While the NHL had previously toyed with the idea of moving the then-struggling Montreal Canadiens to Cleveland in the mid-1930s, the idea never came to fruition – but the city on the shore of Lake Erie was definitely interested in the game.
Locals were soon treated to a minor league team instead in the form of the AHL’s Barons. The club enjoyed great success as it won nine Calder Cup championships between 1938-39 and 1963-64, but the market for minor pro hockey quickly died in the city following the arrival of the World Hockey Association’s Cleveland Crusaders in 1972-73.
Even with Hall of Famer Gerry Cheevers in net, the Crusaders lasted only four seasons before relocating an becoming the second incarnation of the Minnesota Fighting Saints. At the time, the NHL was considering expansion to both Denver and Seattle, but the abundance of pro hockey franchises from competing leagues along with the poor on-ice and box office performances of the Kansas City Scouts and California Golden Seals resulted in a change of plans.
The NHL Comes to Town
Not long after the conclusion of the 1975-76 season, the Scouts would become the Colorado Rockies and the Seals were destined for Cleveland at the behest of minority owner George Gund III. A team loaded with a handful of decent prospects and solid goaltending, the Barons were set to play at the Richfield Coliseum – which proved to be a problem since local fans were not willing to make the drive out to the suburbs for NHL action. Their record on the ice was dismal, too, as they only earned 11 victories over the first half of the campaign.
Also impacted by the move of two teams was hockey card maker O-Pee-Chee, who made sure to feature the former Scouts and Seals with their new teams – even if they didn’t have photography of them in their updated uniforms. The players among the first 264 cards in the set mimicked those from parent company Topps, but O-Pee-Chee changed the team name to Barons along with the notation of “Team Transferred to Cleveland” on the front for those that had the Seals logo visible on their jerseys.
The team checklist card did keep the team’s former name as part of the design and had the previous year’s group photo, but it did at least make note of the move. O-Pee-Chee also airbrushed the jersey on Wayne Merrick’s card to black and white while the Topps version retained the Seals’ colors. The other players making it into both sets were goaltender Gilles Meloche, up-and-coming defender Rick Hampton, and the high-powered 3M Line that was made up of Bob Murdoch, Al MacAdam, and Dennis Maruk.
The card of goaltender Gary “Cobra” Simmons required some extra work due to an error that needed to be corrected during the printing process. At first, his card said “Team Transferred to Colorado”, but it was ultimately corrected to having no notation at all. In the middle of this, however, a third variation appeared which saw the text blurred out poorly and even those blurs can be found to varying degrees of darkness!
The last 132 cards in the O-Pee-Chee set had more transplanted Seals and they received an airbrush treatment which tried to fade out California’s colors. Doing it primarily in white did not seem to have much of an impact and looks shoddy at the best of times. Here, we see rookie cards for Bob Girard, Tim Jacobs, Jim Moxey, Fred Ahern, and Ralph Klassen to go along with established player in Gary Sabourin, Dave Gardner, Bob Stewart, Mike Christie, Jim Neilson, and Len Frig. A Team Leaders card was also produced, but it bears the Seals name and logo instead.
For Cleveland Barons completists, a team postcard set was produced for the first season and the 1976-77 Popsicle set which featured an action shot and logo can be found. The latter has a picture that was taken as the Barons faced the New York Islanders and you can clearly see the iconic mask of Gary Simmons which featured a cobra. The shot, likely taken by Bruce Bennett, was from a road game on Oct. 16, 1976 which resulted in a 4-4 tie.
By mid-season, fan apathy had resulted in lower-than-expected revenues and ownership failed to make payroll after players refused to take a pay cut. With a threat to strike averted thanks to collaboration between management, the NHL, and NHLPA, the Barons finished last in their division with a 25-42-13 record.
Fortunes did not improve for the Cleveland Barons at all during their second NHL season, but hockey card collectors finally got a good look at the team’s sharp uniforms and logo. In 1976-77, the team wore red, white, and black jerseys which bore the stylish red “C” that added the state’s silhouette and a fancy letter “B” inside. On top of that, the numbers on their sleeve were unique as they were inside of the state – but cost-cutting must have played a role in switching to normal numbers going forward. The financial woes became even worse and victories less frequent, but the future of the franchise looked bleak.
The 1977-78 O-Pee-Chee and Topps sets were still plagued by photography constraints that required airbrushed headshots from the Seals days, but there were thankfully some on-ice moments captured. Meloche and Klassen’s photo were most likely taken at Boston Garden by Steve Babineau, but there are three players (Christie, Murdoch, and Stewart) that have the rare distinction of being from a road game against the Toronto Maple Leafs – which was a rare sight on hockey cards in that era. Both sets have a Team Checklist that shows the entire organization, but the O-Pee-Chee collection had a neat Team Logo subset which listed franchise records on the back. While Bob Girard is featured on card #255 by O-Pee-Chee, he was not included by Topps, who showed Bill Fairbairn of the Minnesota North Stars instead. The Canadian company put Fairbain on card #303 instead and used a much older photo of him in a New York Rangers jersey and noted that he was now with the St. Louis Blues.
