The story behind the Cleveland baseball team’s new namesakes

By Vince Guerrieri

In 1931, Cleveland was home to a Major League Baseball team, an NFL team, and a pro hockey team. All were called the Indians. That’s not as uncommon as you might think. When the NFL was still a hardscrabble, pass-the-hat league, its teams played in MLB stadiums with names that referenced or borrowed those of the local baseball team. It’s why Detroit is home to the Lions and Tigers and Chicago is home to the Cubs and Bears. New York at one point had both football and baseball Giants, and the Steelers started as the Pirates.

The NFL Indians were a league-owned team that came and went quickly. The hockey team became the Barons and moved into a new arena before the decade’s end; that name has been a star-crossed one, as part of an AHL dynasty, an NHL folly, and now a series of youth teams. And after ninety years, the baseball Indians, too, will soon be no more.

Cleveland’s baseball team, with help from actor Tom Hanks and Akron’s Black Keys, announced Friday that starting next year, it will be known as the Guardians. (The team had announced last year that a name change was in the offing, and the reaction was…about what you’d expect.) The team’s new namesakes are the Guardians of Traffic, those sandstone edifices on the Hope Memorial—a.k.a. Lorain-Carnegie—Bridge. The word “resiliency” came up a lot when announcing the change. The Guardians, like long-suffering Cleveland sports fans, have stood up to nearly ninety years of harsh conditions along a bridge that spans what was previously one of the most polluted rivers in the country.

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The process was involved. Team officials solicited nicknames and revealed there were nearly twelve hundred to root through. Spiders was suggested—a lot. (The Spiders, a former Cleveland team, ceased to exist after their owners bought another team in St. Louis and took all the good players there.) One Twitter account suggested Municipals, bringing back the wishbone ‘C’ that appeared on Indians caps for decades, modified slightly to look more like old Cleveland Stadium when seen from overhead. There was at least one person who wanted to call them the Cleveland Plums, capitalizing on the old tourism slogan that “New York’s the Big Apple, but Cleveland’s a Plum. (Seriously.)

The Guardians are a nod to the city’s transportation history. In the early twentieth century, Cleveland was growing—by 1920, it was the fifth-largest city in the U.S.—and the Detroit-Superior Bridge, which was by then carrying more than seventy thousand vehicles daily, needed some relief. In 1927, Cleveland voters approved a bond issue for the construction of a second high-level bridge spanning the Cuyahoga River between downtown and Ohio City. The following year, they approved a large, centrally located stadium on the lakefront downtown.

Municipal Stadium opened in 1931, with a prizefight between Max Schmeling and Young Stribling; it became the long-time home of both the Indians and, starting in the 1940s, the Browns. The Lorain-Carnegie Bridge opened to far less fanfare. There were no large crowds or speeches. On December 2, 1932, shortly before 5 p.m., police just pulled away the barriers keeping traffic off the bridge. Even the bridge itself was scaled-back; it was originally slated to have two decks, like the Detroit-Superior Bridge.

One element that wasn’t scaled back were the four forty-three-foot-tall pylons, depicting the Guardians of Traffic. Hewn from Berea sandstone (a rich vein runs throughout Ohio and adjoining states), the Neoclassic-influenced Art Deco statues—each depicting a god-like figure holding a mode of transportation, from a covered wagon to a contemporary automobile—were chiseled in Little Italy by masons who had come to America from Italy.

The Guardians stood watch as the river filled with industrial waste, becoming a national punchline for its regular fires. They saw the fortunes of the city (and its baseball team) decline in the turbulent 1960s. And when the city was at its nadir and the Indians appeared on the verge of moving in the 1970s, it looked like their days were numbered as well. Cuyahoga County Engineer Albert Porter, a dime-store Robert Moses, built highways and killed a proposed downtown subway. He was thwarted in his efforts to run highways through Shaker and Cleveland Heights, and he wanted the Guardians to go so the bridge could be widened, saying, “Those columns are monstrosities and should be torn down and forgotten.”

Evanson - Cleveland Guardians of Traffic Close-Up

Close-up of one of Cleveland’s Guardians of Traffic on the Hope Memorial Bridge. Photo by Tim Evanson (creative commons).

The bridge and its Guardians were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, the same year Porter was defeated in a bid for re-election. He died in 1979, two years after a conviction for corruption in office. The following year, the bridge closed for renovations. When it reopened, in 1983, it was renamed the Hope Memorial Bridge, in honor of Harry Hope, an English immigrant who also worked as one of the stonecutters on the bridge. His son Leslie went on to fame as an entertainer, and even owned some stock in the Indians. He’s better known as Bob Hope.

Transportation provides a rich well for baseball team names. Dodgers came from the team’s original location in Brooklyn, where residents would dodge trolleys. And for one year, the Seattle Pilots (now the Milwaukee Brewers) were so named because of the city’s association with the aviation industry. The Hope Memorial Bridge, since its reopening, has been “a golden chain strung across the industrial valley,” as longtime Cleveland journalist Pauline Thoma wrote in the Plain Dealer in 1987. And the Guardians, as transportation icons, are both photogenic and marketable, as evidenced by their prominence in prints, T-shirts and other household objects bought to enhance your Cleveland cred.

Renaming a major sports team is a no-win situation. Any change is bound to meet with resistance, and no name will make everyone happy. We—as fans—are far more emotionally invested in our teams’ fortunes (and names) than the decision-makers, and in the end it’s a business decision for them. But the new nickname checks a lot of boxes, even if the winged baseball has flying toaster screen saver energy. It’s new, fulfilling the team’s promise last year. It’s a reference to local history. And it doesn’t involve that hoariest of clichés for Cleveland emblems: There are no guitars. ■

 

 

Vince Guerrieri was born in Youngstown three weeks before Black Monday, and left there without ever really escaping it. He’s an award-winning journalist and author now living in the Cleveland area.

Cover image: Cleveland’s Guardians of Traffic on the Hope Memorial Bridge. Photo by Tim Evanson (creative commons).

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