Chapter One The Ballparks
On APRIL 14, 1911, shortly after midnight, a fire swept through the wooden grandstand of the Polo Grounds, the field where the New York Giants baseball club of the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs played its home games. The Polo Grounds, which at the time had a capacity of 31,316 seats, was the largest structure of its kind in major league baseball. It was located in the north Harlem area of Manhattan Island, in a meadow framed by a large bluff on the west and the Harlem River on the east. The bluff and the meadow, at the time of the fire, were owned by Mrs. James J. Coogan, whose husband had originally leased the property to the Giants for a baseball park in 1889.
At the time of the 1911 fire the owner of the Giants was John T. Brush, who had been previously known in baseball circles for his determined opposition to the city of New York's acquiring a second baseball team. After establishing themselves in the Coogan's Hollow site, Brush and his associates sought to acquire an interest in any other vacant parcels of Manhattan land that they thought might lend themselves to the location of a baseball park. Once they reached Coogan's Hollow, near 155th Street, they concluded that the Manhattan land to the north was too hilly and rocky to be suitable. In 1903, however, Frank Farrell and Bill Devery, two New Yorkers who between them had close connections to city politics and the real estate market, bought the Baltimore Orioles of the rival American League of Professional Baseball Clubs for $18,000 and moved the club to New York. They built Hilltop Park, so named to reflect its high vantage point, in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, north of the Polo Grounds. Brush responded, a year later, by pointedly snubbing the league in which his new competitors played. His Giants had won the National League championship in 1904, but he declined to accept the then-informal challenge from the American League champion Boston Red Sox to participate in a "World Series," which had taken place the year before between the Red Sox and the National League champion Pittsburgh Pirates.(1)
On the night of the 1911 fire, however, Frank Farrell called Brush from Atlantic City, New Jersey, and offered the Giants the opportunity to complete their season in Hilltop Park. Remembering the incident, Brush spoke of the wooden grandstand of the Polo Grounds having "vanished in fire and smoke" and of the "dismay, despondency and regret depicted upon the faces of the multitude of fans" when they learned that the park had been destroyed. "While the flames were raging fiercest and the embers glowing," Brush recalled, Farrell phoned him, "tendering the use of his American League Park to the Giants as long as they might need it to carry out their schedule." Overwhelmed by the offer, Brush described his longtime antagonist as a "baseball philanthropist" who "deserves a monument" for his gesture.(2)
A year after the destruction of the Polo Grounds John Brush was able to write, in Baseball Magazine, that "upon the ruins of the old historic stand . . . there rises majestic, 100 feet above the ground and more than a thousand feet in length, the latest contribution to the comfort and convenience of the baseball fan." A new steel and concrete Polo Grounds had been built on the Coogan's Hollow site, complete with Italian marble boxes around the front of the upper deck of its grandstand, a balustrade ornamented with American eagles, reinforced Roman-style pylons flanking each end of the balustrade, and a cantilever roof with masts, from which blue and gold banners were displayed, projecting up every thirty feet. A writer in the same journal called the new Polo Grounds "the greatest ball park in the world," noting, among other things, that on the frieze of the grandstand, running below the balustrade, were male and female figures, "the perfect idealization of national manhood and womanhood," supporting shields that contained emblems of the eight National League teams: New York, Brooklyn, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Cincinnati, and St. Louis. "There is nothing like it in baseball," the writer concluded, and even New York, with all of its marvels, pauses a moment to take a fresh breath and brag about the 'biggest baseball yard in the world.'"(3)
The new Polo Grounds was ready to host baseball games as early as June 28, 1911, and was nearly completed by October 14 of that year, when the World Series opened with the Giants hosting the American League"s Philadelphia Athletics. Ten thousand seats had survived the fire and were retained, with 6,000 new ones having been added by June 28 and another 18,000 by the opening of the World Series, now made a formal part of baseball in the aftermath of the National Agreement of 1903, in which the National and American Leagues agreed to recognize each other as equals. A 1912 commentator anticipated that the seating capacity of the park would eventually reach 60,000, and over the years, as a double-decked roofed grandstand was extended around nearly the entire circumference of the park, it did reach 55,000.(4)
The most impressive feature of the new Polo Grounds, however, was neither its seating capacity, which varied over the years, nor the elaborate ornamentation of its grandstand walls, which required frequent repainting and which was eventually discarded, nor even the strikingly irregular dimensions of its horseshoe-shaped playing field, featuring very short foul lines and a huge centerfield. It was the apparent permanency of its structure, which symbolized the apparent permanency of baseball as a game that would be forever identified with a large American city. To get a sense of the symbolic meaning of the 1911 version of the Polo Grounds, one has to consider the new ballpark in the context of other older and newer ballparks, in other major league cities, in the early years of the twentieth century.
