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Baseball alive once more at Cleveland's League Park

Ceremony held Saturday to reopen historic ballpark

CLEVELAND -- After putting the finishing touches on his collection of baseball artifacts, Bob Zimmer walked through the doors of the old ticket house and strolled through the plaza within the walls of Cleveland's League Park.

It was nearing midnight on Friday and Zimmer -- the founder of the Baseball Heritage Museum -- wanted to savor a dream turned reality. League Park, the former home of the Indians and the Buckeyes of the Negro League, had emerged from decades of decay and was once again a beautiful sight to behold.

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"I was the only one here," Zimmer said. "It was just me and the field and all the energy. It was just unbelievable. It made me feel fantastic. I'm in heaven. We're in a magical location now, and it's like heaven."

Baseball was alive again at the corner of E. 66th St. and Lexington Ave. on Saturday.

With a group of dignitaries on hand, and a considerable crowd in attendance on a sun-splashed afternoon, the city of Cleveland held a ceremony to reopen League Park in the East Side's Hough neighborhood. A group of children strolled through the gates, walking under the park's bright new sign, carrying a banner to begin the grand opening.

The Indians were represented by former outfielder Andre Thornton, who served as a master of ceremonies, and by former designated hitter Travis Hafner, who put on a power display during a home run derby. Team president Mark Shapiro was also on hand, smiling as he watched fans flock to the site for the day's events.

"One of the separators for Cleveland baseball is the tradition and the history," Shapiro said. "So, to see this organically where it belongs, restored to this level of a pristine facility, is a tribute to the city and all the people that were behind making it a reality.

"To know that baseball is going to be played here by kids, on the exact same ground that Hall of Famers played, is an incredible thing."

League Park originally opened in on May 1, 1891, when Cy Young fired the first pitch for the Cleveland Spiders in a contest against the Cincinnati Redlegs. Cleveland began playing at the ballpark as an American League club in 1901 and remained until moving to Cleveland Municipal Stadium on a full-time basis after the 1946 season.

Addie Joss threw a perfect game against the White Sox at League Park in 1908, Elmer Smith belted the first grand slam in World Series history there in 1920 and a 17-year-old Bob Feller toed the rubber in the big leagues for the first time at the stadium in 1936. The Cleveland Buckeyes won the Negro League World Series there in 1945.

In 1929, Babe Ruth settled into the left-handed batter's box, scorched a pitch to Lexington Ave. and collected his 500th home run. The last hit in Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak also took place at League Park, which closed its doors to professional baseball after 1950.

With League Park's quirky dimensions restored -- 385 feet down the left-field line, more than 460 feet to dead center and just 290 down the right-field line -- Hafner donned a 1920s-era Cleveland uniform, stood where Ruth stood and launched some home runs for the fans. He finished with nine shots to Lexington Ave., with a handful clearing the 45-foot-tall fence down the right-field line.

"I was really unaware of the history of this ballpark until this week," Hafner said. "Just learning about a lot of the great things that happened here, and all the history, it was pretty special to be out here today. It's a really big park."

Told that the 45-foot wall used to extend even further toward center field, Hafner laughed.

"That would've been, 'Good luck with that,'" he said.

Following Hafner's show, a Cleveland R.B.I. (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) youth team took the field.

The $6.3 million restoration project made the new park the first Major League field restored for the purpose of community use. As a result of multiple community meetings with input from people from the Hough neighborhood, there is a walking track around the park and a splash area for kids, among other amenities.

Late councilwoman Fannie. M. Lewis was also honored with a statue, considering her role in originally pushing for the project.

The playing surface is made up of FieldTurf to help with other events besides baseball. There is an auxiliary building on the grounds with the original dugout steps intact inside. An original wall along E. 66th St. still stands with artwork of baseball greats on display. The old ticket house is now home to Zimmer's Baseball Heritage Museum (founded in 1997).

"Cleveland has a lot of historical assets," Cleveland mayor Frank G. Jackson said. "The purpose of maintaining them is so that we can know who we are. It's important to know who we are, and it's important for us to know what we're about today and where we want to go in the future.

"An investment in this park, in this neighborhood, is a recognition of the greatness of Hough and the greatness of this asset, League Park, and what it has meant to Major League Baseball and the old Negro League."

Bob DiBiasio, the Indians' vice president of public affairs, was involved in the process to help with the historical elements of the reimagined facility.

"It's a special day. There's no question," DiBiasio said. "It's our first home, so of course we wanted to be involved. We played a role of just being a helping hand throughout the process, providing the historical context to it all. Obviously, moving forward, the city looks at this as a renaissance for the neighborhood."

Zimmer certainly feels a sense of responsibility in that regard.

"Now, we're sort of the caretakers," he said. "My hope is that, not only is this going to continue to get people interested in baseball, but this should be a catalyst for redevelopment in the Hough neighborhood."

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for Read his blog, Major League Bastian, and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian.

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