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League Park ready to make a big comeback

Former Indians home, long in disrepair but now renovated, to impact community

CLEVELAND -- On the corner of E. 66th St. and Lexington Ave., it had stood as a ramshackle reminder of another time. There were broken windows and rotting brickwork lining its exterior, squatters sleeping in its former ticket booth, weeds springing out from the once-lush field of green where luminaries like Cy Young, Babe Ruth and Bob Feller once roamed.

League Park, a home to the Indians from 1901-46, was not unlike much of its surroundings in the Hough neighborhood, an area long ago known as "Little Hollywood" that became a typical symbol of urban blight in 20th-century America.

But with the help of Cleveland's $6.3 million restoration project, a ballpark that once served as a symbol of Hough's faded past is now the centerpiece of its hopeful future.

The official unveiling will be at 1 p.m. ET Saturday, in a ceremony that will be attended by Mayor Frank Jackson, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown and former Indians Andre Thornton and Travis Hafner, among others. The Cleveland Blues, a vintage baseball club, will take the field, as will the city's RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) team. Hafner will don 1920s-era Tribe garb and put on a home-run-hitting display.

The historical marker in front of the new League Park field.

Those attending will be stunned by League Park's new look.

"It's here," said Michael Cox, the city's director of public works, "and it's beautiful."

The field, now completely covered by synthetic FieldTurf to allow for regular use, has been recovered at its original quirky dimensions (375 feet down the left-field line, 375 to dead center and just 290 to a 45-foot high metal screen in right), and the plan is for it to hold Little League, high school, college and recreational games, as well as potential Indians fantasy camps.

The three-story building that once held the ticket booth and the locker rooms is completely refurbished, and it is now suited to hold a museum to the city's expansive baseball history.

The brick grandstand wall still stands along E. 66th Street, but now its interior features vibrant artwork honoring the greats who played there.

And beyond the first-base line, a brand-new building holds bathrooms, concessions and space for a shop or conference area. There is also, fittingly, a statue of the late councilwoman Fannie Lewis, who championed the League Park project until her death in 2008.

League Park, an Indians home from 1901-46, as it appeared long ago.

To those who both respect the game's past and appreciate its attention to growth in inner-city areas (witness the Chicago and Philadelphia teams that met in the U.S. semifinals of the Little League World Series), League Park's revival is an embraceable endeavor.

"We made this investment," Cox said, "so children could play baseball in a beautiful location. I think it's one of the greatest capital investments we've made. We want to get kids back to playing ball. We want to make League Park a destination."

It certainly once was.

Originally opened in 1891 -- with a game pitched by Young -- League Park housed the 1920 World Series, which featured the first unassisted triple play in Major League history. It housed Feller's first start, that day in 1936 when the 17-year-old Iowa farm boy struck out 15 St. Louis Browns. It housed the 1945 Negro League World Series, which was won by the Cleveland Buckeyes. It housed Addie Joss' 1908 perfect game.

In 1929, Babe Ruth's 500th home run landed on Lexington Avenue, just past that Great Wall in right. The last of Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, in 1941, took place at League Park.

Fielding history
Cleveland's League Park renovation is the latest example of a former big league ballpark finding a new, functional use.
Five former stadiums worth a visit
Sportsman's Park, St. Louis: The site is the home of the Herbert Hoover Boys & Girls Club, and the field area is intact and in use.
Yankee Stadium, New York: Heritage Field opened in 2012 and contains three natural-grass fields.
Tiger Stadium, Detroit: The Tigers' home of 87 years was demolished in 2009, and the land was neglected by the city, but a group of fans, known as the Navin Field Grounds Crew, brought the field back to life. The Detroit Police Athletic League wants to build its headquarters and a youth field there.
Crosley Field, Cincinnati: City Gospel Mission and the Reds Hall of Fame have partnered to create a historic site where the Reds played from 1912-70 and the hope is to have it open in time for the 2015 All-Star Game. There is a functional replica to the old ballpark in the northern suburb of Blue Ash.
Memorial Stadium, Baltimore: The Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation built a youth ballpark -- which can function for baseball, football or soccer -- on the two-acre site on E. 33rd Street.

And for decades, all of that was merely memory, fading by the day, much like Hough itself.

Once dotted with beautiful homes, electric street cars and private schools, Hough's deterioration began during the Great Depression and continued when freeway construction brought the city's low-income residents to its streets and corroding houses. There was racial turmoil that erupted in the famous 1966 Hough riots, and, by century's end, the now predominantly African-American population had plummeted from a mid-1950s mark of more than 65,000 to a total in the mid-teens.

So you really had to squint hard and think long to see and feel the history that had taken place here.

But now you don't have to squint at all.

League Park is the primary -- but not the only -- source of improvement in this once-neglected neighborhood. New homes have been erected on nearby streets, a community-run vineyard named Chateau Hough bottled its first wine this spring, and commercial renovation and landscape improvements have given a slightly new shine to the streets.

A ballpark project of this scope can't cure all that ails an urban area in a poverty-stricken city. But the facility is now back in condition to serve its initial intent of creating communal gatherings.

"I'm telling you, we've had calls from people and organizations in the neighborhood, and they're so excited," Cox said. "It's this lovely, beautiful piece sitting right there in the neighborhood."

League Park is back in business.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.
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