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Looking at the changing American city through its ballparks

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A new book by critic Paul Goldberger traces how baseball and stadium design reflect our changing opinions of cities

Coors Field in Colorado
Alamy Stock Photo

“America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time.”

James Earl Jones’s monologue on the power of America’s pastime in Field of Dreams may have given us the most famous quote about the connection between the game and the cultural landscape. And by using the language of construction and destruction, it underscores that the story of baseball is also one of real estate and urbanism.

In Ballpark: Baseball in the American City, author, critic, and Vanity Fair contributing editor Paul Goldberger explores how the growth of baseball—from the sport’s urban roots in the late 19th century to today’s era of mega-developments and technologically advanced stadiums—mirrors the country’s views on urbanism, for better or worse.

From the utilitarian beauty of early 20th-century ballparks like Chicago’s Wrigley Field and Boston’s Fenway Park—each nestled into its respective neighborhood—to the doughnut-shaped, concrete structures that sprouted in suburbia after World War II, baseball’s growth has neatly paralleled the rise, fall, and rise again of U.S. cities. Ballpark uses the evolution of baseball fields and stadiums to hold a mirror to our country’s attitudes not only about cities, but shared civic space.

“The baseball park historically has been an important part of the public realm,” says Goldberger. “It’s an important experience in public space, albeit privately owned public space, at a time when experiences in public spaces are few and far between.”

Shibe Field in Philadelphia in 1909.
Library of Congress

America’s pastime reflects American Urbanism

Goldberger’s dive into ballpark architecture and urbanism looks at four main eras of development and design. In the beginning, as the game grew up in cities, especially in the immigrant communities of places like Brooklyn, Boston, and Philadelphia, early parks were enmeshed with neighborhoods. Many early teams actually had ownership in the trolley lines that transported fans on game day, and at one point, one of New York’s teams was nicknamed the Trolley Dodgers.

Baseball combined both rural and urban aspects of the country; ballparks were “a simulacrum of a city,” according to former baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti, and a piece of rus in urbe, the illusion of the countryside inside a stadium’s confines.

“It goes all the way back to the split in baseball’s history, back in the 19th century, between those who wanted to see it as a Victorian gentleman’s sport and an embodiment of American values, and those who saw it as more as a form of entertainment oriented towards a working class audience and players,” says Goldberger. “It’s a cultural split that exists in a lot of American culture.”

But despite common narratives that play up the game’s rural origins—the sport’s Hall of Fame can be found in Cooperstown, in central New York state—it truly grew at the turn of the 20th century in the country’s urban areas and reflected how our cities grew and expanded.

“These parks were all relatively utilitarian,” Goldberger says. “They were likely the largest building in the neighborhood, but built at a scale that wasn’t overwhelming. They became focal points, like schools and churches, but not intrusive.”

Fans waiting outside Ebbets Field in 1920.
Library of Congress

This was the era the produced Wrigley and Fenway, the cathedrals of modern baseball parks, as well as gone-but-not-forgotten venues. The departed Shibe Field in Philadelphia boasted a French Renaissance Revival exterior and a cupola on the corner, which underscored how owners viewed the park as an important civic venue. Baseball’s loose rules about the size of the outfield—the left field and right field boundaries can vary quite considerably—came in quite handy during this time, when owners needed to assemble plots of land in urban neighborhoods, often creating irregular, tightly packed parcels for ballparks.

Goldberger dives into the history of the since-demolished Ebbets Field, then home to the Brooklyn Dodgers, offering it as an example of how baseball stadiums and their surrounding areas could be woven together. It wasn’t necessarily a perfect work of architecture—Goldberger cites a description of the park as having “dirty bathrooms, narrow aisles, rusting pillars and a general down-at-the-heels raffishness that charmed only those who did not patronize it regularly”—but it inspired fevered devotion from the neighborhood fanbase.

Stadiums follow suburban sprawl

This era was followed by the postwar ’50s and ’60s adoption of suburban stadiums, a development that tracked perfectly with the rise of suburbia, urban renewal, and the nation’s demographic shift to the Sun Belt. This was the time of the “concrete doughnuts,” which Goldberger argues were bland, multipurpose, municipal parks often set far from the city center, ones like Oakland Coliseum, Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta, and Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium.

Team owners who decided to decamp from downtown were in many cases simply following their fans. The Dodgers, harbingers of the era, abandoned Ebbets Field in 1957, moving to sunny Los Angeles and a park, for all its beauty, that’s ringed with surface parking lots. Goldberger says the loss of the park was a tragic mistake, but at the time, when the cultural conversation about urbanism was much less sophisticated, it reflected the prevailing sentiments in an increasingly suburbanizing nation.

Camden Yards, which opened in Baltimore in 1992, was heralded as the beginning of a return to classic ballpark design.
Carol Highsmith/Library of Congress

“The Dodgers fan base had become more suburbanized, and a big part of the issue with Ebbets was that it was not easy to reach by car,” he says. “The Dodgers had a lot of fans who moved to New Jersey and Long Island. It was 1955, and damn it, they wanted to drive to the ballpark, and there was no place to park.”

Initially, Goldberger thought the book would then turn to the final phase, and the return to the city sparked by Baltimore’s Camden Yards, a milestone in ballpark design that opened in 1992 and attempted to recapture the urban integration of an earlier era while incorporating modern conveniences. But as he got deeper into writing and research, he realized another era of ballparks is dawning, today’s era of mega-theme park developments, like the Atlanta Braves’s new SunTrust stadium. It represents the Hudson Yards-ification of baseball stadiums.

“This is akin to the reshaping of a city as a kind of mega-theme park or entertainment zone,” he says.

Overhead view of a crowded parking lot a Dodger Stadium during a game in the 1962 season in Los Angeles, California
The LIFE Picture Collection/Gett

Today’s new ballparks are also theme parks

Baseball continues to reflect the day’s cultural attitudes, especially our relationship to cities and development, Goldberger argues. With Atlanta’s new park, as well as recent developments around the St. Louis ballpark and Chicago’s Wrigley Field—where the surrounding Wrigleyville neighborhood is gradually being turned into a more generic, mall-like destination—Goldberger is disappointed to see team owners trying to control the city inside and outside of the gate.

“Everyone has learned enough to never do [those suburban-style ballparks] again,” says Goldberger. “But at the same time, I don’t know if we’re showing that we understand what we should be understanding.”

Much like the recent return to downtown development and wave of mega-developments, the shiny new ballparks of today are often subsidized by taxpayers, and only fuel new real estate ventures. The era of concrete doughnuts and suburban sprawl may have passed, but for ballparks to take the mantle of truly egalitarian civic spaces, they may need to reach a new stage in their evolution.

Opening Day 2018 at SunTrust Stadium in Atlanta
Getty Images