Just because the recently unveiled expansion project at Cleveland’s Baseball Heritage Museum has been approved by the city and rendered in artistic form doesn’t mean plans are set in stone. Far from it.
The architects have done their work, but museum officials are just beginning to canvas and plan meetings with local residents to determine how the $5.5 million project can best serve a rapidly changing Hough and its many surrounding neighborhoods and suburbs.
“We are very much looking for input from the community,” said Bob Zimmer, president and founder of the museum, located at historic League Park. “We want to get these gates open so everybody has better access.”
The expansion project is still in an early phase, and financing by a combination of banks, developers, and private investors has yet to be arranged. But the basic outline is clear.
On three lots worth a combined $10,500 and totaling nearly an acre near the intersection of E. 66th St. and Lexington Ave., the museum plans to erect three buildings encompassing some 27,000 square feet of retail, office, multipurpose, and potentially residential space. To make room, two vacant structures on the city-owned properties are slated to be demolished by the city. The third parcel is empty.
For many, the centerpiece of the expansion will be a third building, a multipurpose space currently destined to house retractable indoor batting cages and other athletic training facilities. This, said project attorney Cassandra Manna, will enable the museum to offer year-round programming and play a larger role in the lives of young athletes in Cleveland and the inner-ring suburbs. The cages also may be open at times to the public, Manna said.
As part of the expansion, the museum, which sees 6,000 to 10,000 visitors in an ordinary year, would gain a significantly larger home for its archives. Jay Murphy, the museum’s director of baseball activities, described it as a trove that rivals the collection at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in terms of interest, if not size. Zimmer said the new collection management space will give the museum a secure, climate controlled area in which to house artifacts not on exhibit.
League Park, meanwhile, is already an attraction in its own right. Indeed, it’s baseball holy ground. It opened in 1891 with Cy Young pitching for the Cleveland Spiders and later saw the first grand slam, Babe Ruth’s 500th home run, and the Cleveland Buckeyes win the Negro World Series.
Currently, the field can only be used by those that file, pay, and are approved for a permit from the city. As a result, League Park is only used on occasion, said Murphy, who is a 40-year veteran of baseball and coach of the Baseball Heritage Museum Buckeyes Travel Team. In the off-season, Murphy’s travel team heads out to distant suburbs to practice. Murphy said he typically utilizes Andrews Osborne Academy in Willoughby, roughly 20 miles to the northeast.
This, too, stands to change through the expansion process. Zimmer said after the project is completed he hopes to increase the field’s operation to at least eight hours per day, seven days a week during warmer months.
“Having League Park with extended hours and increased accessibility will only improve Cleveland’s perception throughout its neighborhoods and naturally attract people to a historic global landmark,” he said.
Murphy said it could do even more than that. He said having a more open and accessible park and a top-notch indoor training venue close to home will bring baseball activity back to Cleveland and help foster a love for the game in younger generations. Cleveland teams, such as his Buckeye Club, would have priority, but the space also could be used by other local school, travel, and recreational squads, he said.
“When I look at developing this facility, I know what’s available around here, and the reality is there’s not much. This is really an opportunity to be a game changer [for baseball players]. This could become the center of baseball in the city of Cleveland. There’s going to be something going on there all the time.”
Baseball won’t be the only thing going at the Heritage site, either. Two of the new buildings will be devoted to retail or food service.
As for what sort of retail or food service, that remains to be seen. Manna said the museum has commissioned a feasibility study to consider what’s possible in those spaces. She said they’re also working closely with such neighborhood groups as MidTown Cleveland, Famicos Foundation, and the E.66th Street TLCI (Transportation for Livable Communities Initiative), among others, to see what Hough residents want and how they might access and use the expanded facility as a gathering, performance, or other meeting space.
“When you draw people in, you get more activity and more eyes on the community,” said Jeremy Taylor, executive director of the nearby St. Clair-Superior Development Corp. “This could be a catalyst to other things people want to see in the neighborhood. It’s exciting to have so much happening. I do hope it does spark something.”
For their parts, museum and park officials said they hope to bring in local franchises or Cleveland-based startups. Whatever comes in, Manna said, the businesses must meet the needs of a neighborhood on the rise, an area currently home to Chateau Hough vineyards and poised to house a new apartment complex, a new branch of the Cleveland Public Library, and the new home of the Cleveland Foundation.
“We’ve been looking to make sure that whatever we put in there is already profitable on its own and doesn’t clash with what’s already in the neighborhood or what’s coming,” she said.
Those conversations aren’t over. Indeed, many haven’t even started. As the expansion project goes forward with the aim of beginning construction later this year, Manna said she expects project leaders to hold public meetings, during which residents will be able to voice preferences and concerns.
One major concern related to helping the local economy already has been addressed. Manna said the Heritage Museum has partnered with Cleveland-based City Architecture and Ozanne Construction Company, a local, Black-owned construction management firm.
“They care about the community and want to see it succeed,” Manna said, predicting that with Ozanne, “It won’t be years and years under construction.”
Zimmer shares that love for the community. He has broad ambitions for the Heritage Museum and League Park, a vision that encompasses much more than the sport of baseball.
He has Murphy’s desire to see the museum and park restored as the center of baseball in Cleveland. He, though, also wants to see them join the fabric of the neighborhood and become a place where people seek connections to their history and each other.
After all, he said, baseball doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The history of baseball is the history of America. It’s a medium through which one can learn a great deal about the nation’s collective past.
“We’re hoping to get our programming to a point where people want to come here not just for baseball but for all sorts of things,” Zimmer said. “Baseball reaches into all aspects of life.”
The Baseball Heritage Museum, located at 6601 Lexington Ave., Cleve. OH 44113, is open Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from 9am to 3pm. The museum can be reached at [email protected] or 216/789-1083.
Zachary Lewis is a freelance journalist who lives in Shaker Heights.