By Glen Sparks
Ballparks made of wood posed at least one big problem. They didn’t take well to matches.
More than a few old wooden parks turned into kindling overnight. National League Park in Philadelphia burned to the ground in 1894. Fire broke out at Brooklyn’s Washington Park in 1889 and Cincinnati’s League Park in 1901. Several other parks, major league and minor, also went up in flames during this time.
Frank DeHaas Robinson, owner of the Cleveland Indians, didn’t take any chances. He upgraded League Park before the start of the 1910 season. Workers took out the wooden grandstand and installed a double-decked steel-and-concrete one.
Robinson, a street-car tycoon, built the original League Park in 1891. He put it at the corner of Lexington Avenue and East 66th Street, a spot conveniently served by two of his trolley lines. On May 1, 1891, Cleveland, behind the great Cy Young, defeated Cincinnati 12-3 in front of a sellout crowd of 9,000 fans at game No. 1.
League Park, both the old and new versions, had some funky dimensions. Like most parks, it was built into the neighborhood. One saloon owner and two homeowners ensured that the park would not be symmetrical. The three decided not to sell; League was built around those sites.
The left-field foul pole stood a distant 375 feet from home plate. The right-field foul pole, much to the delight of left-handed pull hitters and to the dismay of pitchers, loomed just 290 feet from the plate, inviting any number of cheap-shot round-trippers every season.
Ernest S. Barnard, president of the Indians, made the new League a bit more challenging for hitters and a bit safer for pitchers. He ordered the installation of a 40-foot-high wall in right. (By comparison, the fabled Green Monster in left field at Boston’s Fenway Park stands just taller than 37 feet.)
On this date in 1910, the Indians played their first game in the renovated League Park. The home team shut out the Detroit Tigers 5-0. League would serve as the Indians’ home until they moved to Municipal Stadium full-time in 1947. (The team began playing part of its schedule at Municipal in 1932.)
League stood as an impressive red brick building in the Hough neighborhood for decades. Much of the park was demolished in 1951, although the NFL’s Cleveland Browns still used it as a practice field for many years. Now, the site is a public park. The restored ticket house features a baseball heritage museum, while a new artificial turf field hosts youth baseball and softball games.
Babe Ruth walloped his 500th home run at League Park. Joe DiMaggio hit in his 56th consecutive game there. Bob Feller struck out 17 batters at League when he was 17 years old, and Johnny Burnett collected nine hits at League during an 18-ininng game on July 10, 1932.
Wes Ferrell, one of the all-time great Cleveland pitchers, remembered what it was like seeing League Park for the first time, as a 19-year-old in 1927.
“Biggest thing I ever saw in my life,” he said in the book Lost Ballparks by Lawrence Ritter. “They called this a ballpark? I couldn’t believe it. Then I heard a little noise in the back of my mind: major league.”