The major North American sports league, the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL, have been stable for decades. In fact, the NHL just expanded by adding the Vegas Golden Knights, and there has been talk of MLB expanding as well. Even some of the lesser leagues are booming. The MLS seemingly can’t stop expanding.
However, things have not always been so bountiful for North American sports. There have been talks in years past of MLB or the NHL contracting. Neither contraction came to pass, fortunately. In the 70s, though, one team was not so lucky. This is the sad story of the Cleveland Barons, the last team in a major North American sports league to cease operations.
For many years, the NHL operated as a six-team league. You’ve surely heard these teams referred to as the Original Six: Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers, and Toronto Maple Leafs. Before the 1967-68 season, the NHL decided to get ambitious, and announced six expansion teams: California Seals, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota North Stars, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, and St. Louis Blues.
Four of those teams have found tremendous success in their cities. The North Stars ended up moving to Dallas, but they’ve done well there, and Minnesota got a new team in the Wild. You may not remember the California Seals, though, which is where the saga of the Barons begins.
The Seals were based out of Oakland, and they quickly rebranded themselves as the Oakland Seals. Then, before the 1970-71 season, Charlie O. Finley, who also owned the Oakland A’s, bought the team. He changed their name to the California Golden Seals after the season had already began, and then changed the team’s colors to match the A’s uniforms.
Finley was a notoriously cheap owner regardless of the sport, and that did not bode well for the Seals’ hopes. The league ended up buying the Seals back from Finley and looked to find new owners, even if it meant relocating the franchise. A San Francisco hotel bigwig named Melvin Swig bought the team, planning to move the Seals across the bay. Instead, George and Gordon Gund got in his ear and suggested moving the team to Cleveland, the Gunds’ hometown. Swig agreed, and the Barons were born. Cleveland had a pro hockey team. It would be a short, ignominious life.
The Barons’ first season was the 1976-77 campaign. Their head coach was Jack Evans, who had just finished his first ever season behind the bench during the Seals’ final year in Oakland. Jim Nielson and Bob Stewart were the co-captains. They had just added Bjorn Johansson with the fifth overall pick in the NHL Draft. The Seals were now the Barons, and the franchise had a new lease on life. Then, the actual season happened.
The Barons didn’t play their games in Cleveland, but in the suburb of Richfield. There, the Richfield Coliseum had been built for the Cavaliers, and also the WHA’s Crusaders. With a capacity of 18,544, the Barons had the largest seating capacity of any NHL team. They wouldn’t need it.
Since the deal to move the team had happened in late August, and since the season began October 7, there had been basically no promotion for the team. It wasn’t like the city was getting a winning franchise either. The Seals had not been good, and the Barons weren’t good. Their average attendance in their inaugural season was 6,194. That’s awful, but not as awful as the fact the team almost didn’t make it through the entire season.
Swig was having money problems, and in January of 1977 he started saying that the team may not have the cash to even make it through the year. Things got so bleak he asked the league for a bailout. They refused, assuming it was a ploy to get an influx of cash.
After all, only one NHL team had ever folded midseason, and that was way back in 1917-18. Surely, the Barons would be fine. Swig was not exaggerating, though. Team employees weren’t paid for two months. In February the Barons missed payroll twice. Talk of folding the team got serious, and the players threatened to strike if they weren’t paid. This got the NHL and the NHLPA to agree to a $1.5 million loan to keep the Barons alive for the season. They finished last in their division, and nobody could blame the fans for not caring. The Gunds bought the team from Swig.
For a moment there, it seemed like the 1977-78 season would be one of redemption. The Gunds actually invested in the team. New General Manager Harry Howell made some moves to improve the roster. The Barons beat the defending champs the Canadiens at home in front of a crowd of 12,859 people.
Early in 1978, a team-record 13,110 people showed up to watch the Barons tie the Flyers. This would be the high point in the life of the Barons. They proceeded to lose 15 straight games. Cleveland finished last in their division again, and they actually ended up with worse numbers than in their previous season. You know, the one where the team almost folded halfway through the year.
The Barons could not continue existing like this. A plan was formed. The Minnesota North Stars were also struggling. Instead of watching two teams fold, the league decided to merge the North Stars and the Barons. The Gunds were made the owners of the franchise, but the team was kept in Minnesota. The Barons were done. The franchise was folded, never to be seen or heard from again. Eventually, Columbus brought the NHL back to Ohio, but Cleveland has never had an NHL team since.
A lot of sports fans lament when their teams are terrible. They weep and gnash their teeth over losing seasons. Occasionally, a team will even move to a new city. That’s awful, to be sure. However, it has been a long time since any sports fan has felt the sting that the Cleveland Barons few fans had to feel. One day, they woke up and their team was simply gone.