June 11th, 2011
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; today’s Citi Field is a huge upgrade. Yankee Stadium, built in 1923, was eviscerated in 1974-75 and was then impersonated by a bowl with the former wedding-cake tracery; today’s Yankee Stadium is likewise far better than the modernized park it replaced. 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 or daughter and — if preservationists prevail — they will take theirs 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.
Though Major League Baseball has produced only one franchise shift in the past 40years, that from Montreal to Washington, 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, where the Knickerbockers and other clubs would soon cavort, 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. The pleasure gardens of New York — saloons with ball courts that anticipated the Elysian Fields — the development of Central Park, the rise of the enclosed ballpark, and even today’s theme parks, all have in common the quest for Rus in Urbe: a park within the city or very near it so as to stir nostalgia for an irretrievable past.