Cleveland's League Park
If you hear a crack of a bat or the sudden roar of a crowd near Lexington Avenue and East 66th Street in Cleveland, Ohio, in the coming weeks and months ahead, don’t be alarmed.
The sounds you’re hearing are radiating from League Park, the former home of Cleveland baseball from 1891 to 1946.
On August 23, 2014, League Park re-opened in the original Hough neighborhood, where baseball was played for more than 50 years. Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, Ohio’s U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown, and former Cleveland Indians slugger Andre Thornton, among others, were on hand for the curtain-raiser, which included the unveiling of the Fannie M. Lewis sculpture, the League Park ribbon cutting, an appearance by the Cleveland Blues vintage baseball team, a home run derby, and a variety of other events and activities for people of all ages.
According to a spokesperson from Mayor Jackson’s office, the newly refurbished League Park will be open to the community and used by the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. A request to use the field must be filed through the Department of Public Works.
Well before the Cleveland Indians permanently took up residence at Cleveland Municipal Stadium—or the “Mistake by the Lake” as it was referred to derisively by some fans, and beginning in 1994 at Jacobs Field (a.k.a. “The Jake”), now Progressive Field—League Park was the toast of the town.
League Park played host to a number of momentous baseball moments and sterling players. Cleveland’s own Addie Joss tossed a 74-pitch perfect game on October 2, 1908, over future Hall of Fame pitcher Ed Walsh of the Chicago White Sox. The right-handed pitcher plied his trade for Cleveland from 1902 through the midseason of 1910 before being tragically cut down with tuberculosis. He died on April 14, 1911, at age 31. In nine years as a Major Leaguer, Joss allowed only 382 walks in 2,342 innings for a remarkable average of 1.47 per nine innings, while winning 159 games in less than 10 years of pitching, with a .624 percentage. Joss, moreover, recorded 20 or more wins for four consecutive seasons. Small wonder, then, that the Associated Press in January 1953 ranked the Cleveland ace (in a Boston Globe article) as the greatest control pitcher in the history of baseball, ahead of Jesse Tannehill, Christy Mathewson, and Grover Cleveland Alexander.
On July 24, 1911, League Park hosted the first “all star” game—a benefit game for the family of Cleveland pitcher Addie Joss who had died of meningitis a few months earlier. The game raised nearly $13,000 for the Joss family as a crowd of 15,270 fans watched the Naps take on a team of All Stars that included (standing) Bobby Wallace, Frank Baker, Joe Wood, Walter Johnson, Hal Chase, Clyde Milan, Russell Ford, Eddie Collins, (seated) Germany Schaefer, Tris Speaker, Sam Crawford, James McAleer (manager), Ty Cobb, Gabby Street and Paddy Livingston.
During a critical Game 5 of the 1920 World Series with the Series knotted at two, a spectacular history-making trifecta occurred—all in the same game—at League Park. The Indians’ Elmer Smith entered the record books in the first frame by smacking the first grand slam in Series history, a majestic blast over the right-field screen; then in the bottom of the fourth, Jim Bagby Sr. became the first pitcher to hit a home run in a World Series. It came with two runners on. And to punctuate a truly historic day at League Park, in the fifth inning, down by a run, Brooklyn had two runners on with no outs when, on a hit-and-run play, Clarence Mitchell smashed a line-drive bullet just to the right of second base—a rocket that was caught by infielder Bill Wambsganss. “Wamby” quickly stepped on second to double-up Pete Kilduff, then tagged out Otto Miller, who was headed from first, to complete the unassisted triple play. Game 5 turned out to be a crucial game changer that helped the Indians beat the Brooklyn Dodgers, 5–2, in what was then the best of nine games. It was the Indians’ first World Series title.
Also at League Park, Babe Ruth, the “Sultan of Swat,” belted his 500th home run, a solo shot high over the 60-foot, 290-foot right-field fence. The memorable hit was off Willis Hudlin in the second frame of a game between the Indians and Yankees on August 11, 1929.
Knowing just how important the milestone wallop was, Ruth made sure the ball was retrieved and brought back to him in the Yankee clubhouse. The souvenir, according to the New York Times, was snagged by Jake Geiser, 46, of New Philadelphia, Ohio, who was on his way to catch a bus after a family visit. Geiser was promptly escorted to the visitors’ clubhouse where he exchanged the home run ball for two other Babe Ruth autographed treasures, along with a crisp $20 bill the Babe personally pressed into his palm.
So how did League Park come about?
Prior to the presence of League Park in the Hough neighborhood, Cleveland’s baseball facility was a wooden park located at East 37th Street and Payne Avenue. It was destroyed by a bolt of lightning in 1890.
In search of a new home, Cleveland owner Frank DeHaas Robison secured a stretch of vacant real estate at East 66th Street and Lexington Avenue, about three miles east of City Hall, which, as luck would have it, just happened to be the same location where Robison’s own trolley car lines operated. Now, fans could ride the electric cars (one ran along Euclid Avenue, another on Hough Avenue, both operating through an underground cable), leaving patrons just a few short yards from League Park.