The Polo Grounds was by no means unique in being a steel and concrete stadium that replaced an older wooden structure in the years between 1908 and 1915. In that time period a concrete and steel ballpark was either built from scratch, or remodeled from a wooden park on the same site, for every team in the major leagues, with the exception of the Philadelphia Phillies and the St. Louis Cardinals, who continued to play in primarily wooden parks. Moreover, after this five-year interval only one new baseball park was built in the major leagues until the 1950s, Yankee Stadium, which opened in 1923.(5) just as the composition of major league cities and the identity of major league franchises did not change from 1911 to the early 1950s, so too the places where major league baseball was played remained almost exclusively constant. The ballparks represented by the new Polo Grounds were assumed to have become, on their completion, enduring civic symbols.
The new Polo Grounds was one of three major league ballparks that existed in the New York area at the same time. The more proximal of those to the Polo Grounds, and the more controversial from John Brush's point of view, was Hilltop Park, the home of the transplanted Orioles, the New York Highlanders. Hilltop Park was built six weeks after the American League approved Farrell"s and Devery's purchase of the Baltimore club, opening on April 30, 1903. Its structure and dimensions spoke volumes about the state of major league baseball at the time, as well as the state of building construction.
Hilltop Park, when it opened, had a single-decked wooden grandstand encircling the area behind home plate and extending a few feet past first and third bases on either side. The grandstand had a roof, which was supported on wooden pillars, spaced evenly throughout the structure. On the third base and first base lines, extending into the outfield in foul territory, were single-decked bleachers with no roofs. There were no seats in fair territory in the outfield, which was surrounded by a fence of a height ranging between fifteen and twenty feet, much of which was covered by advertising signs. The original distances of Hilltop Park were 365 feet from home plate to the left field foul line, 542 feet from home to dead center, and 400 feet to the right field foul line. The grandstand and bleachers, taken together, seated 16,000 fans. The cost of the park was $200,000 in excavation fees, a result of the rocky soil on which the field was built, but only $70,000 in construction fees because of the single deck and the fact that wood was the primary material.(6)
A number of features of Hilltop Park were symptomatic of the state of ballparks in the era just preceding the emergence of their concrete and steel "permanent" successors. First, the capacity of most of the wooden ballparks was comparatively small, especially when measured against structures such as the new Polo Grounds. That capacity was primarily a function of the fact that major league baseball, at the time of its "official" beginnings in 1903, was not very far removed from the game that had first started on a professional basis in the 1860s.(7) An experiment increasing the number of umpires from one to two had ended in 1902, and would not be revived until 1911.(8) Baseballs, even when hit into the stands, were returned and kept in play wherever possible. Catchers wore no shin guards, and few wore masks. Gloves were little more than slightly padded versions of ordinary hand gloves. Pitchers had an unlimited license to scuff, spit on, or otherwise alter the surface of baseballs, which did not have cork centers until 1910. Each of these features meant that hitting a baseball for great distances was an extraordinarily difficult thing to do, but fielding a batted ball was not easy either.
As a result, most professional teams adopted the strategies of the "deadball era," encouraging their hitters to take short, choppy swings at pitches, designed to spray the ball around all the dimensions of the field; to bunt; to steal bases as much as possible; and generally to attempt to score runs by putting pressure on the other team's fielders rather than by hitting the ball long distances. Given this focus, most of the action of a baseball game, from a fan's point of view, was in the infield, and so there was no particular reason for those who built ballparks to locate seats in the outfield. At the same time, however, there was reason to make the outfield dimensions of a park large: a larger expanse of outfield meant a greater opportunity for a ban to roll through fielders or to a distant fence, thereby increasing the possibility of triples or inside-the-park home runs, which spectators found to be exciting plays. Thus few prospective builders of ballparks contemplated placing seats in the outfield in fair territory. Instead they allowed fans, on days when demand exceeded the seating capacity of a ballpark, to bring their own seats or to stand in the outfield, or even to drive their carriages up to the outfield fences. C)n such occasions ropes separated the fans from the players, and balls hit into outfield sections where fans had gathered were treated as doubles.
