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Your present for you: Paul Goldberger’s “Ballpark”

In which I recommend the heck out of a book, not because I owe the author money.

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It was slow going because our big Cadillac was just slipping and sliding all over the road; said Ann
These people won a lottery in black & white. That’s sorta like giving yourself a present. It was hard to find a picture for this post.
Photo by John Mahler/Toronto Star via Getty Images

All right; you’ve made it through the holidays alive, or you’re a ghost with good wi-fi. Hopefully you got to spend time with everyone you wanted to, and probably had to spend time with people you don’t particularly like. Maybe you bought gifts, maybe you cooked seasonal food, maybe you worked extra shifts serving shoppers, or wallowed over a breakup between interims of shoveling snow.

The point is, you deserve a present for you, and I’m here to recommend my favorite baseball book in several years, Paul Goldberger’s Ballpark: Baseball In The American City.

(And yes, I know Christmas comes later for Eastern Orthodox Christians, and some cultures don’t have any particular midwinter traditions. I’m trying to slap on a lede, here, give a poor man a break.)

Picture this scene: it’s the dawn of the Industrial Age. You’re a wage worker in an increasingly urbanized city, where overcrowding, pollution, factory smoke are the norm. Maybe you moved here from farm country to avoid being locked into that livelihood forever; maybe you’re new to America, and cities are where you could find a job. In any case, you sometimes just want to see something green, but the concept of public parks hasn’t been invented yet. Where do you go?

Well, graveyards. That’s right; people considered graveyards a nice day outing. They were green. Later, Americans would find another kind of green space in the city — a ballpark.

Ballpark is absolutely stuffed with details like that. Goldberger is an architectural critic/historian for pretty much every prestige New York publication you can think of, so he knows the difference between historical tidbits which read like an overlong Wiki page and historical tidbits which are actually interesting. For example: bleachers got their name because they had no overhanging roof, and fans there are “bleached” in the sun.

Goldberger’s main theme is how early baseball parks, and the later stadiums, would balance their place alongside urban architecture while maintaining “the rural yearnings that are critical to [baseball’s] nature.” (Unfortunately, Goldberger occasionally refers to this as rus in urbe, to show us he knows Latin or something. He doesn’t do it often.)

The book starts way back at baseball’s beginnings, before the Civil War, where semi-organized leagues would play against crosstown rivals. Modern baseball, involving inter-city competition, was only possible once railroads became the norm (just as West Coast relocation was only possible once jet travel became the norm). Teams played at first in places like racetracks; when team owners finally started building baseball-only facilities, they were quick to separate the top-hat crowd from working-class rabble. It’s a dynamic still at play today, as Neil deMause explained recently. Owners want money from fans who can’t/won’t spend more, and they also want money from fans who could/might. If you make cheap seating almost as nice as expensive seating, suddenly that extra cost doesn’t seem quite worth the money. (No doubt this is a factor behind making coach class on airplanes ever more uncomfortable.) An early master of this class separation was one Albert Spalding, co-owner of the Chicago White Stockings, and yes, founder of the equipment company.

While many of the first buildings were beautifully ornate (Goldberger provides sketches and some photos), they were also made of wood. Wood can burn. Those buildings did burn. It wasn’t until baseball looked like more than a passing fad that owners began using steel, brick, concrete. Yet owners were still cheap (you’re aware how little players were paid at the time). Fans were expected to throw balls that went into the stands back onto the field; in 1923, the Phillies got an 11-year-old kid arrested for trying to keep what he caught. Teams would also buy the cheapest land possible, sometimes quite creatively so. Ben Shibe built Shibe Park next to Philadelphia’s smallpox hospital, because he had inside dope on the hospital closing soon.

The Ballpark section baseball history nuts will probably enjoy most begins in a chapter titled “The Golden Age.” Fenway, Wrigley, Ebbets Field, the old Tiger Stadium, later Colosseum-style buildings in the Yankees mold. There’s considerable information on the design and construction of each, and tons of images.

(Here’s probably a good place to mention that Ballpark is one of the more spectacularly-illustrated “regular” books I’ve ever seen — as opposed to a coffee-table book printed on glossy paper. There’s enough fantastic photos, in monochrome and color, to enjoy skimming the visuals alone, without a coffee-table book’s annoying size and paper-cut pages. Ballpark is fairly big, yet you can easily hold it in your hands. Like a textbook, except actually fun.)

World War II was followed, of course, by the postwar boom, when many working-class families suddenly had enough money to buy newly-built homes just outside city cores. AKA, the suburbs (and white flight, and redlining). Team owners began wanting stadiums closer to all that delicious disposable income, and parking lots for fans ever more likely to own cars. This gave rise to what Goldberger calls “concrete doughnuts,” which increasingly involved public financing and so were designed to hold football teams as well. (Back then, cities were loathe to pay for a separate baseball stadium, NFL stadium, and college football stadium within walking distance of each other.) Brooklyn proposed building a domed stadium, with retractable roof, no less! They didn’t get it, moved to LA, and stole land from Mexican-American families (Ballpark admirably covers this in detail).

