COLUMBUS, Ohio---Some of America's most profound baseball history is unlocked at Huntington Park, the two year home of the Columbus Clippers of the International League.
The beautiful stadium is built on reclaimed land that had been the site of the Ohio Penitenitary.
This no-bull pen opened in 1834 and closed in 1983. A couple of its more famous players included George "Bugs" Moran and Sam Shepard, the inspiration for the hit television show and movie "The Fugitive." The crumbling penitentiary was razed in 1998 and the 22-acre site has become the hub of nightlife activity in downtown Columbus in what is called "The Arena District......"
The 10,100-seat ballpark is a couple of blocks from Nationwide Arena, the home of the NHL's Columbus Blue Jackets. Huntington is adjacent to the Lifestyles Communities Pavilion, which hosts rock and country shows although the venue name sounds like a place where Pat Boone would be hanging out a lot.
In 2009 Baseballparks.com named Huntington Park "Ballpark of the Year," beating out new or renovated parks including the major league's Yankee Stadium and the New York Mets' Citi Field.
Building on the old prison site has earned points in the green community as well as the fact the suites are not air conditioned. Fancy pants fans are kept cool by ceiling fans. Huntington also recieved a 2010 Ohio environmental award for recycling 220 tons of paper, cardboard, plastics and even grass clippings.
"Another reason we got ballpark of the year is that somewhere in this park we have a photo of everybody who has played in Columbus from 1866 to 2011," said Joe Santry, who has been the beloved Clippers historian since the mid-1980s.
During a tour of the ballpark's impressive restaurant-museum in left field--cooled by garage doors and not AC Santry pointed to a black and white photograph of Columbus Buckeyes pitcher Eddie "Dummy" Dundon, circa 1883.
"He was the first Columbus boy to play in the majors," said Santry, 57. "He was a deaf mute. The umpires hand signals were developed because of him (as well as "Dummy" Hoy, who followed. They both attended the Ohio School for the Deaf in Columbus.)"
Santry sauntered over to a glass case and removed a tattered leather glove about the size of a stove mitten.
"This is Terry Cotton Top Turner's glove who played more games (1,619) for the (Cleveland) Indians than any other," Santry said."He's the only major leaguer to hold a fielding record at two separate positions (shortstop and third base). And he did it with that little tiny glove. Do you know Napoleon Laojie? He was his shortstop." Cotton Top played third base for Columbus in 1902 and 1903. He became a shortstop in 1904 at Cleveland. Cotton Top also developed his famous head-first slide in Columbus.
Past players have a strong attachment to family friendly Columbus. I've written before how I lived in Columbus until 1967. When I was 12 years old my father got transferred to Chicago as part of his job as a purchasing agent at Swift & Co. But I've never written how years ago I interviewed Jerry Mathers and Tony Dow during an autograph signing in suburban Chicago. I mentioned how their hit "Leave it to Beaver" television show reminded me of Columbus. Not only were my parents as formal as June and Ward, I had a kid brother who got on my nerves and even the ranch house architecture and shady magnolia trees reminded me of the streets of Upper Arlington where we lived.
Tony Dow told me the show's writers were from Central Ohio.
In the summer of 2008 I drove to Columbus to witness the induction of Cuban slugger Pancho Herrera into the International League Hall of Fame. [Full story under SPORTS at Dave Hoekstra.com. The former Columbus Jet was my first baseball boyhood hero. Santry pulled Pancho's bat out of a glass case. He told me that Jack Lennahan, who still works on the Clippers staff, corked Pancho's bat.
Say it ain't so, Joe.
"If you look very closely," and he pointed to the top of the bat. "You can see a little circle there." I said, 'Jack, you can barely see it.' He said, 'Yeah, I was good'."
Past Columbus players send old legal bats, jerseys and even catcher's equipment to Santry. "They want to be remembered," Santry said, simply. "We had a catcher who only had one at bat call and say, 'I sent you a picture, can you hang it up for me?' We'd be glad to. It was a nice picture of him in his (Columbus) Redbird uniform, all pressed."
This isn't some exclusive high rent museum like the Baseball Hall of Fame that can't find space for Buck O'Neil or Ron Santo.
Santry stopped and looked at another picture of an old time pitcher. He said, "That's Cannonball Moore, who was the first pitcher to throw overhand. They had previously thrown like girls fast pitch softball. Albert Spaulding said this newfangled pitching style was going to ruin baseball."
Baseball has been played at several locations in Columbus.
The game began in 1876 on High Street on the current site of the Columbus Convention Center. The 1917 Columbus Senators (with great names like Mickey LaLonge, Ziggy Hasbrook, Lefty George and pitcher Mordicai Brown) played at Neil Park.
Former Cub Joe Tinker was player manager and began the tradition of playing the National Anthem before a baseball game. According to Santry's unpublished work-in-progress "Grazing Through Columbus Baseball," a few weeks before the start of the season "the U.S. Provost Marshall issued a 'work or fight' edict. All young men had to either join the armed services or a war related industry." Tinker wanted to rally the troops and boost morale.
Santry told me, "The first time we did the anthem the umpire yelled, 'Play Ball!' and the third base side collapsed. Because everybody (20,000 fans) sat down at the same time." In 1941 Major League baseball adopted the practice in its larger stadiums.
Santry has an answer for every obscure moment in Columbus baseball history.
Why is a Tarzan call played during a game?
"Johnny Weissmuller (the Tarzan movie character) was playing at the Ohio Theater in 1933 and we had Ladies Day," he said. "The Redbirds would bring whichever movie star was playing in town to the game to sign autographs. Johnny was a great athlete and loved baseball. He became good friends with (player-manager) Ray Blades. The Redbirds were losing 4-1 with two outs. Blades puts himself in to pinch hit. He gets two quick strikes on him. Weissmuller goes, 'Ladies, I gotta' do something.' He ran to the top of the grandstands, ripped off his shirt and did his Tarzan yell; Ahhhhhh! Ahhhhh!. You could hear a pin drop. Blades stepped back into the plate and hit a grand slam to win the game. The story goes how Weissmuller jumped down the stairs and over the rail and put Blades on his shoulder.
"That's why the play the Tarzan call here when we need a rally. It's a little history.
"Columbus is one of the most important sports towns in America. People don't know that Joe Carr, the first president of of the NFL (1921-39) , grew up in this neighborhood. The NFL's corporate headquarters were at Broad and High for decades. Carr, George Halas and George Marshall of the Washington Redskins formed the first national Basketball Association that had the Celtics and Knicks. They needed an income during the winter."
I'll be curious to see if body builder/playboy/The Tarzan of his Time Arnold Schwarzenegger will continue to hold his annual "Arnold" body building and fitness expo in Columbus.
Santry told me Jeff Gordon's racing company has its eyes on the former Cooper Stadium, built in 1932 on the West Side of Columbus. It is still standing.
Here are some lonely images I made:
"Gordon's people want to knock down the first base side and build an oval track," Santry said. "There will be a school to teach NASCAR drivers. The office and the left field wall have been designated historic landmarks. I went there last week. I took some pictures. It looked like a ghost town. Instead of tumbleweed, there were newspapers blowing through it. There was a big weed growing in the infield. It was sort of sad."