Once upon a time in League Park

Fairy tales can come true…it can happen to you…yeah, right! Let’s get real here. Life ain’t no fairy tale—but sometimes reality goes beyond your wildest dreams.

Consider the case of fans attending the Indians-A’s game at League Park in Cleveland on July 10, 1932. The next Indians home game, a contest against the Yankees scheduled for July 26, was set for mammoth Cleveland Stadium, which had opened the year before but had not hosted major league ball. So the July 10 contest, a make-up game, was to be the Tribe’s last game at League Park. Under the original schedule, a June 30 contest against Detroit would have been the final contest at League Park.

But the match-up is more than just a chance to bid farewell to an aging (in use since 1891) ballpark. The visiting A’s have just reeled off three straight pennants. In truth, the dynasty was starting to wane, but this was before Connie Mack (he was 70 years old in 1932) was forced to peddle his star players to pay his bills.

Cleveland fans on this day will have the opportunity to see Jimmie Foxx in the middle of one of his greatest seasons. He would go on to lead the league in numerous departments: 58 homers, 169 RBIs, 151 runs scored, 438 total bases, and a .749 slugging percentage.

But the A’s were more than the Double X show in 1932. Al Simmons led the league with 216 hits. Shortstop Eric McNair chipped in with 47 doubles to lead the league in that department. Mickey Cochrane, Bing Miller, Jimmie Dikes, and Mule Haas were still around. Lefty Grove also had one of his best seasons with 27 victories, but he is not scheduled to pitch on July 10, 1932. He will play a part in Cleveland baseball history three weeks hence, however.

Just past the midway point of the season, the A’s are enjoying a 47-33 season, while the Indians are right behind them at 43-35. Unfortunately for both teams, the Yankees are 52-24. The A’s would go on to finish the season at 94-60, good enough for a pennant, or at least a pennant race, most years. But they would finish in second place, 13 games behind the 107-47 Yankees. The Indians would finish fourth at 87-65. The Senators enjoyed a late-season surge, finishing in third place, one game behind the A’s, at 93-61.

This particular day on the schedule is unusual for both teams. For the A’s, it is a single road game shoehorned between four home double-headers (they have just played six games in three days against the White Sox). For the Indians, it is just a taste of home cooking, a home game sandwiched between two road double-headers, the first in Washington (ending a nine-game road trip) and the second in Philadelphia (starting a 15-game road trip). Neither team has a travel day.

As fate would have it, the Indians and the A’s will play the equivalent of a double-header this day in Cleveland, as it will take 18 innings to conclude the affair.

More than 80 years after the fact, it’s hard to say why this make-up game was scheduled on this particular day. The A’s will make two more road trips to Cleveland later in the season, and it would seem to make more sense to re-schedule the game for one of those trips rather than have both teams travel to Cleveland for just one game.

Mack’s pitching staff is understandably tired. After six games from July 7-9 and with two more scheduled on July 11, his hurlers desperately need some rest. Also, this is the Depression, and travel costs are a big part of the budget. So Mack leaves all but two of his pitchers behind in Philadelphia. Rookie Lew Krausse and Eddie Rommel are the only pitchers available on this day in Cleveland.

Had he known his team was going to play 18 innings, Mack doubtless would have brought some reinforcements. Surely, he would not have taken out Krausse after one inning (even though he had given up three earned runs on four hits and one walk) had he known what he was in for.

Krausse, by the way, is the father of the Lew Krausse who pitched for the Kansas City A’s in the 1960s and had a much longer career than his father. Both were born in Media, Pa., the town where I grew up.

At any rate, when Rommel came into the game with his team behind, 3-2, he knew he would have to pitch at least seven innings to lose the game and eight innings to win it. Unless the game turned into a rout and a position player took the mound to eat some innings, Rommel was out there for the remainder of the game.

Rommel had been a durable starting pitcher for the A’s. He twice led the American League in victories (27 in 1922 and 21 in 1925), and twice in losses (23 in 1921 and 19 in 1923). A knuckleball pioneer, he is now, at age 34, a relief specialist.

