Ice Age Afternoon

By Ed Staskus

   “What are those for?” I asked watching my father-in-law pull two chunky copies of the Sunday edition of the Cleveland Plain Dealer out of a plastic bag.

   “These are to sit on,” he said. I didn’t bother asking. I was going to find out soon enough anyway.

   It was December 15, 1991, and the temperature was somewhere in the mid-20s inside Municipal Stadium. Outside the lakefront stadium Lake Erie wasn’t frozen solid, yet, just frozen. The wind was brisk in the 25-mile range and the wind chill was too much to talk about. It was a quarter to one in the afternoon. Even though the sun had risen five hours earlier, it still hadn’t made an appearance. The Houston Oilers were warming up to play the Cleveland Browns. The home team was already warmed up. They knew what they were in for weatherwise. The Browns weren’t going anywhere behind Bernie Kosar, but the Oilers were going to the playoffs behind Warren Moon.

   Playoffs or no playoffs, they were all war horses. They were going to raise Cain to get the job done, no matter what. They put blinders on the minute they stepped on the field. The Oilers did their best to ignore the Dawg Pound.

   Dick Parello my father-in-law wasn’t a talkative man. His wife filled the silence. He was good at crosswords, doing them every day with a ballpoint pen, and devilishly clever at Scrabble. He scored points even when he had nothing, and I had all the good tiles. The Sunday newspaper was a good idea. I tossed the sports section down to put my day-to-day shoes on and fight off frostbite. Otherwise, my feet would have spent three and half hours on rock-hard ice-cold unforgiving concrete.

   The newspaper John Kupcik’s father-in-law brought to the game suffered a different fate. “He would tear off a page of the paper, crumble it up, and light it between his feet to keep warm. He did it the whole game, section by section. That and his homemade brandy kept us warm enough.”

   Even though I had lived in Cleveland since before the age of ten, watched NFL games on TV on Sundays and read recaps in the newspaper on Monday, I had never been to a Browns game. I had been to the stadium many times to see baseball games. The Indians were bad but tickets for day games were cheap, and the ball games were fun. We paid bargain basement prices and then sat wherever we wanted to. We liked sitting behind the dugouts, to encourage Chief Wahoo and abuse the other guys.

   Municipal Stadium was built in the early 1930s when the city was run by city managers. Walker and Weeks designed it and the Osborn Engineering Company built it. The stadium featured an early use of structural aluminum. Two days after the ballpark was dedicated on July 1, 1931, it hosted a boxing match for the World Heavyweight Championship between Max Schmeling and Young Stribling. There were 37,000 fans in attendance for the slugfest. Schmeling held on to the title by technical knockout in the 15th and last round. When it was all over Max sat back and lit up a cigar while Young spent days feeling years older than he was.

   The Cleveland Indians played their first game there on July 31, 1932, losing 1-0 to Lefty Grove and the Philadelphia Athletics, attracting a then-major-league-record crowd of 80,184. They played the rest of their home games at the ballpark the rest of the year and through the next year. But none of the Tribe players liked Municipal Stadium. They complained about the vast outfield and pulled muscles trying to muscle home runs over the faraway fences.

   It was 435 feet to the far corners of the stands in left-center and right-center, 463 feet to either corner of the bleachers, and 470 feet from home plate to the bleachers in straightaway center. No player ever hit a home run into the center field bleachers. Fly balls choked and died trying. 

   The team went back to the smaller League Park in 1934 and stayed for several years. They returned in 1937, playing some Sunday and holiday games at Municipal Stadium. League Park didn’t have any field lighting, so when night baseball got going in the 1930s and lights were finally installed at the stadium in 1939, the Indians started playing most of their home games there. They abandoned League Park entirely after 1946.

   Dick was from Rochester, New York. He grew up there and enlisted for the Vietnam War there. He was a stolid burly man. After he finished Charm School and got his legs under him as a military policeman, he kept things quiet in his neck of the woods. He didn’t mix it up much with Charlie, assigned to III Corps in the Saigon area where the fighting was spare, but never went anywhere without his Colt .45 Government sidearm.

   “Never trust a gook,” he said. He meant Charlie and ARVN and everybody in between.

   He came to Cleveland in the early 1970s with three friends who were putting a new restaurant together in Park Centre, which later became Reserve Square. When the Firehouse was ready to go, he became the bartender, and after that the manager. When he married Teressa my future mother-in-law in 1981, they set up shop in a three-bedroom apartment on the 17th floor of Park Centre. Dick and Teresa built the Park Pub, last call at the Firehouse having come and gone. They served food and drink. Teresa was a self-taught pro in the kitchen. She had the paring knife scars on her hands to prove it. Dick worked nights behind the bar and had the bags under his eyes to prove it.

   Even though Municipal Stadium was built for football as well as baseball, it was built for baseball. The football field was an awkward fit on a field designed for America’s pastime. Nobody wanted to sit on the home plate side. They were the best seats during a baseball game but the worst seats at a football game. The far end zone couldn’t have been farther away.

   As sparse as crowds were at Indians games was as big as crowds were at football games. When I looked around there might have been an empty seat somewhere. Otherwise, it looked sold out. The best seats were at the 50-yard line, but we sat in the bleachers. Going to the game was a last-minute idea, not mine, but Dick’s, who got free tickets from a barfly.

