Weekend Wanderlust: Discovering Ohio through our baseball history

A monthly guide to day trips around the state

Kevin J. Elliott
Huntington Park is in Columbus' Arena District.

My Mike DeWine story is brief. 

My family and I made the trip to Cooperstown in 2012 to see Cincinnati Red shortstop Barry Larkin inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Those of you looking for a quaint summer getaway, the tiny village in western New York is the mecca of the sport. In addition to the world class and exhaustive Hall of Fame and museum, all of the businesses, charming diners and lodging cater to the dedicated fans of America’s pastime. But that’s the rub with baseball, once you become obsessed, there’s no turning back. 

My father instilled a love of the game. Though I wasn’t any good, he and my uncle were heroes in their day. Regardless, I gravitated towards the nuance, the intricacies and the meditative quality of watching a game in the middle of summer, as well as the stats, and the drills that made you a good player. My dad took my brothers and I to the Hall of Fame on an East Coast road trip in the ‘80s, and the later 2012 trip brought back huge waves of nostalgia. There are really few places in America quite like Cooperstown. 

Anyways, back to DeWine. In the crowded streets on the Saturday before Larkin’s ceremony, where former Hall of Famers sell autographs for large sums and those without much money can still shake hands with the greats (I met Pete Rose on an empty Main St. at 7 a.m.), DeWine, then Ohio Attorney General, was wandering solo, decked out in Red’s gear and blending in with the other Redleg fans. My mom recognized him immediately. He was from where we were from. She’s eager to talk to strangers, always has been, and struck up a conversation. He was there all by his lonesome. A huge Larkin fan. We told him we were Ohioans from the Miami Valley and he beamed with pride. Despite my radical liberal tendencies, I felt connected in that moment. 

Fast forward to the now, when DeWine and I have only ONE thing in common: We can’t wait for the ability to go to a baseball game again. While the governor has caught hell from both sides of the aisle all year, his decision to safely allow the return of ballparks has been pretty much universally lauded. 

For me, Opening Day at Great American Ballpark (and before that Riverfront Stadium) in Cincinnati, along the banks of the mighty Ohio River, is the religious, spring awakening holiday that recharges me every year. Before the pandemic, I had attended 13 in a row. I always used it as my “personal day.” Though the Reds had fans for this year’s blustery and tragic loss, it was season ticket holders only. Instead, I chose to drive down to the stadium the next day. Even when empty, these coliseums devoted to baseball are a special kind of magic. And like Cooperstown, the Reds Hall of Fame and Museum, adjacent to the park, is a Smithsonian-worthy presentation of baseball history. 

Reds fans wait in line outside Great American Ballpark just before the Opening Day game starts, Thursday, April 1, 2021 in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Next to Cooperstown, Cincinnati really is the center of the baseball universe. The 1869 Red Stockings were the first professional team, winning all of their games and that first championship. They held the first night game at old Crosley Field in 1935. Played in the first televised game in 1939 and were the first to (begrudgingly) play on Astroturf in 1970. The museum’s compact yet effective memorabilia display is a testament to that legacy. It all ends with the celebration of the team’s four major championship trophies — including the controversial win in 1919 against the “cheating” Chicago White Sox. More than 100 years later, and though it’s been 30 years since the Reds fielded a World Series winner, it’s hard to diminish the importance of Cincinnati baseball. If you can’t go to Cooperstown, a quick trip down I-71 is an equally enlightening experience. 

But, we live in Columbus, where about half of the population, if not more, is indebted to the team up in Cleveland. Unfortunately, the Cleveland franchise has nothing comparable to Cincinnati. I did discover, however, that in 2006, a small group went about preserving the former site of League Park (where the Spiders began and the Negro League Cleveland Buckeyes won a World Series in 1945) on the city’s near east side, establishing the Baseball Heritage Museum. Now the corner is a revived field for youth leagues and exhibition games. Visiting the museum last weekend, I found that, while its size is underwhelming, curators have packed it full of the same minutiae and interesting anecdotes that make museums so immersive. 

Beyond celebrating the history of Cleveland’s pro team, the museum focuses on the region’s connections to those Negro League teams, as well as the Latin teams, the Women’s leagues, Native American squads and even the barnstorming sandlot conglomerations. These are histories that have long been ignored, though Major League Baseball has been taking on progressive initiatives to bring them to light and fully recognize these forever marginalized talents. Right next to the Babe Ruth home run ball recovered from the streets outside of League Park is a large tribute to the dazzling Satchel Paige — arguably the greatest pitcher to ever play the game — who famously pitched to a crowd of 10,000 in 1941. 

While ogling Chris Sabo’s 1990 prescription goggles or a weathered seat from Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium might now equate to a day of fun for laymen, for those who want more action in their travels, there’s little that can match a day at the ballpark. Get vaccinated, wear a mask, distance in your pods, and soon you can enjoy the great outdoors, under the lights or the summer sun, with an overpriced beer, a hot dog and a scorecard in your hand. 

CLEVELAND, OHIO - SEPTEMBER 30: A general stadium view priror to Game Two of the American League or National League Wild Card Series between the Cleveland Indians and the New York Yankees at Progressive Field on September 30, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio.

The Clippers will have actual fans in the stands as early as tomorrow (Friday, April 16). And to our benefit, Huntington Park is one of the finest minor-league baseball venues in the entire country. But again, as Ohioans, we are blessed with a state that treats baseball as a cultural touchstone. 

To plan a trip to a baseball game is a commitment for sure, but it can also serve as a gateway to discovering the local color of many of our great cities. All of Ohio’s minor league teams have active schedules starting in May and great parks to enjoy those games. For the service of this column, I recommend buying some cheap seats to see the Dayton Dragons, the Toledo Mudhens, the Akron Rubber Ducks, the Mahoning Valley Scrappers (who this season welcome manager Coco Crisp to the fold), and designing your day around that game. Explore the sites, the museums, the foodstuffs, that make that city thrive. It’s out there. 

Hell, I could even give you tips for a visit to Chillicothe to see their celebrated Prospect League collegiate team the Paints (they can still use aluminum bats), and I can guarantee you’ll have a good time.