League Park may glisten once again
Restoration project is in the making for old Tribe ballpark
CLEVELAND -- League Park is a ghost these days.
The brick two-story ticket house on the corner of Lexington and 66th is crumbling, its window panes mostly cracked. Weeds crawl up the chain-link fence surrounding a vast field of scorched grass, and a pair of decaying houses stand condemned across the street, the words "Drug Free Zone" scrawled across their boarded-up front doors.
The charming former home of the Indians, where Babe Ruth clouted his 500th career home run, Joe DiMaggio hit in his record 56th consecutive game and the Tribe celebrated the city's first World Series championship in 1920, is not so charming anymore.
"It's a real hole in the neighborhood right now," said Paul Volpe, president of Cleveland's City Architecture firm.
That, however, may be changing soon.
More than a decade of talk of restoring the ballpark at last looks to be more than just talk.
The city of Cleveland has pledged to pump $5 million into a proposed $8.5 million League Park renovation project. This latest plan, which would be financed through private donations and bonds sold as part of Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson's five-year capital plan, calls for the construction of a 2,500-seat stadium, restoring the old ticket house and even renovating the underground tunnel connecting the home clubhouse to the dugout.
City Architecture's designs are still being analyzed and talks are ongoing, so no timetables have been set. But for Cleveland councilwoman Fannie Lewis, the driving force behind the project, there's no doubt that League Park will glisten once again.
"I'm not questioning whether it will," Lewis said. "I know it will. It's just a matter of finally putting this all together."
When that happens, the park will not only serve as a premier field for use by local high school and youth teams, but as an uplifting link to an era when League Park was the life of Cleveland's Hough neighborhood.
"With a twinkle of the eye," Volpe said, "you'll get the sense of what it used to be like, what it was like for the greats."
In fact, many already try to capture that feeling. Lewis said she often sees older folks walking across the barren parkland where the park once stood, making a pilgrimage of sorts to this place that represents their youth.
"And they'll have tears in their eyes remembering their fathers taking them to this park," Lewis said. "It's probably the only ballfield they really knew anything about as a kid. When you think of all the people who played there and what happened there, it's something we've got to recapture."
Opened on May 1, 1891, the home of the National League's Cleveland Spiders originally held 9,000 wooden seats.
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Yet as baseball thrived, League Park fast proved too small. And in 1910, the park was almost entirely rebuilt with a concrete and steel double-decker grandstand constructed around the field's entire foul territory. The park's charm came in the feeling that fans intimately hung over the field, its still relatively small capacity (21,414) and the park's peculiar dimensions.
Crammed awkwardly into Cleveland's street grid, the fence was 290 feet down the right-field line, 460 feet to the deepest part of center and 375 feet to left. This made for few homers, particularly considering the mammoth 60-foot wall in right field.
The Indians played there full time until 1931, when they began scheduling holiday and weekend games at the newly built Cleveland Stadium. The Tribe continued playing games at the massive new stadium by the lake for the next 16 years before finally moving there full-time for the 1947 season.
League Park, the last existing big league stadium never to install lights, would host the Negro League's Cleveland Buckeyes through 1950. But for the once-proud home of the city's then-flagship franchise, that was it.
It was a year later when the final curtain fell and the park was demolished.
As the area fell into disrepair, however, Lewis made sure it would not be forgotten. And since 1979, the woman who represents the Hough neighborhood has been pushing the idea of renovating League Park to anyone who would listen.
The first major breakthrough came in 2002, when former Mayor Jane Campbell proposed some $13 million in renovations to the park. That fell through, but it served its purpose by keeping League Park in the city's consciousness.
"It's really something that once you put your hands on it, you really can't discard it," Lewis said. "If you can keep the spirit of it alive, I know [restoring the park] would still be possible ... it's going to happen."
David Briggs is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.