Major League Baseball is Born Again in Cleveland
"I would rather have 100 men with $250 invested than fifty men with $500. The more people are interested in the club, the more interest will be taken in it. Our plan is to spare no expense in getting a first-class team. Cleveland is hungry for baseball and we propose to satisfy that appetite." ~ J.J. Buckley, while leading a group of investors hoping to purchase the Cleveland baseball franchise in 1901.
The Cleveland Spiders of the National League posted the worst record in Major League Baseball history in 1899, and once that team was absolved, it was assumed baseball in Cleveland was dead. A local coal magnate, Charles M. Somers of Newark, however, put his resources together with the baseball sense of Ban Johnson to help develop the American League in 1901. Somers had joined John F. Kilfoyl in establishing a franchise in Cleveland in 1900, and Somers then used his fortune to help finance four of the original eight teams in the new league, which intended to directly compete with the National League. Essentially, without Somers' financial backing, there's no telling if the American League would have survived.
After his involvement with Cleveland, Somers held his biggest interest with the formation of a club in Boston, making several visits there in January 1901 to scout locations for a ballpark in what had the chance to become a crowded baseball city. The National League's Boston Beaneaters were well entrenched at the South End Grounds, but Somers wanted to pry away the Charles River Park from Arthur Irwin (Irwin refused because he owned the rights to the Boston team of the American Association, which was looking to revive itself for the 1901 season). Somers eventually secured a site on Huntington Avenue from Boston's elevated railroad company and signed a five-year agreement on January 18 (Irwin was left out after the AA was not recognized as a major league by the Players' Protective Association).
While he was still at the time an executive with the Cleveland franchise, Somers insisted his exploits in New England were solely to benefit the development of the new league.
"I am simply working as one of a committee for the American League until we are fully organized," Somers said at the end of a visit on January 23. "The chances are that, finding no backing in this city, the league will back the Boston venture."
That stance was reiterated by Kilfoyl on January 31, despite the league awarding the Boston franchise to Somers three days earlier: "Mr. Somers is only acting as the agent of the American League in Boston. His interests will remain with the Cleveland club, and the Boston franchise will be transferred to Boston parties before the season opens."
In March, however, there were still no takers in Boston, and Somers bolted for Massachusetts full-time. He sold his stake in the Cleveland franchise to James McAleer, who played for the Cleveland Spiders for nine seasons and would double as the new franchise's field manager. That meant Kilfoyl—who was recruited to the baseball world by Somers—was left to handle more of the franchise's day-to-day business than he had bargained for, and this was why a group of locals made an attempt to buy the franchise just months into the season. That group seemed to evaporate almost as quickly as it popped up, but what might have happened if Kilfoyl and McAleer had been successful in selling the club to the public in June 1901?
How Cleveland Almost Became A Publicly Owned Baseball Club
The Cleveland Blues were struggling in their inaugural season, sitting 11 games out of first place at 6-18 on May 21. Just three days earlier, they snapped an 11-game losing streak. The lead story in the sporting news section of the Cleveland Plain Dealer on the May 21 wasn't about the previous day's home loss to Detroit, rather it was about the potential of the Cleveland franchise to be sold. The idea, per the Plain Dealer, was that an ownership group would form and sell only small chunks of stock to the public. Leading the charge was J.J. Buckley, a well-known Cleveland businessman who saw a buying opportunity with Somers out of the picture and envisioned a new way of owning a baseball team.
"My idea is to allow no one to own more than $500 worth of stock," Buckley said. "Baseball should be a public institution and should not be confined to a few capitalists who are in the business for revenue only."
Kilfoyl initially did not want to sell his share of the club nor did he take the offer seriously, though he acknowledged to Buckley that "all property has a price." According to Kilfoyl's account of the conversation between he and Buckley, the asking price was too high for Buckley alone, but that Buckley had added, "I have a few friends."
