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League Park memories on display at Baseball Heritage Museum

Matt Roche • Updated Jun 25, 2018 at 10:59 PM

CLEVELAND — Before The Jake, and even before colossal Cleveland Municipal Stadium, League Park served as the Cleveland Indians’ home for more than 40 years.

Situated at the corner of East 66th Street and Lexington Avenue, League Park opened in 1891 as the home of Cleveland’s National League team, the Spiders.

When the American League formed in 1901, Cleveland received a franchise that played there. That AL team went by an assortment of names — Bluebirds, Blues, Bronchos (or Broncos) and Naps — prior to 1915, when a newspaper contest led to the selection of the name “Indians,” a choice made, at least in part, in recognition of Louis Francis Sockalexis, the first Native American to play professional baseball.

In 1910, the facility was transformed from a wooden structure to a concrete-and-steel stadium.

League Park also served as the home of a Negro League baseball team, the Buckeyes, as well as college and professional football teams, most notably the Rams — which won the National Football League title in 1945 and then relocated to Los Angeles. (Art Modell wasn’t the first NFL owner to yank his team out of Cleveland).

Today, while the stadium is gone, the Baseball Heritage Museum makes its home at League Park, providing a glimpse of Cleveland’s storied baseball past.

My wife and I took three of our daughters and my mom to the museum on Saturday.

Grassy vacant lots dominate the four streets serving as the border for what was once a stadium in the infamous Hough neighborhood. The few remaining houses and brick buildings belie what was once a thriving, densely-populated neighborhood, complete with an assortment of businesses. Street car rail lines ran along Lexington, providing a convenient method of transportation to and from League Park.

Two friendly, knowledgeable volunteers greeted us as we entered the museum. They provided a brief overview of the park’s history and then allowed us to browse the artifacts and memorabilia, occasionally approaching us to share interesting tidbits and answering our questions.

Diehard baseball fans will relish every item in the museum. But even casual observers will find things of interest.

My two youngest daughters especially enjoyed the interactive Babe Ruth exhibit, listening as the Bambino told how he once whacked a baseball 436 feet for an out-of-the-park home run and then, after the game, autographed the ball for a young fan. That ball is now on display in the museum.

Other exhibits involve notable events that took place at League Park — Spiders ace Cy Young won the home opener in the park’s inaugural season in 1891, Ruth hit his 500th home run in 1929, Nap Lajoie and Tris Speaker collected their 3,000th career hits (in 1914 and 1925, respectively) and Joe DiMaggio extended his record hitting streak to 56 games in 1941 — a streak that ended the next day at Municipal Stadium.

League was the home of four champions — the Spiders won the Temple Cup as the National League postseason series winner in 1895, the Indians won the World Series in 1920, the Buckeyes won the Negro League World Championship in 1945 and then, later that year, the Rams won the NFL title — although they played their postseason game in Municipal Stadium.

Game 5 of the 1920 World Series featured several series firsts — first grand slam, first homer by a pitcher and first unassisted triple play, all feats achieved by Cleveland players at League Park.

Cleveland ace pitcher Addie Joss threw a perfect game at League Park in 1908.

Joss also is the subject of another piece of memorabilia at the museum. On display is a picture of the players who participated in what is considered the first all-star game in Major League history.

In the spring of 1911, the well-liked Joss died from tubercular meningitis, only two days after his 31st birthday. That July, a benefit game featuring Cleveland’s players against a collection of well-known players from other teams — including several future hall-of-famers — drew more than 15,000 people to League, raising nearly $13,000 for Joss’ widow and their two children.

A museum volunteer pointed out that Ty Cobb forgot his Detroit gear, so they outfitted him in a Cleveland uniform, as the picture shows.

Speaking of Cobb, another exhibit tells the story of how Cobb once was offered to Cleveland. Although he was an incredible player, one who owned the career hits record until Pete Rose eclipsed it, Cobb also apparently was an incredible pain-in-the-butt and clubhouse distraction. So Detroit’s leadership offered Cobb to Cleveland in exchange for Elmer Flick, himself a future hall-of-famer. Cleveland said thanks, but no thanks.

A statue of Flick, a Cleveland native, stands prominently in the museum.

There’s an exhibit featuring the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which was featured in the movie “A League of Their Own.”

League Park’s demise began when a lakefront stadium arose. 

Constructed as part of the city’s failed bid to land the 1932 Summer Olympics, Municipal Stadium served as the site for all Indians home games from the middle of the 1932 season through 1933. However, following complaints about the huge outfield and low attendance in the 74,000-seat stadium in the midst of the Great Depression, the Indians returned to League Park.

Beginning in the mid 1930s, the Indians would play weekday and Saturday daytime games at League, and Sunday, holiday and night games at Municipal. Once the 1940s began, the team played most of its home slate at Municipal. Following an ownership change, the Indians abandoned League Park entirely after the 1946 season. 

The League Park stadium was torn down in 1951, leaving only the two-story ticket building constructed in 1910, a portion of the grandstands and part of an outfield wall standing in what became a neighborhood park.

Municipal Stadium then served as the only home for the Indians and Browns for more than 40 years.

When Jacobs Field (also known as The Jake and today called Progressive Field) opened in 1994, Municipal was abandoned to the Browns. Following the 1995 season, Modell moved his team to Baltimore and renamed it the Ravens. Municipal then was torn down in 1996 and replaced with Cleveland Browns Stadium (now named First Energy Stadium) to welcome the expansion Browns in 1999.

The Baseball Heritage Museum relocated to the former League Park ticket building in 2014, when the park was reopened to the public. Also on the fenced-in grounds is a ball field, where softball teams were playing while dodging raindrops during our visit Saturday. An ice cream parlor is being planned for the area.

Located at 6601 Lexington Ave., the Baseball Heritage Museum in historic League Park is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays throughout the year, plus — during the summer — noon to 4 p.m. Sundays and 1 to 5 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays. Admission is free. For more information, call 216-789-1083 or visit baseballheritagemuseum.org.

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