This article was originally published in the SABR Black Sox Scandal Research Committee’s December 2016 newsletter. Click here to download the newsletter (PDF).
When the Cleveland Indians opened the 2007 season, a new historical exhibit called Heritage Park greeted fans at Jacobs Field. The special space behind the center-field bleachers was a celebration of the Indians’ rich history after more than 100 years in the American League, with plaques devoted to all the players who had been inducted into the team’s Hall of Fame.
One of the signature artifacts on display at Heritage Park was a 175-pound bronze memorial to Ray Chapman, the popular Cleveland shortstop killed by a pitched ball in 1920, the only major-leaguer to suffer a fatality on the field. The ornate plaque honoring Chapman, which was erected at League Park after his death, had been recently rediscovered after sitting neglected for decades in storage, gathering dust and dirt.
Few fans remembered the last time the Chapman plaque had been seen in public. Even fewer remembered the last time the Indians held a grand opening for the team’s brand-new Hall of Fame — a historic project that was the first of its kind — back in the 1950s at Municipal Stadium.
The story of the Cleveland Indians Hall of Fame stretches for more than sixty-five years, from its unlikely creation, to its abandonment by new ownership desperate to cut costs, and then a sudden rebirth in the 21st century.
No one quite knows what happened to the old Hall of Fame, or the artifacts that were once displayed there. Most of the plaques and artwork and memorabilia disappeared ages ago, although some items have occasionally resurfaced (like the Chapman plaque) at the new ballpark downtown or in the hands of private collectors. Even the Indians’ front office only has a handful of photos and articles to prove the place really existed.
But if you read the plaques at Heritage Park closely, you can find faint remnants of the first Cleveland Indians Hall of Fame. The years of the inductees take you back in time and provide the only clues of what once was:
Early Wynn, inducted 1972 … Larry Doby, 1966 … Bob Feller, 1957 … Tris Speaker, 1951 … Cy Young, 1951 … Shoeless Joe Jackson, 1951 …
Jackson was part of the original class of 10 inductees, and the most controversial. He spent just six seasons with the Indians from 1910 to 1915 before his trade to the Chicago White Sox and his later involvement in the Black Sox Scandal, which earned him a permanent ban from baseball in the prime of his career. But Indians fans of a certain age could still remember how good he was coming up in Cleveland: his .408 average in 1911, still the highest ever recorded by any rookie; his league-leading 26 triples in 1912, still the franchise record all these years later.
Unlike his former teammates Cy Young and Nap Lajoie, Jackson hadn’t been inducted in the National Baseball Hall of Fame yet. While the disgraced star was still technically eligible, the baseball writers had shown little inclination to vote for him while he was still banned from the game. But after receiving enormous positive feedback from fans, Cleveland’s sports editors unanimously decided that he should be included on the Indians’ Hall of Fame ballot.
Jackson was one of the top vote-getters during a summer-long advertising campaign by Cleveland’s three leading daily newspapers, and his selection generated headlines all over the country in 1951. A dormant movement to have Jackson’s name reinstated to the good graces of Organized Baseball was relaunched, and he was invited to New York to appear on Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town” TV program.
But Jackson never made it to New York and he never saw the Indians Hall of Fame. He died at age 64 on December 5, 1951 — eleven days before he was to appear on Ed Sullivan’s show — after suffering a heart attack at his home in South Carolina.
At the time, the Indians Hall of Fame was still a vision in Marshall Samuel’s mind. The team’s public relations director came up with the idea after a visit to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, which had opened just over a decade earlier in Cooperstown, New York.
Baseball teams had done little to recognize their own history before Samuel convinced vice-president Nate Dolin to create a new museum inside Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium. The New York Yankees had placed three monuments — to the late Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Miller Huggins — out near the flagpole in center field at Yankee Stadium. But that was nothing compared to what the Indians built.
The ballclub spent about $25,000 to design a special S-shaped room on the lower level of the ballpark between Sections 11 and 12. Artist Gerald Waxman sketched portraits of the 10 original inductees — in addition to Jackson, Speaker, and Young, they were Earl Averill, Mel Harder, Ken Keltner, Nap Lajoie, Steve O’Neill, Joe Sewell, and Hal Trosky.
