The Ballpark Is The Great American Public Space

Graphic: Jim Cooke (GMG), Photo: Getty, Shutterstock

Is a ballpark a place to watch baseball, a theme park, a microcosm of its city, or something else entirely? It’s an open question that stretches back to the late 19th century, when enclosed ballparks, flanked by cheaply constructed wooden bleachers, began the gradual evolution of ballpark construction that reaches to the present. That a baseball stadium can capture so many divergent aims in one structure is a testament to the game’s influence on the public imagination; the way we relate to the ballpark also reflects the changing ways in which we relate to the cities we call home.

These ever-evolving responsibilities carried on the back of our nation’s pastime (and the venues it calls home) are lovingly cataloged in Ballpark: Baseball in the American City, a new book from Pulitzer Prize–winning architectural critic Paul Goldberger.

Goldberger argues that baseball fields, throughout the sport’s history, capture the tension between rural expansiveness and urban liveliness in the American ideal. While baseball’s founding mythology expresses a pastoral longing for the countryside, embodied in the Hall of Fame’s rural location in Upstate New York, Goldberger argues that “baseball was indeed a city game” from its earliest days. (Sure enough, while myth says it was born in Cooperstown, the reality says Hoboken.)

The sport has come a long way from the first World Series, held in 1903, in which balls hit underneath a rope stretched around the outfield counted as ground-rule triples. Even now, outfields that could theoretically extend into infinity are in practice constrained by the practicalities of urban land values. Both the transformation and the continuity can be seen clearly in the troubled births, busy lives, and varied fates of the parks themselves. I spoke to Goldberger about Ballpark and about those stadiums, past and present, which continue to both shape and reflect our civic values.

You talk a lot in the book that ballparks have the magic of combining the urban and rural in one space, an important factor in American history. How do you see the baseball stadium embodying those principles?

Paul Goldberger: America has always, I think, struggled between rural and urban. It goes back to Hamilton and Jefferson, and we like to believe ourselves as a rural people going across the landscape, but in fact, most of achievements have been urban and industrial, and we’ve built great cities at the same time. Some of that rural yearning has always been a part of the mythology of baseball: it’s why the Hall of Fame is in Cooperstown, and so forth. But the reality of the history of baseball is more urban, and the key thing I’m trying to say in the book is that the baseball park is actually, for 150 years, a key part of a whole category of public space in the American city, that people generally don’t look at as that.

I wanted to make the point that when the baseball park starts, it’s part of that long thread of different attempts to integrate the urban and the rural, and to give you some kind of sense of open land and landscape and garden in the city. But of course, the ballpark is different from other places like urban graveyards and cemeteries: It’s active, not passive, and you’re there to watch this magical piece of landscape, but enclosed within a structure that’s very urban. Some of the best ballparks have been great urban buildings at the same time. The goal was to look at that interrelationship, that dynamic between the rural and the urban and how it plays out in baseball.

You seem to capture that tension nicely with the image of an infinite outfield, which actually existed in the game’s early days, before ballparks began to completely enclose the field.

I think it’s a really important part of baseball. In both time and space, it’s technically infinite. It’s the only major team sport that’s not played against the clock, and you don’t have goals at each end of a defined space the way you do on a football field or a soccer pitch or a basketball court or anything else. It’s very, very different the way it approaches the land, and the rules only lay out the diamond itself. The outfield could go forever, in theory. Of course, no outfield goes forever, the same way that no game really lasts forever, but the fact that the rules don’t specify either an ending in time or an ending in space makes baseball very, very different.

How did transportation impact the development of the game?

It’s been critical to the growth of baseball, from the beginning. The baseball leagues really grew as alliances of cities when intercity travel became practical, which was when the train system began to grow. In the earlier years of baseball, teams played other local teams. Around New York and Brooklyn, there were quite a number of teams, but also in many other areas, but they didn’t play much outside of their own area—it was too difficult to arrange, too complicated, it took too long to get there, all that stuff. The reality is the growth of trains and the growth of baseball, they grew up together. Without trains, baseball probably would not have become a national game, and on the other hand, without baseball, trains would have been the same. They didn’t affect one another, but baseball as a national game was really initially enabled by trains, and the growth of intercity train service.

And then much later, [it was] only when it was practical to fly nonstop between New York and California that there were major-league teams on the West Coast. It’s not an accident that the Dodgers and the Giants went to California at just about the time that jet travel began to make it feasible to go in one relatively quick flight.

The other way that transit connects to all of it is locally. A lot of the early ballparks were on the edges of cities, because land was cheaper, and they became destinations for streetcars. Several teams were actually owned by the owner of the streetcar company, who thought this was great because it would create a destination that would keep people paying fares, because they wanted to go to the baseball park.

