|A Look at Indians History||| Print ||
Written by Richard Coreno (Contact & Archive) on June 13, 2009
There was a time when the biggest rumors concerning the Cleveland Indians had nothing to do with the upcoming season in Municipal Stadium. Rather, it surrounded where the club would be moving, which became the Hot Stove League topic from the 1960s to the mid-1970s and included Seattle, Washington; Atlanta, Georgia and New Orleans, Louisiana.
O'Neill had been part of a prior ownership group. He was a member of a 19-man syndicate led by Vernon Stouffer -- which included Gabe Paul -- that purchased the Indians in 1962. He divested himself of the shares in 1973 to join George Steinbrenner's syndicate -- which included Paul -- that purchased the New York Yankees. But he sold his interest in the Yankees in 1978 to put together a new ownership group, with Paul as chief executive officer, to buy the home team. O'Neill became the principal owner and chairman, while reportedly owning 63% of the stock.
His family had solid business ties to the city since O'Neill's year of birth -- (September 18) 1899 -- when his father, Hugh O'Neill, started a local cartage firm. Hugh O'Neill converted his horse-drawn business to a motorized fleet in 1912 and the story then became an incredible slice of the American Dream with a cherry on top. In 1960, 79 O'Neill family companies merged to become Leaseway Transportation Corporation, which had a winning trifecta in highway transit, vehicle leasing and distribution. Steve O'Neill became chairman of the board for the new company and held the post until 1969. He then remained on the board of directors.
While demonstrating unique business acumen while working in the family businesses at a young age, O'Neill also found time for athletics. He played football, basketball and baseball in high school and basketball in college. His nickname Steve is from his hero on the diamond, Steve O'Neill, a superstar catcher for the Indians in the 1920 championship campaign, who played 17 seasons for four clubs and managed 14 years, including a stint with the Tribe.
And it was his love of pro baseball and the city that brought O'Neill back into the executive offices at the stadium. His ownership group never lost focus on one goal that would encompass each season: being the caretaker of the franchise to make sure that the Cleveland Indians survive. In a Hollywood screenplay, the philanthropy would have been rewarded with at least an American League pennant. It was not meant to be.
From 1978 to 1983, the club could not extricate itself out of the bottom of the East Division -- sixth place from 1978 to 1980, fifth and sixth in the 1981 split-season due to a work stoppage, tie for sixth in 1982 and seventh (last) in 1983. The records were 69-90 (1978; 800,584 home attendance), 81-80 (1979; 1,011,644), 79-81 (1980; 1,033,827), 52-51 (1981; 661,395), 78-84 (1982; 1,044,021) and 70-92 (1983; 768,941).
O'Neill personally lost between $10-12 million over the years. The few highlights were "Super" Joe Charboneau's A.L. 1980 Rookie of the Year award, pitcher Len Barker's perfect game in 1981 and Cleveland hosting the 1981 All-Star Game that was the first contest after a 50-day player's strike.
There was star power on the club, including pitchers Bert Blyleven, Wayne Garland and Rick Sutcliffe and Andre Thornton, Mike Hargrove, Julio Franco, Rick Manning, Von Hayes and Duane Kuiper. But the Tribe could not make the climb into contention for division laurels.
O'Neill passed away from a heart attack at the age of 83 on August 23, 1983, a day when he was planning to attend the funeral of his younger brother. The ownership quickly passed to the Estate of F.J. O'Neill and his nephew Pat O'Neill. The plan was for the club to remain in the Estate until sold to local ownership which had the intention of keeping the Indians in the city, with a vision to eventually house the franchise in a new stadium.
The Estate owned the club for three years: 1984 (75-87 sixth; 734,079), 1985 (60-102 seventh; 655,181) and the hopeful 1986 season (84-78 fifth; 1,411,610). But the club was still drowning in red ink and the Estate had to issue a $3 million loan. This is where negotiations with developers Richard and David Jacobs got serious and a deal was reached for the Estate to sell the team for $40 million. Well, not $40 million, but $35 million and a $10 million payment to erase the debts. Well, it was actually $18 million in cash, a payment of $14 million to various banks due to outstanding loans and a $3 million payback of the Estate's loan. A bulk of the purchase price to the Estate was donated to the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland.
Ultimately, the sale triggered a renaissance in a downtrodden downtown area, with a new ballpark -- Jacobs Field, now known as Progressive Field -- and a series of remarkable summers where baseball became the place to be seen, with tickets as hot a commodity as any major rock concert. But none of this would have been a reality without Steve O'Neill and his financial sacrifices to make sure that young fans could cheer their local heroes for years to come....with one or two perhaps on the cusp of setting a foundation through diligent school work and having role models in the world of business to eventually give back to the community by becoming future owners of the Cleveland Indians.