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SPORTS IN CLEVELAND : IS IT HOPELESS? : The City Is No Longer in Default, But Its 3 Major Franchises Sure Are

Times Staff Writer

It hurts being a Cleveland Indians’ fan.

Out in the bleachers, which feature the original redwood benches installed when Cleveland Stadium was built in 1932, there is no comfort at all in watching a game. The only thing protecting unsuspecting fans from splinters are the two coats of blue paint they brush onto the seats before each season.

But John Adams, a bleacher regular whenever management opens that section, has endured that and considerably more pain at almost every Indian game since 1973.

Adams sits in the last row of Section 54 in right field, beating a tom-tom in hopes of awakening the ghosts of the Indians’ long-forgotten glory days. It apparently doesn’t work, but Adams’ pounding does keep the few thousand loyal Indian fans awake.

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“This is the best seat in the house,” said Adams, who could sit anywhere in the cavernous 80,000-seat park. “It’s the farthest seat from home plate.”

Yes, it is best to view the Indians from afar. If Adams were to move any farther away from the action, he’d be beating that drum in Lake Erie. Yet, he keeps coming back.

Cleveland, an economically depressed city, has been called the Mistake on the Lake and been subjected to countless jokes since it went into default in the late ‘70s. It seems natural there to support losing sports franchises.

The Indians haven’t won a World Series since 1948 and haven’t won the American League pennant since 1954. Since 1959, the last year the Indians were even remotely in pennant contention, they have won only 48% of their games and finished an average of 20 games out of first place. Already this season, Cleveland has baseball’s worst record (28-58) and is 25 games behind in the American League East.

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The Browns haven’t won a National Football League championship since 1964, when Jim Brown led the club to a 27-0 win over Baltimore in the title game. Since 1970, the Browns have won only 49% of their games. The last four seasons, the Browns have won only 23 of 57, although they qualified for the 1982 playoffs with a losing record because of the midseason strike.

The Cavaliers, a classic study in ineptitude since being granted a National Basketball Assn. franchise in 1970, have won only 38% of their games and finished the 1981-82 season a staggering 40 games out of first place in the Central Division. Surprisingly, the Cavaliers, no longer called the Cadavers, sneaked into last season’s playoffs with a 37-45 record and actually took the Boston Celtics to four games in the best-of-five series.

So starved are Cleveland sports fans for a winning team that they’ve embraced something called the Force, the city’s Major Indoor Soccer League team. The Force had the city’s only winning record in 1984-85--27-21--and outdrew the Cavaliers at the suburban Richfield Coliseum by an average of 6,000 fans a game.

There are many reasons why Cleveland has turned into the unofficial home of the athletic hapless. Mostly, it’s the usual stuff--poor management and coaching, dreadful trades, lack of strong ownership, fate, curses.

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What makes Cleveland different from most other cities that have one or two losing teams is that all three major sports teams have been weak this decade.

It seems that Clevelanders have come to expect as little from their sports teams as their city government.

In the late 1970s and early ‘80s, the city was in complete disarray. Under the leadership of Mayor Dennis Kucinich, Cleveland twice went into default, and Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River were so polluted that the river actually caught fire. In recent years, however, the city has rallied from default and has largely renovated its once-blighted downtown section. Conservation efforts have been successful in restoring Lake Erie as a fish producer. And, of course, this is the home of the world renown Cleveland Orchestra.

Now, if only the professional sports teams could be renovated, Cleveland wouldn’t have to endure so much abuse. Every year, people here find reasons to believe that their fortunes will change. Every year, those fortunes remain the same.

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Strangely, Clevelanders rarely make cynical comments about their losing teams, unlike fans elsewhere. From the old-timers in the neighborhood taverns to the Yuppies who flock to the Flats, a trendy downtown area along the river, at happy hour, the public’s current posture is that the bad times are most assuredly ending.

So what if the Indians are entrenched in last place again? At least it appears that they have direction under the new management team, headed by President Peter Bavasi.

The Browns? With Ohio native Bernie Kosar as the expected starting quarterback in ’85, they may win the title in the AFC Central.

And the Cavaliers? Well, they would have had a winning record last season if it hadn’t been for their lousy start.

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More than likely, though, the Indians will stay in last place through the next three or four seasons, Kosar will need a year or two to adapt to the Browns and the NFL, and the Cavaliers will finish somewhere between last season’s 2-19 start and 35-26 finish.

But even a jump from atrocious to mediocre would please Clevelanders, who are more than tired of losing and more than tired of those derogatory Cleveland jokes.

No more Cleveland jokes, please.

