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Sports


Cleveland's League Park is alive again after 74 years
The Indians' first home has been renovated and will reopen tomorrow, Saturday, August 23
by WKSU's KABIR BHATIA


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Kabir Bhatia
 
League Park has been slowly deteriorating for the last 74 years, but now its back to its original splendor and ready to host a new generation of baseball fans
Courtesy of K. Bhatia
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In The Region:
For 54 years, League Park in Cleveland hosted the Cleveland Spiders -- and then, the Indians – bringing fans moments like the debut of Bob Feller and Babe Ruth’s home run heroics. League Park is reopening today, 74 years after the Tribe moved across town. WKSU’s Kabir Bhatia reports.
Cleveland's League Park alive again after 74 years

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Correction: Ray Chapman was actually killed during a game in New York, and the Cleveland Browns used the clubhouse under the old bleachers.
 
Before Progressive Field and Jacob's Field... before Cleveland Municipal Stadium... there was League Park.

The cozy stadium opened in 1891 with young Cy Young pitching on opening day… for the Cleveland Spiders. A decade later, a new team – the Indians – took up residence at E. 66th and Lexington.

“Babe Ruth hit his 500th home run here. [The] 1920 World Series Champions: The Cleveland Indians.”

Bob Zimmer runs the Baseball Heritage Museum, which is now in League Park’s former ticket house. He had to move his massive collection of Indians memorabilia after a flood at the old location in the Cleveland Arcade. And he’s amazed by the park’s transformation.

“A few years ago the place was a disaster, basically. All the work and the persistence that the city put together and kept going with it. I mean, it's a magical spot. And now, you can really feel the magic.”

Next stop: fun
League Park was built by Frank Robison, who owned the Spiders, and Cleveland’s mass transit system. So he picked a spot on his trolley line in the Hough neighborhood and built a 9,000-seat wooden stadium. In 1910, with the invention of steel-reinforced-concrete, League Park was demolished and rebuilt, now holding more than 19,000 fans. Today, the city owns the park, and Public Works Director Michael Cox proudly shows off the $6.3 million renovation.

“We kept the dimensions of the ballpark – the fences – the same as they were when it was built in 1891. With a 40-foot high right-field fence. It’s only 290 down that line, but it’s 40 foot high. You gotta get it up and over. The dead center, it is 460 feet.

“We don’t want just to be a baseball diamond. We want it to be a destination. I was out here this morning and there's a young man and his mother. And they were standing outside taking pictures, outside the fence. And they said to me, ‘We’re from San Francisco. We're on our way to North Carolina, to school, but we took the northern route because we wanted to see League Park.’”

It’s where Willie Mays played one of his first games, in the Negro Leagues. And it’s where the Cleveland Buckeyes won their 1945 Negro League championship. By then, the Indians were a year away from moving to Cleveland Municipal Stadium, where they’d been playing more and more games for a decade.

The decline
Over the next five years, Western Reserve College used League Park. The NFL’s Cleveland Rams played there briefly, and then the Browns used it as a practice field. That’s why League Park’s ticket house is still standing – the Browns needed a clubhouse and storage building. But the rest was demolished in 1951, when the city got tired of upkeep and knocked down the bleachers. There followed years of decline, culminating in the Hough Riots. Now, League Park’s revival is the culmination of the neighborhood’s revival, according to Carrie Bell, who’s lived here since 1961.

“I don’t know if it will erase the Hough Riots. The Hough Riots have a thing of its own. It brought about some changes. It brought about an awareness of what needed to happen. And what the people [were] expecting. And this new park will cause something new to come about, I think.”

The rebirth
Later today, the park will host a grand re-opening. Bryan Fritz will be there, along with Ken Krsolovic, his co-author on “League Park: Historic Home of Cleveland Baseball.”

“There’s going to be a statue unveiled for Fannie Lewis, who was a councilwoman for that area. [She] fought to have renovation of League Park. Travis Hafner is going to be there, and they're going to suit him up in a 1920's-style uniform. And he's actually going to take some batting practice and take some swings at the famous high right-field wall that was replicated, [which] matches what was in place for many years when the ballpark was in it's heyday.”

Now, the stadium will be used by several nearby high schools and for Little League. It’s also available for rentals. The grand reopening will feature food and other festivities, hosted by Indians’ slugger Andre Thornton, beginning at 1 p.m.
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