League Park is Stitching Together the Past and Future of Cleveland

click to enlarge League Park is Stitching Together the Past and Future of Cleveland
Since reopening to the public in 2014, League Park has grown into its latest iteration in the annals of Cleveland history: as ballfield, a museum and a platform for programming that blends legendary moments of the past with a city's hope for the future. From jazz concerts to youth clinics, the new League Park has become a gathering point for Clevelanders who share a love of baseball. And there's much more to come.

Scene stopped out at the field this week to learn more about what's been happening on the city-owned property lately. The Baseball Heritage Museum, located in what was once the old ticket house, is gearing up for a "Sandlot Roundtable" this weekend, where former Sandlot League players will talk about the impact of those leagues on the city and on the Cleveland Indians.

Six players will talk ball from noon to 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 12, at the visitors center at League Park. The event is free.

"We want to look back with these guys and talk about what Sandlot basbeball was like in that time period," Morris Eckhouse says. He's the special projects coordinator at the museum, and he's been busy lately, between working an ongoing book discussion series, public events like this one and an upcoming three-day event in honor of Latino and African American ball players breaking the color barrier. "That's one of the great things about baseball: There are so many different ways you can dive into it."

Indeed, the Baseball Heritage Museum packs a lot of history into a concise space. Colorful diagrams of old fields and games in Cleveland sit alongside photos of legendary players and glass cases of authentic gear: uniforms, balls, bats, equipment bags that were once lugged from game to game in tireless pursuit of the purity of baseball. Nobby Lewandowski, a Sandlot pitcher who will be at this weekend's event, has a case all to himself: His Wenham Truckers uniform stands proudly.

On several placards, the design schemes for an old-time soda fountain called Charlie's Place are on view. The idea is to build this ode to an earlier era on the opposite corner of East 66th and Lexington, in a building that once housed a drug store across the street from the field. Indians outfielder Charlie Jamieson loved a good chocolate soda after his games; this will be another enticing way of honoring a local legend and giving back to the neighborhood.

click to enlarge Elmer Flick, in the Baseball Heritage Museum at League Park. - ERIC SANDY / SCENE
Elmer Flick, in the Baseball Heritage Museum at League Park.
Outside the museum, a concrete path specked with noteworthy years stretches at an odd angle from Lexington Avenue toward the visitors center near home plate. The line marks the back of the original grandstand, which stood tall over the surrounding Hough neighborhood in the early 20th century. (The field is decked out in fine astroturf these days, and it's situated in the same position as it was in its heyday. The right field wall is still only 290 feet from home, with a 40-foot fence installed to replicate what once lined East 66th Street.)

Eckhouse rattles off the historical moments that happened on these very grounds: Bob Feller's debut, Bill Wambsganss's unassisted triple play in the 1920 World Series, Babe Ruth's 500th home run in 1929. "Most of the great legends from the late 19th century through the mid-20th century played here," he says.

Nearby, paintings of iconic Cleveland Spiders, Naps and Indians stand behind a bust of the late former councilwoman Fannie Lewis, credited with using her position and voice to save League Park from being destroyed entirely. It's a stirring procession of images along the third base line.

The underlying point, it seems, is that new memories and new histories are being created each day, thanks to the devotion of people like Lewis. The future becomes the past, which becomes the future again.

Bob Zimmer, the museum's president, joins us as we're walking off the field. He's got big plans, and his team seems eager to see them through. League Park is back — different this time, rising once again to meet fate anew, like a ball player eyeing the perpetual full count of Cleveland history. "This is holy ground for baseball," he says. "It's magic."