Ballparks of the Past
Somewhere deep in the heat of Texas, within the hyphen that separates Dallas and Fort Worth, the Texas Rangers played ball at an overgrown minor league ballpark that featured a plethora of bleacher seats but little else—especially shade for the searing sun and sudden downpours. Located next to Six Flags, Arlington Stadium was never able to hoist that seventh flag, but served as the jerry-rigged precursor for better venues to come.
Strategically placed south of downtown near the nexus of three major Interstates, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium ran hot and cold—and sometimes just plain weird, given the promotional lunacy born out of Ted Turner’s early years running the Braves. But the modern venue, efficiently propped up with staggering speed, catapulted the Peach City from overgrown drudgery into the big leagues, helping to cement its standing as the Hub of the New South.
It was a ballpark ahead of its time when built and well behind the times when abandoned 40 years later, by then a ridiculed dump given a slough of unpleasant names. Steel and concrete gave little comfort for the poor souls victimized in a series of unfortunate events—and as spectators covered their heads from debris, the right fielders covered theirs from the balls constantly ricocheting off the tall and cozily placed tin wall behind them. Welcome to Baker Bowl: Enter at your own risk.
Sprawling in scope and vanilla in appearance, Braves Field never captured the imagination like nearby Fenway, becoming outdated shy of its prime after being hailed as the ultimate Deadball Era park—where deep flies were kept in but thick railroad smoke couldn’t be kept out. Once the home run became trendy, one clueless owner after another didn’t know what to do with the joint—and usually they did nothing.
Yes, Busch Memorial Stadium was a “cookie cutter” venue, but a good one—and one that aged fairly well once the Cardinals ripped out an artificial turf you could fry eggs on and planted natural grass beholding unnatural sluggers, cheered on by a loyal red-clad fan base whose enthusiasm was as strong as the 96 arches that topped the stadium were graceful. After years of rickety Sportsman’s Park, Busch Memorial provided a gateway to modern times in St. Louis.
Mark Twain said that the coldest winter he ever spent was summer in San Francisco. It’s quite possible that he spent it at Candlestick Point, which years later would beget Candlestick Park—a windswept tundra where fans and players alike held on to their hats, parkas and hot chocolate as they struggled to enjoy the summer game in Arctic-like conditions and exclaimed “vinim, vidi, vixi” before thawing out.
Orderly as it was ordinary, obese as it was austere, Cleveland Municipal Stadium was that rare baseball structure of the early 20th Century, hailed not as a monument to a team owner but to civic pride in a city feeling its oats about the future. Golden moments would ensue, but rust would quickly overtake the stadium and its baseball tenant, rousing cynical locals to declare it “The Mistake by the Lake.”
When you get your ace pitcher to design your ballpark, you’re going to get a pitcher’s park. And that’s what Comiskey Park was, extending the Deadball Era for decades as the Second City’s Second Team experienced little offense but an explosion of scandal, scoreboards and disco records for a lively and sometimes unruly South Side fan base.
It was a plain stadium with a plain name, but the folks who paid for County Stadium provided the personality with brats, brew and a healthy dose of Gemuetlichkeit, bringing true Happy Days to Milwaukee by shattering 50 years of major league entrenchment and sparking a volatile period of geographical readjustment within the game.
Neither floods nor darkness nor baseball’s most unique warning track could keep the loyal bugs of the Queen City from worshipping their kings in a cherished urban castle where every National League campaign was kicked off. While Crosley Field may have lacked the exterior glam, its interior radiated lush green grass, intriguing wall quirks and romantic views of the environs beyond.
There was nary a dull moment at the fabled ballpark, a funhouse where the rabid fans were almost as famous as the players, so close to the action that fielders could almost feel the vocal gusts of their breaths. From the jolly comic antics of the Robins to the breakout Bums of the 1940s to Jackie Robinson and the Boys of Summer in the 1950s, Ebbets Field was more than just the heart and soul of Brooklyn; it was Brooklyn.
Hey Cleveland, you weren’t the only city with a Mistake by the Lake. Just off the shores of Lake Ontario, Exhibition Stadium was scrunched together as an odd marriage of baseball and football, a ballpark from the Bizarro World where only bleacher fans were covered and a scoreboard placed behind home plate. Toronto fans knew—and prayed—that it wouldn’t last for the long run, but it proved a critical stopgap that gave Hogtown a long-overdue introduction to big league baseball.
Removed from downtown Pittsburgh’s choking smoke and untamed rivers, elegant Forbes Field was built in a vernal, cultural paradise on the outskirts of town, where three was the magic number—from three Pirates world titles to Babe Ruth’s last three homers to the last tripleheader to all those triples. Wagner, Kiner and Clemente could all agree that excitement was never in short supply at the Old Lady of Schenley Park.
When the Dallas-Fort Worth suburb of Arlington took in the Texas Rangers in 1972, it welcomed them to an overgrown minor league facility that did the team’s karma no good (read: no postseason) for 22 years. Then it built Globe Life Park, and the magic arrived in the form of four first-place finishes in its first six years. It certainly provided overtime fun for employees “working” in the business offices behind the center-field fence.
Your ballpark has burnt to the ground and you’ve got three weeks before Opening Day. Quick—whaddyado? Ask the Washington Senators, who performed the ultimate rush job and constructed Griffith Stadium as one of the more architecturally coarse and confusing of venues, with a playing field so distant and awry, the whole outfield became Triples’ Alley. Fans and presidents were nonetheless thrilled by the breathless action between the lines.
