October 20, 2019

Ballpark

September 17, 2019 by · 1 Comment 

Ballpark, the excellent book on baseball architecture by Paul Goldberger, is a paean to those unique and very public edifices in which “America’s Pastime” is played. Goldberger’s history and physical description of so many of them is very much like barnstorming the country to see them, so aptly and lovingly described are they in his 321 page narrative.  The author is clearly an urbanist: a lover of cities and the American culture they have spawned, and that is why he can wax eloquent about ballparks, because baseball is so intertwined with the history and culture of cities.

The great surge of migration and immigration that fed the urban growth in the late 19th century and early 20th century also sparked the American passion for baseball. The city and baseball were like trains running on parallel tracks, both pushing into the future at remarkable speed, spring boarding in popularity as baseball vaulted into the cultural pantheon of American history. Yet it was the stark contrast between the two that made it all work. As the city increasingly became an industrial matrix underpinned by steel and defined by concrete forms, the baseball field became a green oasis where “the perfume and freshness of nature” was breathed into the otherwise coarse fabric of the city.

My first game at RFK Stadium in 2005 remains one of the great joys of my life. I knew I had finally found my baseball home when I saw the emerald green grass spread out before me, regardless that it was hemmed in and isolated from the asphalt and concrete that surrounded it. The luster and shine of it remain with me to this day, so I can appreciate the many times in the book that Goldberger muses poetic about the green fields of baseball and how they illuminate the drabness of urban living.

It is more than poetry. The wonderful history of baseball architecture Golderger provides, is the strength of his project. The book begins with how the ballpark has evolved from those first efforts to fence in the field to restrict access and charge admission–as occurred in Brooklyn in 1862. Goldberger catalogs the success of those initial steps forward as owners sought to control more than just the price of admission, but the nature of the game, who played it and who watched. Then came the first public shrines to the uniquely American game. Shibe Park and Ebbets Field are Goldberger’s favorites and he remains a sentimental advocate for old Tiger Stadium. But the why of it is what fascinates.

The multi-purpose fields of the post-war period in the 1950’s, a development trend that did not end for several decades, are anathema to everything positive Goldberger believes define the marriage of ballparks with the city and its denizens. Those concrete doughnuts shuts out the sun at their worst–the Astrodome and others–and they are more about creating a suburban experience–asphalt parking lots and long drives to arrive–that tried to take baseball away from its urban roots and into cavernous holes where one might as well have been playing and watching the game on the moon.

But baseball architecture survived the storm as did the American city. Fear of crime gave way to an embrace of urban diversity, which is what it was all about in the beginning, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody … only when they are created by everybody,” Jane Jacobs said famously. The best cities embrace the teaming multitudes in their many-hued wonder and do not try to hide from it. The best ballparks behave the same. With one remarkable event, baseball architecture returned to its roots, but it almost did not happen and that story of success is one of the best in the book.

The design and building of Camden Yards may be the best story Goldberger tells and it deserves its special niche. Fans like me–from the Baltimore and DC metro areas–are well versed in the superficial delight of that saga. We have all been to the stadium and delighted in the backdrop of the warehouse and the rising smoke from Boog’s Barbecue. But we know little of the struggle that was involved to make it real.

Larry Lucchino, team president, and the newly minted owner, Eli Jacobs, pulled it off as a joint project. They were helped by a woman architect named Jean Marie Smith. But it was all so serendipitous. HOK could just as easily have built another monstrosity like the new Comiskey Park that was their most recent effort as the Orioles ownership sought a new home and an end to Memorial Stadium. How they found an alternative to Comiskey and arrived at the old rail yards adjacent to center city Baltimore is a great story. Without it HOK might never have learned to create some of the wonderful parks that we now enjoy in Cleveland, Denver, San Francisco and elsewhere. It is fascinating narrative.

The decision to keep the warehouse was the first lucky break. The hiring of Jean Marie Smith was another. Bringing both Jacobs and Lucchino together, each of whom valued the old parks and their openness to the city, could have been undone all too easily. Yet they had the grit to see their ideas through and that has given the rest of the country the gift of parks like those in Pittsburgh, San Diego and Cincinnati. They threaded the needle and we should all be grateful they did.

There are outliers. The Phillies play in a vast sea of parking though the park itself is wonderful and provides some view of the skyline to the north. The Rangers ballpark is much the same. Atlanta has never gotten over its exposure to the World of Disney that occurred every spring in Orlando. Now they have an MLB park that is more a theme park than ball field, one that uses the game of baseball as an excuse to draw fans to the larger “Big Top.”

The new Nationals Ballpark gets generally favorable reviews. It is an urban planning home run, given the neighborhood of residences, office and retail that has sprung up from the dead zone that once inhabited everything between the Anacostia River and I-695. Walking north, away from Nationals Park, either along the river or through the tree-lined neighborhood, one cannot escape the cornucopia of sights and sounds that define “the city.”

Paul Goldberger asserts early on that the ballpark is “a device by which the city might sustain an illusion of rural pleasures.” When one of the only green spaces in the city was the cemetery, baseball provided an interplay between rural and urban, a choreography of green field, urban grit and baseball that are at the core of our experience when we venture forth for a game. How all those magnificent edifices have shaped our cities, and our cities have shaped the game within, is the supple clay from which Goldberger makes his own masterpiece. It is a wonderful story and regardless whether your goal in life is to see all thirty MLB parks or not, this book is a must for anyone who loves the ballpark experience and imagines they might want to know more than just the price of admission.

 

Comments

One Response to “Ballpark”
  1. Dirk Durstein says:

    Having attended many games with my Dad at Connie Mack Stadium (Shibe Park), I took my youngest son to the first exhibition game at Citizens Bank Park. True it is in a sea of parking lots. But upon walking in (on a stormy day) and seeing that green grass, it took me back to the magic of green grass in an ancient stadium in the midst of North Philly. I assured my son that it was rain on my face and not tears; but he knew better. I only wish my Dad could have seen it. The Vet was quickly forgotten.

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