On October 10, 1904, for example, Hilltop Park"s seating capacity was expanded from 16,000 to 30,000 as fans lined the foul lines and stood several rows deep in the outfield, watching the New York Highlanders (later to become the Yankees) face the Boston Red Sox (also known as the Puritans). The Red Sox had gone into that day's play in first place in the American League, leading the Highlanders by half a game, and the two teams were scheduled to play a doubleheader. October 10 was the last day of the season, so if the Highlanders won both games they would win the pennant. The scores in the games were 3-2 and 1-0, characteristic of the deadball era. The Red Sox won the first game when Highlander pitcher Jack Chesbro, who had already won forty-one games that year, threw a spitball over his catcher's head with two out in the Red Sox ninth, a man on third, and an 0-2 count on the batter. The low scoring games, the spectators on the field, Chesbro's choice of a spitball, and Chesbro's incredible won-loss record (he figured in fifty-three decisions that year, with fifty-one games started and forty-eight completed) all gave evidence that professional baseball was in the heart of its deadball era, when, among other things, relief pitchers were nonexistent.(9)
By the end of the 1912 season, however, Hilltop Park was regarded as sufficiently obsolete by its owners that they agreed to pay John Brush a sum so that the Highlanders could play their home games in the new Polo Grounds.(10) The move of the Highlanders from Hilltop Park to the Polo Grounds signified a recognition by two of the three baseball club owners in the New York area that a commodious steel and concrete ballpark was an essential part of a major league baseball franchise. And even before the 1911 fire at the Polo Grounds, the third New York area club owner, Charles Ebbets of the National League's Brooklyn Superbas--also known as the Dodgers--had come to that same conclusion.
On April 9,1913, in connection with the opening of Ebbets Field, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle ran a story on the process of its construction. "Planning and carrying through the deal for the buying of the site of Ebbets Field," the Eagle noted, "occupied President Ebbets two years and was a remarkable piece of the suppression of news."(11) Ebbets had actually announced the fruition of his plans to acquire a site to build' Ebbets Field on January 2, 1912; those plans had been in operation since 1910. To understand what the Eagle meant by "a remarkable piece of the suppression of news," some brief history of Ebbets Field"s,, predecessor structure is necessary.
Ebbets's club had been playing their games in Washington Park, in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn near the Gowanus Canal. By 1910 Ebbets had concluded that Washington Park, which had been built in 1898 for $60,000, was an inadequate facility. Its wooden stands made it a fire hazard, it was located close to a can factory and a coal yard, which emitted smoke and unpleasant odors, and its proximity to the Gowanus Canal often resulted in stenches permeati-ng the ballpark. Moreover, as the popularity of baseball and the population of Brooklyn increased in the first decade of the twentieth century, Washington Park became overcrowded. A vivid demonstration of that fact came on the Superbas" opening day game on April 12, 1912. An overflow crowd of spectators resulted in fans lining the foul lines and standing in the outfield, obstructing the views of others in the seats and interfering with play. The private security guards hired by Ebbets proved inadequate to control the crowd, and the Mayor of Brooklyn, William Gaynor, who was present at the game, eventually had to order city police, stationed outside Washington Park, to attempt crowd control. When the police arrived the crowd attempted to scatter, but there was so little room that a crush of bodies was feared. Eventually the game was called after six innings when it became apparent that the playing field could not be cleared of fans.(12)
An attraction of Washington Park's had been its relatively central location in Brooklyn and its proximity to trolley lines; two trolley car companies had even contributed to its construction costs, hoping to induce ridership.(13) Ebbets noticed that an area of Brooklyn at the southeast corner of Prospect Park between the Bedford and Flatbush sections, colloquially known as "Pigtown," was adjacent to the tracks of nine separate trolley car lines. Pigtown was currently occupied by squatters, and not regarded as desirable property, but Ebbets believed that the growth of Brooklyn's population, the proximity of Pigtown to Prospect Park, and the fact that Bedford and Flatbush were becoming upscale residential areas would eventually result in a boom in land values in Pigtown itself.
