Of the ballparks in existence in the early 20th century, only Wrigley Field and Fenway Park remain as major league venues – and are venerated.
Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds were turned into apartments. Braves Field was repurposed as a collegiate football field, and many others were lost to history. League Park on East 66th and Lexington in Cleveland’s Hough was spared that fate, becoming the first former major league park to be repurposed as a community park.
Representatives of the Indians, and local government – as well as baseball fans – turned out Saturday afternoon to see the rededication of League Park, an event almost 70 years in the making.
The Indians began playing baseball at Cleveland Stadium in 1932, but bounced back and forth between the new edifice on the lakefront and League Park, which was built at the end of a trolley line in 1891. When Bill Veeck bought the Indians in 1946, he made Cleveland Stadium the Tribe’s permanent home. League Park limped along as a home field for the Negro League Cleveland Buckeyes, and served as a practice field for the Browns, but as the neighborhood around it declined, held no value for redevelopment.
The city of Cleveland, which owned the property, paid $6.3 million to renovate the property. Adjacent to the park is Fannie Lewis Community Park, named for the longtime council representative who died in 2008. Lewis advocated repurposing the land, and councilman T.J. Dow, who now represents the area.
“Today is a proud day,” Dow said at an assembly Saturday to celebrate the park’s opening. “The wheels of government move slowly, but they do move. This is a true example of a partnership between the city of Cleveland and a community.”
Dow said the ballpark also serves as a reminder of the segregation that once was and the way things changed for the better, noting that all the major league games at League Park were played exclusively by white men.
“This is about sports,” he said. “It’s about baseball. But it’s also about African-American history and what this game means to us. Baseball spearheaded change in America.”
The ballpark is also an example of the history of Cleveland and the Hough, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods and at one point one of its richest. However, the neighborhood declined due to white flight, exacerbated after riots in 1966 that killed four people and required the callup of the Ohio National Guard.
“Cleveland has a lot of historical assets and the purpose of maintaining them is to know who we are,” said mayor Frank Jackson, who also spoke at the event Saturday.
Among the history at League Park were numerous pitching performances by Cy Young – who opened the park in 1891 and then opened the new structure in 1910 – Babe Ruth’s 500th career home run and Game 5 of the 1920 World Series, which saw the first home run by a pitcher (Cleveland’s Jim Bagby), first World Series grand slam (by Cleveland’s Elmer Smith) and first and to date only unassisted triple play in the World Series, by Bill Wambsganss.
The only remaining parts of League Park are the old ticket office, now home to the Baseball Heritage Museum, which relocated from downtown, and the wall adjacent to East 66th Street. Part of the renovation entailed building a fence along Lexington Avenue that replicated the 40-foot fence that stood in right field – three feet taller than Fenway’s famous Green Monster.
FieldTurf was installed, making the field available as a venue (by permit by the city) for high school, Little League and other amateur baseball. And it was kicked off with a home run derby, with participants including former Indian Travis Hafner, who put at least one ball onto Lexington Avenue. The Cleveland Blues, a vintage base ball team that also calls League Park home, celebrated with an exhibition game as well.
“We value our history in Cleveland,” said U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, now a Cleveland resident. “We’re celebrating the past, but we’re living in the present and celebrating the future.”