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Monday, Sep 22, 2014

The Sports Bookie

A sports blog by Bob D'Angelo

Bob is a longtime member of the Florida sports media, having served as a reporter and copy editor for more than 30 years. His true sports passion, however, is the history of the various games, exhibited by his in-depth book reviews and hobby of collecting cards and other sports memorabilia.

A look at Cleveland’s venerable League Park


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Cy Young pitched a no-hitter and Addie Joss was perfect there. It’s a ballpark where Babe Ruth hit his 500th homer, Bob Feller made his major-league debut, and Nap Lajoie and Tris Speaker notched their 3,000th career hits. It’s also the place where Ted Williams hit the only inside-the-park home run of his career to help the Boston Red Sox clinch the 1946 pennant.

The first grand slam and unassisted triple play in World Series history happened there — during Game 5 of the 1920 classic. That helped the Cleveland Indians clinch their first Series title there with a victory in Game 7. And in 1899, the Cleveland Spiders called it home during a horrific 20-134 season.

League Park has seen some great days — and Saturday, it comes back to life.

The Cleveland landmark hosted major-league baseball from 1891 to 1946, and Negro Leagues baseball until 1950. On Saturday at 1 p.m., a $6.3 million restoration project comes to fruition as the old ballpark on East 66th Street and Lexington Avenue will reopen for Little League, high school and college baseball games.

For history buffs who enjoy old ballparks, “League Park: Historic Home of Cleveland Baseball, 1891-1946” (McFarland; paperback; $39.95; 228 pages) is a nice, timely read. Authors Ken Krsolovic and Bryan Fritz have put together a well-researched look at one of major-league baseball’s quirkier ballparks. League Park was a cozy 290 feet down the right-field line — but there was a high wall that kept baseballs in the park. It was 385 feet down the left-field line and center field was a distant 460 feet.

The book is generously sprinkled with vintage black-and-white photos of the park, which also was used for college and pro football (the NFL’s Rams played several games there en route to winning the league title in 1945) and boxing matches.

Although the book was published last year, the authors devote plenty of space to the restoration project that rescued the ballpark from decay in a blighted area of Cleveland.

What makes this book interesting are all of the big events that took place at League Field. Before Cleveland’s American League squad debuted there in 1901, League Park hosted several games of the Temple Cup (the 1890s version of the World Series) in 1892 and in 1895, when Cleveland notched its first professional sports title.

Young threw the first pitch at League Park on May 1, 1891. The right-field wall was a mere 240 feet from the plate that day, but Young was pitching from 55 feet (the current distance of 60 feet, 6 inches would go into effect in 1893). That was a great equalizer, as the Spiders won 12-3. Young also pitched in the first game at League Park when it opened as a concrete-and-steel park, in 1910.

The Indians vacated League Park in 1933 for Municipal Stadium, but the team returned to their old home the following season. But the old park’s fate would be sealed over the next 12 years as the Indians would split their time between the two stadiums.

The Indians did manage to use both parks to their advantage, particularly in 1940 when Cleveland contended for the pennant and switched game sites at midseason. The authors note that Cleveland opponents accused the team of “putting weaker-hitting foes in League Park,” while the better-hitting teams were sent to toil in the more spacious dimensions of Municipal Stadium.

The authors include several appendices, including year-by-year results, significant box scores, and “Dunn Field Pointers,” an information booklet for fans. League Park was briefly renamed Dunn Field to honor its owner, James Dunn.

Nostalgic baseball fans wax poetic about demolished parks like Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds, Crosley Field, Shibe Park and Forbes Field. But League Park deserves some love, too. Krsolovic and Fritz blow off the dust surrounding this venerable park and make it seem shiny and new again — like it will be Saturday when it reopens.

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