Ebbets set about to acquire a five and a half acre site in Pigtown through individual purchases of lots by a dummy corporation not linked to the Superbas. The Eagle reported that "it was necessary to buy the [lots] individually without letting [the lot owners] know that the purchasers desired a large plot, otherwise some of the owners might have `hung up' the purchaser, who would have been helpless, as he could not have brought condemnation proceedings."(14)
The dummy corporation created by Ebbets to make the purchases was called the Pylon Construction Company, and the negotiations were conducted by one Edward Brown, "who had never figured in baseball and was not known to be associated with Ebbets." Ebbets managed to acquire the entire site for the remarkably low price of $100,000. The eventual realization of his ambition to build a modem steel and concrete, fireproof stadium on the Pigtown site, however, eventually cost Ebbets another $750,000, which forced him to take in his contractors, the brothers Edward and Stephen McKeever, as business partners. When Ebbets announced the purchase of the site in January 1912, he anticipated the new ballpark being ready for the opening of the season, but, "as he himself expressed, Ebbets found he had bit off more than he could chew." The Eagle applauded his and the McKeevers' decision "to take their time and have the park even better than originally planned." It claimed, on the day Ebbets Field opened, that the ballpark was "the handsomest and best-arranged home of the national game in these United States."(15)
Contemporary comments on Ebbets Field at the time of its opening in 1913 convey a sense of what was then found noteworthy about the park. First was its enhanced safety and security. The Eagle noted that Ebbets had hired "members of a newly-organized special police force," known as "The Doughertys," who "will be on the job throughout every minute of play to suppress disorder by ejecting the perpetrator." Each member of "The Doughertys," the Eagle added, "formerly was in the military service and is more than six feet tall." The presence of "The Doughertys" was a reminder of the crowd problems accompanying the 1912 Washington Park opener and a signal of Ebbets's interest in attracting "respectable people" to baseball games. "Of course it's one thing to have a fine ball club and win a pennant," The Sporting News quoted Ebbets as saying after revealing his plans for "the new plant for the Brooklyn fans" in 1912, "but to my mind there is something more important. . . . I believe that the fan should be taken care of." He then particularized: "A club should provide a safe home for its patrons. This home should be in a location that is healthy, it should be safe and it should be convenient. The safety of the public should be looked after, and risk of accident or loss of life should be eliminated."(16)
Ebbets's references to a "healthy" location, to the convenience of the site, and especially to the "safety of the public" suggest that he was making a conscious effort to enhance the image of baseball by assuming prospective fans that no longer would a journey to the ballpark be an assault on their senses or a dangerous experience. He constructed a massive rotunda inside the main entrance with the ticket booths, with a floor of Italian marble and a large chandelier hanging from the ceiling, comparable to the main lobbies of operas or theaters. He painted the brick wall encircling the outfield dark green and planted ivy seeds at its base. He in introduced seats with curved backs and one armrest, designed to resemble those at opera houses and to provide more comfort than the narrow, straight-backed seats common to grandstand sections of early twentieth-century ballparks. He provided women's "comfort rooms," coat-checking rooms, and a small parking lot for carriages or automobiles, complete with valet service.(17)
Contemporaries reacted to these features of Ebbets Field and associated the aesthetic features of the ballpark with the fostering of civic pride. The New York Times sent a reporter to cover an exhibition game between the Highlanders and the Superbas on April 6, 1913, two days before Ebbets Field's official opening. The reporter mentioned the marbled rotunda, describing it as "similar to a theatre lobby only very much larger." He also alluded to the parking lot, checkrooms, and women"s bathrooms. He then turned to the atmosphere of the park itself:
The inside of the park was a picture. The grandstand of steel and concrete loomed high in the air, holding its admiring thousands. The upper and lower tiers of boxes held the galaxy of Brooklyn's youth and beauty embellished by a glorious display of Spring finery and gaudy color. The girls of Brooklyn never turned out to a ball game like this before, and it's too bad they never did, because from now on they will always be considered a big feature of a ball game at the new park.(18)
After his first impressions--those of the size and scope of the steel and concrete grandstand--the reporter began to focus on the fact that among the spectators in the crowd were a number of finely dressed young women. This struck him as a novel feature of ball games in Brooklyn, and one likely to be common in the new Brooklyn ballpark. it was as if by constructing a baseball field that resembled a theater or an opera house, Ebbets and the McKeevers had transformed the audience for Brooklyn baseball games into one more resembling the audiences for those events. The "galaxy of Brooklyn's youth and beauty" now frequented the boxes of Ebbets Field.
