League Park, Cleveland

Bounded by East 66th, Linwood, East 67th and Lexington on the east side of Cleveland

Information about League Park in Cleveland is included in this Detroit website because of the similar histories of this baseball park and Navin Field or Tiger Stadium.

Since the early 1990s, there has been extensive discussion in Detroit about what should be done with the park at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull where professional baseball was played from May, 1896 through September 1999. At first there was some hope that Tiger Stadium could be modernized but that proved impractical so the Tigers—with some financial help from the city and countybuilt the new Comerica Park that opened in April, 2000. Numerous plans have proposed retaining some components of historic Tiger Stadium, perhaps for amateur baseball. At present—June, 2007—it seems highly likely that the park will be razed, but nothing is certain. Some of those who wish to keep intact parts of the Tiger Stadium that opened in April, 1912 stress that League Park in Cleveland is an example of how the historic preservation of baseball parks should not be done.

Cleveland and Detroit have rather similar baseball histories and both Cleveland’s League Park and Detroit’s Navin Field were designed and built at about the same time by the same firm—Osborn Engineering. Professional baseball was played in Cleveland as early as 1871. In 1876, the National League became the first reasonably well organized and financially successful professional league. Cleveland became the eighth city with a franchise when it joined the league in 1879, two years before the Detroit Wolverines entered the National League. Cleveland’s team played at a park located at East 46th and Cedar Avenue. Cleveland’s National League team was athletically and fiscally unsuccessful, so they dropped out of the circuit after the 1884 season. Detroit’s Wolverines stayed in the same league through the 1888 season and then the owner—Stearns and his colleagues—decided to get out of the baseball business.

In 1887, Frank Robison organized a new professional team in Cleveland, built a new park at East 39th and Payne Avenue and entered them into the American Association—a league that was challenging the National League by claiming to be the second major professional baseball league. The Cleveland team—known as the Spiders—continued to play in this league but, in August, 1890, lightening struck their park and much of it was destroyed by fire. The team finished its season playing in what was left of the park but Robison and his brother had the resources to build a new park for the 1891 season. This is the first League park located at the intersection of East 66th Street and Lexington and is known to some baseball historians as League Park I. It was a wooden structure with seats for 9,000. The Robisons had financial interests in the local traction company so they built their park where their street car lines intersected.

The original wooden League Park was opened in May 1891. Home plate was located at the Linwood/East 66th corner of the lot with centerfield at the Lexington/East 67th street corner. Apparently, the Robisons wanted to purchase property on the south side of Lexington so that they could have a decent sized right field, but owners were unwilling to sell. As a result, from 1890 through the last major league game played at League Park in 1946, batters had a very short right field alley—about 290 feet. To make it fair for pitchers, a 45-foot-high screen was erected in right field along Lexington. Balls hitting the screen were in play so it took some power to elevate a ball above the right field fence. Perhaps the most successful pitcher in the history of baseball, pitched for the Cleveland Spiders when they opened League Park on Friday May 1, 1890.

The economic crisis of the 1890s led the National League and the American Association to merge, so Cleveland was one of twelve teams playing major league baseball for much of the 1890s. For the most part, the Spiders performed without distinction. The league was, apparently, not well run and many franchises were frequently in financial trouble. In early 1899, the owner of the St. Louis franchise was forced out by his financial and legal troubles and the Robisons purchased that team. Realizing that the potential for tickets sales was greater in St. Louis than in Cleveland, they shifted most of their talented players from the Cleveland Spiders to the St. Louis Browns. As a result, League Park in Cleveland in 1899 was home to the least successful major league team ever. The Spiders won 20 games that year, but lost 134. Attendance was so low at East 66th and Lexington that the team played only 27 games at home, playing all other games on the road. Cleveland fans were appropriately upset so only 6, 102 tickets were sold or 226 per home date— a record low season attendance for major league baseball. After the 1899 season, the National League contracted by eliminating their teams in Baltimore, Cleveland, Louisville and Washington.

A Californian, George Arthur Vanderbeck, came to Detroit in the early 1890s with hopes to revive interest in professional baseball. By 1894, he entered his Detroit Cream’s team in the Western Association with games played at Boulevard Park located at the intersection of Helen and Lafayette near Belle Isle. Vanderbeck franchise was somewhat successful but he was unhappy with small wooden park on the east side. The city of Detroit maintained a west side market at Michigan and Trumbull but the success of the Eastern Market led the city to give up its lease on the west side property. Vanderbeck obtained the right to build a wooden baseball park at Michigan and Trumbull—one that opened for the Western Association’s 1896 season.

Ban Johnson—the president of the Western Association—realized that the National League was poorly run and financially insecure. He changed the name of his organization to the American League and claimed parity with the National League. Both Cleveland and Detroit joined the American League for their inaugural 1901 season and have been members since then. The Cleveland franchise played at League Park.

