Book Review of Ballpark: Baseball in the American City

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Architectural critic Paul Goldberger writes Ballpark: Baseball in the American City as a legend-filled narrative of the grandest, most important parks in the history of baseball. And he lays out his thesis in a lyrical prologue, which serves as much as a poetic summation of that history as it does the basis for the remaining 12 chapters.

Goldberger’s thesis is, I think, merely an explicitly-explained understanding of the beauty of well-done ballparks that largely pervades in the American baseball fanbase. That is, the ballpark, at its purest, is rus in urbe–the rural within the urban. Expanses of smooth dirt and luscious lawn are championed as an athletic oasis, but contained within the geometric grandstands, which are crowded with an unpredictable populous.

It’s from this standard that Goldberger tells the history of ballparks, which he groups into four main movements. First, 19th and early-20th century ballparks grew out of, and into, the urban fabric of their neighborhoods. The playing fields were characterized by their cities as much as the players who occupied them. Then, as post-war suburbanization facilitated more utilitarian infrastructure, ballparks followed suit, often moving to the suburbs and doubling as football stadiums, rising as concrete bastions in a sea of asphalt parking lots. But in the 1990’s, what’s characterized as the “Ballpark Renaissance” took place, and, more retro, baseball-only parks re-entered architectural vogue, uniquely blending into their cities, but this time outfitted with modern amenities.

Finally, the two newest ballparks have developed as centerpieces of baseball-themed entertainment hubs. 

I’d like to focus my review of Goldberger’s book and discussion of ballparks on the third wave, which is generally agreed upon by baseball fans, and Goldberger, to be the fulfillment of what a ballpark is meant to be. He approaches the narrative of this phase as he does the rest of this book–painting the history with niche, behind-the-curtain anecdotes, including the never-constructed Armour Field in Chicago, which influenced the renaissance as much as Camden Yards did.

With Baltimore’s fruition of Camden Yards in 1992, ballparks and cities both began shifting “away from postwar notions of automobile-oriented urban renewal, and toward a greater respect for the pedestrian-oriented urban fabric of older cities.”

And so we saw accessible, intimate ballparks as unique as the downtowns in which they were built. Historical structures were preserved an incorporated to further cement the sense of place. The Baltimore and Ohio warehouse has become as much a part of Oriole baseball as the bird itself. And San Diego’s Western Metal Supply Company building invades even further into the game as part of PETCO Park’s left field facade. 

Similarly, thoroughfares encroached on, and even became concourses for the parks, like Eutaw Street in Baltimore. 

Outside, the ballpark’s exteriors were crafted to vibe with the surrounding neighborhood, as Coors Field camouflages itself against the brick-laden Lower Downtown of Denver.

Historical buildings that couldn’t become backdrop were incorporated into the park’s functionality, as Union Station in Houston’s Minute Maid Park. 

Inside, the rus was defined by the urbe. The outfield dimensions took the shape that the streets would allow, as happened in the early age of urban ballparks. The concourses of the park became their own urban simulacrum themselves, featuring higher-end eating, standing-room bars, and unique vantage points all centered around the game. The facilities and video boards are progressive products of innovation.

Above, skylines were often in view, grounding the observer in the city. 

In all, this new ballpark is a great invasion of city into the game. But the game claps back. With a home run into the Western Metal building or a weird bounce off San Francisco’s angled right-field wall, the rus in urbe manifests itself as a great call-and-response, an interplay, between a liberating game and the equally-great, but defined city in which it is played.

That interplay–the invasion of one realm to the other–is, I think, what makes a ballpark great. 

The centerfield garden in Denver extends the rural of the baseball field all the way into the urban of the stands. The moving, whistling train above the Crawford boxes in Houston instills a sense of urban transportation and westward expansion into an Astros game.

In this way, baseball architecture not only tells the story of baseball, but American history as well.

In rare, but splendid cases, the history is more overtly and authentically tied to the game.

Goldberger points out that Baltimore’s B&O warehouse was originally seen as an obstacle in Baltimore’s construction. But the design team finally embraced it as a gift, and kept the history physically tied to Orioles baseball.

Forgetting baseball’s unique, urban gift at the hands of a grandiose construction is a fatal flaw.

That’s what Goldberger fears about the newest wave of ballpark architecture, which we’ve seen developed in Atlanta and Arlington, Texas, where the respective parks are central attractions to entertainment and cultural hubs outside the traditional city. Goldberger is wary of such a trend. He points out that the ballpark is already a simulacrum of a city. Placing one within another simulacrum–which is what these artificial districts of restaurants, bars, shops, hotels, and casinos are–is an ironic undermining of the ballpark itself. 

In Arlington, that development is called Texas Live. With its casino, Cowboy-themed Sunday church service, and giant backyard games among other attractions, it certainly has the feel of a Texan theme park rather than a cozy baseball venue.

Interestingly enough, we’ve seen the same trend in urban design in the greater sense. Towne centres, and suburban urban neighborhoods have cropped up for the wealthy to bask in a bleached sense of the city–a protected, measured environment with the aesthetic of the public city but without its actual history or diversity. Such a trend also exists in an increasingly relativized culture, where self-aggrandizing individual beliefs create a mental “safe space” where specific religion suffers at the hands of a bland spirituality. It’s tempting to fall for the mere aesthetic of beauty when its substance challenges the ego. 

Beauty, though, runs deeper because it is specific.

Beauty in architecture, then, is crucial. Art and architecture point toward what we value as a society. And casting aside transcendental beauty in service of the utilitarian (as in the second wave of ballparks) or the entertaining distraction (as in the fourth) is a dangerous, hopeless ignorance of human flourishing. 

So while we still have these great, urban ballparks with us, let’s let them teach us the truth about ourselves and urban history.

We’re fortunate to enjoy many beautiful ballparks these days. There’s much debate about which is the best. Some prefer the juxtaposition of McCovey Cove with Oracle Park. Some prefer the skyline that beams above PNC Park. Some love the warehouse in Baltimore. 

But what I think we can all agree on is that the beauty of our great ballparks — Camden Yards, PETCO Park, Coors Field, PNC, Oracle Park in San Francisco, and many others — is a result of the embrace between the rural and urban, the industry and innovation, the grand skylines and the lower, more niche neighborhoods, and all the diversity that dances within the specific cities of America.

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