Well, the knuckler must not have been working too well when he took the mound, as the Indians hammered Rommel. But Indians starter Clint Brown was also ineffective, giving up eight runs and 13 hits in 6.2 innings. He yielded to Willis Hudlin, whose sole contribution was to walk two hitters during the seven-run Philadelphia seventh inning.

Hudlin gave way to Wes Ferrell, who also had his troubles, as he immediately gave up a two-run homer to Foxx. Even so, Ferrell had a chance to win the game in regulation, as the Indians answered the A’s seven-run seventh with six runs of their own to take a 14-13 lead.

After a scoreless eighth inning, Ferrell could notch a victory with one more scoreless inning. But given the A’s firepower, that was not a gimme. The A’s plated two in the ninth to gain a 15-14 advantage, but the Indians responded with a run to tie the game at 15 after nine innings. After that, Ferrell and Rommel found their grooves, and it was all goose eggs for the next six innings.

In the top of the 16th, Foxx hit a two-run homer, but the Indians came back with two in the bottom of the inning. The 17th was scoreless, but the A’s managed to score once in the 18th. The Indians did not score in the bottom of the frame, and so it went into the books as an A’s victory, 18-17, in 18 innings.

By any criteria, it was a remarkable contest. Given the demands the schedule had placed on both teams, it was almost superhuman. Consider the following:

The major league record for hits in one game was set by Indians shortstop Johnny Burnett, who had nine safeties (seven singles, two doubles) in 11 trips to the plate. One hesitates to say it’s a record that will never be broken—theoretically, any player in any game of sufficient duration could do it—but it would be highly unlikely.

First of all, one would have to come to bat nine times just to have a chance to tie the record. And one would have to have eight hits during the previous eight trips to the plate. Even for the most long-lived ballplayer, the opportunity to do that would approach zero. In fact, while a few players (Rocky Colavito in 1962, Cesar Gutierrez in 1970 and Rennie Stennett in 1975) have come up with seven hits in one game, no one has ever had eight. So Burnett has a buffer zone around his record of nine.

One feels duty-bound to report that the Giants’ Freddie Lindstrom also got nine hits in one day, but that was a double-header (June 25, 1928 against the Phillies). Lindstrom’s achievement was notable but not quite as surprising as Burnett’s. Lindstrom was something of a hitting machine in 1928, leading the league with 231 hits.

At least Lindstrom and his teammates came away with two victories. Burnett’s record is an ironic one, as he achieved it in a losing cause. It’s hard to imagine a player enjoying such an offensive outburst and not leading his team to victory. But it was truly a team effort: The losing Indians amassed a league record of 33 hits in one game. The victorious A’s had a “mere” 25 hits.

It is indeed unusual that a player who retired with just 521 hits in nine seasons holds the major league record for hits in a game. Yet Burnett enhanced his place in Cleveland Indians history less than a month later by hitting the first home run at Cleveland Stadium on Aug. 7 in a 7-4 victory over the Senators. Again, he was hardly the most likely player to achieve this distinction, as he averaged just one home run a year over his nine-year career.

To be precise, Burnett’s homer was the first over-the-fence home run at Cleveland Stadium. The first home run in Cleveland Stadium occurred on July 15, 1931, when the first baseball game (albeit amateur) was played. The home run was an inside-the-park job during a contest between two sandlot teams. (How’s that for research, sports fans?)

But on July 10, 1932, Burnett is just one of several players who distinguished themselves. For one thing, Foxx hit three home runs. That’s not a record, but it’s not something you see every day. Hard to believe, but during that game, Foxx passed the 100 mark in RBIs, and the three homers gave him 33 for the season. Remember, this was only July 10. At game’s end, he was hitting .383. I think one could say, with justification, he was on a tear.

But there were other offensive heroes, as one might expect in a game that features 35 runs. There were five men with five or more hits. Joining Burnett on the Indians were center fielder Earl Averill and first baseman Ed Morgan with five knocks each. For the A’s, Foxx had six hits (and eight RBIs) and Simmons had five.

