By Mike Lopresti
June 29, 2015 – Another Independence Day celebration at Victory Field is coming, so it is time for Max Schumacher Fourth of July stories. But where to begin?
The time one Indianapolis Indian hit three home runs in a doubleheader, and Schumacher’s wife was so excited, she climbed onto a chair afterward and shouted out the name of the man who did it?
The night the fireworks were ruined by rain during the game, and Schumacher had to twist the arm of the pyrotechnic company owner to send a truck to the warehouse to get replacements, and rush them back by the last inning?
Or maybe just all those packed houses through all those years, when fireworks and baseball were found to go together on the day as naturally as swimming pools and wet hair.
Four of the 10 largest game attendances in the Indians’ history have come on July 4. The average crowd for the day at Victory Field has been 15,340. It is a noisy, teeming, standing room only tradition.
“I’ll have people all year long who tell me, boy, they love the Fourth of July,” Schumacher said, “You’ll see somebody in the winter time, and they’ll say that and they’ll couple it with, ‘I learned my lesson a few years ago. I need to get my tickets early.’”
Indeed, if this Saturday is sold out, as it surely will be, there is always Sunday night’s game. More fireworks.
So here is a primer for the Indians’ Fourth of July tradition.
Well, nobody knows for sure. Schumacher said he remembers fireworks and baseball being a fine combination at old Bush Stadium when he was a kid, so we’re talking the 1940s.
“It’s important for people to know I didn’t really start it. I just kept the tradition going. It was a big deal before I ever was associated with the Indians.”
Used to always be a doubleheaders, with the fireworks at intermission. But then the families left for the parking lot in droves before the second game.
“It became apparent that the fans really didn’t want that much baseball with the fireworks show,” Schumacher said. “So they were telling us – voting with their feet, is that how it’s said? – that they would really prefer we streamline it. So we did.”
When the Indians played in Bush Stadium, Schumacher actually tried to avoid July 4, in favor of a day or two earlier. He didn’t want the Indians competing with the fireworks show off the top of the Indiana National Bank Tower. But when the club moved to Victory Field, voila! The Indians could play a game on July 4, shoot off their fireworks, then let the fans sit in the stands and watch the downtown show.
“So we went back to the doubleheader,” he said. “In effect, it has become a fireworks doubleheader, with one baseball game.”
When Schumacher joined the Indians, he heard the story of the night the fireworks show set one of the light towers ablaze. “But I’ve never had any personal experience with that sort of problem,” he said.
Good thing, because bad stuff can happen. Consider the Lancaster (Calif.) JetHawks last July 5. They set off the post-game fireworks show and, faster than you can say Rancho Cucamonga (their opponent that night), the left field wall went up in flames.
Radio man Howard Kellman knows nearly every nuance of the Indians’ past. Ask him his most memorable Fourth of July moment and the answer is immediate. “In my second year in 1976, Dave Schneck hit a home run with two outs in the last inning to win the game. That really stands out.”
Turns out that was actually one of the July 3 celebrations, and Schneck not only hit two home runs in the first game of the
doubleheader to beat Evansville, but added another in the nightcap. He produced his own one-man fireworks show.
It was a difficult season for the Indians, and Judy Schumacher was so moved at this sudden aerial bomb display of good news that she said aloud in a post-game hospitality room that, “Dave Schneck has given me the only thrills I’ve had all year.”
Her husband Max took up the story this past Sunday, 39 years later: “Somebody said – maybe it was me because I didn’t think she’d do it – that she should stand up on a chair and say that so everybody in the room could hear. So she got up and said, ‘Dave Schneck gave me the only thrills I’ve had all year.’”
If Schneck is Mr. Fourth of July for the Indians, he brings an interesting story. A Vietnam veteran who found out he had been drafted his first day back from his honeymoon, he batted cleanup in his first major league game with the New York Mets – hitting between Willie Mays and Rusty Staub — and homered in the sixth inning. His major league career was not long but he is still in the record book, sharing the mark for having 11 at-bats in one extra inning game.
