Baseball Heritage Museum hits home run with new exhibit and plans to expand

While little remains of the original League Park at the corner of East 66th Street and Lexington Avenue in the Hough neighborhood, it ranks among America’s top neighborhood baseball parks, and the memories of the iconic Cleveland landmark are still vivid in many people’s minds.

Last Saturday, May 4, at the Baseball Heritage Museum, League Park came back to life with the unveiling of a scale model of the 1909-built, 21,000-seat ballpark. Built of balsa wood and basswood, the model was made by Larry Walcheck, a Cleveland native who now lives in Indiana. Walcheck has made it his life’s hobby to build replicas of bygone ballparks.

<span class="content-image-text">Zimmer rendering of the Baseball Heritage Museum expansion</span>Zimmer rendering of the Baseball Heritage Museum expansion"It’s an anchor point to League Park,” said Ricardo Rodriguez, a museum studies student at Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins University, at the unveiling. Rodriguez is currently the curator intern at League Park and the Baseball Heritage Museum. “It’s going to help fill out the narrative. Through our mission statement and scope of collection, this really fits in well, and we’re excited for everybody to see it.”

Cleveland Indians curator Jeremy Feador and senior vice president of public affairs Bob DiBiasio tracked down the model, which had previously been at the Bob Feller Museum in Van Meter, IA, about five years ago, and brought it to Cleveland. The model is now on permanent loan to the Baseball Heritage Museum from the Cleveland Indians.

“It was a great fit, so we brought it home,” says Rodriguez.

League Park was originally built of wood in 1891, rebuilt in 1910 out of concrete, and demolished in 1951. The park played home to the Cleveland Spiders, Cleveland Buckeyes (part of the Negro American League), and the Cleveland Indians, and saw the likes of baseball greats such as Cy Young, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Bob Feller.

The model is 1/16 of the true size of the ballpark and depicts everything from the grandstand to the scoreboard to the advertisements. Walcheck says it took him a year to build it—from 1998 to 1999—using archival photos and memories from his visits to the parks.

“When I go to a game, I probably spend more time looking around at the stands than I do watching the game,” Walcheck told Rodriguez.

The model sits atop a wooden showcase designed and built by Bryan Harko, owner of Western Reserve Wood Works, and adorned with images by artist Steve Kocevar. Cards with fun facts about League Park run along the perimeter of the display.

<span class="content-image-text">League Park 1/16th scale model by Walcheck</span>League Park 1/16th scale model by Walcheck

Walcheck has built 11 other ballpark models—including the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Ebbets Field, Detroit’s Tiger Stadium, and Pittsburgh’s Forbes Park—and is currently working on a model of Cincinnati’s Crosley Field. The League Park model is the only model Walcheck has ever donated. (He has his other models in his possession.)

In going through the Baseball Heritage Museum’s collection, Rodriguez discovered the original blueprints for League Park. He discovered the layout of the park was a bit different than what museum officials had originally thought. The blueprints show two, not one, ticket windows, as well as turnstiles and a ramp to the entrance.

“Something as mundane as a ramp was extremely exciting, because for a long time we were telling a slightly inaccurate narrative,” says Rodriguez. “Any little historical correction you can do is exciting.”

Rodriguez says he did see evidence of the ramp on the wall of the still-standing ticket office, and it made sense that fans would simply walk through the ticket office to enter (or walk around the corner to the main entrance on East 66th Street and Linwood Avenue), Walcheck’s model shows that ramp, as well as the entrance.

Both the blueprints and the model are now a part of the Baseball Heritage Museum’s permanent exhibits. The museum’s hours during baseball season are Wednesdays from 1 to 4 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free.

Plans for expansion and revitalization

The arrival of the model at the Baseball Heritage Museum isn't the only activity going on around League Park. Bob Zimmer, founder and president of the Baseball Heritage Museum, has been working on plans to revitalize the neighborhood by rehabbing a vacant building across the street on the northwest corner of Lexington and E.66th Street.

Zimmer plans to convert the two-story, 5,000-square-foot building (which at one time was home to Ginsert Drug) into an ice cream parlor and soda shop on the first floor and a broadcast recording exhibit and studio on the second floor—all with a baseball twist, of course.

“The idea is to reconstruct this close to what it was,” says Zimmer. “It was the Ginsert Drug Store Building in the late 1800s, and we are sure there was a soda fountain there. So we’re going to do that with a retail gift shop that relates to the museum. The second floor will be an exhibit looking at the history of radio in Cleveland and the connection radio had—and still does have—with baseball.”

Zimmer adds that the second-floor recording studio will be open to the public and says he hopes to use it to teach broadcast industry skills and boost job preparedness.

While Zimmer says they technically haven’t broken ground yet on the project, the banners covering the windows of the building have come down, and workers were scheduled to begin exterior work on Tuesday.

“We’re stripping down the layers of material that have been put on the building over 50 years or longer,” explains Zimmer. “We’re hoping there’s enough of the original clapboard that we’ll be able to reuse it.”

Zimmer says the project will not qualify as a historic restoration of the building (although he did have Cleveland Restoration Society do a walk-through to advise whether the building was worth saving). However, he says he does want to stay within the historic context of the Park and museum.

“We’re going to try to salvage as much of the historic fabric as we can,” he says. “There will probably be some adjustments to the façade, so it fits the character of the building and enhances our ability to use it for modern-day [purposes].”

<span class="content-image-text">Zimmer rendering of the Baseball Heritage Museum expansion</span>Zimmer rendering of the Baseball Heritage Museum expansionZimmer says he has a small group of investors in the project and is looking for additional funding to support the $1 million-plus endeavor. “It’s going to be a lot of work, there’s no doubt about that,” he says, adding that he does not yet have a time frame for completion.

Zimmer says he is also looking for operators to run both the ice cream parlor and the recording studio.

If all goes according to plan, Zimmer says phase two of his vision entails building an additional 5,000-sqaure-foot facility on the vacant lot behind the Ginsert building on East 66th that would house two batting cages and flex space for traveling exhibits and educational purposes.

The new building would also have a 300- to 500-square-foot climate-controlled space for the Baseball Heritage Museum’s collection. He says the collection of artifacts has been housed upstairs in the museum since 2014, where it’s not conducive to storage and sorting, nor is it safe from dust, light, and contaminants.

Zimmer hopes to bring Rodriguez permanently on as curator of the Baseball Heritage Museum when he graduates from Johns Hopkins.

In the meantime, Zimmer says this week should mark the beginning of his Hough revitalization efforts.

“It’s an exciting piece and such an opportunity for growth,” he says. “We wanted to show there is some vision and that there is a project in the works, and it’s related to League Park, the Baseball Heritage Museum, and integration.”

Karin Connelly Rice
Karin Connelly Rice

About the Author: Karin Connelly Rice

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.