WORLD SERIES: 1920 LIGHTS: never
ALL STAR GAMES: none
BEEN THERE: I stopped to see the remnants of League Park in February 1998.
I was familiar with Cleveland's Municipal Stadium when I was growing up, but had no idea about the existence of League Park until I read Philip Lowry's book Green Cathedrals. To my surprise, I learned that until 1947 the Indians played most of their games in this older, more cozy, funky, and asymmetrical venue. The most distinctive feature was the short distance to right field, where a 44-foot fence prevented easy home runs. Sometimes balls would bounce off the steel supporting beams in right field and end up all the way over in left field. This was quite reminiscent of Philadelphia's Baker Bowl and was likewise a key characteristic of Ebbets Field. Left field was very long, in contrast, and the point under the scoreboard just left of center field was almost as deep as Yankee Stadium.
This was actually the fourth stadium with the name "League Park" on this site. The first preceding one (see Antique stadiums) was built in 1891, using wood as the primary construction material. It had the same right field dimension as the later version, and a similar overall configuration, but only one deck. The backstop screen was actually higher than the roof, extending down the first and thir base sides. (Save those balls!) The team owner also happened to own the local trolley line, and he built the ballpark along the Lexington Avenue line to create business "synergy."
Interestingly, the name "League Park" remained the same, even after Cleveland was booted out of the National League in 1900 and became a charter member of the American League in 1901. (Which league??) The whole structure was rebuilt in time for the 1910 season, using concrete and structural steel and featuring an attractive red brick exterior. The diamond was rotated about two degrees clockwise from what it had been previously, but it was still about two degrees "askew" -- in a counter-clockwise direction -- from alignment with the grandstand and exterior sides. (Credit for that finding goes to Ron Selter, an author and member of SABR.) Sportsmans Park and other ballparks of the Classic Era shared that same subtle characteristic. In the rebuilt grandstand, the front edge of the upper and lower decks were vertically aligned, so that up-front fans in the upper deck were right on top of the action, while those in back couldn't see much of foul territory. The wooden bleachers in left center field were retained until 1920, when new bleachers were built. Originally, the scoreboard was positioned along the left field fence, but a new, bigger scoreboard was built in the far corner some time during the "teen" years. Another modification during the early years of League Park was the bleacher section that wrapped around the left field foul pole, with more rows beyond that corner. (NOTE: None of the ballpark books that I possess acknowledge that those curved bleachers were not present in 1910, nor that the original seating capacity was only 19,200.) During the 1920 World Series (when the Indians beat the Dodgers) additional temporary bleachers were installed in left and center field. At some time, probably in the late 1920s, about six additional rows of box seats were installed between the dugouts, shortening the distance behind home plate from 76 feet to 60 feet. In addition, seating areas were added in piecemeal fashion in front of the pavilions between the dugouts and bullpens, but some of those seats were just benches.
By the way, one hears occasional complaints about the derogatory use of native American mascots in sports teams, some of which is quite understandable. The Indian's grinning-face symbol seems needlessly offensive, but they actually have good reason to use that name: In the late 1890s one of the star players of the Cleveland Spiders was a real Native American Indian named Louis Sockalexis, a member of the Penobscot tribe who was born in Maine. His brilliant career took a tragic nosedive after he injured himself in an accident in 1897. After the Cleveland franchise began playing again in the new American League in 1901, the team was variously known as the "Blues," "Broncos," "Molly Maguires" (!?), and "Naps," after star player Nap Lajoie. After Lajoie retired, the team owners planned to rename their team the "Grays," but deferred to the opinion of local sportswriters and adopted the name "Indians" in 1915. This was a sentimental tribute to Louis Sockalexis, who had died of a heart attack in 1913, at the age of 42.
A year after Cleveland Municipal Stadium opened on the lakefront, the Indians moved into the enormous new facility in 1933. Because of the Depression, however, attendance plummeted, and it soon became obvious that there was no need for all those thousands of seats. A year later, the Indians gave up on that "white elephant" and returned to comfy League Park as their home field. Beginning in 1936 they began playing some of their Sunday and holiday games (when attendance was always higher) over in Municipal Stadium. Over the next ten years this practice became increasingly frequent, especially after the advent of lights for night games at Municipal Stadium in 1939. No other team ever matched this pattern of switching back and forth between alternating ballparks for such a prolonged period. There were never any night games at League Park.
During its roughly 35-year lifespan, League Park witnessed many heroic feats of baseball. Outfielder Tris Speaker played for the Cleveland Indians from 1916 to 1926, and managed for most of that time. With a lifetime batting average of .345, he entered the Hall of Fame in 1937, one year after the inaugural group was chosen. In October 1920 Indians second baseman Bill Wambsganss made the only unassisted triple play in World Series history, helping the Indians win the championship over the Brooklyn Robins/Dodgers, and in 1929, Babe Ruth hit his 500th home run here. (See the photo of the historical marker below.) Finally, 17-year old rookie phenomenon Bob Feller began his spectacular pitching career in League Park in 1936. (He recently passed away.)
League Park gradually decayed during the Depression years of the 1930s, as the Indians were unable to pay for maintenance on two home ballparks. After Bill Veeck bought the franchise, they finally abandoned their odl home for good after the 1946 season. The grandstand was demolished in 1951, except for the portion of the lower deck between first and third base, most of which survived into the sixties. In addition, the distinguished-looking brick team office building was retained and converted into a community center, and the land where League Park once stood was made into a neighborhood park. It fell into disrepair over the years, and the one remaining section of the grandstand section (first base side, see photo below) was finally demolished some time around 2002. Early in 2005 the Cleveland municipal government set aside funds for the restoration of this historic site, but not much has happened so far.
SOURCES: Lowry (2006); Selter (2008); Ritter (1992); Pastier (2007); Gershman (1993); Spink (1947); Gameface, the Cleveland Indians' magazine (Aug. 1997); Washington Post (Nov. 21, 1909)
FAN TIP: Tom Wolff