June 1, 2023

Cleveland’s Brookside Park: Not a Mistake and Not on the Lake

April 18, 2023 by · 1 Comment 

Brookside Park in Cleveland, Ohio

White Autos vs. Johnstown, PA on October 3, 1915

An old saying pertaining to Detroit is, “It’s like Cleveland without the glitter.”

When it comes to economy of language, this quote is a gem, as it puts down two Rust Belt cities in one six-word sentence. For the purpose of this essay, however, let’s park Detroit and take Cleveland out for a spin.

In recent decades, Cleveland has provided its share of fodder for standup comics. The Cuyahoga River, whose shores teemed with heavy industry, had a tendency to catch on fire due to oil slicks. Even at a time when environmental consciousness was much less, this was a civic embarrassment. For this reason, among others, the city was baptized the Mistake on the Lake, a phrase that carried over to Municipal Stadium, the multi-purpose behemoth (home of the Cleveland Indians), which opened on the shore of Lake Erie in 1932.

When the 1989 film Major League was produced, what better franchise to embody a city and a team in the doldrums than the Indians? It’s not a flattering portrait of the city or the team, and one can’t help but marvel that the Indians cooperated with the production (most of the on-field scenes were actually lensed at Milwaukee’s County Stadium).

In 1989 even the casual baseball fan was aware of the Indians’ longstanding status as also-rans. From the 1954 season when they won 111 games and the AL pennant through their final season (1993) at Municipal Stadium, they had no post-season appearances. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s 39 years. During that stretch the reputation of the city waned with its baseball team.

It may be something of a surprise to contemporary baseball fans to realize just how big Cleveland used to be. Founded in 1796, the city’s growth rate was phenomenal in the late 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th Century. The industrial revolution and immigration were the primary reasons. The growth rate slowed during the Depression, then picked up again. With a population of 914,801 after World War II, the city appeared to be on a glide path to 1,000,000. It never got there.

Speaking of 1,000,000 people, a particularly depressing era for Cleveland baseball fans was from 1960 through 1973, when the Indians never once passed the 1,000,000 mark. The low-water mark was 562,507 in 1963. Given Municipal Stadium’s capacity of 74,000, wide open spaces were the norm. In fact, that attendance figure is just a smidgen more than the total for 1945, the final year of the talent drought due to World War II when the Tribe was still playing most games at tiny (22,500) League Park.

Postwar suburban growth followed by the hollowing out of America’s heavy industries did a number on the city of Cleveland. The population dwindled with each new census and is now estimated to be 367,786. What was once the fifth largest city in the USA (796,841 in 1920) and the largest in Ohio is now ranked 54th nationwide and has dropped to 2nd place in Ohio. Columbus – a Triple-A city, mind you! – is now the biggest in Ohio with 929,492. The chances of Cleveland retaking the title are nil. As a consolation prize, the Cleveland metro area is still No. 1 in Ohio.

Before Jacobs Field (nka Progressive Field) opened in 1994, it was understandable if senior Seamheads in Cleveland hearkened back to the postwar glory days. From 1947 through 1955, Indians’ attendance surpassed the American League average. The high-water mark for Municipal Stadium was 2,620,627 in 1948, when the Indians were World Series champions.
For a few old-timers whose memories reached back before the opening of Municipal Stadium, the golden era of Cleveland baseball was the second decade of the 20th Century when Brookside Park was packing ‘em in.

You say you never heard of Brookside Park? Well, there are numerous books devoted to old ballparks, but they are of little assistance if you’re researching Brookside Park. Primarily a city park, it also hosted countless amateur baseball games, as well as football games and concerts. Aside from a few rows of concrete bleachers behind home plate, there was little in the way of infrastructure.

Brookside Park is part of the Cleveland Metroparks system. Surprisingly, a city known for its urban blight encompasses a park system with 300 miles of hiking trails, nature centers, and golf courses. Brookside Park, south of downtown, is one of the most popular, thanks in large part to the adjacent Metropark Zoo. But a century ago it wasn’t the only drawing card.

A number of parks are blessed with natural amphitheaters. Brookside Park had a natural stadium. Envision a three-sided ridge running from center field to the left field corner, from there to behind home plate, and from there out to the right field corner. Only right field was open. The hills were augmented by grading to provide plenty of room for spectators but the field itself was just your basic sandlot.

Now you might have heard about that 2008 exhibition game at the Los Angeles Coliseum when 115,301 people were present for a pre-season contest between the Red Sox and the Dodgers. I was present for that contest so I can attest that the head count appeared to be accurate. What I did not know at the time – and I’m sure few if any in that Coliseum crowd knew it – was that Brookside Park, according to some estimates, hit the 115,000 mark on October 10, 1915. It was a rare moment in sports history, a perfect storm guaranteed to produce an immense crowd: the capacity of the park was enormous, the demand was intense, and admission was free.

Granted, there was no turnstile count (the “conservative” estimate was 80,000), but whatever the actual number of spectators, the mass of humanity was a sight to behold, as panoramic photos of the event reveal. Remember, this was when major league parks held a mere fraction of that total. Several years before, the city had nixed a proposal to build a 100,000-seat stadium at Brookside Park to attract the 1912 summer Olympics. One suspects many of the naysayers had second thoughts about that decision.

