The announcement that LeBron James is packing his bags and heading to Miami is yet another piece of sad news for Cleveland. The Forest City has been down so long, it's started to look like up. The departure of the local hero is just another blow for Cleveland, which has a long, sad history of tragedy, disaster, and disgrace—all that on top of the city's ongoing struggle to recover from the demise of its post–World War II industrial glory. Here are the greatest hits of Cleveland's lowest lows, written with love and pathos by a northeast Ohioan and a sympathetic New Yorker.
At the turn of the 20th century, the east Cleveland neighborhood was an independent town of its own, although it's since been annexed by the bigger city. It was in 1908 that Collinwood's Lake View School caught fire. Although the school's walls were made of masonry, the building was otherwise a fire trap waiting to happen: wooden joists, no fire doors, wooden floors and walls that were carefully oiled. When an overheated steampipe lit one of the joists, the school quickly went up in flames, killing 172 students, two teachers, and one other person. Nineteen were so badly burned that they could not be identified. This footage of the smoking ruins comes from the Cleveland Public Library. The tragedy's one bright spot: it helped to encourage the construction of safer buildings.
At the height of the Great Depression, a grisly murderer stalked the streets of Cleveland, finding working-class victims, dismembering and beheading them (hence his nickname). The official body count was 12, but some authorities have blamed other unsolved murders on the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run (another, less pithy nickname). Eliot Ness, a detective famed for bringing down Al Capone, was Cleveland's director of public safety, but even he was unable to solve the killings—nor has anyone since.
Hard as it may be to believe, the Cleveland Indians were at one time a great baseball club. With stars like Bob Feller, Lou Boudreau, and Larry Doby, the team was a force to be reckoned with, winning the World Series in 1948 and the American League pennant in 1954. But the trade of fan favorite and right-fielder Rocky Colavito to the Detroit Tigers (allegedly) ruined all that. From then on, "the curse of Rocky Colavito" has plagued the team. Ever-optimistic Tribe fans thought the curse had been lifted in 1995, when the Indians finally returned to the World Series, but Cleveland fell short that year and again in 1997. The Indians' current record: 25–36.
Like many big cities, Cleveland experienced its share of racial tension in the 1960s. On July 18, 1966, the predominantly black east Cleveland suburb of Hough erupted after a racist sign at a bar caused an altercation; over the next six days, four people were killed and some 240 fires ravaged the neighborhood. Gov. James A. Rhodes—the same man who would order troops to Kent State in 1970—eventually called out the National Guard. Although the riots ended, economically the area has never really recovered.
Know what northeast Ohioans are sick of hearing about? Yep, you guessed it: the June 22, 1969, incident in which a polluted stretch of the Cuyahoga River, which empties into Lake Erie at Cleveland, caught fire. Here's the kicker: it wasn't the first, or worst, of the Cuyahoga's fires. With industrial waste pouring in, it caught fire many times starting in 1868, with the worst in 1952 (shown). Locals recall that the water was so toxic it would dissolve canoes. The good news: the fire helped spur the creation of Earth Day, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Clean Water Act.
Twenty-five thousand Clevelanders, a hot summer day, and all-you-can-drink beer for a dime: what could go wrong? Plenty, as it turns out. The struggling Indians hatched a plan to entice fans to Municipal Stadium, which was affectionately (or not) referred to as The Mistake on the Lake (and thanks to old Rocky Colavito, the bats weren't getting people to pony up for a ticket).
As fans got drunker and drunker, they got rowdier, culminating in the ninth inning, when a contingent stormed the field. Several players got into fistfights with rioters, and even though the Indians had managed to come from behind to tie the game, the home-plate ump demanded that Cleveland forfeit the game.
Before Dennis Kucinich was a national laughingstock, he was a local one. At 31, Kucinich ran a quixotic campaign for mayor of Cleveland, unseating the incumbent Republican mayor in 1977. The Boy Mayor was confrontational from the start: within a year his opponents had mounted a recall election, which Kucinich survived by a razor-thin margin. Meanwhile, the city's debt had grown as industry sputtered and the population shrank. The private Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co., eager to take over the public power company Municipal Light, worked with local banks holding the city's debt to force a sale. But rather than sell the company, Kucinich allowed the city to default on its debt, the first major city to do so. Kucinich lost a reelection campaign in 1979, and the city didn't emerge from default until 1987—although Muny Light, now called Cleveland Public Power, survives.
Like the Indians, the Browns were once a mighty franchise, winning multiple championships in the 1940s and 1950s. But the team has never won a Super Bowl since the game was established in 1967—despite successfully breaking fans' hearts repeatedly. First there was Red Right 88, a passing play during a 1981 playoff against the Oakland Raiders that was intercepted in the end zone, ending the Browns' season. In 1987 the team was on the cusp of the Super Bowl, but Broncos quarterback John Elway engineering a five-minute, two-second drive that miraculously tied the game before the Broncos won in overtime (Elway is still a hated figure in Cleveland). The following year, the Browns were again in the AFC championship against the Broncos, and star running back Earnest Byner was on the verge of scoring a game-tying touchdown with just over a minute left, but he fumbled, again burying fans' hopes.
A losing team is better than no team at all, though. Despite a rabid fan base and a history stretching back to 1946, owner Art Modell decided to move the team to Baltimore—also despite voters approving a tax increase to fund a remodeling of The Mistake on the Lake. Modell went forward anyway, leaving fans aghast and furious, and making Modell easily the greatest villain in the city's history. However, Cleveland successfully sued to keep the Browns name, and in 1999 the NFL approved an expansion team, to be called the Browns, for Cleveland. Predictably, they have mostly been terrible. Even worse, five years after they skipped town, the original Browns (renamed the Ravens) won the Super Bowl.
On Aug. 14, 2003, lights flickered out across the Northeastern United States, leaving 55 million people in the U.S. and Canada without power. Months of investigation traced the blackout to a generating station in Eastlake, a northeastern suburb of Cleveland. When the station went offline, it put stress on high-voltage wires, which failed, apparently because trees around them had not been adequately trimmed. The ensuing domino effect killed the power for hours, leaving Cleveland, New York, Baltimore, and other cities dark.
It was always too good to be true: LeBron James had grown up in the nearby city of Akron, and when he entered the draft, the hometown Cleveland Cavs had miraculously won a lottery for the first pick. With LeBron helming the team, things started to turn around for the Cavs. By the 2010 playoffs, it looked as if he might even make the Cavs the first Cleveland sports team to win a ring since the 1964 Browns. But the Cavs fell apart in the semifinals, with LeBron faltering as lurid rumors circulated, and the team bowed out to the Celtics. Two months later, on July 8, King James announced he would not re-sign with the Cavs—proving it really was too good to be true.