You can tell a lot about the vibrancy of a big city by the way it treats its ballparks
(Photo of Paul Goldberger by Michael Lionstar)
Major League Baseball, it isn’t just about winning or losing. It’s also about how architecturally significant your ballpark is.
That’s the theme of architecture critic Paul Goldberger’s new book Ballpark: Baseball in the American City. A contributing editor at Vanity Fair who won a Pulitzer Prize for his criticism while at The New York Times, he explained in a telephone interview why he became interested in the ballpark as a subject. “It’s part of American public space,” he says. “We should look at it that way, along with looking at it as a home for the game.”
Goldberger’s book, which was published May 14, sees ballparks as indicators of how cities develop and sustain their aesthetic values. For better and worse…
And in that regard, Cincinnati can be proud of having an early example of the best. From 1902-1911, the Reds played at the great but virtually forgotten Palace of the Fans. A trendsetting example of a ballpark built with concrete, it was noteworthy for a grandstand that looked like a Classical Era temple. Greek and Roman-style Corinthian columns separated sections; the top was crowned with a decorative pediment. (The Reds are honoring the Palace of the Fans in their current 150th season.)
In his book, Goldberger calls it “the exuberant classical folly that had one of the shortest existences of any noteworthy 20th-century ballpark.”
In conversation, he elaborates: “It was clearly one of the first ballparks that tried to make a strong architectural statement. When they were beginning to be more architecturally assertive, most tried to do it on the outside, which faced the city, and the stands didn’t look all that different than the stands you’d find in other places. But Palace of the Fans inverted that. It had a relatively ordinary exterior, but when you looked at the stands from the field, you could see it was a very ornate building.”
In the 19th century, the ballparks being built in big cities reflected similar values to the new civic parks and spacious cemeteries that were also being established — people wanted green space, a piece of the countryside, amid population growth, industrialization and the attendant pollution. That’s why ballparks are usually called “parks” or “fields.”
After a period of wooden ballparks that too often burned down, baseball teams started building more permanent structures in their city core. A successful inner-city ballpark became as much a source of urban pride as a department store, a new high-rise office building or a stylish theater. They represented humane modernity in the first half of the 20th century.
Goldberger establishes their Golden Age as beginning in 1912, when exciting, colorful and populist steel and concrete ballparks with a street presence “fully hit their stride.” The first to open that year was Cincinnati’s Redland Field in the West End (its name later became Crosley Field), which replaced Palace of the Fans and stayed in use until June 24, 1970. The others were Tiger Stadium in Detroit and Boston’s Fenway Park. Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field followed in 1913; Chicago’s Wrigley Field in 1914.
“In some ways, Crosley’s most important part of history is in it beginning night baseball,” Goldberger says. “But if it was only that, it wouldn’t be put in that part of the book.” (Crosley Field hosted the first night game in the MLB on May 24, 1935, illuminated by newly installed lights.)
He acknowledges those parks had shortcomings, which ultimately led to all but Wrigley Field and Fenway Park being torn down. But Wrigley and Fenway may be the most admired ballparks still in use today — icons of urban architecture.
“We’ve seen how sensitive renovation can make them more useful without destroying their basic qualities, and that probably could have happened to Crosley many, many years ago if somebody wanted to,” Goldberger says. “But that ship sailed a long, long time ago.”
What replaced Crosley — the dreadful Riverfront Stadium/Cinergy Field — was an example of ballpark architecture at its worst, the “concrete donuts,” as Goldberger calls them, that popped up in the 1960s-70s to house both baseball and football teams. Cut off from their surroundings and often encircled by parking lots, they were as much scars on their cities as the new expressways that brought suburbanites to their games.
“There was an awful lot of big, bold concrete architecture in those days,” Goldberger says. “It looked powerful and strong, and some people found it very exciting. And they did have the allure of the new. You can understand why those buildings were attractive initially. And so was the idea that a place could accommodate baseball and football. It took a long time to figure out that if you do that, you compromise both sports.”
While he believes the new generation of more human-scale ballparks that seek to complement their urban surroundings (Baltimore’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards started the trend in 1992) is a good thing, he’s cautious about calling them “retro.”
“There are some things about those parks that absolutely look back to traditional parks: the slightly eccentric quality of them, they’re baseball only and not multisport, have a lot of public space and they try generally to have seating oriented to be as close to the playing field as possible,” he says.
Less good, he says, is that most of these stadiums leave as big of a footprint as their predecessors — the big concrete donuts — because they have club lounges, skyboxes, large locker rooms, training facilities and a long list of other things that make the space larger.
Cincinnati’s current Great American Ball Park, which opened in 2003, is one of those fields. Goldberger says that “it’s a very decent ballpark and vastly better than what it replaced, but never has had for me the kind of magic of a few of the other new ones.”
Another thing that differs from newer ballparks and those from the Golden Era is their branding — many sell naming rights to corporations. “Those commercial names can change so fast it’s hard to keep track,” Goldberger says, adding that several switched as his book was going to press.
“It does symbolize an even greater commercial intervention in the culture,” he says. “Also, they keep changing it. It makes you yearn even more for Palace of the Fans. There’s something so lovable about that.”