SANDLOT BASEBALL. The origins of the American game of baseball are disputed; it was invented either in 1839 or 1846. It did not take long, however, for it to find its way to Cleveland.
BASEBALL appears to have made its Cleveland debut no later than 1859. That choice of date is based on an early photograph of PUBLIC SQUARE which reveals a crude infield worn into the grass. A few years later, Cleveland had its first organized baseball team. In 1865 the Cleveland Forest Citys (see FOREST CITY BASEBALL CLUB) played a team from Oberlin, OH, at a diamond on the Case Commons, on E. 38th St., between Central and Scovill avenues. Baseball became popular for several reasons. An outdoor game, it required little capital investment. It was well suited for summers, when extended daylight hours allowed working men a few extra hours for recreation, and it was ideal for youngsters whose long summer vacations needed to be filled with purposeful activity. While for most, the enjoyment of baseball probably meant pick-up games played in vacant neighborhood lots, for others it involved more structured play. For many, baseball is almost as much a game of statistics as it is of physical dexterity. Organized leagues brought that added dimension.
By the time Cleveland's professional baseball identity was planted in the new American League (1901), industrial baseball leagues had become a fixture on the local amateur scene. Industrial leagues were composed of company-sponsored teams. Workers, who by day labored for their company's economic success, in the evening donned their company's colors and played for its prestige. At the same time, churches and lodges also began to field baseball teams. These early leagues were for adult men, but in an era when entertainment options were limited, their wives and children learned to enjoy the game too. Spending an early summer evening or a Saturday afternoon at the neighborhood ball field became a popular pastime, providing wholesome fun for the whole family.
As interest in baseball increased, the challenge of securing suitable playing fields grew greater, and the need arose for some organization to oversee scheduling and the equitable use of the city's parks. In 1910 the Cleveland Amateur Baseball Assn. was established. Working with the City of Cleveland's Division of Recreation, the association scheduled games, assigned diamonds, and became the local arbiter in determining the rules of the game. The extent of local interest in amateur baseball was vividly evidenced on 10 Oct. 1915, when an estimated 100,000 to 115,000 fans crowded into BROOKSIDE PARK to watch Cleveland's White Motors team play Omaha's Luxus for the national amateur baseball championship. White Motors won 11-6, and the reported attendance set a record for an amateur contest which has never been broken. So popular did baseball become that some enterprising local enthusiasts even concocted an indoor hybrid of the game that could be played during the winter. Two indoor leagues were formed, and 12 teams were fielded. The city's armories became their indoor ball yards. By 1920 Cleveland was at the forefront of amateur baseball.
In 1920 the organizational structure of Cleveland amateur baseball was again revised. The Cleveland Baseball Federation (CBF) replaced the Cleveland Amateur Baseball Assn. at the helm of sandlot baseball. The CBF established several different divisions of play, each based on age and skill qualifications. Classes A-AAA were adult leagues, and the quality of play was semi-professional. Classes BE were age-bracketed divisions for those 15-18 years of age. Approximately 90 teams were involved in the 6 classifications, and another 12 were involved in the indoor league. William T. Duggan became president of the CBF in 1923, remaining in that post until 1960. Duggan's motto was "Give a boy a bat and a ball and a diamond to play on, and we guarantee he will not be led astray." Duggan's slogan, along with his indefatigable efforts and those of his CBF associates, MAX ROSENBLUM and I. S. ("NIG") ROSE, struck a responsive chord among Clevelanders, who annually contributed thousands of dollars to make the sandlot program available to even the poorest youngsters.
Key to their annual fundraising effort was Amateur Day. Held originally at LEAGUE PARK and then later at CLEVELAND MUNICIPAL STADIUM, Amateur Day events varied over the years. In 1923 an all-star team of former amateurs played a team of former major leaguers. In 1925 a Cleveland all-star amateur team took on the American League's Boston Braves, losing to the pros by a 9-7 score. The CBF used receipts from these games to provide teams with the equipment needed to play, and it also maintained an insurance fund so that any injuries sustained by the amateur athletes would receive prompt medical attention.
