The Return Of League Park

Apr 8, 2013

As final preparations are underway for the Cleveland Indians’ home opener at Progressive Field, this afternoon, bulldozers are re-shaping another field over on the city’s eastside.

For years, League Park has been the victim of neglect, despite the fact that it was home to some American sports history. From Ohio Public Radio member station WCPN, David C. Barnett reports that area organizers are hoping that the rejuvenation of this unassuming community park will be the centerpiece of a revival in the city’s Hough neighborhood.

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The year was 1929. The world’s most famous baseball player stood at the plate and popped a ball over the grandstands and out of the park.  It was Babe Ruth’s 500th career home run and it bounced off a storage building before falling to the street.  But, this historic play didn’t happen on the Sultan of Swat’s home turf of Yankee Stadium.  That ball fell onto Lexington Avenue on the eastside of Cleveland, just outside of League Park --- the first home of the Cleveland Indians.  Baseball historian Morris Eckhouse calls it “hallowed ground”.

MORRIS ECKHOUSE:  That’s baseball history going back to the early days, before the American League, before the National League. 

Back to May 1, 1891, when legendary pitcher Cy Young, was on the mound for the park’s first game.  League Park hosted the 1920 World Series, which the Indians won, thanks in part to the only unassisted triple play in World Series history.  Many stars of the game passed through this park, including Ty Cobb, Satchel Paige and Joe DiMaggio.  Sandusky native Ernie Nimmons made many trips there when he was a kid. 

ERNIE NIMMONS: My first experience with League Park was around 1936 or ’37.  I saw Ted Williams hit a home run.  That was a big thing for me. 

League Park was also home to the Cleveland Buckeyes, one of the premiere teams in the Negro Leagues --- a parallel universe of black players who weren’t allowed in the majors, due to segregation.  But fans of all colors filled the stands, and John Sellars recalls the park was surrounded by a thriving commercial district.

JOHN SELLARS:  You had movie houses, you had a bowling alley, you had multiple drug stores, grocery stores --- it was full of activity. 

Until the summer of 1966, when a riot that made national headlines burned down most of those businesses, leaving a devastated community in its wake.

JOHN SELLARS:  When the riot took place, a big exodus took place.  And it didn’t help when the industry moved out.

Paula Gist was a little girl in 1966 and recalls the National Guard troops who came into to quell the violence.  It was a strange sight, Gist says --- very different from her memories of childhood before that.

PAULA GIST:  Going swimming and bike riding.  Neighbors, cutting grass, planting flowers.  It was no different here than it was out in Shaker.

But ever since, her community has been saddled with an image of urban despair.  A dangerous place.  An abandoned place.  Paula Gist is president of the League Park Heritage Association, formed four years ago to spur the redevelopment of the League Park site.  The city is backing the project which will create a new baseball diamond and associated community fields.

PAULA GIST: You’re going to have the original configuration of the park.  It’s going to be beautiful.  And it’s going to beg for us to do something around it.

Gist envisions stores and restaurants, and a neighborhood that rivals trendier parts of town, like Tremont and Ohio City.  Sports historian Morris Eckhouse takes the vision even further.  He thinks League Park could become an international tourist destination. 

MORRIS ECKHOUSE: This is the same as Civil War battle fields and monuments and other historic places.  And if you don’t tell people about it and you don’t preserve it, you lose it.

Newton Falls native Ted Toles hopes that history isn’t lost.  The 87-year-old played with the Cleveland Buckeyes during the 1940s.  He eyes light up with the memories of walking out onto that field in its heyday. 

TED TOLES: You get a glow when you walk in, and you feel like you’re in a different world.  You get that atmosphere that this is great.  Look at there, I got to play in League Park.  Hey, that was a great honor.

It’s a feeling that he hopes baseball fans from around the world will one day will get to share.