Why The Recreation Of The 1938 Cleveland Guardians' Publicity Stunt Went Seriously Wrong

Publicity stunts offer little room for error. On one hand, if everything goes exactly as planned, they accomplish their job of raising awareness of the cause or business that decided to take on the attention-seeking endeavor. However, if things go awry, these parties still get attention — just not the kind that they were looking for.

In 1980, a professional slow-pitch softball team in Cleveland took part in a publicity stunt to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the city's Terminal Tower, a skyscraper that serves as one of the city's most well-known landmarks. The idea was simple: lob some softballs off the top of the skyscraper and have players catch them. But that's not how it panned out. While it may seem like an unusual way of celebrating a building's first half-century and doomed to fail, the event's organizers were simply trying to replicate a similar stunt that was pulled off decades earlier without a hitch (via Forgotten History).

The Terminal Tower

Terminal Tower started as a much smaller project and was the brainchild of two brothers with the most turn-of-the-20th century names ever, Oris P. and Mantis J. Van Sweringen. According to Forgotten History, their intent was initially to build a small train station that would be sufficient for commuters, and on top of it, they wanted to build a 14-story office building. Those plans changed when a public referendum made Public Square — the site of their planned station — the center of all railways through Cleveland. The station needed to be bigger, so they made it bigger, only the station itself wasn't the only thing that grew — the proposed office building nearly quadrupled in size when they unveiled plans for the 52-story Terminal Tower.

Construction on the building was underway by the mid-1920s. The planned structure was so big that more than 1,000 previous buildings were leveled to make room for what would become one of Cleveland's most recognizable landmarks. Once the tower was completed in 1928 (the entire station in 1930), it was the tallest building in the world outside of New York City, a distinction it held until 1967.

The first version of the stunt

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Terminal Tower, a publicity stunt was thrown together with the intention of wowing crowds. The idea was for baseballs to be dropped from the top of the tower and then caught by players down below. The Cleveland Indians — now known as the Cleveland Guardians— supplied the players with members of the team's 1938 roster. Catchers Hank Helf and Frankie Pytlak were called upon to do the catch, while Cleveland third basemen Ken Keltner was the designated dropped (via Cleveland.com).

Keltner dropped several balls from over 700 feet in the air, and eventually, both Helf and Pyliak managed to snag one, while the ones they missed took monstrous bounces off the sidewalk. According to This Day In Baseball, the balls were clocked and reached an average speed of 140 miles per hour. According to Forgotten History, Pyliak is credited with catching the fastest ball, which clocked at 138 miles per hour.

Ted Stepien becomes a force in Cleveland sports

The sports world has had its share of eccentric and controversial owners over the years, and the city of Cleveland had one of its own in Ted Stepien. However, he's not someone Cleveland sports fans are particularly fond of, as his reign as the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers — which lasted just three years — was so bad that the league had to step in.

Stepien had been offered a scholarship to play football at Cornell University but declined to enlist in the Air Force during World War II. After the war, he went to school and then began his business career with a company called Nationwide Advertising and then with a restaurant chain called the Competitors Club (via Case Western Reserve University). In the 1970s, Stepien got into sports first with a minority stake in the now-Cleveland Guardians and then by buying Cleveland Jaybirds of the American Professional Slo-Pitch League and renaming them the "Cleveland Stepien's Competitors" after his restaurants.

In the '80s, he bought the Cavaliers, and his legacy with the team is a poor relationship with media, decision-making that perturbed fans, and trades so bad that the NBA told him they had to okay them first. There's now an NBA rule that forbids teams from trading first-round draft picks in back-to-back seasons. It's known as the Stepien rule.

The second version of the Terminal Tower stunt

According to Forgotten History, 1980 marked the 50th anniversary of the completion of Union Terminal in 1930, and to celebrate the occasion, organizers wanted to replicate the famous 1938 baseball dropping stunt. They called up the Indians, and they wanted absolutely nothing to do with it. So, undeterred, they called up the next best thing: the Cleveland Stepien's Competitors. The Competitors agreed to give it a whirl, and they chose June 24 as the day to do it.

While the 1938 edition of the stunt drew 10,000 onlookers, in 1980, a still respectable crowd of 5,000 turned out to watch the Competitors drop softballs — not baseballs — from the top of the Terminal Tower. Ted Stepien was tasked with dropping the softballs from the top of the building, and he reportedly said (via Forgotten History), "This is bad, I'm really going to hurt somebody." With hindsight being 20/20, that was a great revelation to have, and he probably should've listened to it. But instead, he tossed a softball about 50 feet away from the tower so it would clear the base of the building and watched as it went hurtling down to Earth.

Stepien's version of the stunt goes wrong

That first ball plummeted over 700 feet before hitting and damaging a parked car. Everyone probably breathed a sigh of relief that the wayward softball hadn't hit a person, but then Ted Stepien lobbed another one off the Terminal Tower (via Forgotten History). Despite police attempting to keep onlookers clear of the handful of Competitors players attempting to catch the balls, they weren't back far enough. The second ball hit a 66-year-old man in the shoulder, though a few inches one way or the other, and it could've made contact with his head. Most people would've called it quits after the property damage and injuring an elderly fan, but not Ted Stepien.

Ball number three wound up hitting a person as well. According to Forgotten History, 24-year-old Gayle Falinski was on the receiving end of this one and suffered a broken wrist from the impact. So, with two casualties and a damaged car, that must have been the end of the stunt, right? Wrong. The fourth attempt, fortunately, missed the crowd, while the fifth wound up in the glove of Competitors outfielder Mike Zarefoss, and that was the end of it.

Given the hype surrounding the stunt, News 5 Cleveland cameras were on hand to capture the feat — and the carnage — and in an interview afterward, Stepien passed the buck to the event's organizers and said it was "ill-advised" and that they should've practiced first before inviting a crowd.