   I hadn’t been to Municipal Stadium for almost ten years. When we walked inside, I thought, “This place is a broken-down dump.” It looked bad. It smelled bad. There was a raw feeling in all directions.

   We sat behind four guys who had smuggled a keg of beer into the stadium. They were drunk as skunks sooner than later and spent the second half throwing things at Oilers players whenever they came within range. Their aim was bad, though. They hit more fellow fans than anybody else. A baldheaded older man behind us wearing a scarf smoked fat cigars all afternoon. Thank God the steady wind blew the smoke to the side. When I was tempted to tell the four guys with the keg to stop standing up towards the end of the tight game, Dick told me not to. “You’ll get a cup of hot piss thrown at you and told to get the hell out of our section.” We bought dirty water hot dogs smeared with Bertmans Ballpark Mustard. They were delicious.

   A tarp at the top of the bleachers was flapping mad as a hatter in the hard wind blowing in off the lake. “I sat second row from the top of the bleachers, next to some east side old timers who brought their own pulled pork sandwiches in foil and a thermos of special coffee,” said Todd Rejna. “Season ticket holders had the top row. As soon as they got there, they pulled out a cordless screwdriver and a rolled up blue tarp from under their bench. They screwed the tarp up to the bottom of the giant scoreboard as a wind block. When the game was over, they took it down, rolled it up, and stuffed it under the bench for the next week.”

   The Browns scored first when Leroy Hoard corralled a duck from Bernie Kosar and went eight yards for a touchdown. Matt Stover kicked the point. The Oilers came right back when Ernest Givens took a seven-yard pass from Warren Moon in for the score. Al Del Greco kicked the point. After Brian Brennan caught another eight-yard pass from Bernie Kosar for a score, the stadium shuddered with cheers whoops clapping seats being slammed up and down and stamping shoes and boots. “We’re done for sure,” I said to Dick, the concrete shaking beneath my feet. “This place is going to collapse any minute.” The feet were stamping to stay warm as much as they were to show appreciation for the offensive showing. Nobody worried overmuch when Del Greco kicked a late field goal. The Browns went into the locker room ahead 14-10.

   I headed for the bathroom, along with thousands of other men all at the same time. The bathrooms didn’t bother with urinals. Instead, there were troughs. By the time I found a spot they were overflowing. The sinks were overflowing with urine. The floor drains were fair game, too. Many of my fellow men were trashed on beer. The man taking a leak next to me was one handing his business and singlehanded rolling a joint. Everybody went with the flow. The only thing that saved the day was that many kidneys had frozen up and shut down. My shoes were sticky when I walked out of the bathroom. After the game, walking up East 9th St. back to the Park Centre on East 13th St. and Superior Ave, I could still smell pee and beer.

   The stadium was on the south shore of the lake and cold, even on the best of days. The wind never stopped whipping off the lake. Other than the bleachers, which were wide open, there were huge beams that blocked the view from many of the seats. The color scheme inside the stadium was gray under a gray sky. The grass on the field was mostly dirt and weeds. It looked like it was painted green. There were old bedsheets with bad words scrawled on them hanging over the rails.

   Both quarterbacks had aired the ball out in the first half, but ball control and field position became the name of the game after halftime. The third quarter was either a defensive struggle or it was getting darker colder windier and nobody wanted to be on the field too long. Browns coach Bill Belichick and Oilers coach Jack Pardee played it close to the vest. It was one punt after another. When the fourth quarter started it was back to the air. Bernie Kosar and Warren Moon both put the ball up 40 times that day. They both threw an interception. When Bernie Kosar did it an 80,000-man groan went up. After the turnover some guy dropped stink bombs from a catwalk. For a few minutes the stadium smelled like rotten eggs.

   The game went down to the wire, the Oilers finally winning when Warren Moon flipped a two-yarder to Haywood Jeffries for a 17-14 win. The air went out of the crowd. It all smelled flat and stale when the hands of the big clock spelled out the final score.

   The first Cleveland Browns game at Municipal Stadium was on September 6, 1946. They hosted the Miami Seahawks. The game drew 60,135 fans, at the time the biggest crowd to ever see a professional football crowd. It was a laugher. The Browns won 44–0. The bleachers became the Dawg Pound in the 1980s. Fans wore dog masks, barked and howled, and threw dog biscuits at opposing players. There wasn’t a lot of barking when Dick and I left the stadium after the loss, although stale biscuits were still flying high.

   Dick cleared off a table at the Park Pub, made hot toddies with whiskey lemon juice and cinnamon sticks for both of us, while Teresa came down and made grilled cheese sandwiches. We made small talk about the game, although to Dick a win was a win, and a loss was a loss. I found out later he had money on the Oilers. I didn’t have money on anybody because I didn’t have much money. The lowest paid player on both football teams was a rich man. The highest paid man on my one-man payroll was me, but my bank account was stuck in neutral. Teresa was a good egg and made me another sandwich.

   Five years later the stadium was torn down. The team moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens. The Browns bided their time. The debris from the stadium was dumped offshore to create an artificial reef. All the games the Indians and Browns played at Municipal Stadium for more than sixty years became food for the fish. The losses left a bad taste, but the wins were like yellow perch to the local walleye who fed on them.

Ed Staskus posts on 147 Stanley Street and Made in Cleveland To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”