Book Review: Where Cleveland Played

Where Cleveland Played is now available at online and brick-and-mortar bookstores.

   [editor's note: LGT's jhon was kind enough to provide his insight on Cleveland's past ballparks in this review of Where Cleveland Played. (Ryan).]

I recently picked up a copy of Morris Eckhouse and Greg Crouse’s Where Cleveland Played.  The book highlights four of Cleveland's lost sports landmarks: League Park, Cleveland Arena, Richfield Coliseum, and Cleveland Municipal Stadium.  The former isn’t completely lost, as my brother joeee pointed out in a post from a couple of years ago.  Other assorted relics from each of these monuments are preserved in garages all over Northeast Ohio, and you can still find the neon Wahoo that once adorned Cleveland Municipal Stadium illuminated over at the Western Reserve Historical Society. 

 

Reading this book reminds us why we treasure these memories so much.  While tales of great games and legendary athletes feature most prominently in E & C’s account, the book does a good job of portraying the unique look and feel of each venue.  I’ll add that the qualities of each of these landmarks also says a lot about the development of Cleveland and the history of city building in 20th century America.

 

The holidays are approaching, and I can recommend this book as a gift for the inveterate Cleveland sports fan or history buff you may know. At a well-illustrated 137 pages, this book is a breezy page-turner and a useful companion for a flight from, say, Midway to Hopkins, or LaGuardia to Akron-Canton.

 

The following is my own tour of these four places:


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League Park

 

I’m sure most of you are aware that League Park—the wooden version—was the original home of our Cleveland Indians.  The masonry and steel League Park depicted here was constructed in 1910, and designed by Cleveland’s own Osborn Engineering, the HOK Sport (now Populous) of their time.  Osborn went on to build most of baseball’s early cathedrals in other cities, and collaborated with Walker and Weeks on Municipal Stadium—League Park’s eventual replacement—two decades later.  The Indians continued to play weekday games here through 1946, when maverick owner Bill Veeck made Municipal the team’s full-time home.  League Park played host to not just the 1920 World Champion Indians, but also Cleveland’s early football clubs and the Cleveland Buckeyes of the Negro Leagues, a team that won a World Series title in 1945.

 

The Park’s most distinguished feature was the 45 foot high wall necessitated by the very short (290 foot) distance to the right field foul pole.  This site-induced nonconformity is so extreme that it wouldn’t possibly be imagined for newer parks, even as contemporary designs strive to reintroduce vintage quirks like variable wall heights and angles, in-play flagpoles and ramped field surfaces.  I’d love it if an enterprising reader could illuminate for us how the "park effects" played out here.

 

The original Park was financed by Frank Robison, owner both of the Cleveland Spiders and the streetcar line adjacent to the new Park.  The streetcar is, presumably, how most of the 20,000 or so event spectators traveled to and from a Park nestled in the Hough street grid, a largely residential neighborhood several miles from downtown.  In American cities, streetcars such as the Robison / Lexington line were not exactly public transit as we now know it, but rather privately funded ventures that facilitated the sales of new outlying developments.  This system had its shortcomings.  Streetcar lines were independently operated, radiating from the central city with few if any arterial linkages.  Cities also tightly regulated transit fares, and operators had little incentive to maintain their lines beyond their initial development.  Consequently, cities like Cleveland absorbed these failing enterprises during the Depression and continued to run them for a time.  The Indians left League Park for good at the end of the 1946 campaign, and the city’s last streetcar ceased operations in 1954.

 

With a few exceptions, most urban parks built during this era were abandoned by the 1960s as the automobile became the preferred mode of transportation.  Had Cleveland voters not approved a referendum to finance the construction of multi-purpose Cleveland Stadium in 1928—less than a year before the onset of the Great Depression—it is conceivable that the Tribe would have played at League Park into the 1960s.  Or perhaps our team—and not the Washington Senators—might have used the decline of Hough in the 1950s as a pretext for a move to Minneapolis or elsewhere.  Charming though League Park must have been, it was not a facility destined for a useful life into the 21st century.

 

Hough is, incidentally, the neighborhood where my family had lived before leaving for the eastern suburbs at the end of the 1950s, along with the vast majority of the area whites.  Black-flight followed after the riots of the late 1960s.  Despite a faint comeback in the 1990s, this area has ever since been one of Cleveland’s most downtrodden neighborhoods.

 

Joeee—let’s call him Joey—and I have returned to the League Park site several times since his post.  Joey’s post informed me of a reasonably ambitious study conducted during Mayor Campbell’s administration that proposed incorporating remnants of the Park in a plan for improving the recreational use of the site (it currently is a nearly featureless city park).  A few years ago the city committed some initial funding to the project, but all progress has since ceased and it’s not likely to resume anytime soon.  Park improvements are evidently a low priority for the city given the current state of affairs, but it remains an appealing concept should fortunes change. 

 

E & C describe a number of historical events that took place at League Park in detail, but here I will recount one interesting story: the first ever all-star game was held here to raise money for the survivors of Indians legend Addie Joss, who had died suddenly at age 31.  This is a hotly debated point on LGT, but Joss was in my view certainly not a hack.

 

 

Cleveland Arena

 

The Cleveland Arena was built in 1937 on the former Brush estate near 36th Street and between Chester and Euclid Avenues, roughly one mile from downtown.  This section of Euclid Avenue had by this time been retrofitted into a busy commercial corridor from what had been an elegant sanctuary of the city’s uber-wealthy.  Incidentally, one of those ancient mansions still neighbors the site where the arena stood.  The illustrious names—Hanna, Rockefeller, et al.—who resided here had long since moved on to places like Bratenahl, Gates Mills, Hunting Valley, and New York. 