The Eagle, two days later, took the impressions of Ebbets Field a step further. Not only had the new ballpark upgraded the audience for baseball, it had enhanced the image of Brooklyn itself. "Ebbets Field offers unusual opportunities for an extensive view of the borough and its suburbs," the Eagle suggested, in an article entitled "Ebbets Builded Better Than He Knew In Giving Ebbets Field To Brooklyn." Whether a fan came to the site of the ballpark from Manhattan or elsewhere, the Eagle's correspondent pointed out, the trolley car lines took him "along the outer edge of one of the most beautiful enclosures in the country--Prospect Park." Once he was seated in the grandstands, "the eye is attracted by the surrounding country, a better view of which could not be obtained from any other spot." Beyond the centerfield fence was a "rolling stretch of hills known as Crown Heights"; close to the ballpark lay Eastern Parkway, "a boulevard famed for its unequalified roadbed and unexcelled scenery." To the right and in the rear of the field was the Flatbush section, "with its thousands of pretty homes and its network of immaculate streets, set off in bold relief against the verdant clusters of trees and foliage." In sum, the Eagle concluded, "[a]s a booster for Brooklyn Mr. Ebbets has worked better than he knew in giving to the borough so handsome a baseball park."(19)
Contemporary commentary on the opening of Ebbets Field furnishes an impression of the symbolic meaning of the early concrete and steel ballparks. They were perceived by those who first encountered them as more than improvements over the small, crowded firetraps that had preceded them. They were seen as signals that the game of major league baseball had evolved from its amateurish beginnings to become a sport that could serve as the basis for civic identification and pride. The new ballparks were more than technological achievements; they were architectural landmarks in a growing urban landscape. Their steel and concrete character suggested that they were intended to be permanent features of city life in twentieth-century America.
The remarkable transformation of the ballpark from a temporary, cramped, wooden structure to the new "permanent," relatively commodious steel and concrete structures built between 1908 and 1915 did much to cement baseball's image as an enduring, "national" game. Only two of the original concrete and steel structures, Fenway Park in Boston and Navin Field (now Tiger Stadium) in Detroit, now remain primarily in their original state, but as late as 1947 just two of the original structures, Baker Bowl in Philadelphia (which had been built in the nineteenth century and was only partially of steel construction), and League Park in Cleveland, completely supplanted by Mu-nicipal Stadium in that year, were no longer in use. From World War I to 1947 Shibe Park in Philadelphia, Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, Crosley Field in Cincinnati, Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park in Chicago, League Park (later Griffith Stadium) in Washington, League Park in Cleveland, and Sportsman's Park in St. Louis joined the Polo Grounds, Ebbets Field, and after 1923 Yankee Stadium in hosting major league baseball. This meant that three generations of Americans, in several cities, had the opportunity to watch baseball games in the same park.
The sense of continuity, even timelessness, created by the presence of a "permanent" ballpark located in the same city for at least a forty-year period cannot be underestimated. Part of the hold major league baseball has had on Americans seems traceable to the fact that for many years, in many cities, going to a ball game in a particular park, in a particular location, with a distinctive ambience, was an experience that crossed generational lines. But one cannot assume, as one might be tempted to do, that in their years of "permanence" the steel and concrete ballparks were islands out of time, immune from change, or that the game played in them was likewise a timeless, universal spectacle. Indeed one of the more fascinating dimensions of the history of the early "permanent" ballparks involves the subtle ways in which the ballparks changed alongside changes in the game, in ballpark construction, and in the culture of American cities.
When John Brush and Charles Ebbets decided to build, or rebuild, ballparks in the years just before World War I, they did so for at least two common reasons that can be discerned. First, they found the existing structure that housed their ballclub "inadequate." In Brush's case inadequacy was dramatically obvious: regardless of the Polo Grounds"s impressive size and aesthetically attractive location, it was susceptible to fire. In Ebbets's case inadequacy was communicated more subtly, in a combination of locational, size, and risk factors, symbolized by the near-riot. at Washington Park in April 1912. But inadequacy also presupposed that Brush and Ebbets had a clear sense of what was adequate. We can assume that they did, based on what was going on in other major league baseball cities with respect to ballpark construction at the time.