Oddly enough, amateur ball has a history of drawing big crowds as a demonstration sport at the Olympics. An estimated 90,000 showed up at the Berlin Olympic Stadium in 1936. A demonstration baseball game at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics is often cited as hosting 114,000 fans. That total deserves an asterisk, however, as only a few thousand people were on hand at the start of the game. Little by little, the stands at the Melbourne Cricket Field filled up with fans awaiting the track and field competition that followed.

The Brookside Park throngs might have played a part in inspiring the building of Municipal Stadium. In fact, the first baseball game played at Municipal Stadium was a July 15, 1931 contest between a couple local amateur teams as part of a Shriners convention. The first Indians game was played there a little more than a year later (July 31, 1932).

Aside from college baseball, amateur baseball is no longer a big thing attendance-wise, but a century or so ago Cleveland billed itself as “The Sandlot Capital of the World.” Large crowds regularly gathered at Brookside Park to cheer on teams that belonged to the Cleveland Amateur Baseball Association (later known as the Cleveland Baseball Federation), founded in 1910. It consisted of 250 teams in 18 leagues. Teams were placed in four divisions based on age. Curiously, though they were amateurs, players had to sign binding contracts to preserve the integrity of the teams and leagues.

Much like industrial, semi-pro, and Little League teams, the “franchises” were sponsored by neighborhood groups, churches, or businesses. Consider the September 20, 1914 match-up between Telling Strollers and Hanna’s Cleaners. Don’t laugh: a crowd estimated at 100,000 showed up for that contest.

Since other cities also had amateur leagues, post-season intercity championships drew particularly big crowds. On October 3, 1915, an estimated 100,000 showed up to see the hometown White Autos (a manufacturer, not a dealership) take on Johnstown, PA. A week later the aforementioned game with 115,000 fans took place. In that contest, White Autos defeated Omaha Luxus by a score of 11-6. (The victorious White Autos went on to win the national amateur championship over Tacoma in San Francisco). That 115,000 figure is considered the largest crowd in amateur sports history. By way of contrast, the Indians, who finished in 7th place with a 57-95 record in 1915, drew just 159,295 fans all season.

Considering the attendance at those two Brookside Park games in October of 2015, I think it is safe to assume that the weather was cooperative both days. Conveniently, Brookside Park was on a streetcar line, but one has to wonder how so many fans were accommodated restroom-wise. No port-a-potties in those day and if there were any permanent restrooms in the park, it is doubtful if there were enough to accommodate 115,000 people without long lines.

After the crowds of 1915 there was nowhere to go but down, but the declivity was gradual. World War I was the first blow, as the military draft cut into the supply of players. The rise of radio in the 1920’s also played a part. Before then, if you wanted to “take in” a game, you had to attend in person. Since admission was free at Brookside Park, the Depression likely had no effect on attendance. On the other hand, with money so tight, it certainly might have affected the sponsorship of the teams.

Growing interest in professional baseball might have accounted for some of the decline. Since the beginning of the American League in 1901 the Indians had been mediocre. Then in 1918 and 1919, they finished a close second behind the Red Sox and the White Sox, respectively. In 1920 the Indians’ 98-56 record garnered them their first pennant and World Series championship. Their .636 winning percentage was a franchise-best till 1954. As a result, attendance shot up to 912,832 in 1920. This remained the best attendance in franchise history till 1946.

Even so, the crowds still showed up at Brookside on occasion. A National Baseball Tournament was held at Brookside in 1936 as part of the city’s Great Lakes Exposition. After lights and a public address system were added to Brookside in May of 1938, a crowd estimated at 65,000 – 100,000 witnessed the first night game at the park.

At the same time, Municipal Stadium was also hosting amateur teams. The Amateur Day double-header was an annual event. Fans likely appreciated the fact that the amenities – including the restrooms – were superior at Municipal Stadium.

As was the case with professional baseball, World War II created a three-year shortage of ballplayers, amateurs and big leaguers alike. After the war, the growing prominence of television made it easier than ever to get one’s baseball fix. No crowds, no traffic jams, only commercials. On a weekend afternoon, it was likely a tough call as to whether to watch a free Indians game on TV or a free amateur game.

While the large crowds at Brookside emphasize the appeal of amateur baseball as a spectator sport, it is important to remember that it was also a participatory sport. The number of teams involved in the amateur leagues in Cleveland certainly created numerous opportunities for amateurs to play sandlot ball well into adulthood. Today Clevelanders can still play amateur ball thanks to Greater Cleveland Adult Baseball, which still offers leagues in four different age categories.

While Brookside Park attendance figures are no longer the norm for amateur baseball in Cleveland or anywhere else, many metro areas still have amateur baseball leagues. A little internet surfing should reveal if there are any in your area.

Not only can you take in a game, there is also a possibility you can take the field.

You can’t do that at your local MLB park. Not without getting tackled by security guards.


One Response to “Cleveland’s Brookside Park: Not a Mistake and Not on the Lake”
  1. Dirk Durstein says:

    An amazing article. I found the park on Google Maps, and there is still a diamond there; although the hillsides appear to be covered by trees and brush.

    How many games did the Indians play there? Baseball Reference says that their home field in 1915 was “League Park II”. It is hard to imagine a time when amateur teams were the big draw.

    Thank you very much.

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