Cy Young threw the first pitch in the opening game at Cleveland’s League Park in 1891.
On May 1, 1891, in the first game of the newly christened National League Park (quickly shortened to League Park), Cy Young took to the mound in front of 9,000 faithful, leading the Cleveland Spiders to a 12–3 win over the Cincinnati Redlegs. Outfield distances of the new park were 375 feet from home plate to the left-field foul pole, 460 feet to center, and a mere 290 feet down the right-field line, where there was absolutely no seating. Permanent seating for the park never exceeded 22,000.
The National League’s Cleveland Spiders played at League Park until they went out of business in 1899 after winning a measly 20 games (losing 134). They were replaced by the Cleveland Lake Shores in 1900, the year Ban Johnson, president of the Western League, changed his league’s name to the American League, although in 1900 they were officially considered a minor league. In addition to Cleveland, franchises were awarded in Baltimore and Washington. Beginning in 1901, the Cleveland Bluebirds, or Blues, made their debut in Major League Baseball as one of the original franchises of the American League. The team name changed to the Bronchos in 1902 and then the following year to the Naps in honor of Nap Lajoie, the star second baseman of the team. In 1915, team owner Charles Somers cooked up an idea for the local newspapers to come up with a new team name, and the Indians were chosen.
Before the start of the 1910 season, League Park underwent a facelift. The wooden grandstands were replaced by steel and concrete, including an upper-deck; then in 1916, the park was renamed Dunn Field in tribute to “Sunny” Jim Dunn, a railroad contractor who bought the Indians that year for a cool $500,000. When the Dunn family later sold the club for $1 million in 1927, the facility reverted back to being called League Park. A public address system finally was installed in 1931, replacing the antiquated megaphones behind home plate.
This 1911 photograph shows Joe Jackson crossing home plate in a Cleveland Naps vs. New York Yankees game at League Park.
Back when Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Tris Speaker, Ty Cobb, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Cy Young, and so many other legends of the game flashed their leather at League Park during a golden age when baseball was king, the Hough neighborhood was a radically different landscape than it is today. Columbia University’s Howard A. Williams conducted research revealing that the original residents of the Hough neighborhood around the old League Park around 1900 were native-born Americans and second-generation Irish, Welsh, Scottish, English, Dutch, and Germans. A few immigrant communities later made their presence felt. Beginning in the 1920s, Williams said, a mass of Greeks and Lithuanians moved into the area, the Lithuanians settling north of Wade Park Avenue up to Superior. A small cluster of Armenians later moved into the area as well.
In their comprehensive history of League Park, League Park: Historic Home of Cleveland Baseball 1891–1946, authors Ken Krsolovic and Bryan Fritz document how the neighborhood around League Park consisted of a smattering of traditional mom and pop shops, including Gensert’s Drug Store, a saloon known as Hilliard’s, the Wind-Up Cafe, a bowling alley, a billiard parlor called the Ball Park Recreation Co., Roblin’s blacksmith shop, and Gus Nickel’s barbershop.
Joseph Bertman, an immigrant from Poland, established Joseph Bertman, Inc., a wholesale food business first located at E. 103rd Street and St. Clair Avenue, and then at 2180 E. 76th Street. Bertman leaped to fame when he rolled out his secret formula, Original Ball Park Mustard. The Indians were so smitten with his product that they began to serve it with the hot dogs at League Park. The family business is still going strong, located only 10 minutes from the old League Park, and the product is still being served at Tribe games at Progressive Field at the corner of Carnegie Avenue and Ontario Street.
Interestingly, not all Hough residents took a liking to the Indians playing in their own backyard. Bill Barrow, special collections librarian at Cleveland State University who chairs the Cleveland Memory Project, an extensive repository of Northeast Ohio history that is housed in the University’s Michael Schwartz Library, shared a story that his late Aunt (Helen Barrow) frequently told him as a youngster. When their family first emigrated from Canada in the early 1920s, they took up residence at Belvidere Avenue, at East 65th Street. His aunt, who was about nine years old and attending Dunham School, remembered vividly that when the Indians were playing at home, the school made sure to close early so young children wouldn’t be mixing with the rough and unsavory adults coming in for the game.
By the time the 1930s rolled around, most of the houses along E. 66th Street were multiple dwellings with renters, which today would be regarded as a fairly down-at-heels place, though by no means a slum.
“There were a lot of people working in nearby factories such as American Steel & Wire and White Motors, small entrepreneurs like paperhangers and barbers, clerical people, department store clerks, waiters, cooks, sales personnel, and so on,” Williams said. “It’s hard to say what to compare it with today in Cleveland, since so much has changed on both sides of town.” “In New York,” Williams contends, “I’d compare it with Crown Heights in Brooklyn.”