News and Culture Notebook
8:11 pm
Tue June 4, 2013

Baseball's melee that will live in infamy

Tonight's anniversary of an ugly moment in baseball history provides a reminder that the past isn't any more innocent than our own time.

Certain people of a certain age enjoy saying that, with each passing decade, society hurtles further down into a chasm of vice. Back in the orderly yesteryear, today’s wantonness would be unthinkable.

Such sepia-toned reminiscence forgets years such as, for example, 1974.

Tonight marks the anniversary of a lowlight in baseball history, the near-riot that occurred in Cleveland at “10-Cent Beer Night,” on which the local nine hosted our own Texas Rangers.

The Dallas Morning News website posted Randy Galloway’s original account of the evening, but a synopsis follows here.

For one thing, it was 1974, when the nation in general was demoralized by the ongoing Watergate scandal and the dog days of the Vietnam War. Add to that the collective angst of Cleveland, a rust-belt city with a stumbling economy.

Credit Mark Haslett

Baseball offered Clevelanders little relief from the bad news of the day. The Cleveland Indians spent that decade doddering meekly in the basement of the American League’s East Division. They played in old Municipal Stadium, a.k.a. “The Mistake by the Lake,” a charmless multipurpose venue resembling a giant ashtray. Its vast dimensions only emphasized the paltry number of fans who showed up to witness the hapless Indians getting pummeled by the likes of 1970s powerhouses New York and Baltimore.

When more benign promotional schemes had failed, the club brass decided to present “10-Cent Beer Night” as a way to draw fans. The usual price for a beer was 65 cents. It’s reasonable to assume that such a bargain lured some fans whose interest in Indians baseball was fairly casual.

The upstart Texas Rangers rolled into town for the festivities. In just their third year in Arlington, the Rangers – who had blundered their way through the 1972 and 1973 seasons – were raising eyebrows by playing inspired baseball.  That year’s team finished second in the A.L. West behind the eventual World Champion Oakland A’s. First baseman Mike Hargrove won Rookie of the Year Honors, outfielder Jeff Burroughs took the league’s Most Valuable Player award and hard-throwing pitcher Fergie Jenkins won a league-leading 25 games, which still stands as a club record.

Add to the drama a bench-clearing brawl between the Indians and Rangers at a recent game in Arlington. Local sports-talk radio, an odious genre even back then, fueled the ire of Cleveland fans against the Rangers that day. In an effort to further the civic good, the Cleveland Plain Dealer ran a cartoon depicting the team’s culturally regrettable “Chief Wahoo” mascot wearing boxing gloves with the sportsmanlike caption, “Be ready for anything.”

Alcohol, violent imagery, alcohol – what could possibly go wrong? An estimated 60,000-65,000 cups of Stroh’s were served that evening – more than double the paid attendance. Take into account the non-drinkers present, plus the possibility that many were already half in the bag before they even found their seat, and you have an idea of the situation. As a gesture toward moderation, temperance-minded club officials limited the amount of beers per customer to six.

Unsatisfied with even the bargain beer prices, some fans saw fit to supplement with their own refreshments, as evidenced by a quart bottle of Thunderbird that, at one point, whizzed past Hargrove’s head.

That golden moment was among the many instances that foreshadowed the final debacle with all the craft of a Gothic novel. A half-nude woman attempted – unsuccessfully – to kiss an umpire. Several men decided to experience the joy of running across a major-league baseball field while fully naked. Some fans volunteered to help with impromptu stadium modifications, such as removing the padding on the outfield wall or liberating seats from their moorings. Firecrackers were thrown into the Texas dugout.

Actual baseball fans left the park as the disaster unfolded, leaving the Indians and Rangers nearly alone with a crowd whose collective mood owed more to The Lord of the Flies than Casey at the Bat.

In the ninth inning, the Indians tied the score at 5-5. But rather than watch the game’s conclusion, one fan decided to take to right field and steal Burroughs’ cap. The stocky outfielder, never the nimblest Ranger, tripped over his own feet turning to pursue the intruder.

Fiery Texas manager Billy Martin, no stranger to fisticuffs, responded to seeing one of his boys down. Martin led a charge of Rangers, some wielding bats, out of the dugout and onto the field, in defense of Burroughs. A horde of Clevelanders surged onto the grass to meet the challenge. Martin said later that he saw some armed with chains and knives.

The Indians also rumbled out of the dugout – in defense of the Rangers. Fists flew as both teams fought their way to the safety of their respective clubhouses. Hargrove, a native of the Texas Panhandle community of Perryton, responded to one fan’s cheap shot by administering a beatdown worthy of his ranch-town roots. More than a few from all parties were bloodied, but mercifully, no serious injuries occurred.

Oh, yeah – the ballgame. Shortly after seeing a hunting knife land, blade-down, in the grass behind him, umpire Nestor Chylak awarded the game to the Rangers by way of forfeit.

Cleveland manager Ken Aspermonte was among the many players, coaches and staff who struggled to find words for the media afterwards.

"It's not just baseball," Aspermonte said. "It's the society we live in. Nobody seems to care about anything."

Sound familiar?