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Storied StadiumsBaseball's History Through Its Ballparks
By Curt Smith
Carroll & Graf PublishersCopyright © 2003 Curt Smith
All right reserved.
In 1988, A. Bartlett Giamatti first saw a model of the Baltimore Orioles' proposed new park. He knew instantly that it could take baseball back to the future. "When this park is complete," he said, "every team is going to want one." Its quirks, odd angles, and dark green intimacy hinted baseball paradise--the game as it once was, and could be again.
In time, the model corkscrewed into Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Giamatti's view now writes baseball's lingua franca--its coin half-prayer and half-command. Increasingly, the pastime boasts stadiums heavy with individuality. Camden Yards--born April 6, 1992--shows that "if you build it [right], they will come."
They came in 1994-'95 to heirs in Cleveland, Denver, and Arlington, Texas; 1997-'98, Atlanta and Phoenix; 1999-2001, Detroit, Houston, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Seattle; and by way of hope, future parks in Cincinnati, Philadelphia, San Diego, and perhaps Boston, Miami, Minneapolis, Montreal, and New York. Each daubs sites that once spun baseball's web--Crosley Field, the playful furnace of Sportsman's Park, Shibe Park's surf of sounds, the green boxed fortress at Michigan and Trumbull.
For the half-century after 1908, baseball worshiped Xanadus of personality--jewels, not yet dowagers, siring "an infinite feeling for the spirit of the past," wrote Ellen Glasgow, "and the lingering poetry of time and place." In its 10 major-league cities--the 16 fields where its ballclubs merged--for the one team (Cleveland) with two parks and the city (St. Louis) where two teams shared one--and moreover, farms, burgs, and villages--the Golden Age of parks knocked boredom down.
Recall the ivy at Wrigley Field, monuments at Yankee Stadium, the steep-walled rectangle of Comiskey Park, or a stretch of Forbes Field acreage grown sated with base hits. All joined other early twentieth-century sites--League Park, Fenway Park, Braves Field, the Polo Grounds--with their rich, imposing names. "They created a common experience," says television's Larry King, who grew up near another temple, Brooklyn's Ebbets Field. "Across America, entire cities revolved around the park."
A visitor did not expect to see mascots, glitz, or exploding scoreboards. Baseball owned his sensibility. "You cared about the players because you knew them. The fans were down close," said Cooperstown Class of '93 Harmon Killebrew. "They could see guys sweat, hear 'em curse. They felt like actors in a field of play."
Through the 1950s, stadiums rivaled family around the dinner table. Then Suburban-Ho: Baseball threw sanity a curve. Like the '60s, it left the city for more sterile climes. Cities lost the game's buzz of conversation. Baseball lost cathedrals of the outdoors. Replacing them: multi-sport ovals from Anaheim to Queens. "The last twenty years have given us cookie-cutters built more for bull fights than baseball," said another Hall of Famer, Carl Yastrzemski '89. "You don't know whether you're in Atlanta or Mongolia."
Harmon Killebrew is a gentle man. Mention "cookie-cutters," and he spits contempt. He recalls when shopkeepers hailed players near the park, even bad seats seemed close enough to touch the field, and noise ferried past eateries, gas stations, and gentle backyards. "That's some trade," poet John Updike said of what came later. Baseball traded orbs of poetry for slabs of prose.
Classic parks forged a Mayberry of puppies and emerald turf and picket fences and small-town marms--frozen in amber, but fixed and sure. There they were, a city's El Dorado, yet mythy and sweetly rural. Green Acres was the place to be--especially when the home team won.
Can we retrieve a past where baseball is again all-meaning? Perhaps not. At its best the game seems too--what?--Rockwellian for some. Redemptive are urban, personal, and unorthodox parks where embracing baseball is as natural as a smile.
Excerpted from Storied Stadiums by Curt Smith Copyright © 2003 by Curt Smith. Excerpted by permission.
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