Downtown baseball, which right now is a big phenomenon, and so many cities have done it, and one that I think is almost entirely a positive development, didn’t really exist in the early years. A lot of the ballparks that we now think of as centrally located were actually on what were more like urban edges, and the city grew around them. Fenway Park is not exactly in the downtown part of Boston. It was in fact built by the owners of the team who also had a huge amount of real estate interest in that part of Boston. They wanted to develop a new neighborhood, and they thought that putting a baseball park there would solve a lot of problems: Build their own baseball park, which they wanted, attract attention to the new neighborhood, which was in fact being called Fenway, and it would a big chunk of the land and guarantee that there was traffic there. The history ties into all kinds of interesting things about the growth of cities that are separate from the game itself, but it all kind of went together.

You argue that most ballparks haven’t been on the cutting edge of urban architectural practice, but largely reflect wider trends impacting cities. Which ones stand out as somehow ahead of their time?

Different ones did different things and meant different things, I’d say. You could say, for example, that South End Grounds in Boston, which only lasted a few years before burning down, was in one of its iterations a really ornate Victorian structure and was important in being the first time that it was treated like real architecture. So that prefigured one thing. The growth of steel and concrete replacing wood, so that ballparks would be more fireproof, you see that early on in Shibe Park in Philadelphia, which I think was one of the greatest parks of all time, and was this beautiful, ornate building; and Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, which is another truly great lost ballpark. Others had innovations in how they treated the fans, and there was even, in fact, the wonderfully-named one in Cincinnati called Palace of the Fans, and it had very ornate, beautiful, classical stands, but it was actually a rather dreary building on the outside—they put all of the effort on the inside, which was unusual and very different from what most people were doing at the time, but did foreshadow things that came later.

Why have wider considerations of how baseball stadiums exist in urban space been so impactful on how the game was played?

Ballparks were often constrained by the land, which led to often somewhat awkward shapes, but of course that’s another key thing that makes them different from other sports. They’re all unique, and the game is therefore a little different every place it’s played. I think that’s another key part of the tradition of baseball. The fan experience and amenities might be different from one football stadium to another, or one basketball arena to another, but the goal is to make the experience for the player absolutely identical.

Baseball, though, is different. Baseball is a little different for the player in every ballpark, as well as, of course, a little different for the fans. There’s the short left field, short right field, long center field, the position of the sun, things like that, so many factors make it different from one to the other. That’s a key part of the tradition of baseball, and Major League Baseball misunderstood that in the fifties when they tried to issue a set of uniform regulations for outfield distances and foul lines. I don’t think they even technically exist anymore, or they became accepted as minimums rather than as actual dictates, and certainly since Camden Yards [there has been] the idea that the parks should have at least a little bit of eccentricity, within reason. Because they’re all a little bit different, you found even in the old parks that were unusual because they were not so unusual. For example, the Polo Grounds in New York was totally symmetrical: it was shaped like a huge “U,” with a very deep center field, and the diamond right at the bottom of the U, but because everything else in those days was so unusual, it actually made that unusual too in the more even geometric shape.

One of the more unusual stories you tell in the book is the potential construction of a domed stadium in Brooklyn in the 1940s and 1950s, which included radical new designs from architects Norman Bel Geddes and Buckminster Fuller. Why was this unbuilt park so important?

The stuff that the Dodgers were planning to do in Brooklyn was really unusual, and significant as an early attempt by some really important designers to do a domed stadium. It’s an important part of the history of that team, and it helps people understand that it wasn’t so much that Walter O’Malley was desperate to move to Los Angeles, he was just desperate to replace Ebbets Field. He would have been happy to have stayed in Brooklyn if all of this happened.

Having said all of that, I think it actually would have been really horrible. What they actually envisioned was something like the Astrodome, a dozen years before the Astrodome, in the middle of Brooklyn, where it probably would have been awful, because it’s a very anti-urban building. I find the Astrodome a fascinating, amazing thing, but I’m very glad it was built in Houston by a freeway, not in the middle of a dense urban city, because it wouldn’t fit. I think that, interesting though those Dodger schemes were, I think they would have been terrible had they happened, so [it’s] just as well.

On the other hand, the idea of putting a ballpark over the railyards on the West Side of Manhattan would have been fantastic. The Yankees considered that briefly, the Mets considered it even more briefly, and it never happened. It’s an interesting thing to talk about right now, because there’s so much tension around the huge Hudson Yards project that just opened, which most people don’t like. I think it would have been 100 times better if they’d put a baseball park into it, and there still would have been plenty of room for high rise towers and other stuff, because a ballpark would not have taken the whole project space by any means. There’s something that didn’t happen that I think we all lost out for.