During the 1930s the CBF further expanded its programs. In 1930 AAAE baseball there were 186 teams, and the indoor leagues (major and minor divisions) consisted of another 42. Also, fast-pitch industrial-league softball had come onto the scene, and CBF included it in its scheduling responsibilities. Then in 1936 the federation introduced Class F baseball, for youngsters under age 15. In its first year of play, Class F fielded 186 teams and 2,000 players. Its budget increasing, the CBF continued to tinker with the Amateur Day format. In 1941 CBF officials invited baseball legends TRISTAM "TRIS" SPEAKER, Babe Ruth, and Ty Cobb to serve as guest coaches and managers for the local all-star teams selected to play at the Stadium event.
Wartime priorities diminished sandlot activity, but with the end of hostilities baseball fever heightened, and in 1947 a record 857 teams were playing in all CBF divisions. To better finance this burgeoning program, in 1948 the CBF asked the CLEVELAND INDIANS, then setting records of their own, to play an Amateur Day exhibition game. Indians' management agreed, and the Tribe took on the Brooklyn Dodgers at Cleveland Stadium before a crowd of 65,992, the most fans ever to pay their way into an exhibition game. The success of the professional game formula as a fundraiser led to its being repeated annually for many years. The game was dropped only when negotiations by the Major League Players Assn. resulted in restricting the number of in-season exhibition games.
By 1951 CBF sponsorship included 253 teams playing AE ball and 359 teams playing Class F ball, a total of 8,608 players. This roster included not only city leagues but also those from 12 suburban communities. At the same time, the Cleveland Division of Recreation found fields to schedule games for an additional 317 other non-CBF-affiliated baseball teams. It took considerable coordination to schedule all these events on the city's 69 baseball diamonds. The early 1950s represented the high water mark for amateur baseball in Cleveland. Then two factors contributed to change.
After the war, the migration of city dwellers to the suburbs accelerated. With growing populations, suburbs undertook the development of their own recreational facilities. Soon various suburbs began to withdraw from the CBF program, instead sponsoring their own leagues, often in affiliation with the national Little League program. Another factor which contributed to the decline of amateur baseball was the increasing popularity of softball. Recognizing that many adults and children would like to play ball, but were intimidated or overmatched by high-speed pitching, Cleveland Recreation Commissioner John Nagy spurred formation of slow-pitch softball leagues. At the same time, a series of national slow-pitch championships, held during the 1950s at Morgana Park on E. 65th St. near Broadway Ave., helped popularize the game. Because of softball's appeal and the population changes, by 1974 the number of sandlot baseball teams in the city had fallen to 289. A total of 4,217 players were involved.
In the city the cohesion of the Class F program was further weakened in the late 1970s by the desegregation mandate which changed attendance patterns in the Cleveland City Schools (see CLEVELAND PUBLIC SCHOOLS). The sandlot program had been organized around the neighborhood city recreation centers. The liaison between these neighborhood centers and the neighborhood schools was strong. The beginning of court-ordered busing severely weakened that connection. By 1983 there were only 1,014 youths involved in Class F ball in the city. In an effort to revitalize interest in baseball, the CBF began sponsorship of programs for 6-8-year-olds in 1986. These were the T-Ball leagues (in T-Ball there are no pitchers, and batters swing at a ball mounted on a tee). An 8-10-year-old program was also started. Called the Rookie League, these youngsters bat against a pitching machine.
In the meantime, slow-pitch softball continued to grow in popularity. In 1988 there were a youth, a co-ed, 7 men's, and 2 women's softball leagues in the city. These included 236 teams and 4,218 players. Softball clearly overshadowed traditional hardball, which numbered 6 leagues, 97 teams, and 2,022 players.
The addition of the programs for the younger players stabilized the level of hardball participation in the city, and in recent years the numbers involved have remained steady. Similar programs in the suburbs have also introduced more and younger players to the game. In the 1990s, however, slow-pitch softball had become the undisputed sandlot favorite. In 1994 over 2,000 softball teams in the Greater Cleveland area were playing in American Softball Assn. (ASA) sanctioned leagues. Many other teams were playing at non-sanctioned levels.
Since that ball diamond first appeared on Public Square in 1859, much has changed in the way the game is played, but two things have remained constant: Clevelanders continue to be drawn to the sandlots, and Greater Cleveland retains its place as a leader in their sponsorship.
James A. Toman