Forget Tinkers to Evers to Chance. These are among the saddest of possible words for Max Schumacher:
Thundershowers on the Fourth of July.
“Of course, we’ve had a lot of scares with the weather. A lot of challenges, I guess you’d call them, rather than scares,” he said.
There was 2009, for instance, when nearly 5,000 fans were ready when the gates opened, eager to get good seats on the outfield lawn. It was going to be a big night. Then it started pouring.
“They sat and watched it rain for hour after hour after hour,” Schumacher said. The Indians waited, hoping for a break, but finally called off the game about 9 p.m. But fans were told they could stay in the ballpark to watch the bank tower fireworks show scheduled for 10. Organizers had told the Indians their show would go on, rain or shine.
“Finally, sometime after 10 o’clock, they had to acknowledge they weren’t going to shoot off their show, either,” Schumacher said. “So the whole thing – our game, our fireworks, their fireworks – the fans didn’t get to see any of it.”
Once upon a time, that would have been a bottom line cataclysm for the Indians, back when they counted heavily on two gates to pay the bills; July 4 and the exhibition game with the then-parent club Cincinnati Reds. “Those were difficult nights for whoever was looking at the radar and making the call,” Schumacher said.
The Indians still don’t want to lose a big gate, but they pack in several 15,000-plus crowds now. So come July 4, Schumacher can look at the skies with concern, but not terror.
Then there was the near-disaster one year in Bush Stadium when rain during the game penetrated a tarp and ruined the fireworks. When Schumacher got the call from the fireworks man, telling him there could be no show, it was like a toy store manager getting a call from Santa Claus, being told there would be no Christmas.
Schumacher, envisioning the awful moment that the Indians would have to announce no fireworks to a soggy and sure-to-be-ticked-off crowd, suggested to the owner that he send a truck back to the warehouse and bring in another batch. The owner said no. Schumacher suggested again. More strongly.
“This was during the game, and we’re running out of time,” he said this week. “So I said, ‘If you could please give that some consideration. Just get them to fill up your truck with all you can put in it and bring them back. We can do it.’ I gave him a little pep talk.”
The owner relented. The game went on. The clock ticked. Schumacher stationed a lookout near the left field gate for the truck.
“I watched the game with one eye and with the other eye I was looking at the gate, hoping to see a truck pull through it. I can’t tell you the relief I had when I saw it. Of course, the fans never knew we had a problem.”
For the players, the Fourth of July means two things for sure; a big crowd to watch them and special uniforms with stars and stripes.
“It’s a big day. An important day. We’ll have a meeting about it,” manager Dean Treanor said. “You have to talk about it, because we have a lot of Latin players who haven’t been here. But I want to impress upon them how important the day is here.”
Treanor remembers an opening day for a new ballpark in Albuquerque, when planes from a nearby military bases had a flyover so close, he thought they were going to hit the top of the stadium. “It was where your hair stood up, pretty special,” he said. “You have a feeling very, very close to that here; how they do it and what the day means.”
Treanor liked one of the Indians’ Fourth of July uniforms so much, he wanted to bid to buy it. Special uniforms can mean a lot, for any nationality.
“Not too long ago (Alen) Hanson was wearing pink shoes. I thought, ‘What’s he doing?’ It was Mother’s Day in Dominican,” Treanor said. “Now that’s pretty cool. So I made it a point to say I liked it. These guys will surprise you sometimes.”
There’ll probably be some surprises this weekend against Louisville. Best it not be the weather. This has become a tradition too rich, with the stands too full, the air too electric, and the fireworks show too good. Both of ‘em.
Mike Lopresti is a Ball State University graduate and Richmond, Ind. native and resident. He was a sports columnist for Gannett newspapers and USA Today for 31 years, and covered 30 World Series and 33 Major League Baseball All-Star Games. He is a voter for Baseball Hall of Fame. When he retired he was 16th in nation in seniority on Baseball Writers Association of America.