Other exhibits included a large mural of League Park, the team’s former home; mannequins wearing Indians uniforms from the championship years of 1920 and 1948, along with the franchise’s first season of 1901; a wall-size line graph showing where the Indians finished in the AL standings through the years; plus a collection of photos and memorabilia — such as a ball from Feller’s third no-hitter in 1951 and his 300th strikeout in 1946, a bat used by Lajoie when he won the batting title in 1904, and the ball used by Bill Wambsganss to turn his unassisted triple play in the 1920 World Series.
In the center of the room was a large, plastic, illuminated baseball that displayed the signatures of the 10 original inductees. Shoeless Joe Jackson’s autograph was clearly not his own; the illiterate ballplayer’s name had been signed with a flourish by his old teammate Jack Graney. At the entrance was an 18-foot-high relief wood sculpture depicting a turn-of-the-century batter preparing to swing. The Hall of Fame was open during every home game, with free admission to all.
It was a terrific sight for fans at the ballpark, like no other attraction in the major leagues. Ed McAuley of the Cleveland News wrote at the grand opening on August 15, 1952, “Club officials have made this monument to the past as colorful, as tasteful, as interesting — and as expensive — as their own research and their decorators’ skill could make it. I predict it will become a showplace to which Clevelanders proudly will bring their visitors.”
And it was for a while. As the powerhouse Indians battled with the Yankees for the AL pennant throughout the 1950s, the team invited former legends back to town for a Hall of Fame induction ceremony every couple of years. Former shortstop/manager Lou Boudreau was elected in 1954, receiving a gold watch and an oil painting of himself that hung inside the Hall of Fame. Bob Feller retired in 1956 and was honored the following year along with infielder Bill Bradley. Pitcher Bob Lemon got the nod in 1960.
But over time, as the Indians’ fortunes continued to sink on the field, fans stopped caring as much about the team’s illustrious history. Between 1961 and 1972, the Indians only finished in the top half of the standings once and attendance dwindled at the cavernous Municipal Stadium. As Pete Jedick wrote for the Plain Dealer in a 1988 retrospective of the Hall, “Few of the Indians’ players from that era seemed destined for either Cooperstown or Section 11. The graph on the Hall of Fame’s wall tracking the team’s progress began to resemble the stock market of the 1930s.”
When Cleveland businessman Nick Mileti bought the franchise in 1972, the team had been in the dumps for so long it was on the verge of leaving town. Mileti scrapped a proposed plan to play 30 home games in New Orleans, but knew he had to cut expenses elsewhere. Because the team Hall of Fame cost money to maintain and brought in no additional revenue, he replaced it with a souvenir concession stand. The space was later converted to a private club for season-ticket holders.
Samuel, the PR man who came up with the idea for the Hall of Fame, later reminisced, “After 20 years in existence and with attendance down, maybe it wasn’t drawing too well. Only the diehards went to the Stadium, and most of them had already seen it.” The final inductee was Early Wynn in 1972; it had been six years since the previous ceremony.
When the Indians Hall of Fame closed down, there was no plan to preserve or store all the memorabilia that had been housed there. Team historian Jeremy Feador said a few jerseys and other items were shipped to Cooperstown in 1973. Others were moved to a room above the team clubhouse at Municipal Stadium, according to groundskeeper Harold Bossard, who had been responsible for maintaining the collection.
“Then, things began to disappear,” Bossard told the Plain Dealer in 1988. When the team left in 1994 for its shiny new downtown home at Jacobs Field (now called Progressive Field), very little from the old Hall of Fame seemed to remain in the team’s possession.
In 2006, the Indians decided to bring back the major leagues’ first team Hall of Fame, announcing the selection of six new players to join the 20 who had been inducted from 1951-72. Only a brief mention was given to the Hall of Fame’s original iteration. Even the discovery of the Ray Chapman plaque that offseason and its placement at Heritage Park failed to bring back memories of the long-lost museum that attracted an entire generation of fans to Municipal Stadium.
Over the past decade, the Indians have continued to lead the way in recognizing their storied tradition, honoring older players like Rocky Colavito and Herb Score along with more recent heroes like Sandy Alomar Jr. and Kenny Lofton in the team Hall of Fame. Heritage Park is a highlight of any visit to the ballpark in Cleveland.
Now, if only someone could find that big, plastic baseball full of signatures …
Special thanks to Jeremy Feador and the Cleveland Indians for their help in tracking down information and providing photos on the team Hall of Fame.