The opening of Yankee Stadium on April 14, 1923, was a triumph for baseball.
It was a triumph for the Yankees, of course, who had started their major-league life in Baltimore, as the nascent American League was afraid to challenge the successful, established and beloved New York Giants of the National League. After an uneasy détente was reached (thanks in part to a promise that ownership stakes would be given to a prominent gambler and two city officials), the team moved to New York, first to upper Manhattan’s shabby Hilltop Park and then to the new Polo Grounds, where they were the Giants’ tenants.
Before the 1920 season, the Yankees bought the contract of Babe Ruth from the Red Sox for $125,000, the largest price ever for the purchase of a single player in a move regarded as folly at the time. At that price, the Yankees would have to draw a million fans to break even—unheard of at that point. As it turned out, Ruth’s prodigious home runs revolutionized the sport—and drew crowds. In his first year with the Yankees, the team became the first in major league history to draw more than one million fans, relegating the Giants to second fiddle in their own park. The Yankees needed a bigger place of their own—and the Giants were only too happy to have them leave, going so far as to serve them an eviction notice (later rescinded).
The Yankees found a site across the river in the South Bronx for their new ballpark, and even its name—Yankee Stadium, not a “park” or a “field” like its contemporaries—suggested grandiosity. The imposing concrete edifice was the first major-league stadium to have three decks of seats, bringing capacity to a total of 70,000 (there were even plans to fully enclose the stadium for a total of 85,000 seats). Those fans would be able to move quickly into the park thanks to 18 ticket pagodas outside, and circulate freely inside thanks to 20-foot-wide concourses.
But the construction of Yankee Stadium was just the culmination of a building boom of new major league stadiums, the 14th new stadium built since the openings of Shibe Park in Philadelphia and Forbes Field in Pittsburgh in 1909. The new ballparks were bigger, fancier and sturdier, with wooden edifices being replaced by new steel-and-concrete facilities.
In the new construction, form no longer necessarily followed function, as the ballparks received artistic flourishes as a testament to the craftsmen who made them as well as permanence they were supposed to embody. The exterior walls at Shibe Park had terra cotta balls and bats as decoration. Ebbets Field’s rotunda included a chandelier of baseball-shaped lights. And Yankee Stadium’s unprecedented third deck was capped with copper friezes, in what’s become probably the most iconic representation of sports architecture. Simply put, these new ballparks were aspirational.
“The concrete-and-steel stadiums not only represented a safety measure, but a leap of faith on how popular baseball would become,” says MLB historian John Thorn. “In effect, it was like Field of Dreams. They built in the hopes it would come. They built ballparks of great seating capacity and seeming posterity.”
The stadium was also a triumph for a company more than 450 miles away, on Euclid Avenue in Cleveland. In 1910, Osborn Engineering designed its first ballpark, the Indians’ new home at League Park. The company’s founder and namesake, Frank Osborn, had distinguished himself in bridge construction, but it was in the early era of stadium construction that the nascent firm really made its mark.
“After all the infrastructure was built, Frank Osborn said, ‘Well, what’s next?’” says Jack Krebs, director of sports engineering for Osborn Engineering, still a prolific and well-regarded firm in downtown Cleveland. “What he noticed was sports and baseball in particular were starting to become popular in the United States and develop a following, and he really wanted to capitalize on that.”
In the days after the Civil War, the game of baseball increased in popularity, as teams started to form in America’s cities. In 1869, the Red Stockings of Cincinnati took the bold step of paying their players. With professional baseball taking hold, team owners began to build ballparks, if for no other reason than to be able to control crowd access and thus charge admission.
Ballparks “made it permanent,” Thorn says. “It wasn’t just a stop on a barnstorming tour.”
Much like most of the construction in the United States at the time, early baseball stadiums were made of wood, which was relatively inexpensive (compared to brick or other masonry, the other main building material) and plentiful. It could serve the needs of a growing sport, which had clearly established itself but was still fluid enough that teams and even entire leagues would pop in and out of existence from one year to the next.
The biggest risk with wood was fire. And it was a risk that was demonstrated time and time again—and not just with ballparks. “We think of a fire that takes lives in the hundreds as a freakish event now,” Thorn says. “But it was common then.”
Fire killed hundreds in Chicago (and Wisconsin and Michigan) in 1871. The fire and shipwreck of the General Slocum in New York City’s East River in 1904 remains one of the worst maritime disasters in American history. And San Francisco had to be almost completely rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake and fire.
Ballparks were not immune. Two boys playing with matches under the bleachers of Boston’s South End Grounds started what turned out to be a nine-alarm blaze in 1894 (at that point, it was estimated that one-third of all major league parks had been damaged by fire). Nobody was killed in what became known as the Great Roxbury Fire, but more than 1,200 people were left homeless. A 1898 fire at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis started in the middle of a game when a fan dropped a cigar; it injured 100 and and hastened the sale of the team to out-of-town investors. And two fires in Cincinnati led Reds owner John T. Brush to construct the Palace of the Fans in 1902.
The other risk inherent in wooden ballparks was what Thorn terms “bleacher failure,” when structures overladen with people just collapsed. It happened in Detroit, Boston, and in what came to be known as “Black Saturday,” in Philadelphia. On Aug. 8, 1903, fans in the left field bleachers at the Baker Bowl during a doubleheader between the Phillies and Braves heard a commotion below on 15th Street, and gathered on a balcony at the top of the bleachers to get a glimpse of the disturbance. The balcony gave way and collapsed into the street below. All told, a dozen people were killed and 232 were injured.
