In 1920, these were the most populous cities* in the United States:
1. New York
6. St. Louis
10. Los Angeles
It's no wonder why the American League succeeded; they had franchises in the seven most populated cities in the United States at the time, included having two of the cities (Cleveland and Detroit) to themselves. And likewise for Cleveland; it's no wonder why Ban Johnson wanted a franchise in the Forest City as it was one of the most important cities in the country. Heck, when there were only 12 major-league teams, Cleveland was one of the franchises in the National League, and only lost it because the same owner had a franchise in St. Louis and shipped all his best players there.
And Cleveland was not only one of the most populous cities in the US, it was one of the wealthiest, with Euclid Avenue known as "Millionaire's Row" because many titans of industry had their homes there. Ohio was one of the wealthiest and populous states in the country, and Cleveland was its most important city. And the Indians had Cleveland to themselves.
Here are the top 10 media markets* in the United States today:
1. New York
2. Los Angeles
5. Dallas-Ft. Worth
6. San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose
8. Washington, DC
Cleveland-Akron is now ranked the 18th-highest market in the US. In other words, had baseball started a century later in the United States, Cleveland probably wouldn't have been one of the initial 16 franchises. But because Cleveland was an important population and cultural center back in early years of the 20th, we have inherited one of the finest art museums in the country (Cleveland Museum of Art, 1913), one of the finest orchestras in the world (The Cleveland Orchestra, 1918), and one of the original American League teams (Cleveland Blues/Naps/Indians, 1901).
I don't bring this up as part of a post on the economics of baseball, but in terms of how this decline feeds into the Cleveland sports mindset. No one really much cares (or even remembers for that matter) that Cleveland used to be one of largest and most culturally important cities in the United States, but somehow that fact has seeped into the Cleveland sports fan's view of things. Things are always getting worse, and if things are going well there's always a disaster around the corner. And the sports teams have fed into that view to the point where disappointment is what everyone expects.
But it's not a given that it always will be so, either in economic matters or in sports. As regions and cities fall, they can also rise again. So can sports teams; we saw this briefly with the Cavaliers, and before them the amazing Jacobs Field Indians of the 1990s. To be a sports fan without having at least a little hope is to be a sports masochist. Granted, sometimes the hope is of the long-term variety, but it should always be there, no matter how great the odds against your team.
I'm not a native Clevelander, though the area where I grew up and still live in rose and fell in essentially the same time frame, an area which sees itself as culturally a part of Cleveland. We all grew up watching the Browns** and Indians and Cavaliers, and felt the same pain as those who grew up on the West Side or East Side both in life and in sports. I need not list those sports moments of pain I lived through, as all of you can also do so in your sleep, and I'd prefer that those moments live in the subconscious.
Yet despite all the insults poured on this region, all the pain, the suffering, the trauma, through all the cynicism that permeates this fanbase's sports attitudes, I think there's still that hope that this will be the year the Indians get back to the playoffs, or that this draft will be the one that turns the Browns around, or that this lottery pick will turn the Cavaliers into a contender. This fanbase wants to believe, as shown by the rousing success that FanFest was. I suppose the proof will be in the ticket sales, but for the first time in a while, I believe that the latent hope that's always been there is bubbling back to the surface.
I know I'm stating the obvious, but I'll state it anyway; being a Cleveland fan is not easy. There's precious few "scoreboard" moments with which to end an argument by. If you live outside the Cleveland area, chances are you've received more punishment than you've given out at work or at your local bar. But still we root for our teams, because that's where we're from; it's part of our identity, and you can't scrap part of who you are just because your team hasn't won a championship in 65 years. And for those of you who have adopted Cleveland as your rooting interest, you certainly will never be considered a front-runner, because you came into the fold when it was totally uncool to like Cleveland.
*I'm using city population in 1920 and TV market population in 2010 because of how the population spread out from the cities after World War II; in 1920, most of the people in the Cleveland area actually lived in Cleveland, while in 2010 a county or market population is much better measure to use to compare population centers.
**Though there is a sub-species of fan here that roots for the Indians and Steelers that to this day I cannot philosophically explain.