May 25, 2024

Tales from Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium clubhouse: Hot tub beers and holes in the wall


In his No. 8 uniform top and baseball pants, Albert Belle, Cleveland’s muscular, menacing slugger, would often be seen nudging his way through crowds of baseball fans on the main concourse of his home ballpark, his metal spikes clanging the concrete with every step.

Some 30 years ago, that was what was required to reach the only batting cage in the building, a long, narrow space under the bleachers. If Belle and his colleagues wanted to complete pregame hitting sessions, it was the lone option, aside from a cramped space with a net above the home clubhouse.

It was not Municipal Stadium’s only quirk or inconvenience. There were the rotting two-by-fours tacked onto the concrete steps that funneled to the home dugout, the 6-foot by 10-foot kitchen that doubled as a weight room and tripled as an auxiliary locker room, the low ceilings and doorways that forced players like 6-foot-5 catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. into a hunchback position, and exposed pipes and knee-high ducts that tripped up clubhouse staff.

At Municipal Stadium, security, nutrition and personal space were all foreign concepts. Fans could identify their favorite players (or heckling targets) through holes that had worn through the clubhouse wall.

The building that opened its doors to the Cleveland Indians in 1932 and also hosted the Cleveland Browns after 1946 still sparked a great depression six decades later.

“As far as amenities,” said Jim Folk, who oversaw the construction of Jacobs Field, its successor, “there were none.”

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Those who worked at and witnessed the evolution of accommodations at both Municipal Stadium and what is now named Progressive Field laugh when asked to reminisce about the old place. They insist there was a charm about the hassles it presented, the dingy conditions, the tight quarters.

At least, they say that now. At the time, there was a headache at every turn.

These are tales from the final years inside the Municipal Stadium clubhouse — the cramped, often illogical but beloved dungeon on the lakeshore.

‘He just walked right into the clubhouse’

As is the case with most stadiums erected in the last half-century, the Guardians’ clubhouse at Progressive Field is on the service level, in the bowels of the ballpark. Access is limited to those on the team’s payroll.

The clubhouse at Municipal Stadium, though, filtered out directly onto the main concourse.

The team placed a bike rack barricade outside the clubhouse door to keep fans from infiltrating the players’ private area. Oftentimes, as staff loaded equipment trucks ahead of a road trip, fans would swarm the door and try to peek into the clubhouse. Players would be exiting the shower as fans stood and gawked. Clubbies would jump in the air with outspread arms to impede their X-rated view. The only security guard was an older gentleman named Gus known for rarely rising from his folding chair.

Back then, it wasn’t uncommon for a fan to pop their head into the clubhouse.

“My friend did,” said clubhouse attendant Frank Mancini. “He just wanted to show he could. He walked right into the clubhouse.”

Once, after a rock concert at the venue, fans broke into the clubhouse and stole the team’s uniforms. (Many were eventually returned.) Other attendees slept in the haze-filled clubhouse that night.

The bathrooms were straight ahead when one walked into the main entrance. There were sinks to the right, then a hot tub, dubbed the U.S.S. Thornton, after Andre Thornton, the team’s reluctant captain from 1985-87. Keith Hernandez, who signed a two-year deal before the 1990 season (his last, as injuries limited him to 43 games with the franchise), could often be found soaking in the hot tub for hours while ripping heaters and reading books about the Battle of Gettysburg.

Len Barker would decompress in a cold tub to relieve the knot on his elbow after his starts. He used three beers instead of a timer. A media relations staffer would walk into the clubhouse and signal one, two or three fingers to indicate which beer Barker was on; when he flashed three, the reporters could prepare their recorders and their questions for the hurler.

There were many times when “Major League,” the movie that used the Cleveland Indians to tell the story of a lousy but endearing baseball team, resembled reality. That team similarly lacked amenities, from the clubhouse to the rickety team plane to the hot tub.

“Their locker room was much bigger than the one our guys played in,” Folk said. “I don’t think we had to use a Johnson outboard through the whirlpool. But beyond that, it was bad.”

Municipal Stadium had no high-tech pitching labs, spacious batting cages, restaurant-quality buffet spreads, cozy lounges with leather sofas or nap rooms filled with mattresses and recliners or the aroma of hot wood in a sauna.

The weight room could accommodate just two people at a time.

“Three,” Folk added, “if one of them was skinny.”


Albert Belle and teammates worked around Municipal Stadium’s many quirks, including rotting 2x4s tacked onto the concrete steps that funneled to the home dugout. (Mitchell Layton / Getty Images)

There was cardio equipment upstairs, but in the fall and winter, when the Browns seized control of the building, Indians employees had to venture across the street to use a gym in the basement of Lutheran Hospital. Terry Francona recalled Julio Franco bringing his own weights to the clubhouse in 1988. Franco would lather himself in oil, stare at his reflection in a full-length mirror and complete a set of curls.