And let’s not overlook the beleaguered pitchers. Rommel pitched 17 innings that day (that was more than one fourth of his total for the season). True, he gave up 29 hits, a major league record for one pitcher in a single game, but at least he came away with a victory.

It was about as hard-fought a victory as any pitcher ever achieved, and there was a subsequent price to pay. The marathon effort was Rommel’s swan song. He was never the same after that game, and Mack released him at season’s end. As it turned out, that July 10 victory was his first of the 1932 season and the last (No. 171) of his major league career.

They say you never forget your first, and I’m sure Rommel remembered his first win in 1920, but it certainly couldn’t have been more memorable than his last. Not that anyone need weep for Rommel. He had a 13-year career as an American League pitcher (all with the A’s), and for an encore, he spent 22 years as an American League umpire.

Surely, the fans at League Park that day would never forget July 10, 1932. The box score of the game does not list the attendance, and there is no way to figure out how many fans were still around at the finish, but those who stayed until then had seen a game for the ages. The aftertaste was bittersweet, however, as the home team had gone down to defeat despite the A’s truncated pitching staff.

As for those fans who were on hand just to say they had witnessed the last game at League Park, their bragging rights were put on hold. League Park was given a reprieve.

It certainly would be ideal for any major league ballpark to close with a barn-burner of a contest like this one, but as things turned out, the American League and League Park were not quite ready to go their separate ways. On July 14, lease negotiations broke down between the Indians and the City of Cleveland (the new stadium was the first major league park built with public money), so the Indians returned to League Park for four contests against the Yankees and one against the A’s.

Finally, a short-term lease agreement was worked out, but the first game in the new venue was not till July 31. As it turned out, the A’s were the opponents and Lefty Grove was at the top of his form, out-dueling Mel Harder, 1-0, before 80,184 fans, a major league record at the time.

Even with Cleveland Stadium up and running, League Park would continue to play a part in Indians history. The Depression-era attendance figures of 1933 forced the Indians to move back to the more economical League Park in 1934. In succeeding seasons the Indians would split their schedule between the two facilities.

By 1946, League Park was clearly substandard. Lights had never been installed, so night baseball was impossible. That might have been fine and dandy at Wrigley Field, but the east side of Cleveland is not Wrigleyville. So the Indians took up permanent residence in Cleveland (eventually better known as Municipal) Stadium in 1947 during Bill Veeck’s tenure.

Just 2,772 fans attended the last Indians home game at League Park on Sept, 21, 1946. The Indians, going nowhere that season, closed out the old ball yard with a 5-4 loss to Detroit. Anybody prophesying “League Park shall rise again” would not find an audience.

To be sure, some remnants (a wall and the ticket office) of League Park remained at the site (at 66th Street and East Lexington Avenue), which assumed a new life as a city park. Then in 2011, the City of Cleveland approved a plan to restore the remnants and to install a new diamond and a museum, among other amenities. And so it came to pass on Oct. 27, 2012, that groundbreaking was held for same.

The League Park comeback defies the odds, to put it mildly. It has now been more than 66 years since the Indians played there, and there can’t be many people left who would wax nostalgic about the place. Even in its heyday, it was not one of the more fabled venues in the major leagues.

Combined with the budget crunch cities find themselves in today, the League Park story almost could be described as a miracle, though I doubt the Vatican will become involved. They didn’t show up to investigate Rommel’s 17-inning win in 1932, so I don’t think they’ll show up for League Park’s resurrection.

Even so, I guess we could say that League Park lived happily ever after.

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Comments

  1. Ron said...

    Outstanding article.  As a lifelong Clevelander and Indians fan, this was an absolutely fantastic bit of nostalgia.  Thank you.

  2. Chuck said...

    Apropos of absolutely nothing, thanks for writing “reeled off three straight pennants” instead of “ripped off three straight pennants”, which even most professional writers use and which means something completely different.

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