This is the land that time—and vendors—forgot. Here, in the last row of the bleachers of Cleveland Stadium, up against the wall of Section 54, as in 1954, sits a fan named John Adams. He bangs his drum slowly, or rapidly, to a tom-tom beat—whatever it takes to wake up the Indians. He has been drumming up support at almost every home game since 1973, which is just one of the four years since '54 in which Cleveland finished last.
It's Friday night, June 29, and the Tribe is playing Texas in a battle for inadequacy. Not a pretty sight. A congregation of 9,459 people and an equal number of enterprising spiders occupy this temple of doom. Back where Adams sits, it looks like blue ants (Texas) versus white ants (Cleveland). In the third, Andre Thornton of the white ants hits a home run to tie the score 2-2, and as the fireworks go off, Adams pounds furiously on his drum. Asked if the constant noise has affected his hearing, Adams says, "Huh?" Then he laughs.
"I came to my first Indians game when I was three, in 1954," says Adams, a systems analyst for Ohio Bell. "We played Boston and won 5-3. I sat in Section 22, lower deck. You don't forget your first game. What a year! One hundred and eleven victories and the pennant. I'm still waiting for my second one."
If patience is a virtue, every baseball fan left in Cleveland is surely headed for canonization. Since '54 the Indians have finished, on the average, 20 games out. They haven't been in a pennant race since 1959.
This year the team is the most distant club in all of baseball, 23 games behind the first-place Tigers at week's end. People are staying away in droves: Projected attendance for the season is 750,000, and already the Tribe has drawn crowds of fewer than 5,000 11 times in 74,208-seat Cleveland Stadium. They began the season as a running team, figuring that if they were going to go nowhere, they might as well go nowhere fast. Indeed, Cleveland scampered into last place—for good, in all likelihood—on May 21.
The Indians are quite simply the sorriest, saddest team in captivity. The Cubs haven't won anything since 1945, but they've always been lovable losers, and now the Cubbies are doing some winning for a change. It's quite fashionable to be a Bleacher Bum at Wrigley Field. There is nothing chic, however, about sitting in the $2 seats at Cleveland Stadium, which are, by the way, the original 1932 redwood benches.
But as former Cleveland owner Bill Veeck said, the baseball knowledge of a fan is inversely proportional to the price of his ticket. So maybe John Adams knows whereof he speaks when he says, "This team may finally be headed in the right direction." Or maybe he's just a cockeyed optimist. Shortly after Adams makes his pronouncement, the Rangers score six runs to take an 8-2 lead.
It started going to hell 30 years ago this season, at the moment Willie Mays turned his back to the plate and outran Vic Wertz's drive in the first game of the '54 Series. He killed a rally, sent the game into extra innings, and the Giants went on to sweep the Indians in four games. As Al Rosen, then the Cleveland third baseman and now the Houston general manager, recalls, "Cleveland died that night. It was like Yom Kippur, everyone was so solemn. The shame of it is, we should've been remembered as one of the greatest teams ever assembled."
By 1958, Indian stalwarts Rosen, Bob Lemon, Bob Feller and Early Wynn were gone, and the Indians settled into mediocrity. In July of that year, general manager Frank Lane fired Bobby Bragan as the manager with the club at 31-36 and replaced him with Joe Gordon. According to legend, Bragan skulked out to second base that night and invoked a curse on the Indians, asking that they never, ever, win another pennant.
"I hate to disappoint anyone," says the 66-year-old Bragan, who now works in a public relations capacity for the Rangers, "but the story's just not true. The only thing I know is that a three-time loser is a baseball manager on his way to Cleveland in an Edsel. The Indians sure haven't done much since I left, so I guess they have to blame it on someone. I don't mind, and it's a good story."