During rain delays, the clubhouse was a sardine can, with more bodies than square feet and nowhere to escape.

The shoe room was also the laundry room and the clubhouse’s primary heat source, with a dryer and two washers. The trainer’s room also had an FDR-era dryer, known as the “fryer” because of the way it roasted one’s hands. Jimmy Warfield, the team’s head trainer, would rope off a single table in the middle of the clubhouse to work on players before games.

An overflow area upstairs contained about 20 lockers, which hosted September call-ups. Jim Thome resided there when he wore No. 59 in 1991. Slider, the team’s furry, fuchsia mascot who debuted in 1990, had a locker. There were also four stalls in a narrow closet for the umpires. A plywood wall riddled with holes separated that space from a weight room.

Bobby Ojeda watched games from the upstairs area when he returned from an extended absence after the Little Lake Nellie boating tragedy in 1993. The club kept a net for soft-toss up there, too, and Belle would sometimes pummel a staffer’s gentle tosses between at-bats when he was designated hitter. Once, he missed the net and shattered a window with one of his blasts.

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There was a small bathroom certain players would visit to unleash frustration after a rough night at the plate. One time, a slugger launched his bat like a javelin through the wall.

“A guy would be in there, doing his business,” Mancini said, “and there’s a hole with a bat staring at him.”

That happened in the bathroom on the main level, too, and they had no choice but to leave the bat in place, lest fans could see directly into the bathroom from the main concourse.

Before games, it was common for players to hand clubhouse attendants a few bucks and direct them to the Pizza Hut concession stand. There were cold cuts and cheese and crackers in the clubhouse, and the staff kept what they referred to as “institutional chips and pretzel rods” on a counter in the kitchen/weight room. There were no warmers to keep food at a desirable or safe temperature.

“You made your sandwich, took it on a paper plate and ate it on your lap at your locker,” Folk said.

A regular postgame spread at Municipal Stadium, left on a desk in the middle of the clubhouse, included leftover hot dogs, burgers and fries from concession stands. Or, as they referred to the lukewarm delicacies at the time, “sticks, pucks and fries.”

Others recalled a more simple postgame meal: beer and cigarettes. Players sat in the clubhouse and dissected the game while polishing off Budweisers and puffing Marlboros. Then, they’d head home, consume an actual meal and go to bed.

‘Prehistoric times’

The Indians were tenants in the cavern that belonged to the NFL’s Browns and their owner, Art Modell. In addition to a variety of football championships and heartbreaks, the venue hosted four MLB All-Star Games, five World Series games, Ted Williams’ 500th home run, Ten Cent Beer Night, Len Barker’s perfect game and a 1966 concert by The Beatles.

Sharing the building with the Browns caused constant complications.

To accommodate the football team, everything had to be removed before a Sunday home game and stuffed into cubby holes. The locker room was completely stripped. Even shelves were unscrewed from the wall, including one that supported the stereo.

If the Browns played on a Sunday, the Indians’ crew would enter after the game to hastily set back up for a home series. They stored bikes and suitcases in a tiny closet at the nearby concession stand. Every September, the batting cage became the Dawg Pound.

“We were guaranteed four move-outs every year,” said clubhouse manager Tony Amato. “Two exhibitions and two games. The fence had to come down. We’d have to be ready to play a game on Monday.”

At Progressive Field, the Guardians have a fenced-in players’ parking lot with a staircase leading to the service level. At Municipal Stadium, players and employees parked down the ramp beneath the Route 2 highway, and auto theft was not uncommon.

“My Uncle John had his truck stolen,” Amato said. “The guard told him, ‘Yeah, someone took your car. I waved at them.’”

Once the Browns’ season ended, the heat and water in the stadium were turned off. Belle and others who spent their offseasons in Cleveland would hit in the cage in the winter, and the thermometer would read 30 degrees. If anyone wanted to use the restroom, they had to walk to the front office or to the lone bathroom on the opposite side of the stadium which had a flushable toilet.

“We were truly living in almost prehistoric times,” Folk said.

In 1994, construction was finally finished on Jacobs Field. The team moved to its new home, and everything changed.

“It’s like when you’re little or you bring your kid to Disney World — the awe,” Folk said.

Amato walked into the home clubhouse a few months before it opened. It was empty. It was enormous. It was a relief.

“We could focus on our performance and everything else,” Folk said, “as opposed to, ‘Is that a rat?’”

(Top photos courtesy of the Cleveland Guardians)





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