A strange aspect of that year’s Topps set was switched photos on cards of MacAdam and Washington Capitals goaltender Bernie Wolfe. Initially, the company mixed up the photos of the mustachioed players and airbrushed their jerseys accordingly. This was corrected and the error versions seem to be tougher, but the market has not exactly reacted in turn. The Barons cards exclusive to O-Pee-Chee that year include rookie cards for Mike Filder and Greg Smith in addition to the final appearance of Seals jersey on cards of Ahern and Neilson, whose photo was taken at Madison Square Garden by Bennett on November 23, 1975.
With no future in Cleveland and a relocation attempt, the Gunds brokered a merger with the struggling North Stars in June, 1978. It was the end of a wild era, but the team’s legacy would continue to some degree.
After The Merger
With most of the Barons players heading off to Minnesota, Topps had to react quickly to put players on their new team in their 1978-79 collection. The in-house airbrush artist, who likely felt quite overwhelmed by this gargantuan task, worked with a shade of green that was brighter than the North Stars jersey and the results were aesthetically displeasing for kids opening packs as the painted logo also looked rough. Luckily, it was only seven of the transplanted players getting this treatment! The funniest of the bunch has to be of Meloche as you can clearly see Bob Stewart in the background as Cleveland was warming up before a game.
Even with 1978-79 O-Pee-Chee having a later release date, the company used the same photos for the first 264 cards in the set with trades to new teams being shown for Maruk and Hampton. However, the final 132 did have four players still in their Barons uniform (Dave Gardner, John Baby, Greg Smith, and MacAdam) and you can see evidence of the second-year jerseys with sleeve numbers alone rather inside of a silhouette of the state of Ohio. Another four players that finished the 1977-78 campaign in Cleveland were either shown with a previous team and a traded notation (Jean Potvin, J.P. Parise, and Randy Holt) or in an airbrushed uniform (the oft-traded Walt McKechnie).
During the classic O-Pee-Chee era, there would be two more Cleveland Barons appearances on cardboard. In 1979-80, the company decided to include Hampton and Murdoch in the last portion of the checklist and since they did not have a photo of them in new uniforms, they used ones from 1977-78 instead. While Murdoch’s shot is heavily cropped and lists him as being with the St. Louis Blues, he never played another NHL contest after 1978-79. As for Hampton, the once-promising blueliner was approaching the end of his career and only got into 52 games with the Los Angeles Kings. Strangely, he did skate in a road game against the Washington Capitals during that time, but O-Pee-Chee was unable to get a new shot of him from photographer Jerry Wachter.
The North Stars would be rejuvenated thanks to an influx of key Barons players and returned to playoff contention in 1980 thanks to Meloche, MacAdam, Smith, Fidler, Kris Manery, and Edwards. The following year, they made it to the Stanley Cup Final. The last Barons player to retire was Maruk, who is best remembered for a 60-goal season for the Capitals in 1981-82. Eventually, the AHL club would return and today, the Cleveland Monsters are drawing a crowd as a farm team for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Modern Barons Cards – Few and Far Between
In the decades since, any cardboard appearances for a Cleveland Barons player have been incredibly scarce. Collectors were surprised by a card of Maruk in the 2001-02 Upper Deck Legends base set and three years later, 2004-05 In The Game Franchises West offered up five of the team’s best in the regular set along with certified autograph cards for MacAdam, Maruk, Gardner, Meloche, and Smith. As a side note, this author was working for In The Game at the time, selecting photos and writing copy for each of these cards along with the 5” x 7” Team History box topper featuring the Barons logo.
In 2010-11, Panini made a one-off Throwback Threads insert card of Maruk in its Certified product which also has parallels and a signed version. The following year’s release chose to profile Charlie Simmer, who had briefly player for the Barons before finding stardom with the Kings, in a similar manner in addition to appearing in 2011-12 Panini Limited.
For 2012-13 In The Game Between The Pipes, the incredible mask worn during Meloche’s tenure with Cleveland finally got a close-up look in the base set and this seems to be the last card in recent years to show a Barons player in uniform. However, the final card as of now promoting the club’s legacy is somewhat fitting as it is a manufactured Team Logo Patch card that was a tough pull in 2013-14 O-Pee-Chee.
While there is always room for more Cleveland Barons cards in major trading card releases, the items currently on the market tend to be enough to support collector interest.