The 70s were tough for Cleveland. And they were especially tough for the Indians.
By Vince Guerrieri
In a lot of ways, John Adams was an average guy.
He worked at Ohio Bell (later AT&T) for 42 years. He went to his first Indians game as a kid in the 1950s and fell in love with them. He was in the marching band in high school, and played some gigs on the side on weekends.
If you saw him on the street, you probably wouldn’t recognize him.
Unless he was carrying his drum.
Adams, who died in January, was known to generations of baseball fans as the guy with the drum in Cleveland. On August 24, 1973 – 50 years ago – he showed up for the first time at old Municipal Stadium with a bass drum in tow. Adams started beating on it, providing the pulse of summers for decades.
“I’m just a kid, still having fun,” he told Dan Coughlin for a Cleveland Public Library oral history project following the 2016 season.
I could even hear him growing up in Youngstown – although that had more to do with the miserable crowds the Tribe teams of my youth drew. The continuous thump-thump-thump of the drums could be heard on broadcasts on WUAB, as could vendors yelling “Beer here!” (A hallmark of those Indians broadcasts was one of the announcers saying sardonically “plenty of good seats still available” shortly before first pitch. Adams would tell a joke from that era: A fan calls the Indians to buy tickets. “What time’s the game,” the fan asks. The reply? “What time can you get here?”)
Because of those miniscule crowds, one of the favorite activities of crowds was to bang the wooden stadium seats up and down (a story Arsenio Hall recounted in Believeland, the “30 for 30” ESPN documentary about the Cleveland fan experience). Adams was going to sit in the bleachers (tickets there at the time were 50 cents), but there were no seats to bang up and down. So Adams bought a drum set for $25 – “and that’s about what it was worth,” he said – and brought the bass drum to a game between the Indians and Rangers. He started banging on it, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The 70s were tough for Cleveland. And they were especially tough for the Indians. They were the class of the American League immediately after World War II, but had fallen far. The team was always a hair away from moving. In the 1950s, they were potentially bound for Houston, Minneapolis or Oakland before other teams found homes there. The Indians very publicly flirted with the city of Seattle after the lease for the stadium expired after the 1964 season, and were at one point slated to play some “home” games once the new domed stadium was completed in New Orleans, which decades earlier had been the Tribe’s spring training home.
In fact, in 1973, the season Adams stared pounding the drum in the bleachers, the Indians drew 74,420 fans to opening day against the Tigers – more than 10 percent of their total attendance for the YEAR (615,107). It took a sturdy soul to be a baseball fan in Cleveland at that point, yet John Adams was. The ballpark was his happy place. He was there for 10-cent beer night in 1974, a game that ended in forfeit when the field became unplayable – because so many drunken fans had jumped on it. You can hear him in the background pounding on the drum as Len Barker threw a perfect game in 1981, one of the 7,290 fans in attendance. (It remains the last no-hitter by a Cleveland pitcher, and has taken on a mythical sheen. Adams estimated that more than 750,000 people claimed to be at that game.) Red Sox Hall of Fame outfielder Carl Yastrzemski said he could hear the drum in his sleep when he came to Cleveland.
Joe Tait, who called Indians and Cavs games, once said that Herb Score, the radio voice of the Indians for more than 30 years, saw more bad baseball than anyone else in history. John Adams could also make such a claim. The Indians in the 1980s were so bad that they became the inspiration for Major League. A change in upper management – and the scorched-earth techniques that resulted – led to Adams’ position being in jeopardy. There were even plans floated to close the bleachers during game day. When asked about it, Roy Smith, an Indians pitcher at the time, said, “What’s the guy with the drum going to do?”
The bleachers stayed open, but for the first time since that first game, Adams had to pay his own way in. “I hope (team president Peter) Bavasi buys a free agent with the $2 he gets from my tickets,” he remarked. (SPOILER ALERT: He didn’t.)
But things got better for the Indians – coinciding with their move into a new ballpark in 1994. Unlike the bleachers at Municipal Stadium, where home plate was a rumor, the bleachers at Jacobs Field were some of the best seats in the house. And Adams took a perch at the top.
That’s where we all met him on Memorial Day 1995. The sellout streak would start soon, and there were inklings that it would be a special time in baseball history in Cleveland. At that point, if you planned far enough in advance, Indians tickets weren’t usually too hard to get. A dozen of us from high school caravanned up, and sat in various spots throughout the ballpark. There were four of us in the bleachers, and we made our pilgrimage to talk to him. He was “the guy with the drum” to Cleveland fans, but not as well-known to national broadcasters (who would soon start making regular trips to Cleveland during the season and, gloriously, the postseason). I still felt like it was an audience with the pope. The game was really good, too. The Indians rallied from a six-run deficit to win 7-6, one of many comeback wins for the Tribe that season.
I’ve called Adams a friend since, and I don’t feel presumptuous in doing so. Anyone who came to see him was his friend. Anyone who was an Indians fan was his friend. He was more than happy to hand one of his mallets to anyone who came to see him and let them have a whack at the drum.
Throughout the years, he received fame and adulation. He was the namesake for beer at Great Lakes Brewery. The Indians gave away a bobblehead of him, and had him throw out a first pitch. He was interviewed by any number of regional and national news outlets, a weird bit of culture in a city that still hasn’t completely overcome the reputation that bowling, beer and wings constitutes a night on the town.
The adulation might have made him uncomfortable. The interactions did not – with one exception. I heard him tell this story somewhere, possibly at a SABR meeting or at Tribefest: Someone came up to him with a small baby, and wanted Adams to hold the baby for a picture. Adams, who never had children of his own, was deeply uncomfortable with that idea. What he came up with was a stroke of genius. “Put the kid on the drum,” he told the parents. He took a picture with the baby on the head of the drum. Adams said through the years he must have taken hundreds, if not thousands of them – including some with babies on the drum who had become parents of the babies on the drum.
Of all the four major sports, baseball is the only one without a clock. There may be a pitch clock, but the game still lasts however long it takes to play nine innings. In fact, as Bart Giamatti said in “Green Fields of the Mind,” we rely on it to buffer the passage of time. The distance between games we attend with our parents and grandparents, and games we attend with our children and grandchildren is shorter than we all think.
That’s one of the reasons John Adams was mourned like he was. Since he first hauled the drum into Cleveland Stadium in 1973, players have come and gone. Managers have come and gone. Owners have come and gone. The team’s uniforms have changed. The team moved into a new home field. The team even changed its name.
And through it all, John Adams kept drumming – on the same drum, in fact! – until COVID. The 2020 season was shortened, and fans weren’t permitted. The team offered to let him in to his perch atop the bleachers, but he said he didn’t want to go until everyone could. His health started to take a dramatic turn that offseason, and in 2021, he missed his first Opening Day since the 1950s. As it turns out, he never made it to another Indians (or Guardians) game again.
But another season started without him. We’ll look up and hope for the weather to be pleasant enough that we feel like we got our money’s worth at the ballpark. We hope the team is good again this year. John Adams is gone, hopefully to a place where the Guardians win every day, and even his bleacher seat is gone, whisked away by the team for his honors. A statue of his drum stands in Heritage Park. His mallets have gone to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. But the drumbeat goes on.
Baseball, Bill Veeck said, is unique because it doesn’t sell a product. All you give your customers is a good time and a happy memory, with the hopes that they’ll come back again. For generations of fans in Cleveland – particularly in an era where there were few to come by – John Adams provided those happy shared memories. And a lot of people have gone to their graves having accomplished less.