The only difference between Cleveland and the Titanic is that the Titanic had better restaurants.

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--An old joke A tornado hit Cleveland last night and caused $1.2 million in improvements.

--An older joke At President Reagan’s 1980 inauguration dinner, comedian Rich Little thought he was only having a little fun when he said that the Soviets would never invade Poland if the country’s name was changed to Cleveland. The joke was well received everywhere except, naturally, Cleveland.

Little received more than 20,000 angry letters asking him to apologize for the remark.

“We tore Rich Little up,” said Bill Bryant, president of the Greater Cleveland Growth Assn., the city’s chamber of commerce. “Some local men who had connections in Las Vegas, men who will remain nameless, said to him, ‘Hey, you may never work in Vegas again.’ We got him into town to apologize, and we had a lot of fun with him.”

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The backlash was almost as strong when sportswriter Randy Youngman, then of the Dallas Times Herald and now working for the Orange County Register, criticized Cleveland in a story. After a day off and then a rainout in the city, Youngman wrote: “What’s worse than one off day in Cleveland? Two.”

Youngman--that’s Randy, not Henny--quoted several Texas Ranger players about the dreariness of spending time in Cleveland.

“Cleveland’s not the end of the world, but you can sure see it from there,” former Indian John Lowenstein told Youngman. “I was there seven years and I finally found the only place where the sun shines and I get traded.”

A Cleveland radio station read the story on the air.

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Youngman said that he received 803 angry letters and 22 death threats. Youngman also said that a local banker offered to fly him to the city for a weekend and show him the real Cleveland, and that prostitutes wrote and offered to show him their version of a good time. Youngman, who grew up about 50 miles from Cleveland, graciously declined.

“They just didn’t have a sense of humor,” he said.

If Cleveland has a chip on its shoulder, it’s only because it has been laughed at and dumped upon so many times over the years that it has become tiresome, especially since Cleveland has tried so hard to pull itself out of default and worked on improving its image.

Bryant is the typical chamber of commerce head. He is always up, always smiling and always positive. Despite evidence to the contrary, he views Cleveland as nearing the status of a sports and culture Mecca in America. It’s what he’s paid to think.

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“I like to say our city is kind of like the Cavs,” Bryant said, smiling. “Five years ago, Cleveland was 2-19. We were in default. It was a mess. Now, we’re an All-American city two of the last three years. We deserved the bad image. Besides, the country always needs somebody to whip on. People still laugh at us, but not very hard anymore.”

Sports can be a source of civic pride, but the record of Cleveland sports teams in the last 15 years does not give citizens much to boast about.

All it takes to send Cleveland sports fans into a tizzy is something like the modest success the Cavaliers enjoyed by making the playoffs and winning a game from the Celtics.

“Losing can depress a city,” Bryant said. “And we’re depressed. Folks come back to work on Monday morning and they don’t discuss whether Ford or TRW lost over the weekend. They grumble about the Browns. We called it Moody Monday around here during football season. My own secretary won’t speak to me when the Browns lose. I like rooting for underdogs. I guess I’m in the right city.”

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If it’s depressing to support losing teams, the prospect of playing in Cleveland isn’t exactly enticing. Former pitcher Mike Caldwell once said: “I know that being traded is part of the game but I know if I was traded, Cleveland would be the last place I’d want to go. In fact, I might quit.”

Counters Bob Feller, the Indians’ Hall of Fame pitcher now working for the club’s community relations department: “This isn’t Manhattan or L.A. If ballplayers are looking for an exciting time, they won’t find it in Cleveland. There isn’t much to do. But it’s a nice, family place to live.”

That grinding sound you hear is Bill Bryant gnashing his teeth while still trying to maintain his perpetual smile.

Knowing that sportswriters often take shots at Cleveland, Bryant and his associates hold a party for visiting writers the night before every Browns home game, featuring free food and drink and interviews with team officials. “Hopefully, they’ll feel a little better about our city,” Bryant said. “I hate to admit it, but we got that idea from Buffalo.”

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The Greater Cleveland Growth Assn., which is a contradiction because the city has had a negative growth rate for many years, does more than just promote the city and the sports teams. It is trying to raise $150 million to build a downtown domed stadium, which would probably be a welcome relief to many of the fans who have sat through winter football games or spring baseball games at antiquated Cleveland Stadium when the chilly wind blows off the lake.

“You sit here in the dugout early in the season, and brrr , it’s freezing,” Indian Manager Pat Corrales said. “Another stadium would help but I, personally, don’t like playing baseball indoors.”

