Panoramic pictured something special

On a cloudy Tuesday afternoon in Cleveland, two baseball teams played an Independence Day doubleheader with thousands of fans crowded around the field. A photographer from the National Press Photographic Service in Cleveland recorded the event by setting up a panoramic camera at ground level just beyond the centerfielder. The resulting wide-angle picture showed the entire field and an expansive hillside covered with spectators.

The moment I saw the yard-long photograph, which was offered at the Indianapolis Antique Advertising show last month, I sensed it was special. A caption printed on the photo read: Detroit Grenan’s Cakes vs. Rosenblums, Brookside Stadium, Cleveland Ohio, July 4, 1922, Attendance 35,000.

I recognized Brookside Park in Cleveland, having already found two postcards picturing similar views, but this was the first time I had seen it in panoramic format.

Built into the hill directly behind home plate was a concrete section of bench seating with a capacity of about 1,100. The vast majority of spectators sat on the grassy hillside or stood along the ridge. About a dozen homes and buildings were visible in the background.

My first question was why 35,000 fans attended an amateur baseball game. Granted, it was the July 4th holiday, but the teams weren’t the major league Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians; they were the Rosenblums and Grennan’s Cakes. The players in the picture weren’t big league stars. They played on a bare infield. The grass in the outfield was flecked with clover blooms and bare patches marked the spots where the fielders positioned themselves in left and right. This was truly a sandlot baseball game.

The answer to the significance of the games came quickly from reference librarians at the Cleveland Public Library, who contributed much information for this column.

Meanwhile, I was unsuccessful in determining if Brookside Stadium was ever the home of a major league baseball team. Ballparks of North America by Michael Benson (McFarland & Co., 1989) lists Brookside Park as Spider Park. The Spiders were Cleveland’s professional team, competing in the American Association in 1887-88 and the National League in 1889-90. But Benson puts the location of Spider Park on land bordered by East 39th and East 35th streets and Payne and Euclid avenues, which is not the same as Brookside Park’s location on the southwest side of the city at Fulton and Denison Avenue.

In June 1890, lightning struck Spider Park, sparking a fire that destroyed the wooden grandstand. Spiders’ owner Frank D. Robinson built a new ballpark at the corner of East 66th Street and Lexington Avenue. Eventually known as League Park, it was home of the Spiders, later renamed the Naps and eventually the Indians, until 1947.

What is clear is Brookside Park became one of Cleveland’s first municipal parks in the 1890s. The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History states the high bluff overlooking the surrounding land was landscaped to provide for a variety of recreational uses. Brookside Park became home of Cleveland’s blossoming amateur baseball program, known as the Cleveland Baseball Federation. Founded in 1910 by a group of business owners to sponsor adult teams, the CBF is the oldest amateur baseball organization in the country.

Mary Ellen Kollar of the Cleveland Public Library wrote in an e-mail that she had seen a similar panoramic photo in a book about amateur baseball in Cleveland. “The photo was from 1912 or 1913 and the attendance at Brookside Park was reported to be 100,000. The game was a championship between two Cleveland industrial teams,” wrote Kollar.

I searched websites on the Internet and found the panoramic photo Kollar had seen. It was dated Sept. 20, 1914, and pictured the Telling Strollers vs. Hanna Cleaners. A photographer from Miller Studio in Cleveland positioned the panoramic camera at the top of the hill behind home plate, a vantage point that made the field appear small in the photo. Although the attendance was reported to be 100,000 on the photo, another source said the actual figure was closer to 85,000. The Strollers won the third game 8-3 in the best of three series to advance to the national championship.

A similar panoramic photo found on the Internet was dated Oct. 3, 1915, and pictured Cleveland’s White Auto vs. Johnston, Pa., in the last game of the season at Brookside Stadium.

Pamela Benjamin of the Cleveland Public Library replied to my e-mail by sending copies of newspaper clippings from both the Press and Plain Dealer newspapers dated July 5, 1922, the day after the big holiday doubleheader at Brookside Stadium.

The headline in the Plain Dealer read, “Rosies Win Two From Detroiters.” Cleveland’s top Triple A amateur team, the Rosenblums, swept the doubleheader 15-4 and 4-3, winning the nightcap in extra innings. The locals won on the strength of “great pitching on the part of Louie Crowley and Elmer Bents … with the aid of timely hitting by Tommy Sheehan and Bounce Fleck.” The Plain Dealer coverage provided box scores of both games. The article in the Press, which was bigger than that given to the major league Indians, focused on Rosenblums’ third baseman, Fleck, who broke out of a season-long slump with six hits in the doubleheader. The newspapers also reported on four other Cleveland sandlot teams defeating their Detroit opponents that day. Neither article confirmed the attendance figure printed on the photograph.

Finally, a newspaper article in the July 18, 2002, issue of the Plain Dealer by Jessica Hopp provides another glimpse of the city’s amateur baseball heritage and a clue to the high attendance figures. Rich Rollins, 64, is a product of Cleveland’s sandlot program who went on to play 10 seasons in the major leagues, mostly with the Minnesota Twins. Rollins is quoted as saying, “The fields were saturated with people. At times, people would be three-deep around the field watching the games. Baseball was the thing to do on a Sunday.”

In 1954, the same year the Cleveland Indians won the American League pennant with 111 victories, 16-year-old Rollins tried out with more than 400 amateur players for Cleveland’s top Class A team, which was still the Rosenblums.

“The big thing to look forward to was getting to Class A baseball; that’s where you wanted to be,” said Rollins.

Reduced interest in the game and the high cost of team sponsorship drastically reduced the size of the program during the late 1970s and ’80s. By the early 1990s, the Class AAA adult program almost disappeared. Fund-raisers and donations from the Cleveland Indians Charities have helped revive the amateur baseball programs. While the Cleveland Baseball Federation currently supports 400 local teams, mostly youth leagues, it is unlikely 35,000 Clevelanders will ever gather to watch a sandlot baseball game again.

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