Cleveland's Sandlot Baseball

Widely played and wildly popular, sandlot baseball became ubiquitous in postwar Cleveland. Its success was not just from spectators and players, but the city's power and wealth

By George SkaddingLIFE Photo Collection

This is the image of popular baseball often conjured in the minds of people all over the country, including Cleveland. This was Municipal Stadium, where thousands piled into the stands to cheer on the then-Cleveland Indians.

Wenham Truckers Jersey Wenham Truckers Jersey (c. 1960's) by Blepp-CoombsBaseball Heritage Museum

Yet, Cleveland at one point claimed to be the "sandlot capital of the world," boasting a thriving amateur baseball scene from the turn of the century up to the 1970's.

Amer(Usa) Ohio Various Icl. Cincinnati, Dayton, Akron, ClevelandLIFE Photo Collection

The staggering scope of the sandlots in Cleveland were upheld by a booming industrial economy and powerful city government that worked in tandem with one another to create a burgeoning baseball enterprise.

Edgewater (1959-10-19) by Cleveland PressBaseball Heritage Museum

Diamond Shortage

When servicemen returned from the war, baseball's popularity grew exponentially in Cleveland. This ultimately led to a shortage of baseball diamonds as the city scrambled to accommodate the influx of players. In the 1940s, the city was operating nearly one hundred diamonds.

The Cleveland Amateur Baseball Association, later the Cleveland Baseball Federation (CBF), worked out of the Division of Recreation to provide places to play. The CBF created contracts for players and became the backbone of the mania surrounding the sandlots.

Cleveland Baseball Federation Annual Report, 1965, From the collection of: Baseball Heritage Museum
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These annual reports were created to document the teams and stats of the sandlots that year, highlighting the championships and star players, as well as recognizing the immense staff and sponsors that made sandlot baseball possible.

The Teams of the Sandlots

At its zenith, the Amateur scene in Cleveland boasted a staggering 857 teams, spanning a wide range of ages and playing ability. This included the Plain Dealer-backed Class A league, at times known as the AAA League. 

Most teams in higher class ranks were backed by a sponsor, but many teams with younger, less experienced players were unbacked.

Marathon Oil Jersey (Back side), From the collection of: Baseball Heritage Museum
Frank's Sohio jersey (Back side), From the collection of: Baseball Heritage Museum
Ford Motor Jersey (Back side), From the collection of: Baseball Heritage Museum
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At the Baseball Heritage Museum, there are a number of Cleveland sandlot uniforms from a variety of time periods. It is likely that the first two are from the 1950's and 1960's, and the Ford uniform could be attributed to the 1930's due to its sun collar design.

Wenham Truckers Photo (1)Baseball Heritage Museum

The Wenham Truckers

Before their abrupt departure from the sandlots, the Wenham Truckers were a staple in the highest class of amateur baseball in the city for 22 years.

More Trucking, More Baseball

When the Innerbelt Freeway led to the move of Wenham's trucking business, he not only chose a spot along East 79th, but also ensured a baseball diamond at the new headquarters. To Wenham, baseball became intrinsic to the company and its Cleveland identity.

Haberacker Opticians Jersey Haberacker Opticians Jersey (c. 1950's) by Rube AdlerBaseball Heritage Museum

Backers and their teams

Teams backed by large firms became the lifeblood of the sandlots. Companies began pouring money to light fields and add concrete seating. Backers even provided players with jobs, tightening the connection between backers and their teams.

Factory Furniture Photo 2Baseball Heritage Museum

"They'd get paid under the table" - Sandlot Player Al Drews

Former pro players found their place in Cleveland's sandlots, leading to deals involving money given to said players and essentially created a semi-professional league. This strategy became so common that a six pro player limit was placed on teams, especially Class A.

Backing for a Cause

Similar to the major leagues, segregation in baseball extended into Cleveland. According to news sources, Black players struggled to play in the A League, leading the Call and Post to sponsor a team from the mid-1940's to the 50's in order to get more Black players in Class A. The Call and Post continued even after desegregation to push for greater diversity in Baseball.

Edward W. Dybzinski Contract Card Edward W. Dybzinski Card Front, From the collection of: Baseball Heritage Museum
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This contract card was required by the Cleveland Baseball Federation and the Division of Recreation for all players, from Class F to Class A (also known as Class AAA). Copies of the contracts were needed to ensure that players were not being stolen to other teams, a problem that was common enough for such a precaution to take place.

"Names sell newspapers," Al Drews recalled, referring to the fact that the Plain Dealer sponsored the CBF's Class A games. 

The connections between the Plain Dealer, powerful backers, and City Hall tightened the feedback loop of growth for amateur baseball, coupled with a sense of professionalism as games included former pros in stadium-like venues, such as Brookside Stadium.

Throwing PhotoBaseball Heritage Museum

Amateur Day in Cleveland

Getting funding was required to keep the sandlots afloat, and the CBF was no stranger to pooling funds for its massive program. This need was manifested into Sandlot Day, also known as Amateur Day.

Amateur Day crowd (1938-07-17) by Cleveland PressBaseball Heritage Museum

The Indians and Sandlot Baseball

Using League Park and later on Municipal Stadium, Sandlot Day showcased a game between the Indians and a National League team and a sandlot game as well. Thousands flocked to the stands to provide funds for the CBF's operations and Chester Avenue Clinic for injured players.

What happened to the Sandlots?

Despite the massive, well-oiled system of amateur baseball, a number of factors ended the longstanding tradition of the sport in Cleveland.

Paul Brown And The Cleveland Browns At Briggs Stadium In Detroit by George SilkLIFE Photo Collection

Baseball vs. Football

Throughout the 1950's and 60's, America went through immense cultural shifts. Besides race and politics, Baseball's stronghold as the national pastime was affected by the rise in television and football.

Dorsel's Restaurants (Back side)Baseball Heritage Museum

Baseball vs. Softball

With a greater audience and more accessibility, slow-pitch softball began to usurp the amateur baseball scene. This was due to the steep learning curve and safety that plagued hardball.

Little League Class F Press Article (1962-06-27) by Cleveland PressBaseball Heritage Museum

Little League Woes

The national Little League began to compete with the CBF's equivalent Class F league. This got to the point where a Cleveland Press article discussed the conflict Little League was pushing on the participation of kids of all ages in the CBF program.

Ohio Turnpike (1955-10) by Francis MillerLIFE Photo Collection

Urban Sprawl

As white flight and deindustrialization worsened, so did the sandlots. The powerful backers that gave games and jobs to players had either closed or moved. Suburbs then copied Cleveland's model, only exacerbating the erosion of the program.

Unbeknownst to younger people in Cleveland, it could be hard to imagine the immense scope and ubiquity of the sandlots. Now, the CBF works to engage kids to play, and at League Park the Cleveland Guardians run a program to get the community interested in baseball.

Even as culture and traditions shift in Cleveland, the imprint of amateur baseball's power is evident, just like the imprint of Cleveland's boom and industrial might. Oddly enough, the two go hand in hand.

Credits: Story

Sandlot and Edgewater images were provided by CSU's Cleveland Memory Project, which can be found at Special thanks to Elizabeth Piwkowski at the Michael Schwartz Library for help with getting information and images for this article.

Research for this exhibit was through the Baseball Heritage Museum's archives, along with the Plain Dealer and Call and Post's online database and the Cleveland Public Library's Public Administration files, Map Collection, and Photograph Collection. Digitization was possible through the help of the Cleveland Public Digital Library.

Special thanks to Cleveland sandlot player Al Drews for help on this article. This exhibit is dedicated to Frank Petruno (1932-2023).

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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