Baseball Judgments

Baseball Judgments |
Ballpark history - 11 trends of innovation


By Roger Weber


Baseball's first reputation was as a child's game, a game for criminals and not as the slice of Americana that many view it as today. Perhaps those seemingly different views of baseball are more similar than it seems, though. America in the late 1800s was very industrial, looking for outlets. Baseball provided them. It became the scene kids turned to after school and men to after work. It captured the attention of Americans and quickly grew into by far the most dominant game in America. No sporting event would challenge the World Series in popularity until the Super Bowls began in the late 1960s.


Long recognized as a sport that connects generations, baseball is America's official national pastime. It may be at heart a child's game, but that's what gives it its appeal to many fans. That's why the retro trend of ballpark construction has been so successful. People long for the past, which in memory always seems better than the troubles of the present. Any fan that's seen "Field of Dreams" or read the work of W.P. Kinsella knows the indescribable feelings that baseball in its most perfect states can bring.


In the 1800s, though, tradition and nostalgia were not the main words associated with baseball. It was a quickly growing pastime that needed to give itself an image. It found it and it peaked in popularity somewhere in the early 1900s, perhaps the 19-teens or '20s. Through its tumultuous history, this game has experienced trends in play, trends in fans – it wasn't that long ago that almost all fans wore their finest Sunday clothes to the ballpark – and trends in ballparks.


The question arises of why there have been so many trends in ballpark history, and why they seem to be recycling themselves. What is it that the ballpark adds to baseball to make it so appealing?


For some it's an orange ray slowly floating across the evening sky, giving way to a deep navy illuminated by four sets of light towers. It's a plane of varying shades of green accented by deep brown dirt. It's the sights, the smell of the sweet scent of freshly shaved grass and hot dogs. It's hearing your feet crunching on peanut shells as you reach to pay the drink vendor. It's cup holders that don't hold the very drinks they were designed to hold.


It's the sound of the baseball smacking into the catcher's mit and the umpire yelling, "Strike three." It's those choruses of cheers that block the sound of conversation. It can be a steamboat briskly passing a few hundred feet in front of your seats. It can be when an organ begins to chime a hokey tune when or when the scoreboard starts to light up and blares, "Time for the scoreboard mascot race."


It can be walking quickly down the concourses, joining a mob squeezing through the exits. It can be passing eight foot statues of heroes and others you've never heard of, stars that donned uniforms years ago on the same field you just sat three feet from this evening. It can be a saxophonist and a drummer filling your ears with a jazzy rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." It can be seeing fans in front of you peel off from the mob on the sidewalk into one of the local bars. It can be that last look at the massive but unobtrusive production of steel you just spent three hours exploring. And it can be the knowledge that you get to have the same experiences 80 more times this season.


And for the teams, these experiences are a product. They sell it to make money. Changing fan demands have required different types of ballparks. Every ballpark is unique, but many are more similar to some than to others. Ballpark design follows trends – many other types of architecture can constantly be updated with groundbreaking designs – but baseball architecture must play to the fans. Baseball is a game of tradition and fans tend to want tradition in their ballparks. They are "their" ballparks anymore because the taxpayers usually finance much if not all of the ballpark costs.


Many ballpark critics and enthusiasts would classify ballpark history into three eras, the classical, cookie cutter and retro eras. These are very broad ideas based mainly on the overall trend of great numbers of teams building parks at the same time. And there have been three waves of construction in the twentieth century, but these classifications are also unscientific and based on little more than a simple comparison of round and quirky, Astroturf and grass, luxury suites and not.


Within these broad areas have been substantially different types of construction and although most ballparks are built uniquely these types of construction follow similarly in many parks. In my view of architectural design and baseball experience, there have been 11 major ballpark trends. The twelfth may soon appear.


1: Early enclosed parks

These parks were most prevalent in the mid to late 1800s and were the first ballparks, usually somewhat makeshift but enclosed, they normally had wooden bleacher-like stands and little seating. Most did not last long due to fires and later advances in ballpark construction. There were many of these parks but none of great note.

2: Classic wooden ballparks

Only slightly more advanced than the earlier parks, these were somewhat better built ballparks with small seating, although more than their predecessors. The stands were normally wooden, made up of straight line sections. They were most prevalent in the late 1800s, an example being the first Baker Bowl in Philadelphia.

3: Palaces of the fans

Appropriately named, Cincinnati's Palace of the Fans may have been the prime example of one of these ballparks. The original Polo Grounds is another. These stadia were much bigger than the earlier ballparks and usually hybrids of wood and iron. They were usually very ornate with heavy exteriors, roofs and spires. Most popped up in the late 1800s into the first few years of the twentieth century. Comparatively, they were still smaller than ballparks today.


4: Concrete ballparks

Many fans would call this their favorite type of ballpark. Fenway Park, Crosley Field, Forbes Field… These were large concrete ballparks, often wedged into neighborhoods seating 20,000-35,000. They began being built in 1908, staying the popular choice through the 19-teens.


5: Big stadia

Only a couple parks fall into this category, the most notable being the massive old Yankee Stadium. These were big stadia, not really bounded by neighborhoods like the concrete ballparks, but with very large seating capacities. Yankee Stadium opened in 1921, Cleveland Stadium in 1932.

6: Baseball only '50s to '60s big stadia

Dodger Stadium, Anaheim Stadium and Oakland Coliseum all fall in this category. These were fairly large baseball-only parks that were built mainly in the west as baseball moved to the California coast. These parks were typically in the middle of parking lots, had few outfield seats and paved a path for the Cookie Cutters.     

7: Cookie Cutters

These parks are spoken of very harshly anymore. They were large, multipurpose, round parks with Astroturf built in the 1960s and '70s.

8: Other Multipurpose / Domes

This group includes parks like the Metrodome and Skydome, as well as parks like Dolphins Stadium in Miami. These were large multipurpose parks that were not exactly cookie cutters and built after the cookie cutter trend died down through the start of the retro trend in the early 1990s.


9: The Original retro parks       

Three sided, three decked, brick walls, big scoreboards, these were HOK's first retro parks, viewed as wonderful creations after their openings. They employed mostly straight lines and appeared from 1991-1996.


10: Retro phase 2

These were parks that opened from 1997 to 2001. They were similar to the earlier retro parks but architects attempted to "improve" upon them by branching out in design a little. These parks typically had a smaller seating bowl, smaller scoreboards and a better view. AT&T Park and Comerica Park fall into this group.

11: Retro phase 3

Parks in this third phase faced a bit of an identity and popularity crisis as retro stopped attracting the fans in such massive numbers. Architects and teams made small attempts to make them unique, often adding "neighborhood" sections and more varied designs. Overall, though, these parks were not as successful as previous retro parks.


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