"It is exceedingly flattering to the club and to the American League to think that there are people so anxious to get into it," Kilfoyl said. "Why, only a few months ago, I was told repeatedly that I was crazy for investing in the institution. Cleveland was a 'dead one' in baseball, they told me. The American League was a wildbrained venture that would never succeed. The National League would crush out our little organization in a few weeks, even if we ever began to play ball at all."
Kilfoyl expressed no desire to sell his entire share of stock in the team, but "to be relieved of some of (the extra responsibilities stemming from Somers' departure) and at the same time clear a good profit on my investment might be an inducement." Terms of the proposal were never reported, but Kilfoyl indicated he could have made a profit by selling only part of investment (In March 2021, the Cleveland Indians were valued at $1.16 billion by Forbes, a huge jump in current owner Paul Dolan's $323 million purchase from 2000).
"I have heard that a number of persons want to buy the Cleveland club, and I don't blame them," McAleer said. "Cleveland, under the right circumstances, would make a splendid baseball town once more. Personally, I am in the club as deep as I can go. ... My stock is not for sale, but I will stick to Cleveland to the finish."
By June 13, an agreement was reportedly reached between Kilfoyl and Buckley, but per the league agreement, no club's ownership could transfer without league approval. Buckley anticipated holding a conference to announce the transfer in a "day or two," with June 30 being the date by which it was expected there will be "something doing."
"We want to have a ball team that represents Cleveland and Clevelanders. If it makes money, all the better; we will not try to make anyone believe that we go into the venture for fun, but we will go into it with our sporting blood up to fever heat," Buckley said. "We want a winning team first and will trust in getting our money back afterwards."
Throughout June, there was no further reporting about Buckley or his group's efforts to acquire the Indians. As the June 30 target date approached, however, McAleer gave a new update on the possible transfer of ownership—and for those backing Buckley's approach, it was bad news.
"I think Killfoyl will not let go of the club, at present, at least," McAleer said on June 29 while his club was in Chicago for a series against the White Stockings. "He got tired of running it (the team), but now he finds there are others that want it and believing it a paying investment, he has changed his mind and will stop the proceedings looking toward the transfer to the syndicate."
Buckley Backs Second Effort to Buy Cleveland Club
On July 19, the Plain Dealer again reported that Buckley was still intent on purchasing the Cleveland franchise, despite there being no sale at the end of June.
"The Cleveland club will be purchased by a company of enthusastic baseball patrons within the next sixty days," Buckley said. "Nearly every detail has been satisfactorily arranged. We have an option on the franchise and the consent of the American League to its transfer. President Johnson sanctions the deal and there is nothing left to do but complete the organization of the new company."
According to Buckley, Kilfoyl would retire and McAleer would control the team. Most of the individuals who would purchase $500 in stock shares were accounted for at the time.
"I will retain all my stock in the club, but will be glad to act as the new company desires," McAleer said. "If they want me for manager, I will do my best to put a winning club here. The city is anxious for a club that will stand up toward the top, and with the liberal amount of money the new organization promises, there is a chance of getting such a team here."
My examination of sporting news pages from the Plain Dealer throughout the remainder of 1901, however, turned up no further details about a sale of the team to Buckley.
Later on, rumors consistently flew that suggested the Cleveland club would be transferred to St. Louis, where the American League was committed to adding a franchise for the 1902 season (Milwaukee ended up being the team that was moved). Then, gossip regularly was published that suggested the Cleveland franchise would stay in the state of Ohio but would relocate south to Cincinnati.
In fending off those rumors, Kilfoyl also potentially gave some insight into why the deal with Buckley's group of investors never materialized.
"Well, I guess it's up to me for the sixteenth time in two months to say that Cleveland will not be transferred," Kilfoyl said on December 30. "... Why just look here, Cincinnati has stopped growing, while Cleveland is growing faster than any other city in the country, and it will not be long before my franchise is twice as valuable as it is now."
McAleer sold out of his position in the team after the 1901 season but managed in St. Louis and Washington until 1911, and Somers ultimately returned as a co-owner in 1902. During the 1910 season, Somers bought out Kilfoyl's share of the franchise and reigned over one of the most tumtulous periods in team history. Between 1910 and '15, Cleveland had five managers and just two winning seasons, and in 1914, the Naps finished 51-102, which is still the worst mark in franchise history.
