Crosley Field was the smallest baseball park in the major leagues, but it sure looks big in Larry Luebbers' backyard. When the Cincinnati Reds moved from Crosley to the new Riverfront Stadium in 1970, the old field on Western Avenue was set for the wrecker's ball until Luebbers showed up with the idea of buying a couple of the seats as souvenirs. "I got started and I just couldn't get stopped," he says cheerfully as he sits at his kitchen table sipping a beer and gazing out through the sliding glass doors at Crosley Field—or, at least, a substantial portion of it—reincarnated. There is the ticket office with the sign BOX SEATS $3.00 RESERVED GRANDSTAND $2.50. There is the bat rack from which Johnny Bench and Pete Rose chose their weapons. There is the left-field line precisely 328 feet long and the right-field line stretching 366 feet to the foul pole. And there, in the distance, is the terrace that slopes up to a height of four feet and used to throw visiting outfielders off balance, causing them to fall down and miss fly balls. On the left field wall, there is a billboard with a 30-foot-long Pepsi-Cola bottle on it; alongside is a huge picture of a 1970 Dodge and another vast advertisement reading WIEDEMANN BEER.
There also is the dugout from which Manager Bill McKechnie directed the Reds to the world championship in 1940. And there is the hole Birdie Tebbetts poked in the dugout wall to blow smoke through in order to beat the no-smoking rule. There is the original 60-foot flagpole and, just outside the gate, a souvenir stand advertising autographed balls for $3, history books, ties, T shirts, coolie hats, opera glasses, yearbooks, pennants, bats, badges, pins and caps, all with the big Cincinnati "C" on them. What makes the scene slightly jarring is the view of a rambling barn off to one side of the diamond and, visible through the chain link fence at the limits of the outfield, a herd of cattle grazing on a hillside. What Luebbers has done is set up Crosley Field in the middle of innocent farmland near the town of Union, Ky., about 15 miles south of Cincinnati. A good deal of it he hauled over, bit by bit, in his beat-up station wagon.
The first thing out-of-town visitors ask Luebbers, who is 35, stands 6'2" and sells real estate and country hams for a living, is why he did it. Luebbers will say, "I don't really know. I guess I just wanted to." A further hint comes from Luebbers' blonde, slightly built wife Gloria, a former model who now works in Luebbers' real-estate office just down the road, except when she is preparing to give birth to another small Luebbers; there are now six, and it is no secret that Larry hopes to sire his own baseball team. Says Gloria, "If you don't like baseball around here you're in trouble." Luebbers admits that he "got carried away," but says the field is a good place for the local kids to play.
Besides spending what will probably amount to $35,000 by the time he has finished the resurrection of Crosley Field, Luebbers also has paid $20 apiece for uniforms for the 70 local kids in the D-Minor Knothole League who use the grounds nearly every day after school and on weekends. Luebbers had to get a waiver on the league's minimum-age requirement of seven, so his 6-year-old son Larry Jr. (Lubie) could play with a team in his old man's big-league ball park. The kid has already pitched a pair of no-hitters.
Luebbers has always been a Reds fan, first as a boy in Cincinnati and later as a student at St. Pius X Seminary across the Ohio River, where he studied for the priesthood until the fifth inning of the last game in the 1961 World Series. "It was the first Reds pennant since 1940, and I was watching the game on TV," he says. " Waite Hoyt was doing the commentating, and just as Wally Post hit a homer, this priest shows up and clicks off the set and tells me to get back to my studies. Right away I thought, 'Is this my life or not?' and I walked out of there and never went back."
Soon Luebbers was pitching for Thomas More College in Covington, Ky., and later he played semipro ball in the Buckeye League, where the teams have such sponsors as Oertels 92 beer and Bavarian Breweries. "It was always in the back of my mind to get into the majors," he says. But the closest Luebbers got was a visit from a Pittsburgh Pirate scout, who watched him give up 27 hits. Needless to say, the scout did not sign Luebbers.
In more recent years, Luebbers has pitched in softball tournaments, but the mental picture of himself swatting one over the fence in Crosley Field apparently never was erased from his mind. So when the left-field wall was finally put in place behind his house, Luebbers took Lubie out to give it a whirl. "It was almost too dark to play," he recalls, "but I wanted to be the first one to do it. Lubie gave me a nice fat pitch, and I put it right over that wall. I hit the very first home run in this place."
Putting the field into shape—an $8,500 bulldozing and landfill job to duplicate the contours of the original, installing 400 Crosley Field seats, the not-yet completed placement of the huge scoreboard with its five-foot-long second hand—has not been all beer and skittles for Luebbers and the friends he presses into service on the interminable trips back and forth over the Ohio River between Kentucky and Cincinnati. The Boone County zoning board questioned the erection of the scoreboard on the grounds that the laws made no provision for a monstrous lighted sign rising 55 feet into the air, but relented when Luebbers threatened to call off all the kids' ball games if he could not have his scoreboard.
Luebbers took two boys from Union to help him remove the 60-foot flagpole from Crosley, which at the time was being used as a lot for cars impounded by the Cincinnati police. "There were a lot of pretty nice cars in there," Luebbers says. He tells how the two boys mishandled the ropes on the flagpole after it had been cut free at the base. Over it went, seemingly headed directly for a neat row of car roofs. But somehow it landed smack between the autos, breaking into three pieces—it was made of cast iron—but doing no other damage. "It was a miracle," Luebbers says offhandedly, as if he might still be benefiting from some special pull he picked up at the seminary. He and the boys gathered up the pieces, stowed them in the wagon and brought them back to Union, where they were welded together. The great pole now stands in Crosley Field once more. Luebbers also had trouble with the very heavy ticket office that he wanted. He cut it in half with a chain saw and early one Sunday he and a friend loaded half of it aboard a flatbed trailer and headed for Kentucky. Because of the awkward load, it took them three hours and 20 minutes to make the 30-mile round trip, and when they got back to Crosley somebody had stolen the other half of the ticket office.
"We also had trouble with that popcorn stand," Luebbers says. A crane broke while lifting it. And when Luebbers tried to dismantle the stand with a chain saw, that broke, too. "Finally we used the headache ball and knocked the thing to pieces," he says.