Baseball Judgments

Baseball Judgments |
1800s ballpark fires


By Roger Weber


The famous Roman architecture author Vitruvius said controlled fire was the first architecture. In ballparks fire prompted the building of the first real stadia.


In 1871 the home of the Chicago White Sox was destroyed by an inferno that raged for three days, destroying many docks near the ballpark. The White Sox lost virtually everything but the players. The Sox, who were in the midst of a pennant race, had to finish their chase on the east coast. Unfortunately for the team, Chicago's season finished on a sour note, with the team third in the final standings. (1)


In 1895 Philadelphia's National League Park, just eight years old but made of wood, burned to the ground and even though the team's new ballpark, the Baker Bowl was a vast improvement as its structure was made mostly of brick and steel, a section of stands collapsed in 1903 killing many people.


In 1900 League Park in Cincinnati burned down and in 1911, the third version of the Polo Grounds in New York fell victim to fire.


The fires and disasters alerted owners to the dangers of ballparks, especially those made of wood. Many of the fires were started by cigarettes dropped under the bleachers by fans.


In 1888 the Cincinnati Reds became the first National League team to cover its field with a tarp during rain. The tarps quickly became popular. They served a valuable purpose by preventing the infield from becoming waterlogged and allowing for fewer cancelled games. Tarps are one of the few inventions of the 1800s that remains almost unchanged in baseball today. But most tarps in modern baseball are stored down the baseline of the home team's dugout. They can be the scene of some interesting defensive plays.


But the tarps, while protective from water, are not fireproof. In the 1800s because ballparks were built small, the only real place to store a tarp was under the stands. This was a good setup, if a little difficult for transportation, but worked like kindling when fans dropped cigarettes under the bleachers. It was these tarp coverings that could cause a small flame to erupt into a raging fire that could engulf an entire ballpark and trap fans inside.


Fires like these brought to the attention of owners two issues that needed to be improved upon in future ballparks. The new stadia had to be fireproof. Wood in the seating bowl was not only structurally weak, affected by rain and made some awkward angles, but it was simply not a safe building material in stadia where cigarettes smoked and concessions fires burned.


But just as important was the issue of getting fans quickly into and out of ballparks. Many deaths could have been prevented with more exits and smoother, easier ways to evacuate fans when the fires did occur. More entrances and exits would also provide a more convenient ballpark experience that would allow parks to have special gates where bikes could be stored and where tickets could be counted in smaller numbers. What resulted were parks with many arches and entryways with wider concourses under larger, more solid, fire-safe seating bowls.


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