Last year, a domed-stadium tax proposal was rejected by voters almost 2 to 1. So, a corporation has been organized to raise funds privately. Most observers say it will be at least six years before a dome can be built, if one can be built at all.

Bryant says a domed stadium would go a long way in Cleveland’s seemingly never-ending struggle to shed its image.

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“A few years ago, we had a chip on our shoulders,” he said. “Now, we mostly pass it off. I’d just as soon you’d joke about Buffalo or Newark. We feel pretty confident about what we’re doing. Now, if we could only get the Indians to win.”

The first thing they do in Cleveland, if you’ve got talent, is trade you for three guys who don’t.

--Jim Kern, former Indian pitcher The only thing I know is that a three-time loser is a baseball manager on his way to Cleveland in an Edsel. --Bobby Bragan, one of 17 Indian managers in the last 29 years

A half hour before game time, there is hardly a ripple of activity outside Cleveland Stadium. Were it not for the illuminated figure of mascot Chief Wahoo smiling down on the parking lot from atop the stadium, you wouldn’t know that the Indians had a game this particular night.

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Inside the rickety structure, an appropriate song, “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” by rock star Tom Petty, is reverberating off the empty seats. Although this is the Fourth of July weekend, only 6,000 fans have come around to watch the Indians. Tornado warnings might have scared away some fans, but more likely it is the horrid play of the Indians.

Welcome to another dreary Indian summer.

The Indians have been in last place almost since opening day, and they figure to stay there the rest of the season. So, the fans will stay away in record numbers. Last season, the Indians drew only 734,079, the lowest figure in baseball. This season, attendance is down nearly 10%.

But unlike Pittsburgh, where fan apathy has not only been questioned but confirmed, Clevelanders care about the Indians. They may not show up at the Stadium, but the Sunday letters column in the Plain Dealer is dominated by disgruntled Indian fans.

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When Indian outfielder Brett Butler criticized the fans recently for sarcastically cheering the club during one of its especially inept moments, he drew the wrath of the public.

Wrote Mike Tirakis of suburban Lakewood: ". . . I hope my great-grandchildren get to see a winner in Cleveland because, at 38 years old, I will not live long enough to see it. Cheer up, Brett. If you give the Indians two more good seasons, they, in their infinite wisdom, will trade you to a contender as they have so many times in the past.”

Perhaps the low point for the Indians occurred last year when Sports Illustrated suggested that American League owners vote to abolish the Indians. The story, in part, said: “Think of the pain Cleveland fans, the ones who show up, have endured the last 25 years. Think of the pain the players--they have to show up--go through. Let’s put the poor wretches--fans and players--out of their misery.”

Long, long ago, the Indians were one of baseball’s premier organizations. The Indians, of course, were a charter member of the American League and won the 1948 World Series behind Bob Feller and drew 2.6 million fans, the franchise record. The greatest Indian team by far was the 1954 club, which won 111 games and drew 1.3 million fans.

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Many old-timers say that Willie Mays’ immortal over-the-shoulder catch of Vic Wertz’s line drive in Game 1 of the Series not only led to a New York Giant sweep but put a curse on the franchise.

Go ahead and snicker, but the Indians seemingly have been jinxed ever since. In 1957, that belief was perpetuated when Herb Score, a bright young pitching prospect, was hit in the face by a line drive. After that, he never lived up to his promise.

A story, probably apocryphal, concerns General Manager Frank Lane’s firing of Manager Bobby Bragan in midseason of 1958. Fuming, Bragan marched out to second base and put a hex on the team, vowing that the Indians would never win another pennant.

Events since then have made people believers. The neon sign of Chief Wahoo, not Yahoo, was struck by lightning a few years back during a storm and was inactive for years.

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“He’s lit up every night, now,” Bob DiBiasio, the club’s public relations director, assures.

But except for the 1959 club, which finished in second place, no Indian team has come close to ending the pennant curse.

On the eve of the 1984 season opener, a local radio station hired a sorceress named Elizabeth to remove the evil spell. She built a fire on second base, burned an eye of a newt and did a few chants for dramatic effect. That done, she told local writers that the curse was over, but her lawyer made her say, “There are no guarantees in life.”

Maybe there is one. It is almost guaranteed that the Indians will be at or near the bottom of the standings in the American League East.

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New Indian chief Peter Bavasi chortles at the idea of spells and curses. What he points to as the Indians’ downfall has been years of gross mismanagement that has seen the club trade away excellent players, and all but eliminate its minor league system.

