10+ Amazing Firsts in the Nation for Cleveland, Ohio

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A Brief History

On August 5, 1914, the first electric traffic light in the world was installed at the corner of E. 105 Street and Euclid Avenue in Cleveland, Ohio, just one of the many “firsts” for the “Forest City.”  You may know of Cleveland as the butt of jokes since the 1960’s, frequently targeted by -standup comedians and on the Laugh-In television show, especially when the Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969, just one of the several times the central river of Cleveland caught fire but probably the most memorable as it garnered so much national attention songs were written about the incident!  Sure, the Browns, once a proud franchise that dominated the NFL in the 1950’s with players such as Jim Brown and Lou “The Toe” Groza, now have been the joke of the league for the past couple decades, and the Indians, though more successful in recent years flopped when they had their big chance to win a World Series in 1995, 1997 and 2016, leaving them with the longest period in the major leagues without a World Series victory.  The Cavaliers without LeBron James?  Not so good.  On the other hand, Cleveland is the birthplace of Rock and Roll!  For the first half of the 20th Century Cleveland was one of the main cities in the United States, ranking as the fifth most populous for much of those years before dropping many notches since the 1960’s.  Cleveland was once the oil refinery capital of the world, the chemical producing capital of the world, the fastener capital of the world, and before Detroit became the Motor City Cleveland led the country in automobile production.  Yes, Cleveland has many notable “firsts” that you may not be aware of, and we aim to correct that situation today.  Feel free to add your own nominations to this list.

Digging Deeper

First semi-tractor trailer rig.

Alexander Winton, a pioneering auto maker, invented the semi-rig in 1899.

First electric traffic light.

The creation of Garrett Augustus Morgan, Sr., a prolific Cleveland inventor, was the first of the traffic control lights to feature the familiar 3 color system and be illuminated by electric light instead of the old kerosene lantern lights previously used by a traffic cop stationed at the light.  Morgan came up with lots of neat inventions, including not the first but perhaps the most important hooded gas mask on the market.  An African American, Morgan also invented a hair straightener cream.  Both of his parents had been born as slaves.

First Municipally Owned major airport.

Cleveland Hopkins International Airport is the main airport serving the Cleveland area, and has been a major force for innovation over the decades since its establishment in 1925.  The city officials back then were wise to create a city owned enterprise such as the airport, anticipating the future before other big cities did.  Owning the airport gives the city much more control over the operations and construction of facilities.  Perhaps this municipal ownership has contributed to the incredible number of innovations at Hopkins Airport (which got its current name in 1951).

First Airport served by Rapid Transit.

In 1930 a rail line providing rapid transit to and from the airport was the first such system in the world, providing Clevelanders with an easy way to get to and from the airport without having to take an expensive cab or leave their car for a long time.

First Airport with control tower and lighted runways.

Previous airports that had any sort of ground control did so from a typical ground floor building and guys on the ground waving flags.  Cleveland Hopkins set the standard by constructing a control tower to better keep an eye on things and a system of landing lights, especially important for night flights.

First Airport control tower with radio control.

As the number of flights increased, simple flags and other signals became ineffective in controlling air traffic, hence the adoption of radio controlled air traffic control in Cleveland, another innovative first.

First Airport with 2 level terminal.

As people found out quickly enough, airports ran out of space as the quantity of air traffic grew by leaps and bounds, and airports located near cities could not expand enough to meet the increased traffic.  One solution, first instituted in Cleveland, was to make the terminal a double-decker affair, doubling the space without increasing the footprint on the ground.

First major American city with African American Mayor.

In 1967, Carl Stokes became the first African American mayor of any large American city, starting a trend that has seen many, many large cities captained by African American men and women today.  In fact, so many mayorships are held by African Americans today, it is almost hard to believe that the first was so recent.  Almost all major American cities have now had one or more African American mayors, due partly to the pioneering of the voters of Cleveland.  Stokes was a graduate of the University of Minnesota and the Cleveland–Marshall College of Law (a college of Cleveland State University, which by the way, is the alma mater of this author).  During the Stokes administration, the mayor hired former Air Force General Benjamin O. Davis, of World War II “Red Tails” fame and the first USAF African American general officer (who happened to be the son of the first US Army African American general officer) as Director of Public Safety, although Davis quit soon afterwards due to corruption in city government.  Another notable Safety Director was Eliott Ness of The Untouchables fame.

First Major League Baseball African American Manager.

Baseball Hall of Famer and former Triple Crown batting winner Frank Robinson came to Cleveland in 1974 toward the end of his playing career and in 1975 took the field as player-manager, the first African American manager of a major league baseball team.  Having hit 586 major league home runs, Robinson was 4th on the all-time list when he retired as a player.  A former MVP, Robinson died in 2019 at the age of 83.  Thanks to Frank’s pioneering, there are many professional head coaches and managers of African descent in almost all sports.

