CLEVELAND —Even in Cleveland, League Park probably doesn’t mean much to a casual baseball fan. The former home of the Cleveland Indians sat neglected and largely forgotten for decades in a not-so-well-traveled east side neighborhood.
But the persistence and then the memory of a longtime Cleveland councilwoman kept a dream alive to bring back to life the park where Cy Young threw the first pitch in 1891 and where Babe Ruth hit his 500th home run. And on Saturday, the city and baseball fans will celebrate its reopening.
Fannie Lewis died in 2008, but those who knew her well can still hear her hectoring council colleagues and administration officials like an outraged baseball manager to raise dollars for the project.
Cleveland public works director Michael Cox laughed when he recalled how hard Lewis fought for the project.
“If she disagreed with you, she would fight you tooth and nail,” Cox said.
The city has spent $6.3 million to make League Park once again a handsome place to play baseball. Cox remembers playing baseball on what was left of the field in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, unaware of the historical significance of the turf beneath his feet. The Indians last played at League Park in 1946 and the Negro Leagues’ Cleveland Buckeyes in 1950.
The Cleveland Rams of the National Football League played four regular-season home games there en route to an NFL title in 1945. The Buckeyes won the Negro League World Series that same year, a feat that white-owned Cleveland newspapers largely ignored. Most of League Park was demolished in 1951, but the Browns continued to practice football there into the 1960s.
In a nod to modernity and the vagaries of Cleveland’s spring weather, the entire playing surface is now covered in field turf to prevent rainouts of high school games. There are metal bleachers that can hold a couple hundred people instead of the grandstands that seated more than 20,000.
The old ticket office, which housed a commercial laundry for a time, will become the new home for Cleveland’s Baseball Heritage Museum. The only other remnant from the original park is a brick wall that runs along East 66th Street.
The quirky dimensions of the original field, which opened with the great Cy Young tossing the first pitch for the National League’s Cleveland Spiders, have been maintained. The right field line is just 290 feet away, topped with a 40-foot-high fence to replicate the high wall that once stood there. Babe Ruth hit his 500th homer over that wall onto Lexington Avenue in 1929, just a few months before the world was plunged into the Great Depression. Straightaway center field is 460 feet from home plate and the left field line stretches 375 feet, both abnormally long distances in the modern baseball era.
Pete Shimrak said he watched his first Indians game at League Park in 1939 when he was 7 years old. The pitching match-up, he said, was Indians’ all-star right-hander Mel Harder versus the formidable Bobo Newsom of the Detroit Tigers.
It was a different era, Shimrak said. Men dressed in suits, ties and hats. The team didn’t draw well, and given the park’s cozy design, “Every seat was a good seat,” Shimrak said.
He recalled attending a game on Aug. 14, 1945, and hearing the public address announcer tell the sparse crowd of 2,000 that World War II had come to a merciful end. People stood clapping and celebrating for a long time. Indians players and coaches joined their opponents, the Boston Red Sox, on the field to hug and congratulate one another.
Shimrak said he saw many of the American League greats play at League Park before teams were stripped of their stars by the war. He recalled watching the Red Sox’s Ted Williams, perhaps the game’s greatest hitter, hit a ball over the right field fence and onto the street.
Now 82, Shimrak ended up having more than just a rooting interest in baseball. He was a minority owner of the Indians from 1972 to 1986 and had a piece of basketball’s Cleveland Cavaliers franchise at a time.
Shimrak thinks the Yankees’ Joe DiMaggio was the greatest player he ever saw. League Park and “Joltin’ Joe” are forever entwined in baseball lore. It was the site of the final game of his 56-game hitting streak.
“I hated them then,” Shimrak said of Williams and DiMaggio. “But now I’m so glad I got to watch them play.”