The first and most obvious myth we can dispel is that the retro
parks were unique in bringing the fans back to baseball. It is true that when the retro parks opened attendance was higher
than it ever had been, but that may have been because fan enthusiasm was already high, and expectations for the new ballparks
great. Retro ballparks filled on average 84% of their seats in their first year, but the surge in attendance was not as great
as when the cookie cutter Trend 2 ballparks opened. And this allows me to put forth an analysis of sorts.
The reason the cookie cutters were built was a combination of
necessity and another tougher-to-define factor that was accentuated by that necessity – fan and economic interest. Retro
parks, on the other hand, were built due to a combination of fan interest, fan discontent, economic feasibility, and the simple
factor of teams wanting to keep up with each other by having an equal or better ballpark.
We know necessity contributed more to the cookie cutter construction
than to retro park construction because of two figures – the fact that parks replaced by the cookie cutters were older
than those replaced by the retro parks despite likely even more outdated technology – and the fact that retro parks
were built more quickly than the cookie cutter trend.
It is also easy to tell that there was a difference in fan perception.
Due in part to the dilapidated nature of the old parks, attendance averages were about 11,000 at the old trend 1 parks just
before the construction of the cookie cutters. It increased to nearly 22,000 after the new parks opened. At the cookie cutters,
attendance was already decent, meaning there was solid fan interest, but the surge in attendance after the new openings shows
that there may have been even greater interest but discontent with the old parks.
Given that data, we can tell that fan interest was higher as the
retro parks were being financed than when the cookie cutters were being designed. This is also much more clearly supported
by the simple idea that the retro parks cost an inflation adjusted $90 million more per park than the cookie cutters despite
only housing one sport instead of two. In essence, a city was paying close to a third more for a stadium that would only house
half the number of professional teams. And the retro parks were all, but for new Busch Stadium, paid for by taxpayer dollars.
Obviously, of course, the new parks were also bringing in more money for the teams because at the new parks they could charge
higher prices and took in more luxury suite revenue.
The original trend 1 parks were a different case altogether. Saving
money, as is obvious from the ballpark prices, was a priority. As most fans can tell from a map, they were shoehorned into
sites which gave them their awkward dimensions, which is ironic given that the retro parks emulating them were built for the
highest prices with the least concern for low prices and geographic corner cutting.
How opinions have changed
Undoubtedly, retro parks were built for different reasons from
the cookie cutters, and are thus very different parks. At this point we may view retro as “good” and older forms
of ballparks as “bad.” But I’m not sure if history supports that judgment. At this point I delved into some
St. Louis provided me with the most obvious case. I was
not surprised to read that when new Busch Stadium opened in 2006, it was hailed by one newswire report as the “key to
St. Louis’ new renaissance.” It replaced “blocks of historic buildings, mostly vacant except for pigeons.” But sifting through the archives
of The Post Dispatch, I discovered a more surprising article from 1991 in which broadcaster Jack Buck recalled that when old
Busch Stadium opened, “it saved downtown St.
Louis…Everything else aside, it did an awful lot to clean up the city.”
Although the Pittsburgh papers were less generous in their words about the setting of Three Rivers Stadium,
I came upon the realization that revitalizing downtowns is not a new concept for ballparks. Perhaps another memory altered
Ultimately, though, it shouldn't be surprising that most ballparks
open to rave reviews. A lot of money goes into them to be criticized right away. When St.
Louis celebrated Busch Stadium’s twenty-fifth birthday in 1991 the Post Dispatch ran a headline
that read “At 25, Busch Stacks Up With The Best Of Them.” And even the much scorned Veterans Stadium, the Philadelphia
Inquirer points out, opened as “a giant jewel.”
Although the drop in attendance at retro parks years after they
opened probably does not reflect a similar 180-degree turn in opinion, it's interesting to point out and remember that initial
reaction doesn't mean a trend will always be loved.
When the retro parks were built, the focus went to that which
the cookie cutters did not have – the quirks, charm and natural grass – and not to that which the cookie cutters
did have – technological innovation. Granted, it was outdated by the 1990s, but technology like luxury suites at the
Astrodome, which The History Channel's Modern Marvels production on ballparks highlights, were certainly modern and innovative
at the time.
It is the perception of fans that the cookie cutters always were
how they were perceived at the end of their time. When the cookie cutters were constructed, they faced an opposite dilemma
– the old parks had too many quirks and not enough technology. So they were built using technology that got outdated
and design that with purists was not ever popular.
A Final Comparison
I’ve theorized that retro is both different and similar
to the cookie cutters and to the original trend 1 parks. But moving just a little further into the issue, I did one final
test that confirmed my conclusion.
Because we’re working with trends that occur over time,
it makes sense that age and time should tell us some valuable information about ballparks. The following table presents the
changes in the average and standard deviation of the ages of all the parks in the major leagues during the years before and
after the bulk of a trend. The time selections were admittedly somewhat subjective, but none of the selections were really
debatable. I excluded outliers.
League park age avg.
The average differences are not surprising. It makes sense that
with better technology and more money put into ballparks that the general field of ballparks is, on average, getting older.
There was, of course, that period in the ‘50s and ‘60s when the trend 1 parks were very old when average park
age was even greater than it was at the start of the retro trend, but we have discussed that.
Where we really see revelation, though, is in the difference between
the ballpark field just before the trend, and just after. All the trends, with relative similarity, caused the average age
of major league parks to go down. But only trend 3, the retro trend, caused the overall variation in park ages to increase.
Why? While trends 1 and 2 both replaced the oldest parks, the
ones most in need of renovation or replacement at the time, trend 3 replaced mostly the intermediate-age parks – those
that fans apparently felt a discontent with – leaving unscathed most of the oldest parks (Wrigley, Fenway, Dodger) and
the most modern non-retro parks (Kauffman, Tropicana, etc.). Trends 1 and 2 were replacing parks simply because the new parks
were more technologically modern and had more amenities. Trend 3 improved upon the amenities of the middle-aged parks it replaced,
but it replaced them more for what they lacked that the oldest parks had - the baseball-only intimate feel and charm.
What this tells us is that when the retro parks were being built,
and potentially forever, the “middle ages” of ballpark construction were in fact viewed as a “dark age.”
And this mainly meant the cookie cutters. Why? Because they had, in the words of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “artificial turf, thousands of seats far from the action, and the where-am-I feel of the place.”
They basically lacked the feel of a ballpark.
What the retro parks have that isn’t a product of technology
is natural grass, better sightlines, wider concourses, some unique traits that may remind fans of parks whose designs were
unique to that city, and likely a little more longevity. And those traits were best carried out by the original steel ballparks.
In Cleveland, the scoreboards, 10 years old at the time, were
replaced in 2004, but the design of the ballpark was left intact. I suppose it's the fan in me that speaks when I generalize
ultimately that the thing that can kill retro is the fact that the amenities and features will become outdated – every
ballpark trend has seen that - and that fans could express boredom with the similarly designed parks as memories start to
be dominated by retro as a norm instead of a novelty.
I'd like to be able to say that stats "prove" something about
the future of retro. They do draw out some interesting comparisons and make noticeable a few points – most notably that
retro is a replacement of the amenities of the cookie cutters and the "charm" of the steel parks. Of course, many fans could
figure that out. But it's these sweeping trends related to the ballpark trends that are so noticeable through the numbers
and not just mental judgment in a particular time. But ultimately that public conception and financial situation seems to
determine ballpark trends, and those are things I really can't predict.