First Monday Night NFL Football Game.

Art Modell, owner of the Browns, earned undying hatred from the fans in Cleveland by moving the team to Baltimore, but before that despicable act, he was a major force in crafting the television deals for the NFL that resulted in massive infusions of money for all team owners.  Another of his innovations was the introduction of Monday Night Football in 1970, with the inaugural game being held in Cleveland (against the New York Jets) in 1970.

First Rock and Roll Concert.

There is a good reason the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum is in Cleveland, and that reason is Cleveland is the “birthplace” of rock and roll, hosting the very first rock concert back in 1952 at the Cleveland Arena, an event labeled The Moondog Coronation Ball.  (Note: The Cleveland Arena only existed from 1937 to 1974 and was the first home of the Cleveland Cavaliers.  I watched 2 Cavaliers games there and the place already seemed like a worn out dump.  It was probably nicer in 1952.)  The rock concert was the brainchild of local (WJW Radio) DJ, Alan Freed, the man usually credited for coming up with the name, Rock and Roll.  In true Rock and Roll fashion, ticket counterfeiting and possibly printing errors resulted in double the capacity of the Arena showing up with a ticket in hand!  (20,000 concert goers, 10,000+ capacity.) Without listing the acts that performed since almost nobody today would be familiar with them, we will make a special note that the Dominoes performed, an African American group that had superstars Jackie Wilson and Clyde McPhatter as members.  Perhaps calling the acts “performers” is a stretch, because the cops shut the concert down after the first song due to the overcrowding!  Since you asked, tickets in advance were $1.50 and at the door $1.75.  Sounds cheap now, but then that was plenty expensive.  (In today’s dollars, the advance ticket would be $14.51.)

First (and only) Unassisted Triple Play in World Series.

During the 1920 World Series between the Cleveland Indians and the Brooklyn Robins (also known as the “Dodgers,” a two named team for some reason), Cleveland second baseman Bill Wambsganss (often called “Wamby” by sportswriters afraid to spell his name wrong) pulled off the only triple play in World Series history, and did it all by himself, an un-assisted triple play!  The magical moment came in Cleveland during Game 5 of the Series, when Clarence Mitchell came to bat with 2 men on and nobody out.  Mitchell hit a liner to Bill Dubya who caught the ball, tagged second base, and then tagged out the runner coming from first.  A bit of baseball trivia ensued in the 8th inning when Mitchell hit into a double play, making him the only major leaguer to ever cause 5 outs for his team in 2 back to back at bats!  Wamby died in Lakewood, a suburb of Cleveland, in 1985 at the age of 91.  The Indians won the 1920 World Series.

Superman “Born” in Cleveland.

The alien with the cape was created by Cleveland buddies writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, making his comic book debut in1938 in Action Comics #1.  Superman went from comic books and comic strips to animation to the small screen (television) and finally to the big screen in blockbuster major motion pictures.  Superman also spawned spin offs such as Superboy and Supergirl.  The Superman character is undoubtedly the King of the Superheroes, at least in the United States.

Halle Berry, First African American Best Actress Oscar Winner.

Halle Berry, named after a Cleveland department store (Halle’s), is now 53 and is as lovely as ever.  A Runner Up in the Miss USA beauty pageant, she placed 6th in the Miss World beauty pageant in 1986.  Her introduction to the big time motion picture life came in 1992 (in the not so good Eddie Murphy movie, Boomerang) and in 1999 she became a mega-star by winning the Prime Time Emmy Award for Best Actress for her titular role in the made for television film, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge.  She made history in 2001 by becoming the first woman of color to snag the Best Actress Oscar for her co-starring role in Monster’s Ball opposite Billy Bob Thornton.  She has had 2 children and is an alumna of Cuyahoga Community College.

Bonus stuff!

The “Tommy gun,” or Thompson submachine gun was invented by a designer in Cleveland working for John T. Thompson.  The first automobile sold to a private party in 1898 was a Winton, made in Cleveland.  The modern golf ball was invented in Cleveland, with rubber bands wrapped around a core and a tough outside cover, replacing the pathetic wooden, “featherie” and gutta-percha golf balls that preceded this modern type.  Cleveland was the home of the first inside frosted light bulb, not surprising since General Electric, the light bulb making giant, is headquartered in C-town.  Cleveland, aka “The Land,” was also the first city to be completely lit by electric streetlamps and is the home of first electricity producing wind turbine.  Not enough for you?  Life Savers candy and the X-ray machine were both invented in Cleveland.  This list is not even close to being complete!

Question for students (and subscribers): What fact about Cleveland surprises you the most?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Busta-Peck, Christopher.  Hidden History of Cleveland.  The History Press, 2011.

Miller, Carol and Robert Wheeler.  Cleveland: A Concise History, 1796-1996.  Indiana University Press, 2009.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by Nammoumj of Downtown Cleveland, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.