In April 1909 Shibe Park in Philadelphia opened, the first of the steel and concrete ballparks. Ben Shibe, its owner, had followed a pattern similar to Ebbets in acquiring land for a square block in an undeveloped section of the city north of the Pennsylvania railroad tracks, using his general contractor, Joseph Steele, as a front for a series of transactions with individual landowners. The site was near a hospital for contagious diseases, filled with smallpox victims, which helped lower the price of the land. Through connections Shibe learned that the hospital, owned and operated by the city, was going to be closed and dismantled; closing took place three months after the first game in Shibe Park.
Shibe had been involved with baseball since 1900, when he and Connie Mack invested in the Philadelphia Athletics, a new franchise in the emerging American League. Eight years later Shibe was the majority owner of the Athletics, and had become a wealthy man from his sporting goods business, which, under the name of A. J. Reach & Co., had the exclusive rights to furnish baseballs to the American League. He was also aware of Joseph Steele's expertise in constructing steel and concrete buildings, many of which he had erected for manufacturers in the Philadelphia area in the first years of the twentieth century. Moreover, Shibe was experiencing problems with the Athletics' existing park, Columbia Park, similar to those Ebbets had experienced with Washington Park. Columbia Park was not fireproof and could hold only 28,000 persons if the crowd was allowed to reach overflow proportions; it appeared that baseball was getting too popular for such facilities.(20)
Shibe thus knew, by at least 1907, that Columbia Park was "inadequate." But he also had a vision of what was "adequate": a large, double-decked, concrete and steel ballpark, built on a site that could be acquired cheaply, at a location convenient to trolley car lines, that would serve as a monument to its owner and a symbol of the upgrading of the city in which it was located. In one form or another, Shibe's vision became that of all the men who built ballparks in the years between 1908 and 1915. All of them wanted to build concrete and steel structures or rebuild wooden structures using new construction techniques. Nearly all of them double-decked, or even tripled-decked, their stadiums. All of them built new ballparks in locations convenient to subway or trolley lines. All of them designed the appearance of their parks as Brush and Ebbets had designed the new Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field: to look like "palaces." For some owners this meant the creation of ornate structures with decorative friezes and imposing lobbies, often sporting neoclassical motifs; for others it meant less elaborately decorated, but nonetheless imposing, "plants." Finally, all of them thought of their ballparks as architectural symbols of the commercial and cultural vitality of urban twentieth-century America.(21)
In addition to having an expansive vision of what an" adequate" ballpark entailed, Brush, Ebbets, Shibe, and the other owners of new twentieth-century ballparks had a second common reason for deciding to build. They believed that a major league baseball club had the prospect of evolving from a kind of luxury item, comparable to the polo ponies and yachts of gentlemen "sportsmen," to a solid business enterprise that would earn a profit. A characteristic of the generation of owners that built or rebuilt early twentieth-century ballparks-James Gaffney (Braves Field) and John Taylor (Fenway Park) in Boston, Barney Dreyfuss (Forbes Field) in Pittsburgh, Jimmy Manning and Frederick Postal (League Park, later Griffith Stadium) in Washington, Julius and Max Fleischmann (Redland Field, later Crosley Field) in Cincinnati, Frank Navin (Navin Field, later Briggs Stadium, finally Tiger Stadium) in Detroit, Ernest Barnard (League Park) in Cleveland, Charles Comiskey (White Sox Park, later Comiskey Park) and Charles Weeghman (Weeghman Park, later Wrigley Field) in Chicago, and Robert Lee Hedges (Sportsman's Park) in St. Louis, in addition to Brush, Ebbets, and Shibe-was that none was a member of an established late nineteenth-century upper-class family.(22) They were former ballplayers, brewery owners, liquor manufacturers, former bookkeepers, contractors, urban real estate speculators, and entrepreneurs in the sporting goods industry. They were not interested in owning a baseball club in order to demonstrate that they were members of the idle rich. On the contrary, they were interested in owning a baseball club in order that they might someday become members of the idle rich, and social lions in the process.
