Those who work in baseball for a living are fond of saying that without the fans there wouldn’t be a game. Rarely, however, do the fans get their due. One owner, Hall of Famer Bill Veeck, did his best to pay tribute to the fans and put them center stage.The maverick owner of the Cleveland Indians, known for his zany ballpark promotions and progressive attitude, staged one of his most celebrated and fan-friendly events nearly 60 years ago, as his team battled for the pennant.
The following letter to the editor appeared in the September 9, 1948, edition of the Cleveland Press, under the headline “A Night to End All Nights.”
“Now they want a “Bill Veeck Night.” It’s a good idea, but here’s another suggestion. Let’s have a “Joe Earley Night.” I pay my rent and my landlord spends it on things that keep business stimulated. I keep the gas station attendant in business by buying gas regularly. I keep the milkman in clover by buying milk. He uses trucks and tires and as a result big industry is kept going. The paper boy delivers the paper, wears out a pair of shoes occasionally and the shoemaker wins. My wife keeps a grocer and a butcher (don’t we all) in business and the department stores as well. A lot of people depend on me (and you) so let us all get together, and send in your contributions for that new car for “Good Old Joe Earley Night.” – Joe Earley, 1380 Westlake Ave.
A diehard Tribe rooter and a veteran of World War II, 26-year old Earley was inspired by the Indians tribute to their third baseman during “Ken Keltner Night.” Within days of his letter to the editor, Earley, a night watchman at an automobile plant, was inundated with mail and phone calls, and reportedly, even some cash contributions. Earley announced that he would donate the money to the Cancer Fund, feeling the joke had run its course.”If it’s a good laugh for everybody, it’s a good thing,” his wife quipped.
But the Earley’s had not counted on the promotional genius of Bill Veeck.
Springing into action, the Cleveland owner deemed that September 28 would be “Good Old Joe Earley Night,” what Veeck trumpeted as a tribute to the average fan. It was to be Veeck’s way of acknowledging the importance of the everyday fan, the fan who struggled to make ends meet, but found a way to attend games and support the home team. It would be a night that the Earleys, and everyone in attendance, would never forget.
It was the last home night game of the season, and the Indians were one game ahead of both the Red Sox and Yankees, with five games to play. The entire evening had an electric atmosphere, and with Veeck’s magic touches, the crowd of 60,405 was not disappointed.
As thousands of fans streamed into the ballpark on the shore of Lake Erie, they were greeted by team officials offering gifts. Veeck had hired a plane, equipped with air-conditioning, to fly in 20,000 orchids from the Hawaiian islands. The first 20,000 female fans to enter Municipal Stadium received an orchid.
Shortly after the crowd settled into their seats, Veeck emerged on the field, grabbed a microphone from its stand behind home plate, and while the puzzled White Sox dugout looked on, gave out prizes to random fans. Veeck handed out four “squirming” white rabbits (apparently for luck in the pennant race) to a surprised female fan, an old horse (one scribe wrote, “The animal appeared to be ready for the glue factory”), and three stepladders to one man.
Finally, Joe Earley, looking like a Hollywood leading man in his best suit, was escorted onto the diamond with his wife. The ultimate tribute to the average fan was underway.
Veeck built the crowd into a frenzy as he spoke of Earley’s letter and the inspiration for the special night. He announced that the Indians were rewarding Earley with a brand-new house, built in “early American architecture.” With a wave of Veeck’s hand, a truck rolled in from the outfield with a dilapidated outhouse on the back. The crowd roared.
The Master Showman then told Earley that he was being given a car, and a rickety Model T rolled out onto the diamond. The ancient car was filled with young female models. More gifts followed, some of them whimsical, including livestock (chickens, goats and pigs among them), and some of them generous – a truck filled with appliances donated by Cleveland business owners, and most delightful for Mr. Earley, a brand new convertible. Veeck gave the Earley’s luggage, books, and clothes. Joe, with a wide grin on his face, also received a lifetime pass entitling him to entry to any American League ballpark. The “average fan” had received his night. “All in all,” The Sporting News reported, “it was a great night for John Q. Cleveland.”
If the pre-game festivities satisfied the elbow-to-elbow fans, the game filled them with even more glee. Leadoff man Dale Mitchell homered for the Indians in the first, and pitcher Gene Bearden coasted to an 11-0 rout. To the delight of Veeck and his faithful, the Red Sox and Yankees both lost, and the Indians pushed their lead to two games.
Over the final week of the season, Boston rallied to catch Cleveland, and the two teams ended the regular season in a dead-heat, each with 96 victories.
Traveling to Fenway Park to meet the Red Sox in a special one-game playoff, Bearden came through again, defeating Boston for the Tribe’s first pennant in 28 years.
Back in Ohio, thousands of fans filled the streets of Cleveland to celebrate. It’s likely that the subject of one of Bill Veeck’s zaniest promotions, “Good Old Joe Earley,” was among them.