The history of bad trades is galling. In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, the Indians traded Roger Maris, Rocky Colavito, Norm Cash and Hoyt Wilhelm, to name a few. More recently, the Indians have traded Pedro Guerrero; John Denny, the 1983 National League Cy Young Award winner; Rick Sutcliffe, last season’s winner; Lonnie Smith; George Hendrick; Ed Whitson and Bo Diaz.

When Bavasi took over as president last December, leaving sunny Florida and a profitable sports consulting firm behind, his father, Buzzie, told him he was bonkers.

Bavasi was asked to explain his motives for coming to an organization that hasn’t made a profit in 20 years and has been unable to find an owner the last two years.

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He smiled. He scratched his head.

“The more I looked into the rich heritage of the Cleveland Indians and the dismal problems they’ve been having, it appeared to me to be the biggest challenge in baseball, perhaps in all of sports at this point,” he said.

It is a fierce challenge facing Bavasi.

“We have an urgency to turn things around, but we also have to have a sense of patience,” Bavasi said. “We knew we’d have to withstand the slings and arrows of the media and the disgruntled public, who for the last 30-some odd years have been waiting and hoping and praying for a winning team.

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“What do we tell them? To wait. That doesn’t go down particularly well, but it’s an honest assessment of the situation.

“It’s easy for a guy from Tampa to come in and say to be patient. In order to focus not on the time it will take to turn this around, we have termed this not a rebuilding project but a restoration of the past glory days.”

If change is progress, the Indians are progressing. Bavasi has started rebuilding the minor league system, dressed up the old stadium and appealed to the public emotion with a slogan proclaiming, Tribe ’85: This Is My Team. On the other hand, Bavasi has been criticized for cutting out all complimentary tickets and by closing the bleachers for most night games.

“I hope Bavasi buys a free agent with the $2 he gets from my tickets,” sneered superfan Adams, who had received complimentary tickets under the old regime of Gabe Paul.

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Another thing Bavasi did was send letters to all Indian players on both the major and minor league levels, trying to change what he perceived as a losing attitude.

“We found that our ballplayers didn’t have a very high self-image, or confidence in the organization leadership,” Bavasi said. “We described to our players what the history of the franchise was. There is a legacy left to us by the great Cleveland Indians of the past. This legacy needs to be fulfilled. We said, ‘Why wait for the next generation of players to do it, because it eventually will be fulfilled?’

“It sounds corny, but we figured the Cubs have been brought back. Why not the Indians, too?”

Bavasi may be a businessman who looks strictly at the bottom line, but because of the desperate situation he faces with the Indians, he isn’t above trying unusual measures to improve the club.

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Three weeks ago, Bavasi said he would not shave until the Indians moved out of the AL East cellar. When he realized he might look like one of the Smith Brothers before that happens, Bavasi revised his vow and said that he wouldn’t shave until the Indians put together a substantial winning streak.

So far, the Indians’ longest winning streak has been three games. The beard is coming in quite nicely. Bavasi is already beyond the scratching stage.

“We’re going to stop losing--eventually,” Bavasi said.

Feller hopes so. It pains him to sit in the press box and watch the Indians kick away another game. He can’t help but recall what it was like when the Indians were truly a good team.

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“You’d almost have to show most of the people here a movie of it, or a scrapbook, because they won’t believe it was like that. There was traffic jammed up outside the Stadium, parades down Euclid Avenue, people standing on the other side of the fence looking in because all the seats were sold. Every night, it was like that.

“What will it take to get it back? There’s only one way--win games. If we ever get a contending team again, they will easily draw over 2 million fans. It’ll be like ’48 and ’54.”

What’s 80 feet tall, has 24 arms, 24 legs and loses 60 games a year? The Cleveland Cavaliers.

--An outdated joke? It used to be that there was nothing more lonesome in all of sports than a midwinter National Basketball Assn. trip to Cleveland.

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The Cavaliers play about 25 miles from downtown. The bus trip winds through endless snow-covered fields with little sign of life. There also used to be no sign of life inside the Richfield Coliseum, the Cavaliers regularly drawing about 3,000 fans to the 20,000-seat facility.

By last spring, though, empty seats were no longer the major witnesses to Cavalier games. After a 2-19 start under new coach George Karl, the Cavaliers won 35 of their last 60 games and qualified for the playoffs for only the fourth time in 15 seasons.

After losing two close games to the Celtics in Boston, the Cavaliers sold out the third and fourth games in two hours.

“It was crazy,” said Harvey Greene, public relations director. “We won 37 games and the place went nuts. Tickets went faster than they did for The Boss (Bruce Springsteen).”

