All They Wanted Was Respect
In 1952--the same year Dwight D Eisenhower became president--Cleveland, Ohio had a booming economy. Situated along the south shore of Lake Erie, this vibrant city of 900,000-plus had one of the best locations in the nation for commerce. It was a destination point for Minnesota’s iron ore with easy access to the rest of the Great Lakes, the Ohio River, and the Atlantic Ocean. A railroad hub, it had countless local businesses linked to the manufacturing sector and the nearby Detroit car industry just across the lake.
In addition, Cleveland was an avid, progressive sports town. It had the Indians, major league baseball’s 1948 World Series champions. It had the Browns, National Football League champs in 1950. Both teams were still contenders in 1952 and had integrated their rosters before most others did. Cleveland also had the American Hockey League Barons, a minor league powerhouse since the team’s 1937 AHL inception. From 1937-1952, the Cleveland Barons had made the playoffs 14 times, won five championships, and went as far as the finals on three other occasions before beaten out.
The Barons played in Cleveland Arena, built during the Great Depression in 1937 by Barons owner Al Sutphin who had headed up a group of investors for 1.5 million ($25 million in 2016 dollars), quite an accomplishment considering that the ambitious people used private and not government funds for the construction. One of the largest and most prestigious in North America, Cleveland Arena seated 9,900 and could provide another 2,600 at floor level for such events as boxing, basketball, and track meets. For the next two decades, especially after the war years, the Barons played before standing-room only crowds that exceeded 10,000 customers.
To keep the talent coming, Sutphin often paid better salaries than the NHL level, and for that reason many players preferred to stay in the minors with the Barons. For the first six years, future Hall of Famer Bill Cook coached them; followed by brother Fred “Bun” Cook, another future Hall of Famer, in 1943-44, who continued on for another 13 years. In 1949, the same year the arena’s mortgage had been paid off, Sutphin sold the team and the arena to a group of Minneapolis investors. The team remained strong on the ice and financially off the ice, thanks to GM Jim Hendy, a writer-executive who some today refer to as the “Godfather of Hockey Stats” if not the “Bill James of Hockey.” Hendy had been publishing The Hockey Guide since 1933, a stats magazine relished by GMs and coaches throughout the hockey world. In his first year as GM, 1949-50, his Barons reached 100 points, the first AHL team to do so.
Due to the success of the Barons, Hendy came up with a grand idea. In May 1952, following three seasons as GM, backed up by a 44-19-5 record in the season just completed, Hendy and the Barons management had their sights set on the Big Time: They applied for a National Hockey League franchise as a possible seventh team. At the May 14 NHL governors meeting, chaired by NHL President Clarence Campbell, the board considered the pros and cons of Cleveland’s proposal, knowing that they had to make a final decision within a few weeks, before the 1952-53 schedule could be worked out.
The Barons had a lot things going for them. No doubt, the fan interest was certainly rampant in the city. The team owned their arena, they had as many players under contract as most NHL teams, and they had an advanced farm system in which to draw from. Since 1950, the Barons had sent high-scoring right winger Wally Hergesheimer to the New York Rangers, and two players to the Toronto Maple Leafs, Vezina Trophy goalie Al Rollins and another high scorer, center Tod Sloan, while still keeping many talented, well-paid players on the Baron roster.
Several writers around the continent, especially in Cleveland, expected the Barons to be the seventh NHL club by October. Montreal Gazette sportswriter Dink Carroll went so far as printing a proposed opening day lineup of the Barons: Goal…Johnny Bower. Forwards…Doc Couture, Steve Wochy, Ed Hildebrand, Eddie Olson, Jack Gordon, Bob Bailey, Cal Stearns, Vic Lynn, Glen Sonmor, and Ken Schultz. Defensemen…Phil Samis, Bob Chrystal, Red Williams, Fred Shero, and Ed Reigle.
But, to the disappointment of many, the NHL board of directors turned Hendy’s bid down flat, sighting several reasons. Cleveland Arena did not meet the NHL’s 15,000-seat minimum. The team did not appear to have the sufficient finances to bankroll an NHL team, and did not have 60 percent of the arena’s voting stock in the hands of local residents. Also, the Chicago Black Hawks, at that time, had been the doormat of the league for years, on the verge of filing for bankruptcy or being taken over by the league. The board of directors feared another Chicago fiasco. Last, but not least, Cleveland just did not seem major-league quality, as far as the NHL was concerned. The writing was on the wall: Hendy had come face to face with a well-established, status quo, old boys club. Leafs owner Conn Smythe said at the time: “This is the greatest game in the world and these are the greatest teams. Only a moron would want to change it.”
The next year, near the end of the 1952-53 season, Hendy tried once more to gain NHL acceptance. This time he challenged the previous year Stanley Cup champs, the Detroit Red Wings, to a best-of-five series for the coveted Stanley Cup. He even included gate guarantees at his home arena. Again, the NHL turned Hendy down because they probably had too much to lose. President Campbell said the season was not yet over and the Barons were not in the position to speak for the AHL; and the Stanley Cup was meant for competition between NHL teams only. Campbell, however, did promise Cleveland a crack at any future expansion in the league. But for some unexplained reason that never happened. They weren’t part of the six new teams in 1967-68, or the two teams two years later, or even the next sets of teams well into the 1970s.
As the 1950’s moved on, the Cleveland Barons won back-to-back AHL championships in 1952-53 and 1953-54, and again in 1956-57. Their best skater was right winger and later playing-coach Fred Glover, a regular with Detroit’s 1951-52 Stanley Cup, who went on to play 16 years with the Barons, scoring at least 20 goals in 13 of those seasons, and a grand total of 522 goals in AHL play. League MVP three out of five years in the early 1960s, he became the “Wayne Gretsky of Cleveland.”
Their best goalie was none other than Johnny Bower, the master of the pokecheck, who won three straight American Hockey League MVP awards as a Baron before being nabbed in the 1958 Inter-League Draft at age 34 by the Toronto Maple Leafs. There, he went on to help win four Stanley Cups in the 1960s, finally finishing his career at age 45. Minor league and NHL combined, Bower played a total of 1,207 regular-season games, a record no goalie will ever come anywhere close to passing, all but a half-dozen of those games without a mask.
In the Fifties, Hendy won The Hockey News minor league executive of the year twice. In his 11 total seasons at the helm of the club, the Barons won four AHL championships. Not unnoticed by other executives in the game, Hendy was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1968 in the builder category.
By the time the Barons folded in 1972 after 35 seasons of operation, going down in history as the most successful and iconic AHL team, they had won 1,178 games, lost 901, and tied 238 for a winning percentage of .560. They failed to make the playoffs only four times. And let’s not forget their nine championships, a league record until broken in 2008 by a team who has been in the league since 1938: the Hershey Bears.
The Cleveland Barons finally made it to the NHL for the start of the 1976-77 season, but under unflattering circumstances. The financially troubled California Golden Seals moved there and played in the “state of the art” Richfield Coliseum, in Richfield, Ohio, an hour out of Cleveland in the middle of nowhere. Although the team’s home rink seated 18,500, the NHL’s largest venue at that time, the new Barons couldn’t draw flies. They never filled the place even once.
After a second season in Richfield, the Barons merged with another financially strapped team, the Minnesota North Stars, taking up the latter’s name and playing in their rink. In the fall of 1993, the Stars moved to Texas, where they became the Dallas North Stars, where they remain today.