Ballpark, by Paul Goldberger

"Ballpark, Baseball in the American City," by Paul Goldberger, (Alfred A. Knopf: New York), $35.00 hardback.

A wise professor once said, "Look at a country's great public buildings to see who they think they are." And so "Ballpark, Baseball in the American City," reveals this observation to be quite true. Paul Goldberger, Pulitzer Prize-winning architectural writer, New Yorker magazine architecture contributor, and educator, tells us how and why we have the ballparks we have today.

Baseball became a major public sport in the late 19th century. It became a business roughly about the same time. Large populations in cities needed entertainment. With so many people seeking a pleasant day out, the parks came to satisfy that need. Not for nothing did 1890s St. Louis beer manufacturer Chris von der Ahe see in baseball a way to sell lots of beer. Thus his idea of an amusement center with baseball as a draw, along with shooting galleries, games, and rides, caused him to build Sportsman's Park amid the bustle of north St. Louis.

Conversely, William Hulbert and Albert Spalding of the Chicago White Stockings saw the game as an end in itself. It would not have the hooligans as might come to an open beer garden. So, they built their stadium to represent Victorian propriety. As also mandated by Hulbert, originator of the National League, a 50-cent minimum ticket would keep out the lowlifes.

Later stadiums would allow for these lesser well off citizens by building "bleachers," where they could sit on benches, not individual seats. In fact, most stadiums even had separate entrances for the two classes, with the grandstands reserved for the middle class. There was no connection between the two sections.

The advent of trains carried teams across the country, and so leagues from major cities were formed. Parks were built where space allowed in city centers, and the places like Ebbetts Field in Brooklyn, Fenway Park in Boston, and a host of others came into fashion. With larger cities came larger crowds, on trains, streetcars, and subways. The stadiums were able to accommodate them. Yet when people moved to the suburbs after the Second World War, cars became an issue. Where to park? Suburbs were not well-connected with cities, due to lack of public transportation across city lines. So stadiums came to either move out of cities, or reclaim vast tracts of city areas.

The ballparks came to look like giant concrete circles. No longer was there the feeling that the ballpark and city were one. Now a concrete ring surrounded by flat prairies of parking lots made them look alike. When aircraft became a common means of transport, the leagues expanded to the coasts. Stadiums were built in the suburbs. The now San Francisco Giants played in a stadium on reclaimed land, not nestled in a city. The concrete rings reflected a new means of funding as well. Publicly financed parks became the standard. Builders in the 1960s, for instance, were greatly influenced by modernist styles. The owners didn't care so much about aesthetics and tradition, as much as numbers and ease of access.

Today, large corporations are requested to help finance our ballparks. They comply, provided the name of the park is a giant, eternal advertisement. There are bows to tradition, with many parks affecting brick facing. Even the new Yankee Stadium seems to mimic the greatness of its predecessor.

Yet many parks, now with parking aplenty, even placed downtown, are strange images of their former selves. Surrounded by baseball related souvenir shops, special seating locations, and a host of ballpark-oriented restaurants and clubs, they seem a center unto themselves, and no longer serve as part of a vibrant city. Such is the way of America, today.

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