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The Cavaliers’ boss, General Manager Harry Weltman, sounded much like Bavasi when he said that rebuilding his woefully bad franchise has been the toughest job in sports.

Weltman joined the Cavaliers during the final year of former owner Ted Stepien’s three-year “Reign of Error.” Stepien lost more than $20 million, 180 games, changed coaches seven times and gave away the club’s first-round draft choices from 1983 through 1986.

Cleveland was a laughingstock under Stepien’s mismanagement. The low point was 1981-82, when the Cavaliers went 15-67 and changed coaches a league-high four times.

The NBA finally took away Stepien’s control of the club after a series of unbelievably bad trades. If the Cavaliers had kept all their draft choices, they conceivably could have had James Worthy, Ralph Sampson and Akeem Olajuwon.

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Stepien mercifully left the NBA two years ago when he sold the club to Coliseum owners George and Gordon Gund, who also own hockey’s Minnesota North Stars. Wise businessmen, the Gunds swung a deal whereby the Cavaliers could buy four first-round draft choices (1983-86) to compensate for the ones Stepien had given away. It was an unprecedented move. But then, the Cavaliers were unprecedentedly bad.

“People thought I lost my mind when I left New York (and the cable TV business) for Cleveland,” said Weltman, who quickly added that he grew up in Cleveland and loves the city. “It was a tough climb. We’re still climbing.”

Two years ago, Weltman took a survey of Cleveland sports fans and found that the people who had supported the Cavaliers in the team’s early years were all gone. All the Cavaliers could hope for was to put a decent product on the court and hope that people would soon forget the previous ineptitude. Against all logic, that’s what happened. When the Cavaliers started winning, people started noticing. Attendance for the first 23 home games was 6,026. It was 10,299 for the last 18 home games. Both playoff games drew sellout crowds of 20,900.

“The funny thing is, I think we caught on nationally before we did locally,” said Weltman, who added that season-ticket sales have increased 20% during the off-season. “It took the people in Cleveland a while to come out of shock.

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“There’s going to be a substantial carryover for next season. But if we don’t play well, then we’ll slip back. We’re hoping that won’t happen.”

The Browns, 5-11 last season and winners of only 40% of their games the last four seasons, have slipped to perhaps the lowest point in the franchise’s history. Yet, optimism has never been higher because of the addition of Kosar, who graduated from the University of Miami with two years of eligibility remaining.

Kosar is an oddity for a professional athlete. A native of Youngstown, Ohio, Kosar actually wanted to play in Cleveland. So he was delighted when the Browns pulled off quite a coup by acquiring the first pick in the NFL’s supplemental draft and then picking Kosar.

When the Browns held a press conference July 2 to announce Kosar’s signing--he’ll reportedly earn $1 million a year for five years, the richest contract in Browns’ history--it drew the largest assemblage of local media since the Jim Brown years, according to veteran observers.

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Browns owner Art Modell introduced Kosar, proclaiming, “we’re happy to have you.” Then, several reporters cheered. It is obvious that people here expect much from Kosar and the Browns this season. Plain Dealer columnist Bob Dolgan that “the fans’ expectations are so high that they might start booing the first time he hurls an incomplete pass.”

Modell, however, stressed patience. In fact, it is likely Kosar won’t even be the Browns’ starting quarterback early in the season. After all, it took Dan Marino eight weeks in Miami before he started.

“It would be unfair to the boy (Kosar) and the Browns to expect him to come right out of the box (and start),” Modell said. “But I’ll say this. No coach in the history of the Browns will afford a rookie a greater opportunity at a starting role than Marty Schottenheimer.”

What Kosar’s promise and the Cavaliers’ minimal success have given Clevelanders is hope for the future. Hope that, perhaps someday soon, they can drop the hapless from their teams’ nicknames.

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We are now arriving in Cleveland. Please set your watches back 30 years.

--Airplane stewardess in still another old joke John Adams, still beating his drum in the outer reaches of Cleveland Stadium, admits that he may be living in the past. It is not mere coincidence that Adams usually sits in Section 54, as in 1954, as in the last time the Indians made it to the World Series.

“I saw my first game in 1954,” Adams says. “I was hooked. It was great, not like it is now. Nobody’s going to support a bum team in this or any city.

“But I’m loyal to the team. It goes beyond the fanatical thing. I think we can get it back. All we need is a few years and a few good players.”

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Keep beating the tom-tom, John.

‘What will it take to get it back? There’s only one way--win games. If we ever get a contending team again, they will easily draw over 2 million fans. It’ll be like ’48 and ’54.’

--BOB FELLER, former Indians pitcher


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