Lifestyle

If Walls Could Talk

Chad W. Lutz
The year: 1891. Ohio native Benjamin Harrison is President of the United States. The Civil War ended a mere 26 years ago and the turn of the 20th century is just around the corner. In Cleveland, buzz is going around about a new ballpark, League Park, for the local baseball team. Formerly the Cleveland Blues (possibly all-too apropos name of a Cleveland sports team) the Cleveland Spiders are rumored to win the pennant this year, led by a young up-and-comer by the name of Cy Young.
League Park Opening Day: May 1, 1891 (baseballstatistics.com)
19 years later, local engineering firm Osborn Engineering decides, after much criticism of the new park, to renovate and rebuild League Park to become one of the league’s first concrete-and-steel stadiums. The new League Park opens in 1910 along with another infamous ballpark, Chicago’s Comiskey Park. Six years later, League Park undergoes a name change and becomes Dunn Field, named after then team owner “Sunny Jim” Dunn, who purchased the team prior to the 1916 season. After renovations in 1910, League Park seats more than 21,000 fans and becomes a staple in the City of Cleveland until the opening of Municipal Stadium in 1931. Built without lights, League Park would never host a night game; however, the park’s lack of lights never took away from the stadium’s bright and brilliant history.

Aside from serving as the launch pad for one of the greatest pitchers in Major League Baseball history, League Park calls home to some of baseball’s most historic moments. In 1920, the recently renamed Cleveland Indians ended the regular season in first place in the National League (98-56) just edging out longtime rival Chicago White Sox (96-58) for the best record in baseball, which resulted in the Cleveland Indians making their first world series appearance. The Indians went on to win the series in 7 games (5-2) against the Brooklyn Robins (later Dodgers). The 1920 series featured the first and only triple play, unassisted, in league history recorded by Bill Wambsganss. Also noteworthy in the series, aside from a Cleveland team actually winning a championship, were a grand slam hit by Cleveland outfielder Elmer Smith, the first ever in World Series history, and the first home run by a pitcher in World Series history off the bat of Jim Bagby Sr.

By now most of these are just names; faded hieroglyphic relics of an ancient time lost and forgotten. All that remains of such a rich history is a thin, brick wall along what used to be the first base line connected to a dilapidated ticket office situated on the corner of E 66th and Lexington. The site serves as a small park for the neighboring community. Tall, black-wire fences line the perimeter of the park and a white, worn sign, almost sheepishly, denotes “League Park Center.” If you weren’t looking for it, you would probably drive right past it and not even think twice.
League Park 1910 – 1951 (Google Images)
League Park from E 66th (2012)
I’ll be honest. I was a little skeptical of the neighborhood as I rolled up alongside what could only really be described as the ruins of League Park. As I looked around, I was lucky to find a single building without at least one window smashed in or brick looking aged past an expiration date. Tall grass grew in between cracked and cragged slabs of sidewalk and a deserted sort of ere hung in the atmosphere. Bottles, cans, and plastic bags rolled idly along the streets and fraternized with chunks of concrete fallen fresh from the surrounding buildings. It looked like the entire area, not just League Park, had been abandoned since the early 1950’s.

I got out of my car and drew a deep breath. The air smelled like industry and tasted of sulfur. Nowhere in sight was the hustle and bustle of a busy day at the ballpark. There were no peanuts, there were no crackerjacks, and I had a feeling I’d never come back. Pun excused, there was little in the way of a reminder of a World Series championship-hosting stadium. What I did encounter was what most presumably looked like a building erected more than 100 years ago. I locked my car and looked out over the large grass field with Key Tower and the BP Building looming ominously over the trees on the western horizon.
View from left field (2012)
As I walked out onto what once served as left field, I tried to imagine what the rest of the stadium must’ve looked like. It was difficult, even for a person who takes pride in his imagination. It wasn’t until I stood out in front of the ticket booth did League Park really begin to look like any of the pictures I had seen online before I made the trip. It felt foreign, like it should have existed in some German, back-mountain municipality. But there it was, only a few miles from the heart of Downtown Cleveland, home of the modern-day Cavs and Tribe and Cleveland Browns.

It was shame, almost. Something so historic was falling apart piece by piece, brick by brick; decaying in a neighborhood that looked to be experiencing just as much fallout, if not more. As I walked the premises, I watched a man in a black hoodie flagged down by a silver Acura slowly approach the vehicle and hand the driver something through the passenger window and then walk back into his house, which sat directly behind where the two had met. I could only imagine what transpired, but I didn’t really care to find out. Instead, I just kept to the camera and the pictures I was on assignment to take.

This was the stadium where the Cleveland Indians won their first of only two World Series titles. Where George Herman Ruth, otherwise know as the Great Bambino, slugged his 500th career home run. Transformed from a shoddy wooden structural oddity with the capacity to only seat 9,000 on opening day 1891, League Park and the empty field which now marks its tomb serves as a testament to the longevity of Cleveland and the rich history of the area.
League Park Ticket Booth (2012)
In February 2011, apparently sharing the very same sentiment, Cleveland City Council approved a measure for a $5 million two-phase restoration project, which would see the renovation of the current ticket booth and wall as well as a baseball diamond laid out to the exact dimensions. Also included in the measure would be brand new bleachers, concessions, and restroom facilities. In short, there would be baseball at League Park, once again.

The final steps for approval and initial groundbreaking don’t intend to begin until later this summer. Hopes are to finish the first phase of the project by year’s end. So for now, all we have to serve as a reminder of a once bright and teaming Hough Neighborhood district are the ruins and falling walls of a decaying brick building, which could easily be mistaken for any other along E 66th. But at least there’s hope; hope for League Park, hope for the neighborhood, and hope for Cleveland, which has remained so commonplace in this all-too-often bent and beaten city it almost defies odds. Kind of like arriving at a giant empty field at 9:00am on a Saturday to find a monumental piece of Cleveland history tucked so far away you’d almost never find it, unless you were looking for it. But luckily, its walls still stand to tell its story and Cleveland always did enjoy a comeback kid.