"You know, the Barons were better than most NHL teams back in the day."
Generations of Cleveland sports observers have been known to make various comments related to this theme over the years. These old-school fans knew champions; for example, in the late 1940s, the Cleveland Indians, the Cleveland Browns, and the Cleveland Barons were each enjoying an era of winning one or more titles.
The basic history of the Cleveland Barons hockey franchise sounds roughly similar to that of the Cleveland Browns. They were dominant from the late 1930s through 1964. They won 10 division titles, nine American Hockey League titles (known as Calder Cups), and built a legacy as one of the most dominant sports franchises of the 20th century. Their players were like family to the fans, working local blue-collar jobs in the offseason. They eventually hit some rocky years, tasting occasional success.
And then they died.
The Cleveland Barons' roots are traced back to 1929, when they began as an International Hockey League team known as the Cleveland Indians. They were renamed the Cleveland Falcons prior to the 1934 season, and kept that name until 1937, when they took on the name of the Barons.
The owner of the franchise for several years was Al Sutphin, who also owned a successful ink company in Cleveland. Even though the AHL was a minor league and the NHL was a major league, Sutphin typically paid players better than NHL teams did. He moved the team from the 2000-seat Elysium Arena at University Circle (built by the Humphrey family of Euclid Beach Park fame) to the Cleveland Arena, which he had constructed and which held 10,000. At the time it was built, the arena was state-of-the-art. Sutphin sold the team in 1949, but the Barons kept winning, playing to standing-room-only crowds through the 1940s and 1950s. In its heyday, the Barons attracted top hockey talent, assembling rosters the 6-team NHL envied (whether they openly admitted it or not). There were rumors of the Barons joining the NHL from time to time. The reasons given for it failing to happen ranged from Sutphin feeling he could operate the team more profitably in the AHL, to the NHL rebuffing the team due to "financing irregularities."
By 1972, sports tycoon Nick Mileti owned the Barons and also the World Hockey Association Cleveland Crusaders. The coexistence of the two teams split the fan base, and the interest in the Barons dried up in what seemed like an instant. They became the loser in this arrangement, and Mileti moved the Barons to Jacksonville, Florida in 1973. They drew poorly there for one season and then folded. Other incarnations of hockey appeared on the Cleveland landscape (including a new "Barons" team), but they generally failed to gain traction. One might say that the current Lake Erie Monsters are having some measure of success, but the original Cleveland Barons were a standard-bearer for the sport of hockey.
Of the several stars and fan favorites who played with the Barons over the years, a few stand out for their contributions to the team.
Cunningham was regarded as the first superstar in the annals of the AHL. He was a Cleveland Falcon, and became a Baron when the franchise changed names in 1937. He was a centerman who was a perennial all-star, including at the first AHL all-star game in 1942, which was a charity event held at the Arena to raise funds for the US and Canadian war effort. When Les Cunningham retired in 1947, the AHL instituted the Les Cunningham Plaque, which to this day is presented as the league's most valuable player award.
Glover was a 5 year veteran when he joined the Barons in 1953, including having played for 2 years in the NHL. He is the owner of the single season franchise record for assists and points, along with the career record for goals, assists, points and penalty minutes- first or second all-time in the AHL for these categories. He played forward, and was acknowledged as the heart and soul of the team. He was a player-coach for the Barons from 1962 - 1968. When Glover retired, he had amassed more goals in professional hockey history than anyone except Gordie Howe and Maurice Richard. His number 9 was retired by the Barons in 1969. If there was a "Mr. Baron", it would have been Fred Glover.
Bower served in the Canadian Army (after lying about his age) in England from 1940 until 1944 and was discharged due to rheumatoid arthritis. He played for the Barons from 1945-1953, and again in 1957-1958. He played in the NHL at various times for the Toronto Maple Leafs and the New York Rangers. Even though he was a top goaltender, he suffered from poor eyesight. His style was scrappy and hard-nosed, and he was nicknamed "The China Wall." Growing up, his family was poor so he made goalie pads from an old mattress and pucks from frozen "cowpies" (actually from horse manure). His father would fashion hockey sticks from tree branches. As a pro, Bower patented the goalie poke-check -which involved diving head-first at the skates of a speeding opponent and flicking the puck away. This was while playing goalie without a mask, by the way. He lost almost all of his teeth- once losing a tooth through a cut in his cheek after being struck by a skate. Bower retired as an NHL player at age 45- however, some believed him to be older than his stated age. He is a hockey hall-of-famer, and appeared on a Canadian postage stamp in 1940. His number was honored by the Maple Leafs. Johnny Bower is the owner of the Cleveland Barons' career franchise record for goaltending wins and shutouts.
These players were heroes to our grandfathers and great-grandfathers, along with Graham, Lavelli, and Speedie; with Lemon, Feller, and Boudreau. Although the era of the Cleveland Barons has passed, we can still enjoy the history and honor the tradition. This is so, even though there is no comparable, worthy successor in place today. Much like with the Browns.
Thank you for reading.
Some cool photos:
Browns star wide receiver Dante Lavelli posing as a Baron:
Fred Glover accepting the Calder Cup on behalf of the team: