Lost Ballparks

By Lawrence Ritter

Viking Studio Books, 1992

At the store there were two books on this subject. The other was called Fields of Summer. I shall probably read that someday, too, but I chose Lost Ballparks because I liked the layout better, I am a Lawrence Ritter fan, and Fields of Summer includes parks still in use, like Fenway. Also the title is trite.

Lost Ballparks is about selected baseball fields that no longer exist. Ritter doesnt try to cover all former major league parks. For instance, he chooses New Yorks Hilltop Park but not Bostons Huntington Avenue Grounds. For a complete survey, read Take Me Out to the Ballpark by Lowell Reidenbaugh. And this is not a "fact" book. For that, there is the exhaustive Green Cathedrals.

There are 22 places in this book, including minor leaguers like Minneapoliss Nicollet Park, where Ted Williams played a season, and L.A.s Wrigley Field, where the "Home Run Derby" television show was filmed.

Lets just take the books first entry, Baker Bowl in Philadelphia, home of the Phillies from 1887 to 1938. You are given the parks exact location and orientation, in case you want to go to Philly and stand where home plate was (Baker Bowl was demolished in 1950). Baker Bowls distinctive feature was its short right field, 280 feet down the line. There was a 60-foot high wall and screen. Ritter writes, "While Fenways Green Monster inspires affection, at least in recent years, for some unknown reason the right field wall at Baker Bowl seemed to evoke mostly ridicule."

Nowadays we think of Fenways Wall as something uniquely and eccentrically Bostonian, but it was not unusual for its time. Ballparks seating about 30,000, with one short field, were commonplace:

Fenway Park, Boston: LF 315' 37' wall+23'screen

Ebbets Field, Brooklyn: RF 297' 19'wall+19'screen

Griffith Stadium, Washington: RF 320' 31' wall

League Park, Cleveland: RF 290' 20'wall+20'screen

Shibe Park, Philadelphia: RF 329' 34' fence

In all but Fenway, balls hit off the screen were still in play. Sportsmans Park St. Louis was 310 feet down the RF line with a 37' screen in front of the RF stands. One thing that separates Fenway is its short left field. Also--was there some kind of building code involved?--Fenway and Braves Field were the only single-deck parks in the majors.

The extremely short right field at Baker Bowl helped nickname a pitcher ("Boom Boom" Beck) and kept left-handed slugger Chuck Klein out of the Hall of Fame for awhile because many writers refused to take his accomplishments seriously.

The Baker Bowl chapter has several large black & white photos, and colored postcard with a very interesting view of left field. There is a long brick building in the background which is the spitting image of the one behind the right field stands at Baltimores new Camden Yards.

Baker Bowls clubhouse was a handsome brick building in center field. Nowadays all clubhouses are under the stands, but the Polo Grounds clubhouse was in center field (a long hike), and at Cincinnatis Crosley Field it was a separate building behind the left field stands. "Players had to walk through a public area, usually full of fans, to reach the playing field from the clubhouse," writes Ritter.

For each major league park, Ritter lists Ten Most Memorable Moments, which many old time fans would probably argue about--most of Ebbets Fields Moments involve somebody doing something to the Dodgers.

You know how Cub fans watch Wrigley Field games from the roofs across the street? There are two instances in this book of owners erecting "spite fences" to block the view of non-paying spectators. And did you know that after the Braves left Boston, their scoreboard ended up in right-center field at Municipal Stadium, keeping score for the Kansas City As? That another travelling scoreboard journeyed from Yankee Stadium to Shibe Park? That there is a life-size replica of Crosley Field in Blue Ash, Ohio? That in todays dollars, a box seat at Forbes Field cost $21.25 in 1909?

Lawrence Ritter makes these old ballparks come to life, gives a feel of how they fit into their neighborhoods, and how the fans felt about them. He doesnt get overly sentimental. Baker Bowl, after all, was cramped, dilapidated and dangerous--twice sections of the grandstand collapsed, killing and injuring spectators. There is a long passage by a fan who remembers visiting Sportsmans Park as a boy: "the rest room smelled exactly like the elephant house at the St. Louis Zoo."

