with firecrackers, forcing home plate umpire Chylak to order them moved to the dugout for their own protection. Around the seventh inning, boozed-up fans began invading the outfield in squadrons. One ran up to Ranger right fielder Jeff Burroughs and shook his hand, presumably congratulating him on the MVP season he was having. At this point, most of the Tribe's front office personnel began filing out of the Stadium, unwilling to bear witness any longer to the carnage they had wrought. The ballpark had been left to the Indians, to the Rangers…and to the drunks. And the drunks outnumbered everyone.
As the fans grew ever drunker, rowdier, and bolder, the Indians began to mount a comeback. Three hits and a walk cut the Texas lead to 5-3 in the bottom of the sixth. It was still 5-3 when the Tribe came to bat in the bottom of the ninth. With one out, a George Hendrick double and an Ed Crosby single cut the deficit to 5-4. After the Tribe loaded the bases, a sacrifice fly by John Lowenstein tied the score. With two outs in the ninth, the Indians had men on first and second and looked to be on the verge of a comeback victory.
At that point the crowd became unmanageable. A group of drunks climbed over the right-field wall and accosted Burroughs, stealing his cap. From the Rangers dugout, manager Billy Martin saw his best player under attack, and made up his mind. Alcohol-fueled hijinks were all in good fun to the hard-drinking, hard-fighting Martin, but nobody messed with his superstar and got away with it. Martin armed his men with Louisville Sluggers and led them onto the field to save the beleaguered outfielder. From there, as the kids say, it was on.
Drunken fans stole the bases. Someone hurled a full jug of Thunderbird wine of indeterminate vintage at Ranger rookie first baseman Mike Hargrove (who kept a photo from that night on the wall of his office when he managed the Tribe in the ‘90s). Hargrove, for his part, wrestled to the ground and pummeled a fan that came up behind him with ill intent during the melee. Billy Martin later claimed to have broken his bat over the skull of rioter. It was good, maybe, that Billy was there; this was one thing he wouldn’t have wanted to miss. The drunks were impartial; not only did they go after Texas players, but Cleveland players as well. Indians relief pitcher Tom Hilgendorf was struck in the head by a stadium chair. So was Nestor Chylak, for that matter.
Chylak, for his part, wanted the game to continue. He didn’t want to deprive the Indians of a chance to complete their comeback. But when he felt the press of an object on the back his foot, turned around, and saw a large hunting knife sticking out of the ground, his qualms vanished. He declared the game a forfeit: Rangers, 9-0. Nursing his head injury afterward, Chylak said of the rioters: “They were just uncontrollable beasts. I’ve never seen anything like it except in a zoo.”
At any rate, the wayward promotion and the resulting suds-soaked riot was a sociologist’s dream come true. Windy theories were expounded about the unfocused rage and antiauthoritarian bent of the day's youth. Ranger Cesar Tovar put it more succinctly, when asked to compare the behavior of Cleveland fans to those in his native Venezuela. “These people are different, very different. Got no respect for the police,” Tovar said. “Of course, they'd shoot the people who tried that at home.”
The tally for Ten-Cent Beer Night: nine arrests; seven people sent to the hospital for riot-inflicted wounds from chairs, fists, airborne jugs of cheap wine, et al.; and one forfeited baseball game. Even though the promotion had cost them a game in a season in which the team had caught a mild case of contention (the Tribe was only three and a half out in mid-August before fading), the Indians had every intention of going ahead with the remaining scheduled Ten-Cent Beer Nights, and only desisted when forced to do so by American League president Lee McPhail. It was another two decades before the Indians management realized that having good players was the best way to put asses in the seats.