Memorial Stadium in Baltimore wasn’t much of a ballpark. I didn’t know that when I went there for my first major-league baseball game as a kid in the late 1970s and while walking up to our seats caught a glimpse through a tunnel of the field, the greenest, most perfect grass I’d ever seen, a color I didn’t know existed. (This was long before the advent of high-def TV.)
The lush field at the center of an enclosure of concrete and steel provides one of the themes of Paul Goldberger’s new book. For him, the ballpark is the garden in the city, the rus in urbe, a sports combination of the Jeffersonian agrarian tradition and the Hamiltonian emphasis on cities and industry.
A former architecture writer for the New York Times and The New Yorker, Goldberger calls the ballpark “one of the greatest of all American building types” and argues that, “as much as the town square, the street, the park, and the plaza, the baseball park is a key part of American public space.”
Goldberger relates the history of baseball through its physical facilities and the business, real-estate, and design considerations that created them. You couldn’t do this with any other major sport. It’s rare that a football stadium or basketball or hockey arena becomes memorable in its own right. The experience of baseball, in contrast, is caught up in its surroundings.
Even watching a game on TV played at the Trop in Tampa Bay, the SkyDome in Toronto, the Coliseum in Oakland, or the New Comiskey (ridiculously called “Guaranteed Rate Field”) is less appealing than at a place with some character.
Ballpark is a lovely book that is oversized but still manageable to hold and read, and it has enough drawings and photographs to illustrate Goldberger’s points about each park. He catalogues the journey from ballparks shoehorned into city streets, to the wrong turn into monochromatic dual-use forms, before an unexpected, triumphant return to the traditional.
Ballparks are one of the few public aspects of American life — it’s hard to think of other examples, frankly — that have gotten more beautiful rather than less.
Goldberger argues, correctly, that despite our association of baseball with rural America, as captured in the classic movie Field of Dreams, the game is more connected to the city.
The first ballpark was built in Brooklyn in 1862 and called “Union Grounds.” (Amazingly enough, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” not yet the national anthem, was played before the first game.) New York and Brooklyn, then separate cities, had the greatest number of teams.
The second version of the South End Grounds in Boston, built in 1888, was the most ambitious of the 19th-century parks, with conical towers and other pinnacles atop a recognizably modern double-deck grandstand. Like many of the wooden ballparks of this era, it burned down. The fire started in the right-field bleachers during a game and ended up destroying 200 buildings in Roxbury.
Baseball was split at the outset between the impulses to appeal to the working man and to the more respectable, middle-class sort. In St. Louis, a tavern owner named Chris von der Ahe realized that fans from a nearby ballpark provided a flow of customers and took it over, rebuilding it as Sportsman’s Park. Not subtle, he placed a beer garden within the field of play. (On these grounds alone, I hazard to say my longtime friend and NR colleague Kevin Longstreet, a fellow Yankee die-hard, would consider Sportsman’s one of the great ballparks.)
On the other end of the spectrum, Albert Spalding rebuilt Lakefront Park in Chicago in 1883 with private boxes furnished with upholstered chairs and tended by waiters, a forerunner of the luxury box.
The 20th century brought the age of steel, brick, and concrete, and what Goldberger refers to as “the Golden Age” in 1912–14. It gave us Crosley Field, where the Reds played until 1970, with an upward slope known as the “terrace” in left field; Tiger Stadium, quirky and cozy (a flagpole was in the field of play in deep center); and especially the “jewel boxes” of Fenway, Wrigley, and Ebbets.
They had in common idiosyncrasies owing to where and how they were built, and an extraordinary intimacy. Some of their signature features didn’t come until later. The famous Green Monster and the “Dartmouth Green” paint of the interior of Fenway arrived with renovations. Wrigley didn’t get its iconic ivy walls until the 1930s. (An experiment in planting trees in the bleachers failed.)
Subsequent decades brought a flight from cities, and from eccentricity. Cleveland previewed what was to come in the 1930s with its publicly funded, gargantuan, usually half-empty, symmetrical, multi-sport Municipal Stadium. The bleachers were so distant that no one ever hit a home run into them. So inhospitable was the stadium to baseball that for more than a decade the Indians split time between their prior little bandbox of a home, League Park, and the “Mistake by the Lake.”
The truly dreadful, indistinguishable concrete donuts, like other lamentable trends in American life, were a product of the 1960s. If the stadiums looked like cookie-cutter public-works projects, it’s because they often were.
The turning point, of course, was Camden Yards in Baltimore.
Originally conceived as another multi-sport suburban facility, it instead decisively moved baseball beyond such hybrids. A momentous decision at the outset was to keep an old Baltimore & Ohio Railroad warehouse intact at the site of the new park. The nostalgic feel of the brick warehouse usefully pointed backward.
Camden Yards has a red-brick exterior and exposed steel supports inside, eschewing the concrete of the donuts. It limits foul territory to make ground-level seats closer, and the stands are arranged asymmetrically to avoid a deadening sameness. Advertising on the outfield walls — for the first time since Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia closed in 1970 — recalls classic parks. And the stands frame a view of the Baltimore skyline, anchoring the park in the city.
It’s easy to forget what a revelation Camden Yards was now that its retro style has become a design cliché. Its influence left a stamp on the best of the new parks: PNC Park in Pittsburgh, which, outside of Fenway and Wrigley, might be the most charming place to watch a game in the country; Oracle Park in San Francisco, which is everything its execrable forebear, Candlestick, wasn’t; T-Mobile Park in Seattle, which is enchanting despite a retractable roof.
I agree with almost all of Paul Goldberger’s judgments, although I think he neglects the importance of noise. Not the blaring announcements and nonstop blasting of music in contemporary stadiums (get off my lawn!), but the roar of the crowd. What the Metrodome and Kingdome lacked in suitability for baseball, they could make up with crazed crowd noise, an indispensable part of sports excitement.
This is one of my beefs with the new Yankee Stadium. I appreciate the amenities and the larger, more functional spaces. The halls of the old Yankee Stadium could feel like a crowded subway platform. But the new stadium disperses sound, so the manic energy of the old place — you sometimes could feel the upper deck rock — is a thing of memory.
While I’m at it, one more complaint. I also remember from my inaugural visit to Memorial Stadium a foul ball landing very close to us in the upper deck. (I still recall my stomach dropping as I watched the laces of the ball spin toward us.) Balls don’t reach upper decks anymore. I’d readily trade some obstructed views from pillars and posts to reduce the distance of the seats upstairs.
In that, I may be alone. But I’m one of millions who appreciate, and have benefited from, the return to beauty so ably chronicled in this book.
This article appears as “Fields of Beauty” in the July 8, 2019, print edition of National Review.