Just a decade earlier, when it opened, the Baker Bowl had been touted as the first modern ballpark, made of iron and brick. But the cantilevered balcony—also a novelty—was held in place by wood joists, which had rotted. There had to be a better way to build ballparks. And as it turns out, there was.
When Frank Osborn moved to Cleveland in 1889 at the age of 32, he was already on the path of an illustrious engineering career. A Michigan native, Osborn had graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and had worked for a series of bridge-building companies, including GWG Ferris in Pittsburgh. Its founder and namesake, George Ferris, was like Osborn an RPI alumnus, and his most lasting achievement was showing the durability of steel by building a 250-foot wheel designed to carry passengers up and over the grounds of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. They called it, after him, a Ferris Wheel.
Osborn moved to Cleveland to work with the King Bridge Company, which specialized in railroad bridges. Cleveland in the late 1800s was a boom town, and the largest oil refiner in the world. There was plenty of demand not just for bridges, but for bridges that could carry heavy traffic. After three years at King, he struck out on his own.
Osborn continued to design bridges as well as factories and buildings. Osborn’s Northeast Ohio clients read like a who’s who of American industry, including such titans as Standard Oil, General Electric, and Goodyear, and, eventually, in 1910, the Cleveland Indians.
The Indians—then known as the Naps in honor of player-manager Napoleon Lajoie—were looking for a new ballpark to replace League Park, a wooden grandstand built in 1891 for the NL’s Cleveland Spiders. They turned to Osborn, which drew up plans for a new 21,000-seat ballpark on the same site, using its bridge-building expertise in construction. Like bridges, ballparks needed to take into account load-bearing for massive crowds in a relatively small space.
“If you kept using wood, your footprint would have to keep getting bigger, and that’s not good for spectators, particularly in baseball,” Krebs noted. The stadium, like the two ballparks that opened the year before in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, would use steel-reinforced concrete, then cutting-edge technology, which would allow for greater crowds without taking up more space.
Concrete also had a higher initial cost, but was seen as a wiser investment.
“It was more durable and heavier than wood, so it made for a longer-lasting construction,” says Bill Bast, past president of the National Council of Structural Engineers Association. “People started thinking longer-term. Wood has its limitation on strength. Even low-strength concrete has better compression capabilities.”
And concrete at the time was significantly lower-strength than it is today. However, the use of steel reinforcement improved it. But Bast notes that construction was proprietary at the time, and there were no industry-wide standards. Concrete is made from the same basic formula—cement, water and aggregate, some kind of loose material like sand, gravel or slag—but each company had its own mix, and in many instances, ways to reinforce it with steel.
“Contractors had their own methodology to pouring,” he says. “Some used orthogonal (where the bars meet at right angles) reinforcement, but some used circumferential or radial construction.” They also cast the concrete in place, Krebs notes, something contractors don’t have to do today.
The city stopped on a dime for the opening of League Park. At a banquet the evening of the home opener on April 21, 1910, (a 5-0 Tigers win over the Naps), American League President Ban Johnson heralded the new ballpark as cementing major league baseball in Cleveland, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer said it was “the greatest baseball plant in the entire circuit.”
The building boom was on. The next year saw Osborn design new ballparks in Washington and New York (both replacing previous ballparks that had been damaged by fire). In fact, it was construction of the new Polo Grounds that led the Yankees to leave Hilltop Park and become the Giants’ tenants. Osborn also had a hand in the initial construction of Navin Field in Detroit (later Tiger Stadium) and Braves Field in Boston. It also helped with renovations at Comiskey Park in 1920, Sportsman’s Park in 1922 and Fenway Park in 1934, after Tom Yawkey’s purchase of the team. (Yawkey’s uncle William was co-owner of the Tigers when Navin Field was built; doubtless this had an effect on Osborn’s hiring.)
Baseball maintained its pre-eminence as America’s favorite spectator professional sport well into the 1960s, by which time a new crop of stadiums was being built, some for expansion teams as the game spread beyond the northeast quadrant of the nation, and some for teams that shifted locations. These stadiums were vastly different from the ones they replaced—but remarkably similar to each other, round, completely enclosed buildings (Krebs calls them the “doughnut” stadiums) that sometimes used new artificial turf and weren’t designed just for baseball. In the early days of the NFL, teams were content to rent the local baseball stadium, but as that sport grew to prominence in the 1960s, its needs had to be considered in stadium construction.
Those charmless multipurpose stadiums served as a backdrop to the decline of baseball as an American pastime, a trend that would never be fully reversed, but was at least arrested in the 1990s, as a new trend in stadium construction took hold: the jewel box “retro” stadiums that hearkened back to the game’s glory days.
Thorn notes that for a half century, from the Highlanders’ arrival in New York in 1903 to the Braves’ departure of Boston for Milwaukee in 1953, no teams relocated, a testament to the sport’s stability—brought on in part by the stadiums built by Osborn and others in the 1910s.
“Stability came because of the stadium boom,” Thorn says. “The war between the American and National leagues stopped. Player raids stopped. Peace and prosperity came to baseball, and they were embodied in these new palaces.”
Vince Guerrieri is an award-winning journalist and author in the Cleveland area. He likes Lake Erie perch sandwiches, Jim Traficant and long walks on the field at League Park. His website is vinceguerrieri.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @vinceguerrieri.