Friday, July 29, 2005

Baseball’s Garden of Eden

From "Play's the Thing" in the Woodstock Times, July 28, 2005:
Remember your first time in a big-league ballpark? How dark and cool and secret it felt to prowl the caverns under the grandstand, and how dazzling was that first view of the great green field when you emerged from the tunneled aisle? I can recall my first visit, to the Polo Grounds on May 12, 1957, not as if it were yesterday, which at my age I can only hazily recall, but sharply. My beloved Brooklyn Dodgers, behind lefthander Johnny Podres, shut out the New York Giants 5-0, and my idol, Duke Snider, hit a home run. My father, who knew nothing about baseball except that I was crazy about it, did not let on that I was imposing upon his bounteous good will, and — just like an American, which he had only recently become — even hollered vigorously for the peanut vendor to throw a bag our way. Yet for all the pleasures of that sun-splashed Sunday, the feeling that I can summon up most vividly today is transcendent awe before the great green field.

In the 1960s and 1970s the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field — like so many concrete-and-steel palaces of the 1910s — were replaced by a wave of cookie-cutter stadiums (“concrete ashtrays,” in the dead-on designation of ballpark historian Phil Lowry). Shea Stadium, inaugurated in 1964, the year of the memorably tacky Flushing World’s Fair, became less ugly once those orange and blue panels of corrugated metal were stripped from its exterior. Yankee Stadium, built in 1923, was eviscerated in 1974-75 and is today impersonated by a bowl with wedding-cake tracery. Then Baltimore’s Camden Yards and Cleveland’s Jacobs Field — opened in 1992 and 1994, respectively — ushered in the retro era of ballpark design, restoring intimacy and human scale to the old ball game while threatening to make home runs ho-hum and pitchers extinct.

The old ballparks, by which I mean those constructed before 1962, have dwindled to two: Fenway Park in Boston (1912) and Chicago’s Wrigley Field (1914). These parks demonstrate that a venerable building, even if it is not an architectural masterpiece, comes to define its neighborhood, even its city, and becomes, like many landmark buildings, community property. Beyond that, a ballpark becomes a “people's museum,” in that it is a repository of memory for the entire city: Wrigley or Fenway was the park to which your father took you to see the great green field, where you took your son and (if preservationists prevail) he will take his to have very much the same visual, communal, even religious experience. Where rural communities once were bound together by town meetings, husking bees, and town-ball games, heterogeneous urban communities can replicate that feeling of “belonging” nowhere better than at the ballpark.

This was a central point on March 12, 2003 in the City of Chicago’s hearings on landmark designation for Wrigley Field, in which architectural critic John Pastier and I testified as the expert witnesses for the city and were vigorously cross-examined by attorneys for the Chicago Tribune Company, owners of the Cubs and their ballpark. The city wished to ensure that the ballpark would look much the same for future generations; the Trib wished to modify or dispose of Wrigley Field as it saw fit. Both sides had right on their side, in some measure; unstated but on everyone’s mind was that the ballpark represented a greater asset than a ballclub that hadn’t won a World Series since 1908. (Our side won, so Pastier and I escaped being known as The Morons Who Lost Wrigley Field.)

The Tribune Company further indicated that if the City were to tie its hands it would have to consider abandoning Wrigley for a new site in the suburbs. This sort of blackmail — whether overt or covert —has hijacked the whole process by which owners and municipalities conceive, promote, and build a new stadium. Though major-league baseball has produced only one franchise shift in 35 years, that from Montreal to Washington this season, cities fear that they will lose stature and income if a ballclub moves out, while magnates feel confident that the grass is bound to be greener elsewhere. Both feelings persist despite the absence of evidence. Of course, shaking down the city for private gain is a time-honored practice, so we mustn’t be too hard on today’s sports barons. In 1824 John C. Stevens, proprietor of the Elysian Fields, lobbied New York City for capital to improve his Hoboken site. His request was denied, forcing him to finance his park on his own.

