On July 22, 1796, a team of surveyors led by Moses Cleaveland stepped off a boat where the Cuyahoga River meets Lake Erie to plan out a town in what was then known as the Connecticut Western Reserve.
To celebrate the 125th anniversary of Cleveland’s founding (local lore is that a newspaper editor removed the first A so it would fit better in a headline), everyone in the city pulled out all the stops – including the Indians.
The celebration started with a recreation of Cleaveland’s landing. Bunting was hung. A week of parades was scheduled. And the Indians would host an Old-Timers Day at League Park, then known as Dunn Field for the team’s owner, Jim Dunn.
The game would bring back former Indians, managed by the team’s former namesake, Napoleon Lajoie (who would also play second base), in an exhibition against local sandlot players. The Old-Timers – some of whom hadn’t been at the field since the modern, fireproof League Park was built in 1910 – practiced the day before the game, and although Lajoie had said earlier that week, “Give us a few days to get into practice and develop our winds and we won’t make any alibis,” the Plain Dealer story the day of the game was presented as humorous, with joints cracking and players trying to get back to form.
“What’s the matter,” Lajoie yelled at Charlie Hickman after a ball went skittering into the dugout. “Can’t you stoop over any more?”
“I can stoop over all right,” Hickman said, before accusing Lajoie of having a glass arm. The story said the player in the best condition was probably Neal Ball, who had just turned 40 in April. He hadn’t played in the majors since 1913, but had played minor league baseball since then, including a stint as a teammate of Babe Ruth’s with the minor league Baltimore Orioles, before Ruth was sold to the Red Sox.
Although the Hall of Fame at that point was still just a phrase and not an actual building, several players later immortalized in Cooperstown would take the field in Cleveland in front of a crowd estimated around 7,500 people. In addition to Lajoie, Jesse Burkett (then a coach for the Giants) played the outfield, and Cy Young and Elmer Flick, both Ohio natives who remained close to Cleveland after their playing careers ended, suited up.
Young got the start, throwing to his old battery mate Chief Zimmer, giving up two hits while walking one and striking out two.
“There was Napoleon Lajoie, the greatest second baseman the game ever knew, scooping up grounders just like he did for thirteen seasons,” Henry P. Edwards wrote in the next day’s Plain Dealer. “There was Jesse Burkett … he can still hit ‘em.
“It was the greatest aggregation of old timer diamond stars ever assembled.”
And the old-timers won, 11-6.
Photo: Cleveland Memory Project
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Nice piece! Too bad! Cleveland had a birthday last Friday, the day after the RNC ended. Cleve could have celebrated while it was still ‘all dressed up.’ What is the status of League Park now? Are renovations complete?
League Park is beautiful. It has stands in place behind the plate, artificial turf in place, and is used quite a bit it seems for various events, little league tournaments, etc. It is also the home of the Baseball Heritage Museum (https://baseballheritagemuseum.org/), which is definitely worth a visit. I believe the renovations were complete on the field sometime in the fall of 2014.