Before Progressive Field, before Municipal Stadium, there was League Park. And this past Saturday, a healthy crowd came out to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the reopening of this historic landmark, sponsored by the League Park Society and the Cleveland Blues.
The threat of rain didn’t keep people away from the corner of East 66th and Lexington. They came to take in a little history and to see a baseball game, played on the same grounds that once fielded legends like Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Cy Young and “Shoeless” Joe Jackson.
But this was no ordinary baseball game. Saturday’s match was played in the vintage style, with 1800s rules. And one of the most noticeable differences is what players of this era didn’t use. Tony Madalone, founder of Fresh Brewed Tees, observed this immediately.
“I walked up to the game and was confused that nobody was wearing any gloves,” he said. “It’s got to hurt when they catch some of those balls.”
Yes, one of the many differences in the rules of the vintage-style game: no gloves. Infielders and outfielders – or base tenders and scouts as they were called at the time – make all plays in the field without the benefit of a nice, padded mitt. This undoubtedly leads to some well-callused hands for members on each team.
The match featured two local vintage teams: the Cleveland Blues and the Forest City Base Ball Club. Dressed for the part and using authentic equipment of the era, they warmed up on the hallowed grounds of League Park. In attendance were Lakewood Mayor Ed Fitzgerald, honorary captain Frank Vitolo (who threw out the first pitch), and No. 1 Indians fan and drummer John Adams.
“I’m happy to be here,” Adams said. “I’ll be out here drumming away and rooting for the Blues.”
The game itself was a back-and-forth affair, and Adams had several opportunities to beat his famous drum. Rob Campbell from the Cleveland Indians PR department marveled at how much the game has changed.
“I played college ball and this is much, much different,” he said. “It’s great to be out here at League Park to see the roots of the game. They really bring it to life.”
Throughout the match, the umpire – or Arbiter as he was known back then – explained differences in the rules to the crowd. For instance, catching the ball on one hop means the batter (or striker) is out, but runners can advance without tagging up.
Blues hurler (pitcher) and captain Jay “Tomahawk” Demagall drew laughs from the crowd when explaining the rules of a strikeout: “There are no balls and strikes. A batter gets three swings and misses. We only had one strikeout last season,” said Tomahawk as he grabbed the shoulder of one of his teammates, “and he’ll remain nameless.”
The match ended in an 8-8 tie after 11 innings, a fitting conclusion for two teams who played competitively while entertaining the crowd with a unique style of play. The real winner of the day was League Park itself, which garnered attention once again.
Paul Mazoh from Bertman’s Ball Park Mustard, a Cleveland condiment staple, reiterated the importance of the day.
“We wanted to help out today’s event by donating some of our mustard,” he said. “We’re here in support of League Park and are hoping to see it return to its former glory.”
And events like this, where supporters of League Park can join together, help to move this process along. But there’s still plenty of work to be done. In order to protect the remaining pieces of the original structure, a restoration has to occur. Currently, only the ticket building and the wall along the first-base line are still standing. It was evident from the turnout on Saturday that there are plenty in Cleveland willing to keep the spirit of League Park alive.
Forest City captain Mark Cammock summed it up best as he introduced his team.
“It’s an honor and a privilege to be here today,” he said. “This is a place where the boys of summer are boys forever.”