Book Review: Ballpark Baseball in the American City


Length: 5 minutes (981 words)

“The baseball field is much more than a random piece of landscape; it is a magnificently conceived piece of geometry, a diamond whose dimensions are precisely and brilliantly configured to connect to a marvelous moment of human possibility: whether it will take more time or less time for a player to run ninety feet to a base than it will take a ball hit by his bat to be retrieved and thrown to that same base.” – Ballpark: Baseball in the American City

If you grew up a baseball fan the magic of the ballpark was always present, although maybe it was difficult to articulate what exactly was magical about it. Was it the green of the field? The intimacy of the seating? The way the park rose from its surroundings?

According to Paul Goldberger, an award-winning architecture critic currently writing for Vanity Fair, the magic of the ballpark comes from all those things and is deeply tied to baseball’s urban nature as well. In Ballpark: Baseball in the American City Goldberger expertly examines baseball’s urban roots and how the architecture of ballparks reflects how Americans have viewed cities, the game, and how the two relate to each other.

Goldberger highlights the concept of rus in urbe – countryside in the city -- to demonstrate that despite baseball being considered rustic it has always been a truly urban game by recreating the countryside within the city and allowing spectators to escape an often-chaotic city life. The field itself is a microcosm of the city’s relation to the countryside: the infield with its straight lines and measured base paths represents the city; the infinite outfield represents the country.

Ebbets Field

Baseball’s first venues were usually simple wooden grandstands, sometimes covered and sometimes not, which Goldberg explores in surprising depth and uses as a transition point to examine the “golden age” of ballpark architecture. The sport’s popularity, growth, and legitimization in the first decade of the twentieth century led to the construction of baseball’s legendary parks – Crosley Field, Ebbets Field, Tiger Stadium, Fenway Park, Wrigley Field – to keep up with demand and adapt to the times.

Goldberger puts these parks in the golden age because they essentially struck the perfect balance between architecture, urbanism, and sport. These parks all blended well into their urban fabric, created intimate experiences, were aesthetically pleasing as well as functional, and played to baseball’s strength of respecting the game’s quirks. But despite their appeal in retrospect, the game changed over time and only Fenway Park and Wrigley Field remain in use (and well maintained, too).

Out of the golden age came a brief “monumental” stage that saw Yankee Stadium and Municipal Park in Cleveland constructed in attempts to elevate the game beyond its rus in urbe roots. In this, Yankee Stadium faired much better than Municipal Stadium.

Ballpark spends two chapters and sixty pages discussing baseball’s move from the city to the suburbs and all the changes that move entailed. Most of the golden age parks were torn down and replaced with parks that had seas of parking and unremarkable architecture. “Concrete donuts,” which arose in the 1960s and 1970s in response to changing economic and popularity factors, were intended to serve the needs of football teams and baseball teams but ultimately served both sports poorly.

In this era Goldberger calls attention to two stadiums in particular: Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles and the Houston Astrodome. Dodger Stadium is a respected piece of architecture that has provided a sprawling and private property-centric city with a shared experience akin to Disneyland. It may have a sea of parking, but as Goldberger contends, it is simple architecture done well and provides an excellent setting to watch a game. Opposite of Dodger Stadium is the Astrodome. Domed structures, Goldberger contends, take away a key element of baseball – nature – and the Astrodome was one of the worst offenders. Built without a surrounding urban fabric, composed of bland architecture, the Astrodome completely severed baseball’s connection to nature, city, and respectful architecture.

After an exploration of more domed and retractable-roof stadiums, Ballpark concludes with the Camden Yards retro revolution and the future of baseball in the American city. Camden Yards, which opened in 1992, set in motion one of the most influential developments in the architectural history of baseball. Camden Yards proved that baseball could successfully return to the city while respecting its surroundings, architectural heritage, and the game itself. What followed Camden were parks like Coors Field, Petco Park, Jacobs Field, Comerica Park, new Yankee Stadium, and Busch Stadium III in St. Louis. To varying degrees these parks all incorporated the lessons learned at Camden Yards: they blend in with their urban fabric, use traditional building materials, respect baseball’s oddities, and incorporating modern amenities such as concession stands and luxury skyboxes. As Goldberger says, “retro” may be a misnomer for these parks. They are not so much recreating the past as improving on it.

The final evolution of the baseball park that is covered are private, sanitized ballpark-entertainment complexes, such as Ballpark Village in St. Louis, the Battery in Atlanta, and to a lesser degree, the redeveloped Wrigleyville in Chicago. These areas all contain private theme park/entertainment zones just outside the ballpark that try to imitate the urban-ness of early parks without really recreating it. And that is exactly what makes them such a poor concept for the future of ballparks. Baseball parks have always served as a reflection of their city: public, accessible, complex, and unique. That uniqueness, or authenticity as Goldberger puts it, is what defines a ballpark and it is why sanitized public-private entertainment zones are no substitute for the real thing. These theme parks are simply not authentic.

Gallagher Way, Wrigleyville, Chicago

Ballpark is ultimately an epic work and an excellent contribution to the discussion of baseball’s past, present, and future. It perfectly articulates what baseball has meant and continues to mean in the American city.