In other situations, we were lucky. It also depends on the time, too. Many big domed stadiums were built during the years those were popular; many were proposed and not built; and now, we’ve pretty much gotten past the era of romanticizing the dome, and are pretty much trying to get baseball back outdoors as much as possible, and the only domes that are built are generally retractable. The ones that weren’t built, we are pretty lucky about that too, that many of them didn’t happen. The ones that didn’t happen are still fascinating to look at and fun to think about, even if we dodged a bullet at the same time. Some of those were very interesting bullets.

Another fascinating, failed project was the redesigned Comiskey Park, which would have made Chicago and not Baltimore the first to have a retro-looking, neighborhood-focused city park. Why was the eventual construction of new Comiskey Park so disappointing?

It’s really the last gasp of an earlier generation of ballparks. By the time that the White Sox opened that in 1991, Camden Yards was well under construction, and everything would soon change. Unfortunately, they were the last to build a ballpark in a style that was never really very good, and by the time it was opened, it was completely out of date. It’s a sad thing, because it could have been so much better. My feeling is that Jerry Reinsdorf really wanted to go to the suburbs, and they had a whole plan to move to Addison, and ultimately it didn’t happen because there was a referendum in the town which defeated it. The state was so freaked out that he might go to St. Petersburg, which he was seriously considering doing at that point, that they said that they’d do anything for him, and they gave him the land on the South Side and essentially built the new Comiskey Park. But the park they built was almost what he was thinking of doing in the suburbs, and it feels very suburban. It’s not a good city ballpark at all.

In the final chapters of the book, you look at some recent new parks, including the Braves’ park outside Atlanta and Marlins Park in Miami, and consider the ways in which parks are expressing both the desire of teams to exert greater control over the area’s surroundings, as well as turning them into mini–theme parks. Is this a trend you expect to continue, or is it still too soon to tell?

Probably the only fair answer is the last one, that it’s too soon to tell. I was really making that point almost in the context of a bigger point about how ballparks have always been a kind of mirror for how we have viewed cities. Originally, they were tightly integrated into neighborhoods, and then became suburban, concrete doughnuts, which paralleled a time when the country was really not treating its cities well at all. Then we returned with Camden Yards and all the others it inspired, but now, there’s a tendency to view cities as theme parks, as generic, slightly bland places of entertainment, and the ballpark is reflecting that. It tends not so much to create trends as to mirror the attitudes that our society has about cities, and while I think that the theme park way of building is better than what we were doing in the sixties—building big concrete monoliths that weren’t so great for baseball, and placing them in the middle of acres and acres of parking—I’d rather the theme park than that. But I still feel that we’re losing something in the process of all that. It’s a very fair question to ask, and I think the answer is going to be, we will treat our ballparks the way we treat our cities. If we treat our cities as real places, and not just as theme parks, we’ll make our ballparks that way too.

What about the changes happening around Wrigley Field, which one critic described as the “boring, tedious new confines of Wrigleyville?”

Wrigley is a complicated story. There are many things that have happened there that I wish hadn’t, but at the end of the day it’s so much better than what could have been, and the park has been mostly restored and they’re taking pretty good care of it. A lot of people don’t like the digital scoreboards, and I don’t wish they were there, but it’s been done sensitively enough that it hasn’t destroyed everything wonderful about the place. But as they continue to buy up more of the neighborhood and control it, it’s all becoming a little more generic and a little less like it used to be, which was this cool ballpark dropped into a dense neighborhood. The evolution of the surroundings into places that are either or owned or controlled by the Cubs, it just gives it a very different feeling.

Again, it’s a lot better than certain scenarios that could have happened. It could be much worse, but it could be a little better today. At least it’s mostly intact, and some of what they’ve done is good. For example, they have built new locker rooms and training rooms underground, because there really is no room otherwise in the ballpark itself, and that’s a way of getting all those facilities without having a huge negative impact on the ballpark itself. In the end, it’s been more sensitive than not, and they have preserved the ballpark.

You don’t really let on in the book your own preferences for any particular park or team. Who do you cheer for?

I was trying to be ecumenical in the book. As far as a partisan for stadiums, of course I love the two great old ballparks that remain, Wrigley and Fenway. I think that the loss of Ebbets Field was tragic, and there were several others. Quite a lot of the new ones I like, and quite a few I don’t like. Some of my favorites among the ones of the last generation are Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Baltimore, and Denver.

In terms of myself, I’m actually more of a Mets fan than anything else, but I have three kids, and one is a Yankees fan, two are Mets fans. But two of them have also moved to Los Angeles and are sort of Dodgers fans, so it’s all complicated.

Tanner Howard is a freelance journalist based in Chicago, with bylines in the Guardian, CityLab, Slate, and elsewhere.