Ugly, cheap and purely artificial, the Metrodome reigned as the Yugo of ballparks, a synthetic spit at yesteryear with fake grass, fake wind and a bed sheet for a roof. While it kept out the rain, snow and red ink, it couldn’t prevent a flood of insults from just about everyone who entered through its wind-blasted revolving doors. Yet no team enjoyed a better home advantage than the Twins, who excelled within the venue’s occasional ear-shattering din.
It was built to last a thousand years but barely made it past the age of 20, a swirling, petrified cupcake bitten into by locals who initially loved it for firmly pinning Seattle on the pro sports map but quickly disliked once the new stadium smell wore off. The Kingdome and the National Pastime were not to be the match made in Northwest heaven, as a brand of arena baseball ensued with high fly balls ricocheting here, there and everywhere over a zipped-up chunk of fake turf.
Rustic, tight and beloved with its cozy sightlines, unpredictable right field wall and a myriad of memorable moments, League Park lived to become the ballyard that wouldn’t go away. Not that anyone complained, as Clevelanders developed a soft spot for the little fellow that has stood the test of time and survived in one form or another all the way to the present day.
It was a pit stop for the many who played there, but never a pit—an artless but fully pragmatic ballyard with the visual flourishes provided by its many colorful performers. From Muehlebach to the Monarchs to the Mule, Municipal Stadium was the constant over 50 years of Kansas City’s ever-changing baseball landscape.
Peculiar doesn’t even begin to describe the Polo Grounds, a bathtub of a ballpark that yielded pop fly home runs and tape-measure outs as it led almost as many lives as a cat against the rocky bluffs of Harlem. Through its resiliency manifested more than its share of baseball’s legendary moments and unforgettable actors, whether it was McGraw, Mathewson, Merkle, Master Melvin, Mays or, yes, even Marvelous Marv.
Buffeted by giant corkscrew-style ramps and surrounded by a sea of parking, Qualcomm Stadium—originally named after the beautiful city that built it, followed by the fellow who championed it into being—could have been confused for a modern-day fortress, especially in a town renowned for its military reputation. Yet for nearly 50 years it shined as the beacon that lifted San Diego into the major leagues.
Built by the Federal Government on the same straight line that’s home to the U.S. Capitol and other historic American landmarks, RFK Stadium was conceived to enjoy a similar, lofty stature—and even though it was hog heaven for football fans, it became a fractured limbo for the baseball gods who suffered few ups and many downs within the venue’s roller coaster-shaped rooflines.
Never mind the jet packs and monorails. Shea Stadium represented the Space Age to New Yorkers freed of their rotting baseball relics of yesteryear, proudly serving as the center of the Gotham entertainment universe until early neglect threatened to turn it into a black hole. Good times or bad, you could always count on a high-decibel din courtesy of diehard Mets fans and the airliners roaring overhead.
In baseball’s landscape of horse buggies and wooden carts, Shibe Park emerged as the Model T of ballparks, a sparkling trendsetter that introduced steel and concrete to the game’s vernacular, beget rooftop entrepreneurs long before Wrigley and brought the game out of its lumbered, fire-cursed squalor. That it stood for generations while two tenants largely stank up the joint was a testament to its perseverance.
A card-carrying member of the Cookie Cutter Society, Three Rivers Stadium was the cookie that needed a bite taken out of it to reveal downtown Pittsburgh for those inside. Its enclosed nature was a necessity of compromise, a confluence of sports teams near a confluence of rivers, yielding a confluence of championship glory before tough times set in—most certainly for a Pirates team that found progress in the modern age a steep slope to climb.
For a city that prides itself on automotive excellence, Detroit managed to get a century’s worth of mileage out of Tiger Stadium, a deceptively intimate ballpark that was periodically tuned up and souped up within its white walls. The Tigers may have moved on, but “The Corner” perseveres as a vivid, lasting memory—just as it did through boom, bust, urban decay and the many attempts to tear it down.
How do you conceive and build a track and field facility for the Summer Olympics, tear it apart afterwards and convert it to a ballpark? Ask the folks in Atlanta, where running tracks became warning tracks, ovals became diamonds, and flags became foam tomahawks. A year after its opening, Olympic Stadium would become Turner Field, and on its stage the Braves would replace the world’s athletes and extend its reign of excellence.
The centerpiece of the City of Brotherly Love’s sports hub, Veterans Stadium was a civilized structure filled with uncivilized spectators, where Phillies prevailed, Eagles soared and cats and rats ruled the underbelly. Though it wore out its welcome as fast as its many carpets, the Vet helped catapult the Philly sports scene into modern times and proved that no facility, however stately, could tame the city’s famed bullies and boobirds.
The House that Ruth Built and Mayor Lindsay Rebuilt, the majestic cathedral otherwise known simply as the Stadium was the last and grandest addition to baseball’s romantic steel-and-concrete era, a towering achievement which emitted a confident aura to its colossal frame. It was the perfect match for a proud and iconic franchise that forever tolerated anything short of a World Series title as pure dishonor.
Sportsman’s Park, St. Louis, Missouri
In the Hole:
Memorial Stadium, Baltimore, Maryland