How a community kept the memory of Black baseball alive in Cleveland
Fannie Lewis and others fought to preserve the history of League Park and the Negro Leagues
The story of America cannot be told accurately without the Black institutions that have shaped it, said Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Black baseball and its ballparks played a significant role in that story, but few remain standing today.
This year marks 100 years since the Negro Leagues played its first game. Among the ballparks that stand on the same grounds where Black baseball teams once played are Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama; Hamtramck Stadium in Hamtramck, Michigan; Hinchliffe Stadium in Paterson, New Jersey; J.P. Small Memorial Stadium in Jacksonville, Florida; Cooper Stadium in Columbus, Ohio; and League Park in Cleveland.
Preserving these ballparks, or at least some part of them, has been a challenge, but a handful of people through the years have made it their mission to save these slices of Black history. Fannie Lewis, a Democratic city councilwoman in Cleveland who led the fight for League Park, was one of them.
“There are very few remnants of ballparks left where the Negro Leagues called home,” Kendrick said. “What Cleveland has done is a great job of not only saving this ballpark, but also of helping preserve the history of the Negro Leagues.”
Black baseball had long died in Cleveland at the turn of the millennium. All that remained was inside League Park — its century-old, 12-foot brick wall near the right-field foul line, its rundown ticket office and the watercolor memories of Game 2 and of the Major League championship the Indians won there in 1920.
The memories and the wall held importance to a Rust Belt city short on sports success. But Cleveland did have Lewis, a sharp-tongued Christian and social activist with Tennessee roots. She refused to let go of the past.
To Lewis, the ballpark was a staple of her East Side ward, a cornerstone of a Hough neighborhood that had declined since 1891 when trolley cars would bring baseball fans to games from downtown Cleveland.
In the early 2000s, she was working with city officials and had her ward on the precipice of an urban renaissance. Saving League Park stood at the center of Lewis’ plans.
A sign in her backyard read: “This project was part of the plan we had for the neighborhood. The Lord gave us the vision. Anybody protesting is working for Satan. Anybody who questions this sign can call Fannie M. Lewis.”
Today, her old neighborhood has rebounded. League Park, one of the oldest ballparks in America, has come back to life, too. Spared from the wrecker’s ball because of Lewis, the venue was reopened Aug. 23, 2014, on the corners of East 66th Street and Lexington Avenue.
Getting to that point didn’t come easily. Lewis fought to preserve the park’s history, but died before her dream of reopening the park was realized.
It was Game 2 in League Park of the 1945 Negro Leagues World Series, and the Cleveland Buckeyes and Washington Homestead Grays were tied 2-2 in the bottom of the ninth inning.
Buckeyes player-manager Quincy Trouppe doubled to open the ninth. Trouppe moved to third on Johnny Wright’s wild pitch, and after Wright walked two batters intentionally to load the bases, pitcher Gene Bremer wrecked that strategy when he hit a walk-off single to score Trouppe.
In season No. 25 of the league, the Buckeyes swept the series, and Game 2 became the last championship baseball game played in League Park, also the home of the Cleveland Indians for the first half of last century.
“Even though this World Series win was the high point of Negro League baseball in Cleveland … it was still a bit bittersweet for them in hindsight,” wrote Stephanie Liscio, former president of the Cleveland chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research.
“Just a month after they closed out their win against the Grays, Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers, a harbinger of the upcoming integration of the formerly all-white major leagues,” Liscio continued.
But League Park didn’t die as soon as Robinson signed with Brooklyn. It died over time — after the Buckeyes disbanded in 1950, and seven decades after Indians owner Bill Veeck abandoned the neighborhood ballpark and moved his team to a stadium downtown.
Through the years, city officials had to decide what to do with the ballpark Cleveland owned. They had few options for a place that seated 22,500 people, and ideas were kicked around town for years.
League Park, where Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak ended July 17, 1941, fell into disrepair slowly. The bleachers in right field, which Babe Ruth’s 500th career home run cleared, came down in the 1950s. In the 1960s, the city found the field too expensive to maintain; it continued to break the site down brick by brick until all that was left was the grandstand wall on East 66th.
