Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Review: Ballpark (2019)

By Paul Goldberger

Here's something unexpected - a book on the architecture of baseball parks/stadiums ... with a local angle.

Paul Goldberger's "Ballpark" centers on the evolution of the homes for major league facilities, starting way back in the middle of the 19th century when the game first became to attract spectators. The surprise comes a little past the halfway point, when Buffalo receives some attention. 

If you might remember, the stadiums that went up in the 1950s through 1970s received the nickname of "cookie cutters." They all were more or less alike, probably because they needed to be used for both baseball and football. There's a problem with that, because the layout of the fields for those games are quite different. Football has to have a certain regular layout, thanks to the standard playing field of a rectangle. Baseball's field is something of a cone, and the field in theory extends to theory. However, irregularities are not only tolerated - they are celebrated.

Let's go back to 1988, then, when Pilot Field opened in Buffalo. It was essentially a baseball-only facility, and it was somewhat limited in scope because the footprint wasn't used. Pilot Field essentially was squeezed into a space created by street layout - just like it was in the good old days of more than 100 years ago. This wasn't one of those stadiums surrounded by parking lots, with a corresponding lack of charm. This was a place that felt like it was part of the city. That old-time feeling grew with some of the decorations that were added to the stadium. The facility still had some modern conveniences, but it was as close to a "throwback" park as we'd seen in quite a while. It worked, and it still works 35 years later. 

That all led to Camden Yards in Baltimore, which took some of the ideas used in Buffalo and ran with them. It was instantly acclaimed as a giant step forward, and remains very popular as an attraction on is own merits without regard to how the team playing in it has done. Other teams wanted their own version of the facility, and some have come close to duplicating it.

Camden Yards is essentially the turning point in "Ballpark," when people started paying close attention to facilities. Admittedly, customers have been walking around ballparks to take in the atmosphere for decades. It's always a rush to come out of the corridor and see a new baseball park for the first time. It's often an explosion of green. Better still, sometimes part of the park opens up to a view of the hosting city. You know you're in Yankee Stadium and not Central Park, but if you use your imagination a bit ...

Goldberger is one of the top writers about architecture in the country; that Pulitzer Prize probably is a good method of proof in that. It's almost as if he knows too much at times, particularly at the beginning which starts a little slowly. But soon enough Goldberger gets into his rhythm, and comes up with sharp analysis of the most famous parks to host major league games over the years. 

There are plenty of illustrations. The early ones are in black and white, and we move into the age of color about halfway through the book. But this is not a coffee-table book. The photos merely provide some helpful background information to the text.

There are those fans who spend many of their summer vacations figuring how to go to baseball parks, keeping a running total of their visits as they go. It can only be assumed that they have this book by now, since it's been a while since publication. It's a perfect match to their interest. Others might not be that enthusiastic, but they'll appreciate the smarts and effort that it took to complete this comprehensive look at its subject.

Four stars

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