That poor showing from his baseball team—which also was last in attendance in 1914—combined with an economic downturn that impacted his coal and shipping businesses left Somers in financial ruin going into the 1915 season. He lost financial control of the team in January but still was involved operationally throughout that season. By 1916, the larger-than-life figure who made the American League possible was forced out of organized baseball.
Charles Somers' First Return to Cleveland
On May 25, 1901, Charles Somers returned to Cleveland for the first time as owner of the Boston franchise. He brought along six players on his club who had played for the Cleveland Spiders in the past—pitcher George Cuppy, catcher Ossee Schreckengost, and outfielders Tommy Dowd and Charlie Hemphill, as well as Cy Young and Lou Criger, who were scheduled to do the pitching and catching in the second game of the series, which was postponed due to rain.
In the opening game of the series, Cleveland was shut out 5–0 by Boston under dreary weather conditions at League Park. After a scheduled day off—on which a loss by Milwaukee briefly moved Cleveland out of last place in the AL standings—the second, third, and fourth games of the series were rained out. This cost Cleveland potentially large crowds who would have come out to see the former players, especially Young's start.
"It never has seemed like old times since we left here," Young said. "No town has fans that can outdo those of Cleveland when they feel freindly toward the players. Even during all the trouble that followed the fall in popularity of the old management, the people were with the players, and I believe I have more friends here today than in any other city."
What May Have Been Different if the Cleveland Franchise Had Been Publicly Owned?
There's no telling what may have happened to the Cleveland franchise had Buckley and his consortium of investors gained control of the ballclub in 1901. In 1902, Somers still had plenty of money and influence, and certainly would have found a way to get back a sizable share of the franchise, even if Buckley was the primary owner. But with Buckley, Kilfoyl, and Somers potentially all as co-owners, the trajectory of the team would have changed dramatically—possibly to the negative. What if the three men couldn't agree on the direction of the club? What if rifts among owners trickled down to the players and made for a frustrated and inferior product on the field? What if Kilfoyl or Buckley gave up their share earlier? Would Somers' reign of meddling still happened, or would it simply have happened earlier and drove Nap Lajoie right out of Cleveland? If Lajoie left Cleveland sooner, would the team name have been changed from the Naps to something other than Indians?
Or what if Somers wasn't granted any control again? What if Buckley and Co. had a business model that would have put Cleveland into the earliest World Series matchups? Would Somers have stayed in Boston? Maybe Babe Ruth never would have become a Yankee and the Evil Empire would have a huge green wall in right field.
Ultimately, I would like to know what would have happened if Buckley's idea had gotten some more traction. He showed passion for the sport and for winning, and if he truly had the financial backing to put together a world-class team, Cleveland may not have become the city of lovable losers that it is today.
"Absurd Yarn From Cincinnati," Cleveland Plain Dealer, Dec. 31, 1901: Page 6.
"And the Money," Boston Globe, Jan. 24, 1901: Page 5.
"Gets a Footing," Boston Globe. Jan. 18, 1901: Page 5.
"Hungry for Baseball," Cleveland Plain Dealer. May 22, 1901: Page 6.
"McAleer Doubts the Transfer," Cleveland Plain Dealer. June 30, 1901: Page 10.
"Plans for the Transfer," Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 19, 1901: Page 6.
"Rumors of a Change," Cleveland Plain Dealer. May 21, 1901: Page 6.
Schuld, Fred. "Charles Somers," SABR.org. Accessed August 18, 2021. (https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/charles-somers/)
"To Find the Way," Boston Globe. Jan. 8, 1901: Page 5.
"Too Wet For Baseball," Cleveland Plain Dealer. May 28, 1901: Page 8.
"Winners First; Money Next," Cleveland Plain Dealer. June 14, 1901: Page 6.
© 2021 Andrew Harner