In the late 1970s, one of the two newspapers in town pushed an idea to turn the site into a multipurpose sports facility, and the only reason the idea never died like others did was because of one person: Lewis.
She had similar dreams for how to repurpose League Park, but her dreams carried a big price. The price came to $6.3 million.
Fellow council members told Lewis the city didn’t have millions. But she didn’t understand the word “no.”
Lewis marshaled all the resources and political capital she could muster, and as she waited for more help, Lewis kept the brick wall on East 66th from tumbling down like the walls of Jericho.
“It’s definitely a tribute to her that League Park could be saved and restored,” said Bob Zimmer, a local real estate agent who served on the committee to preserve the ballpark.
Lewis, 82 when she died on Aug. 11, 2008, never saw her dream fulfilled. Upon her death, saving League Park fell to a community of people like Zimmer, who all worked to find money to do the project.
They got funding from general-obligation bonds, the Ohio cultural facilities and ward allocation money. The city chipped in $387,000 for architectural plans.
On Oct. 27, 2012, Zimmer, Mayor Frank Jackson, Ward 7 councilman T.J. Dow, the Indians and other dignitaries who lobbied for the project held a ceremonial groundbreaking.
“People will come to Cleveland,” Jackson assured those folks who gathered inside the shell of a ballpark on a cold, rainy day. “One of the historic places they will visit is here.”
The Cleveland Museum of Art and a collection of community organizations commissioned a series of art projects in early 2012 for a celebration of the city, and one of the projects was offered to Jerome T. White, a Black arts teacher at a Cleveland Heights, Ohio, middle school.
“I said, ‘Oh, wow, I always wanted to do some Negro League images,’ ” he said. “I ended up coming up with a concept to go on the inside walls.”
White didn’t describe himself as a die-hard baseball fan. He did say he was a storyteller. As an artist, he had no better story to tell than that of a ballpark with an emerald diamond littered with sports stories.
In the months before the renovations were completed, White finished his nine-panel series of elongated baseball portraits (think of the artsy images used on the TV sitcom Good Times), and he turned the panels into a salute to his deceased grandfather’s love for the game.
He titled his mural Arches of Tradition, which represented stability and a doorway to the future.
White, who spent five months on the arts project, thought about ballplayers he could use as models for his panels (each 4 feet by 8 feet). He settled on eight: Trouppe, Cy Young, Bill Wambsganss, Bob Feller, Satchel Paige, Babe Ruth, Elmer Smith and Tris Speaker. In the ninth panel, White drew himself handing a baseball to his son Solomon, who was then 5.
“The ninth player represented the family — the parent and the child,” White said. “I’m feeling that I’m passing down a tradition to my son.”
They rebuilt League Park, and people have come. While it might not necessarily be the ballpark Lewis envisioned, the place is nothing that she would be ashamed of, said Zimmer, whose Baseball Heritage Museum was moved from its downtown site in the Colonial Marketplace and into the former ticket office at League Park.
Lewis did see a museum as part of the resurrected ballpark.
Zimmer believed the Baseball Heritage Museum, which he opened in 1997, would be a perfect fit there, so he asked the city if he could move the museum to League Park. He waited months to get an answer.
It didn’t come till Aug. 22, 2014, the night before the ballpark reopened. The city told him yes.
He, his brother-in-law and a local moving company then spent 12 hours dismantling the exhibits in the Colonial site and reassembling them in the ballpark.
“We basically put together that exhibit overnight,” Zimmer said. “We were walking out 2:30 in the morning.”
For the reopening hours later, Zimmer was holed up inside the museum, taking some of the 2,000 visitors around and showing off his new location. He missed the pomp that was happening on the ballfield.
He knew League Park, a structure on the National Register of Historic Places, would become a catalyst for local baseball, for the Hough neighborhood and for the region. Zimmer, Jackson and others had taken the dream of one stubborn politician and turned it into a destination, a ballpark with the spirit and soul of Walter Johnson, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, Monte Irvin, Buck Leonard and Judy Johnson in its girders.
“I know that it’s a truly magical place,” Zimmer said. “Every time I go down there — on the field or into the facility — something magical happens.”