The construction of new ballparks thus symbolized that major league baseball had come to be regarded as a potentially lucrative business, as distinguished from a diversion from the business world. And yet the central attractions of baseball as a spectator sport, the generation of new owners realized, lay in the fact that it was a diversion from the business world, a game echoing the associations of childhood play and leisured, sporting pursuits. Paradoxically, the more baseball was thought of as a pastime, a retreat from urban life as much as a confirmation of its vitality, a vicarious experience as much as an observational experience for the "cranks" and "bugs" (later "fans") who attended games, the more it appeared to become a spectacle that was socially desirable, as well as emotionally uplifting, to attend. From its earliest modern decades, baseball was thought of as a business, a form of entertainment for profit, but implicitly presented as a much more engaging spectacle than a circus or an opera or a play. It conjured up idyllic rural and pastoral associations, although staged in an urban setting.
Brush, Ebbets, and Shibe probably did not consider the extended cultural meanings of major league baseball when they decided to build new concrete and steel ballparks. Their first concern, once having acquired the land for a site and resolved to proceed, was very probably with techniques of construction. In venturing into ballpark construction they were functioning as technological and architectural pioneers.
The inadequacy of the older ballparks, to their owners, had rested principally on two factors: their wooden composition, which made them susceptible to fire and decay, and the fact that their seating capacity had not kept pace with the growth of urban populations and the related growth of interest in major league baseball as a spectator sport. Two technological developments in place in the first decade of the twentieth century made a dramatic response to these problems possible. One was the capacity to build upper decks to grandstands; the second was the capacity to replace wooden structures with steel and concrete structures that served the same function. Both developments emanated from the same engineering and architectural innovation, the "ferro-concrete" building process.
Even though the process of converting iron to steel had been available in America well before the first decades of the twentieth century, and steel had a number of properties that seemed ideal for ballparks--it could be shaped to fit the intricate patterns of intersecting materials required by ballpark design, it was strong enough to bear enormous weight, and it lasted longer and was more fire-resistant than wood--no steel-based, stone-covered ballparks were built in the late nineteenth century, although steel and stone houses and buildings began to appear in cities in that period. The reason was simple enough: steel-based, stone-covered ballparks were too expensive because of the massive amounts of steel they required and the fact that the stone facings, to be regarded as attractive, had to be cut and carved.
By the early twentieth century, however, contractors such as Joseph Steele had begun to perfect the "ferro-concrete" process of building large structures. The process required no new materials, only an ingenious combination of existing ones. It consisted of framing the weight-bearing portions of a structure in wood, pouring concrete into the frame, and then inserting steel rods in the concrete while it was still soft. The wooden frames kept the concrete from spreading; the steel rods prevented the concrete from cracking and added strength of their own; and the concrete encased the steel rods and prevented them from exposure to fire or other elements. Once the concrete had hardened, it could only be blasted apart. Wood could also be attached to the concrete in places (such as seats) where its comparative softness and flexibility made it superior to the other materials. In some areas, eventually, a version of steel ("structural" steel) was used without being mixed with concrete. Structural steel was more fireproof and stronger than wood and over time became less expensive to use. It could not be carved on, and was not regarded as attractive in the early twentieth century, so it was reserved for those areas (such as supports under stands) that were not in the line of sight of most spectators.(23)
Ferro-concrete and the expanded use of steel solved the problems of fire and decay, making the conception of a ballpark as a "permanent" structure feasible. They also helped solve the problem of seating capacity. In dealing with that problem, however, early twentieth-century owners had faced some complexities engendered by the fact that a baseball "plant" was not just a large arena; it was a structure designed to offer spectators the distinctive experience of watching baseball games. Where one sat when watching a baseball game mattered in a way that seating did not matter, or mattered less, when one watched a track meet or a boxing match. Those sports lent themselves to circular or spheroid seating around an oval or square. If the seating was angled, spectators traded off closeness against an improving angle of vision; where one sat around the oval or square arguably made little difference. The earlier descriptions of Hilltop Park and Washington Park make it clear, however, that the proprietors, players, and fans of early baseball recognized that baseball was a different spectator sport. It was played on a large circular or oval-sized field, but most of the action took place in one area of that field, the infield.