My own first memory of Fenway Park is of the men selling peanuts on Jersey Street. They were immigrant-looking men with big mustaches, and their bags of peanuts were stacked in neat rows on long wooden pushcarts, with a scale hanging above. The next thing was underneath the stands--dark, damp, dirty and noisy like the subway, with smells of cigars and peanuts. Then there was the green of the grass outside and the sea-green color with which everything was painted: the seats, the outfield walls, and the big iron posts which had numbers on them and you had to remember your number so you wouldnt get lost. The seats were all wooden and there was a peculiar echo to sounds which bounced between the roof high above and the wooden seats below. Pigeons lived in the rafters.

There has been much talk this year about the new Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The Baltimore Orioles are seeking their roots. For the past thirty years they were the St. Louis Browns playing in a football stadium. They made the best of it, to be sure, winning pennants and World Series. The modern-day Orioles, descended from Brownies, have been nice young men, wholesome milk-drinkers like Brooks Robinson and Jim Palmer and Cal Ripken, with that cute cartoon Bird on their hats.

The Original Baltimore Orioles terrorized the National League in the 1890s with a collection of rogues like Muggsy McGraw, Hughie Jennings, Wilbert Robinson, Ned Hanlon. Another incarnation of Orioles was a charter member of the American League (managed by McGraw) before they became the NY Yankees. Then there was an Oriole outfit in the International League which was perhaps the strongest minor league team ever, with players like Babe Ruth and Lefty Grove.

There are a lot of architectural details at Camden Yards which evoke the bygone Orioles: the lettering on the scoreboard, designs on the sides of the aisle seats, etc. There are innovations like split-level bullpens and a standing-room area with no seats. The forest green of the seats and fences is a color you can see in old pictures of the Polo Grounds, and its nice to be able to see an actual city in the background. Overall, you do get the eerie feeling that youre watching a game from another era. A so-called nostalgic touch is the advertising on the outfield walls. I could do without that; one of the disadvantages of minor league parks is that when an outfielder goes back against the fence, youre trying to find the ball against an ad for Kwikie Kar Wash.

At Fenway in 1990, totally by chance, we met a man whose business card read: John Pastier, Ballpark Consultant. He was travelling around gathering information for the Orioles new stadium, which was still on the drawing board. We had heard good things about the plans for Camden Yards, but Pastier told us that it could have been much better. He wished theyd called him in earlier.

Now the sportswriters have universally fallen in love with Camden Yards. Of course, they all marvelled at SkyDome, too, which gives the impression of people playing baseball on the surface of the moon. And the once-touted New Comiskey Park still has no personality except a vague resemblance to Yankee Stadium. These critiques are just from seeing the places on TV, of course, but John Pastier told us that baseball is evolving into tele-theater, with the live fans merely part of the scenery.

Maybe Camden Yards will not look so good in a few years, but it seems to have defined the next generation of ballparks, such as Cleveland and Texas: Grass field. No dome. Baseball only, no football (football fields are the wrong shape). Non-symmetrical outfield, for excitement. Small foul area, so fans are close to the field. Central city location. No mammoth stadiums, capacity around 45,000 for a number of reasons: fewer fans stuck in Bob Uecker seats, more advance sales as opposed to fickle day-of-game sales, and the simple fact that empty seats look bad on TV.

Lost Ballparks contains a wealth of source material for modern-day ballpark designers. They might take some advice from Lawrence Ritter:

Stadium engineers are obsessed with getting rid of "obstructing columns" that in older parks supported upper-deck stands, enabling them to be directly above lower-deck ground-level seats. Elimination of obstructing posts has been achieved in todays stadiums by shoving the upper decks farther back from the field of play; instead of a few spectators seated behind posts on sellout occasions, everyone above ground level is now seated in the next county on every occasion

Putting it all in perspective: Recently there was a story in USA Baseball Weekly about a Maryland boy who got Governor Schaefers unused tickets for Opening Day. Afterwards the writers asked for his reaction to Baltimores architectural marvel. "I liked Camden Yards better than Memorial," he was quoted as saying, "but it really doesnt matter where they play as long as its the Orioles. The Park is very green, which, of course, is to the hitters advantage because of the background against the pitch and stuff."

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