In the early 1900s, the middle-class population grew quite rapidly in industrial cities, and baseball owners sought to improve the image of their sport so that women and families would attend games. In addition, owners challenged and eventually overturned the Blue Laws that prohibited professional games on Sundays—the only day when blue-collar workers did not have to labor. Owners in both Cleveland and Detroit realized that their small wooden baseball parks were not adequate and had the resources to build modern, impressive steel and concrete structures. And neither owner had the resources to purchase new land for a ball park so they followed a similar strategy. In Cleveland, the wooden League Park that dated from 1890 was torn down after the 1909 season and replaced by steel and concrete stands with seating for 21,000. As I understand it, the layout of the field was not substantially changed. On April 21, 1910 the Cleveland team—then known as the Naps—opened the new park by losing to the Tigers in front of about 19,000 fans—a large crowd for that era. Interestingly, Cy Young who pitched for the Spiders when they opened the wooden park at 66th and Lexington took the mound for the Naps 19 years later when they opened League Park II. But this time he lost the game. Even though I lived in Akron from 1941 through 1960, I never saw this baseball park. The pictures show an impressive structure with attractive brick exterior along 66th and Linwood. Indeed, this park appears architecturally more appealing than the Navin Field that Osborn Engineering built in Detroit just two years later.

A huge Municipal Stadium seating about 80,000 was built in Cleveland in 1931 and 1932. There are various stories about why it built. Some emphasize that this project was designed to provide jobs during the Depression. Others contend that Cleveland officials erected the structure in hopes of bringing the 1932 Pan Am games to Cleveland and/or the 1936 Olympics. The Cleveland team—known as the Indians by this time—played their first game in Municipal Stadium on July 31, 1932 when Mel Harder lost a 1-0 game to Philadelphia’s Lefty Grove. The Depression had severe consequences for ticket sales in Cleveland in the 1930s. I believe that the Indians played all of their home games in 1933 in Municipal Stadium, but then returned to the much smaller but more economical League Park for their home games in 1934 and 1935. In 1936 or so, the Indians switched some or most Sunday games to Municipal Stadium, but played the rest of the week in League Park. Lights for night baseball were installed in Municipal Stadium in 1939, so the Indians began playing some mid-week games there, although many of their home games were played at League Park. Municipal Stadium had one of the largest playing fields in baseball, League Park one of the smallest. It was extremely challenging for management to field a team that could capitalized upon two very different home parks.

Baseball’s greatest and most innovative promoter—Bill Veeck—completed his military service in early 1946 and, by the end of June, had assembled $1.1 million to purchase the Cleveland Indians. He clearly saw the liabilities of playing his home games at League Park with limited seating capacity and lack of parking. The Indians lost their final home game of 1946 to the Tigers on Saturday, September 21 in front of 2,772 fans. Shortly thereafter, Veeck announced that all home games would be played in Municipal Stadium. Fifty-seven years of major league baseball at East 66th and Lexington ended.

Cleveland’s entry in the National Negro League—the Cleveland Buckeyes—played some home games at League Park through 1948. By 1950, the city of Cleveland purchased League Park with the intent of turning it into a recreational area. The grandstand—with the exception of the stands along the first base and right field line—were torn down in 1951 and the field was turned into a grassy playground. The Cleveland Browns used League Park as a practice field through the mid 1960s. Much more recently, the remaining stands from the 1908 park were razed so all that remains is part of the brick wall along 66th Street and the office building shown above along with the State of Ohio Historical Marker.

I have visited East 66th and Lexington a few times in recent years. There is no baseball field layout on the property. Nor is the field particularly well kept. I have never seen youngsters or adults using this park space. Those fascinated by baseball history have a great appreciation for the achievements of those who played at League Park and some understanding of their failures. Cy Young and Bob Feller both became dominating pitchers while playing here. Because of a legal ruling, Nap Lajoie—the leading player of his era—signed with Cleveland in June, 1902 and helped to validate the American League’s claim that it was a true major league and the equal of the long-established National League. Addie Joss, on October 2, 1908, kept Cleveland in the midst of a tight pennant race by throwing a perfect game against the White Sox. This was, arguably, the best pitched game in League Park’s history. In the fifth game of the nine-game 1920 World Series, Cleveland’s second baseman turned the World Series only unassisted double play in League Park. Tris Speaker and Nap Lajoie both got their 3,000th hits in League Park. Given Cleveland’s baseball history, it is discouraging to find such a modest commemoration of achievements at the site of League Park.

It is certainly not possible to preserve the entirely of the Tiger Stadium that now stands at Michigan and Trumbull. One might hope that some components of the field and stands might be retained—perhaps in conjunction with a sports historical center—to commemorate the accomplishments—and failures—of the athletes who played on this site from 1896 through 1999.

Opening of the original baseball park at this site: May, 1891
Opening of the more modern baseball park at this site: April, 1910
Builder of the more modern park: Osborn Engineering
National Register of Historic Places: Listed 1979, Building #79001808
State of Ohio Register of Historic Sites: A State of Ohio Historical Marker is located near the intersection of East 66th and Lexington.
Photograph by Reynolds Farley, April 28, 2007
Description written in June, 2007

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