Thus most everyone associated with major league baseball in the era of the wooden ballparks knew that some seats were more desirable than others at a baseball game. The early parks, including the Polo Grounds, typically did not offer extensive seating anywhere but in the semicircular grandstand. Adding seats in the outfield was regarded as perhaps a necessary concession to spectator demand, but they were priced lower and were typically not roofed. Almost no early ballparks had seats in fair territory in the outfield. Thus when population growth and an expanding economy contributed to increased spectator demand in the early twentieth century, the owners of Hilltop Park and Washington Park, as well as owners in other cities, responded by allowing standing room along foul lines and in the outfield.
There was another response, that of the owners of the Polo Grounds. Most early wooden ballparks had single-decked grandstands with roofs; the Polo Grounds grandstand was double-decked. Wood pillars could be fashioned that were strong enough to support wooden decks filled with people, so long as a sufficient number of pillars were used. Upper decks could be set back from lower decks so that not all the spectators in the lower deck had their aerial views restricted by the upper deck. Double decking could thus increase capacity without requiring spectators to sit outside the infield-oriented grandstand. Double decking, however, was rare in the era of the wooden ballparks. In the age of the first steel and concrete ballparks it became the norm, and triple decking eventually followed.
One may wonder why there was not more double decking in the wooden ballpark era. The answers this time are not so straightforward. Wood is not as strong as steel and obviously less resistant to decay, so an investment in wooden pillars meant an ongoing investment in maintenance. The owners of the Polo Grounds, however, were prepared to make that investment in order to service the crowds they anticipated. They were perhaps unusual in anticipating crowds of that size. Hilltop Park was built after the old Polo Grounds, yet its owners, bringing a new franchise in a new league into the New York area, did not double-deck their grandstand. It seems likely, in fact, that the owners of Hilltop Park were more conventional in their expectations about spectator demand. None of the wooden parks of the early twentieth century had a seating capacity of greater than 20,000 except for the Polo Grounds.(24)
When the concrete and steel ballparks were built, however, all except the two constructed in Boston were double-decked, and one, Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, which opened in 1909, was triple-decked in a limited portion of the grandstand. Contemporaries regarded the fact that Fenway Park and Braves Field were not double-decked as sufficiently unusual to comment upon.(25) It thus appears that Ben Shibe and Joseph Steele--who double-decked the grandstand at Shibe Park, provided seats for a total of 23,000 persons, and made room for an additional 7,000 standees--were trendsetters.(26) And it further appears that the Shibe-steele partnership assumed that ferro-concrete stands, supported by structural steel and ferro-concrete pillars, were significantly stronger than wooden stands supported by wooden pillars. Not only would they not bum, they would not collapse.
The shells of the new concrete and steel ballparks, then, were remarkably similar to those of the old wooden ballparks, with the important exception of double decking. Outside the grandstand area the new ballparks tended to have more seats than the older ones, but not significantly more. Of the ballparks built or refurbished between 1909 and 1915, only the Polo Grounds, Shibe Park, and Braves Field anticipated a capacity of more than 30,000, and that was, in the last two instances, through overflow, on-the-field arrangements comparable to those in Hilltop or Washington Parks.(27) None of the new ballparks provided extensive seating behind the outfielders in fair territory, and many ran their outfield fences very close to the property line of the site, a practice that indicated that the owners had not even anticipated expanding seating capacity through outfield seats in fair territory.
Here was another example where construction practices, assumptions about spectator preference, and the style of play in major league baseball in the early twentieth century complemented one another. "Deadball baseball" was a game of subtleties, such as stolen bases, doctored pitches, bunts, and angled chop hits, all of which could be more easily observed from the grandstand. Thus it was not at all implausible, as curious at it may seem to the modem observer, for ballpark owners and designers to build elaborate, ornate grandstands and at the same time allow their outfields to end at fences bordering on urban streets or houses. Such was the configuration in Shibe Park, Ebbets Field, Redland Field, and many other of the steel and concrete structures. That configuration was no more remarkable, or shortsighted, than the absence of significant parking lots at any of the early twentieth-century steel and concrete ballparks. Although the ballparks were designed to be permanent, they were not built for a future that could not be fully imagined.
Return to Book Description
File created: 8/7/2007
Questions and comments to: email@example.com
Princeton University Press