As Naps (and Indians) Floundered, Cleveland Became Amateur Baseball Capital

The location of League Park – the home for Cleveland professional baseball for nearly 60 years – was determined because of other considerations. The ballpark was built at the corner of Lexington Avenue and East 66th because it was at the end of a streetcar line.

But on the other end of town was a baseball diamond that drew bigger crowds because of its natural topography – including what has come to be known (likely inaccurately) as the largest crowd ever to watch a baseball game, 100 years ago this week.

The city of Cleveland’s Park Board bought 81 acres in Big Creek Valley on the southwest side of the city. Brooklyn Park was originally seen as an outdoor area with picnic grounds, but as individual and team sports took hold, the park became a spot for tennis and baseball. By 1897, when it was renamed Brookside Park, it was more than double the size.

As the 20th century dawned, the Spiders of the National League had been replaced at League Park by a team in the new American League, called the Blues or Broncos (or Bronchos) before being renamed for player-manager Napoleon Lajoie. At the same time, amateur leagues were sprouting up all across Cleveland, played by the men who worked in the mills and factories in the cities – and the immigrants who were arriving daily.

By 1910, amateur baseball in Cleveland had grown to the point where a governing body had to be established strictly for the sake of organization, and the Cleveland Amateur Baseball Association was formed, overseeing amateur (and some semipro) baseball from Class E up to Class AAA. And a year earlier, a new venue was built to accommodate them. Brookside Stadium could hold between 15,000 and 20,000 people (by comparison, the original League Park seated around 9,000, and the new steel and concrete stadium that replaced it in 1910 had a capacity of 21,414). There were more grandiose plans to build an amphitheater holding 80,000 – possibly as a prelude to bidding on Olympic Games (Cleveland twice bid unsuccessfully, in 1916 and 1920, to hold the Olympics) – but those never came to pass.

However, the natural amphitheater formed from the contours around the stadium could – and did – draw enormous crowds.

On Sept. 20, 1914, an amateur game between the Telling Strollers and Hanna Cleaners drew a crowd of 83,000, according to the Plain Dealer (across town, the Naps, putting the finishing touches on a 102-loss last-place season, drew 2,800 to see a loss to the Athletics, who would eventually win the pennant; the Naps would finish 48 ½ games back).

The following year would be another miserable one for the major league team – renamed the Indians, putatively in honor of Louis Sockalexis but more likely to claim some residual glory from the team that beat the Athletics in the World Series, the Boston Braves. The Indians only lost 95 games, and finished 44 ½ games behind the pennant-winning Red Sox.

Brookside Park, however, continued to draw enormous crowds. On Oct. 3, 1915, a game between the White Autos team and a team from Johnstown drew 80,000 according to the Plain Dealer, and a week later, a game between White and the Luxus team from Omaha, Neb., drew an even larger crowd.

The Plain Dealer estimated it at 83,000, but as years went on, the crowd’s estimation – this was an amateur game, so there were no paying customers – went as high as 115,000. “Estimates of over 100,000 were made by many who saw the spectacle,” the Plain Dealer wrote. “This figure, however, is believed to be too high.”

Today, Brookside Park is now called Brookside Reservation, and is part of the Cleveland Metroparks and the site of Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. It continued to draw large amateur crowds for baseball – but nowhere near the amount in 1915.

And a generation later, League Park was replaced as the Indians’ home by Municipal Stadium, which held just about every single-game attendance record until the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles and played three years at the Coliseum before Dodger Stadium was completed.

Municipal Stadium is still the site of the best-attended All-Star Game.

Photo: Library of Congress – Panoramic Photographs

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