The Supreme Court said in its 1922 ruling (I’m simplifying here) that because baseball is essentially a localized sport and not a national enterprise, it should be exempted from compliance with Federal antitrust legislation. And this ruling, though seen as anomalous today because no other sport receives similar exemption, had precedent as early as 1869, when a W.C. Croesbuck of Lansingburgh, New York, who likely was connected with the famous Troy Haymakers, requested guidance from the Internal Revenue Service in Washington, D.C. His question was whether baseball games for which admission was charged were subject to the same tax as other exhibitions staged for profit. Thomas Hartland, Deputy Commissioner of the IRS, replied that baseball games were not to be taxed “as shows or exhibitions contemplated by section 108 of the Internal revenue laws, nor does [the IRS] regard such clubs as liable to special tax under paragraph 39 or section 79.”

This ruling came seven years before the founding of the National League, and only seven years after Brooklyn’s William Cammeyer launched the first ballpark at which admission was regularly charged, the Union Base Ball and Cricket Grounds. His brainstorm was to enclose the park within a fence so that paying fans might be admitted and freeloaders kept out. Previously, at such venues as the Elysian Fields of Hoboken and the Red House in Harlem, clubs would pay a license for use of the field but anyone who wished to watch was welcome to do so. Cammeyer’s innovation assured that the most powerful man in the game was the one who owned the field.

It’s interesting that until 1923, when the Yankees opened “the house that Ruth built” in the wilds of the Bronx, baseball had no stadium Before that, the places where professionals assembled to play went by the plain old names that today are applied to amateur lots in America’s hamlets and towns: park, grounds, and field. Actually, recent research has revealed that baseball was played in New York City in the period after the war of 1812, and probably earlier, at places evocatively named “retreats” or “gardens.” In 2001 the New York Times trumpeted George Thompson’s find of baseball in 1823 at Jones’ Retreat (now Broadway and 8th Street); the Times also reported my find of last year that baseball was rampant in Pittsfield, Massachusets in 1791. My current digging is into the possibility of baseball at Brannon’s Garden, a favorite recreation spot (under varying names) for Columbia University students as early as the 1780s.

The pleasure gardens of New York anticipated the Elysian Fields of Hoboken, the development of Central Park, the rise of the enclosed ballpark, and even today’s theme parks, video games, and reality television. This is a rich subject for another day, but the one thing all the parks, fields, gardens, and retreats had in common was the quest for Rus in Urbe—a park within the city or very near it so as to stir nostalgia for an irretrievable, prelapsarian past.

Stadiums are paradoxical structures, playing fields for athletes and ideas and, for the 21st century, icons of our culture as much as railway stations were to the 19th century and cathedrals to the 14th. Although many ballparks are funded privately, the public has an arguable interest in both the physical structure and the home team; others are funded publicly, or in public-private partnership, yet the teams’ owners regard the parks and their auxiliary income as private property.

Baseball seems to be everyone’s business, yet no one’s business. What to do? Should it (and sport in general) be regarded as a public utility, like the airwaves, the highways, and the waterways, and thus be subject to regulation? Or is sport, like religion, too important to be managed by politically sensitive bureaucrats like those at the FCC?

A modest proposal: if a municipality is hornswoggled into funding a stadium, let the cost to the taxpayers buy an equity position in the club. For example, if a team’s private investors put up a total of $200 million to buy the club and possibly further underwrite its negative cash-flow operations, and the citizenry backs a bond for $800 million, then the city will own 80 percent of the team. This will make investors’ threats to move the franchise look pretty silly.

--John Thorn


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was singularly unimpressed with my first ballpark -- Cleveland's Municipal Stadium. It was big all right, but when you're six, everything is big. All I jnew was that my uncle though a player named Bob Feller was very good. When Feller didn't hit any home runs, I wasn't impressed with him either.

Six years and dozens of baseball magazines later, I made my swcond visit to the stadium. When I walked out on the second deck and saw the field laid out in front of me, I was staggered by how GREEN it was.

4:04 PM  
Anonymous Andrew Shuman said...

Having also attended my first game at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, I was offended at first by Anonymous' total lack of awe. But, immediately I identified with his second impression, in his exact words! How GREEN it was! I was 7, and as I walked up the tunnel from below the reserved seats, I was struck by how blue the outfield walls were and how green the field was. That was probably 20-25 years after Anonymous, but amazing that a stadium dubbed the worsed in baseball would elicit the same response.

8:32 PM  
Anonymous John Pastier said...

It was truly a miracle that we somehow managed to dodge the bullet of abject morondom back then.

But isn't it true that the Tribune Company has messed with The Friendly Confines since then?

8:25 PM  

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