 

The Arena’s primary tenant was the Cleveland Barons of the American Hockey League, but it was, like Cleveland Municipal Stadium, a workhouse of a venue.  As E & C point out, it hosted boxing, pre-Cavalier basketball, Elvis and other early Rock & Roll acts.  The Cavaliers played their first seasons here before moving to Richfield.

 

The Arena was demolished in 1977.  From an architectural standpoint, it was not an icon like Municipal Stadium or even the Coliseum, but it was nevertheless a very fine building that was well-integrated into what urban designers might call the "urban fabric."  The Arena was built to the edge of the sidewalk rather than setback, and it featured retail at-grade and a level of offices above, with the arena structure sited on the interior of the block.  This is a program similar to what exists at newer arenas like the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.  The Gateway complex would have benefited if Gund / Quicken Loans Arena had been conceived of with a similar mix of uses, but instead the Gund is a fairly dull and inanimate building.  In its next incarnation—should there be one—designers might look to the Cleveland Arena as an example of good urban form.

 

 

 

Richfield Coliseum

 

The Coliseum was the brainchild of Nick Mileti, and it adheres to the logic of Mall developers at the time: locate where an arterial route and a major thoroughfare intersect, land an anchor tenant and away you go.  Richfield had its anchor, but subsequent development never took hold, a fate that puzzled Mileti.  "It has so much potential," he explained.  The development potential Mileti envisioned eventually appeared elsewhere, in Southgate, Crocker Park and Legacy Village.  E & C cite the remoteness of the site as the problem—or rather the perception of distance that the rural site had on an urban fanbase.  The Coliseum was theoretically accessible to more than five million people, but not exactly near to anyone.  Obviously its location was highly inaccessible to anyone who depended on transit.  I didn’t attend many games here, but the biggest impression I have of the place is the extreme traffic jam my family faced when we tried to exit the complex.  The congestion has permanently cleared, and the site is today a peaceful meadow within the Cuyahoga Valley Naitonal Park.

 

Mileti, who also owned the Indians for a time, seems to me like a creature of the 1970s.  He had a glamorous "super loge" in the Coliseum that is nicely documented by E & C.  I’m sure he could throw a helluva party.  Jordan’s Shot may have been the Coliseum’s defining event, but the building was not without it’s happier moments: roughly twenty years ago the Cavs beat the Miami Heat in this building by an NBA record margin of 148-80.

 


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Cleveland Municipal Stadium

 

Last but not least, our tour reaches Cleveland Municipal Stadium.  This was truly a "people’s stadium."  Supported by a city referendum, it was pitched to the public as a multi-purpose facility and wholly financed by a bond issue.  Although the 1932 Summer Olympics never came, as was hoped, the city got its money's worth from the damned thing, never mind the nickname "mistake by the lake" ascribed to it.  Municipal lasted over 60 years, and it saw a lot of action, even if it is characterized by perennial low attendance.  Municipal was the first of the modern multi-purpose stadiums, and it is perhaps underrated as a sports landmark.  As multi-purpose stadiums go, which ones had more character than old Municipal?  Which saw so much action?  Fulton-County, Riverfront, Three Rivers, and Jack Murphy survived for only 30 years.  The Kingdome lasted, what, a mere 20 years?  For what it was, Municipal was the best of the bunch.

 

The stadium was very big and very fun.  I attended many games here in my early youth, including Thome’s home debut, and I can testify to the plausibility of Odradek’s story of his father getting in a fist fight in the stands here.  The infamous 10-cent beer night riot sort of makes sense in this context, but this was also the site of happier events like the ’48 World Series championship, the racial integration of the American League, and many other tales that you can read about in E & C’s book. 

 

My favorite memory of the old stadium occurred during another traffic jam.  Our family was trying to exit the Muni Parking garage after a victory when we encountered severe congestion.  We were in agony until some guy in a wood-clad station wagon started to lay on his horn in an upbeat, musical rhythm.  Other cars joined in, and soon the garage reverberated with the sounds of a hundred car horns in spontaneous unison.  Even my dad joined in, the only time I can recall him ever laying on the horn in our presence.  Our family of five erupted in laughter and we seemed to sail out of that garage in no time.

 


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Progress

 

When so many memories are attached to a place, it starts to take on a special quality.  We tend to not let go of these memories easily.  Why else would there be any impulse to restore what remains of League Park?  Jacobs Field—excuse me, Progressive Field—is one of the more hallowed places in my own mind.  I make a pilgrimage to an actual game here at least once every year, and I admire it all the time in my view from the road.  I worked in the stands here for one spring and summer during high school, and when I’d walk through the main gates I was aware that I was doing something that I’d reflect on warmly on as an old man.  The Indians are now entering their 18th season in the "new" park.  It now has a rich history of its own, but its story is far from finished. 

 

Reading this book may give you a better sense of the club’s history, and it might also help you better appreciate where we’re at today, especially since recent history has been somewhat discouraging.  But I’m not just talking about history in the grand Ken Burnsian way, but about real sensational stuff.  On any given night at the ballpark you might see a perfect game, or a four home run breakout, or a spectacular home run robbery, or even a small riot.

 

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