Sunday marked the 125th anniversary of the first game at Cleveland’s League Park. Cy Young was the starting pitcher for the National League’s Cleveland Spiders against the Cincinnati Reds in front of a sellout crowd at the 9,000 seat wooden facility in the city’s Hough neighborhood.
As it was described in the following day’s edition of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland (spelling is correct):
“At eight minutes past 4 o’clock yesterday afternoon Denton Young, ex-rail splitter, put a double reef in his trousers, wet a brand new Spalding base ball with his fingers, smiled grimly and then propelled his arm through space, releasing the ball as he did it.
“It sailed gently toward a rubber plate firmly fastened in the ground some feet in front of him and passed directly over the center of that plate.
“Standing on one side of that piece of rubber was a young man dressed in a baggy blue flannel uniform with a great big bat in his hand. This man was “Biddy” McPhee. He made not a move when that ball passed over the plate and Umpire Phil Powers gently murmured “one strike”. The base ball season of 1891 was open in Cleveland and the heart of the lover of the game was glad.”
Reports of pessimistic soothsayers had guessed maybe 3,000 to 4,000 fans for the opener. Even the most optimistic would have only suggested 5,000 to 6,000. Instead, as The Plain Dealer reported that day, “Nine thousand people and over saw that game, and every mother’s son or daughter of them – for there was many a mother’s daughter among that 9,000 – felt just as much interested in base ball as he did even in the halcyon days of the 1889 “Spiders”.”
The first place Spiders won the day and won the game, a 12-3 decision over the Reds. Cleveland supported Young with two in the first, one in the fourth, three more in the fifth, two in the sixth, and four more in the eighth after Cincinnati finally scored their lone three runs of the day. Young would return to Cleveland later in his career with the American League club and, 19 years after opening League Park, would usher in the 1910 home season for the Naps.
It was the third season in the National League for the Spiders, who had moved over from the American Association in 1889 and rebranded while playing on a field at Euclid and Payne Avenues. Owner Frank Robison and his brother Stanley opted to move their ball club closer to the Payne trolley stop, conveniently enough owned by them, at East 66th and Lexington.
League Park would be the home of the Spiders for each of their final nine years. It boasted a short porch in right, with the foul line meeting the wall at just 290 feet from home plate. The right field wall would eventually grow to a height of 45 feet, eight feet taller than Fenway Park’s “Green Monster”, but would be lowered to 40 feet.
It was the site of many historic moments in the game of baseball, including the franchise’s first perfect game by Addie Joss in 1908, the 1920 World Series, the first World Series grand slam (by Cleveland’s Elmer Smith in 1920), the first World Series home run by a pitcher (by Cleveland’s Jim Bagby in that series), the first unassisted triple play (also turned in the ’20 Series by Bill Wambsganss), Walter Johnson’s 3,000th strikeout, Tris Speaker’s 3,000th hit, Babe Ruth’s 500th career home run in 1929, the 56th game of Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak in 1941 (the ensuing game that ended it occurred the next day at Municipal Stadium), Bob Feller’s first game, and the only inside-the-park home run in the career of Ted Williams. It was briefly renamed Dunn Field during the ownership of Sunny Jim Dunn, but was returned to its original League Park after ownership turned over to Alva Bradley.
After the construction of Cleveland Stadium, the Indians began splitting time at the two parks starting in 1934 and would later abandon League Park altogether. The Cleveland Buckeyes of the Negro American League would use the park through 1949, and later a pair of football teams (the NFL’s Cleveland Rams and the AAFC’s Cleveland Browns) would call the field home between 1936 and 1950. The structure slowly tore itself down before being formally razed after it was sold to the city of Cleveland (with the exception of the ticket house and some of the East 66th wall). It served as a neglected city park until efforts were made to restore the landmark to some of its former glory.
Last fall, I had the opportunity to stand on the beautifully renovated field while participating in a media softball game hosted by the Cleveland Indians. Despite plenty of time spent in the city of Cleveland during my college years and all of the years since, I had not made it down to the park to take in the history. As soon as I wandered into the outfield, I was lost deep in thought of the legends of the game who had stood on that very plot of land, playing the game that I have loved since the earliest days of my childhood, and I knew I had no right to stand on those hallowed grounds swinging a bat, throwing a ball, or running the same base paths. I can say with pride that I did not embarrass myself defensively, but I was hardly Ruthian at the plate, despite several mighty hacks with little to show after not swinging a bat in more years than I care to acknowledge.
The Baseball Heritage Museum, relocated from downtown to the former ticket house when League Park was reborn, helped celebrate the 125th anniversary of that first game on Saturday with looks back at the different eras in League Park history and also hosted a high school varsity game between St. Edward and Midview.
A must see for any true baseball fan, League Park is at 6601 Lexington Avenue in Cleveland. The Baseball Heritage Museum is open every Saturday from 10 AM to 2 PM. More information on the museum can be found at https://baseballheritagemuseum.org/.
Photo: Library of Congress