Interestingly, when the Kansas City Royals (themselves purloined from Philadelphia) made their suburban move, they first wanted a roof that would roll, on rails, between the baseball and nearby football stadiums. They didn’t get one, but both buildings are still in use today. The Royals’ stadium designers, a Kansas City architecture company, later merged with a St. Louis company to form HOK. Now called Populous, they design the majority of new stadiums in America. Target Field, Xcel Center, TCF Bank Stadium, Allianz Field (the soccer one) — all Populous.

What does Goldberger have to say about the various Twins stadiums? The Met: “an exterior composed of rectangular panels in various colors, giving the building something of the air of a 1950s Formica kitchen.” Metrodome: “offered relief from Minnesota weather in exchange for giving up any semblance of a traditional ballpark.” Target Field: “modern in an understated way.” “Target Field is amiable, which in the history of baseball parks may be the highest compliment.”

Ballpark spends considerable time on Camden Yards, which (almost) every new stadium has somewhat duplicated since — both in design, public financing, and location. Camden was the first baseball-only stadium built in an urban location since forever, and it only got public money after the NFL Baltimore Colts fled town (under cover of night) for Indianapolis. In Goldberger’s description, ownership were passionate about architecture and wanting an old-style ballpark. They had to win over HOK/Populous, who had just built concrete doughnuts in Chicago and Tampa Bay, and now make all their baseball-buildings Camden-style, to the point of reusing certain elements. You know that Kasota limestone in Target Field’s design? Pittsburgh’s 2001 PNC park was when HOK used it first. (And it arguably made more sense there, since the Pirates have worn yellow uniforms for years.)

Naturally, and correctly, Goldberger admires Populous’s one deviation, Marlins Park, for its pure Let’s Do What The Bleeping Heck Ever weirdness. (Which new co-owner Derek Jeter undermined by removing the crazy-acid-trip-jumping-dolphins-home-run-thingy. C’mon Jeter, the building still has a friggin’ live fish tank behind home plate, you can’t make that place normal. Besides, anything goes in Florida. That link is NSF anyone.)

Goldberger is less excited about what appears to be the new trend in owners’ ballpark dreams: the “ballpark as theme park.” New stadiums for some time have drawn relocating businesses (usually from somewhere else in the same city), and a certain amount of condo construction (since urban ballparks are often on mass-transit lines, which appeal to condo buyers). This has traditionally been a boon to whomever owned the property around that stadium.

Now, it seems, teams want to own that property themselves. Atlanta does. Texas does. Oakland would like to. St. Louis, Washington and the Cubs have been buying up nearby buildings, rebranding them as part of a “comprehensive entertainment experience,” as Atlanta’s promo material puts it. St. Louis’s is even worse:

Introducing One Cardinal Way. Where hometown history is all around and you can live the Cardinal Way every day. With alluring amenities, first-rate features and breathtaking views of Busch Stadium and the Gateway arch, it’s an opportunity you won’t find anywhere else. Your chance to truly be a part of the Cardinals family is here. And the time to step up is now.

(Note the order of Busch Stadium and a national historic landmark in that paragraph. The whole thing reads like a promo pitch from some evil company in a sci-fi movie, which promises exciting “opportunity” to people who’ll end up stuck in poison dilithium mines.)

Goldberger is less aghast at the naked greed on display here as he is the urban equivalent of a gated community. “The simulacrum that the ballpark is does not need to be inside another simulacrum, in other words; the greatest joy it can bring us is when it is embedded in a real city, with all the energy, diversity, and dynamism a city can display at its best, and the exhilaration the baseball park offers becomes not only a celebration of sport, but of the whole of urban life.” Hard to argue with that.

Is Ballpark perfect? Close to it, but no book is. Any book covering this much history is going to omit some things individual readers might want more of; minor-league stadiums, for example. There just isn’t room to put in everything.

But remember — you owe yourself a present! You’ve earned it! And for anyone with the slightest interest in baseball stadium history, this is the present you deserve. Plus, it’s not too expensive; list price is $35, available at some e-outlets for $22. You can get the $22 price online from Target if you don’t want to give the richest person on Earth more money.

Or, just borrow it from your local library. (In fact, that’s one New Year’s resolution which is easy to keep; if you live near a library but don’t use it, start doing so.) That’s what I did. Penguin Random House should mail me a free copy for these 1750 words, although somehow I doubt they will. Those jerks! Down with books!

Enjoy the New Year, everybody.