Baseball is a game of inches, but it is also a game of nostalgia. When Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore opened in the 1992 season it set off a wave of retro ballpark construction in the Major Leagues. The multipurpose “cookie-cutter” parks with their huge outfields and artificial turf (so they could be used for football in the offseason), with names like Veterans Stadium and Memorial Stadium, were obsolete and out of fashion overnight. As a result, after Fenway Park (1912) and Wrigley Field (1914), the oldest ballpark in the Major Leagues is Dodger Stadium, which opened in 1962.
The retro parks are built only for baseball, on real grass, and use many of the materials and strange configurations of the old parks, such as exposed brick and jutting corners for weird bounces, like AT&T Park’s “Triples Alley”. The New York Mets’ new home, Citi Field, even recreated part of the facade of long vanished Ebbetts Field for its Jackie Robinson Rotunda.
A traditional ballpark has a personality of its own and, occasionally, its owner. When Bill Veeck owned the Cleveland Indians in the 1940s, he altered Municipal Stadium’s dimensions regularly to favor the Tribe. Braves Field in Boston was built with a huge outfield in order to increase the number of triples hit.
Baseball teams and their parks also end up reflecting their cities—after all, the reason old ballparks like Fenway have their quirks is because they were built to fit in city blocks and Boston has some strange streets. In a similar way, several writers believe that Babe Ruth was sold to the Yankees as much because he couldn’t stomach Boston’s puritanical culture as Red Sox owner Harry Frazee’s money troubles.
Baseball has also brought cities together in a way not often seen in other sports. The 1968 Detroit Tigers were credited with calming the city after the race riot in 1967 and the unrest following the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr and Robert F. Kennedy. The ’77 Yankees and 2013 Red Sox are similarly credited with bringing their cities together at difficult times. The strong emotional bond between a city and a team feed into a city’s sense of place.
Last year Rod Dreher visited Siena and wrote about how within the walls each contrade, or ward, competes with every other one in the annual Palio horse race. They all have their own hymns, yet all are set to the same tune, the same one for the whole city when competing with other cities. A similar thing happens with baseball teams—it becomes the city versus all comers instead of one faction among many. Things might be said to go from “my city” to “Our bleeping city”.
But all is not as it seems.
Baseball stadiums are expensive to build and urban property prices have always been high, especially considering the amount of parking needed to accommodate 40,000 people. As a result, teams want public financing, tax abatements, and all the other ills that crony capitalism promotes. Paid for with higher taxes, increased public indebtedness, and highway improvements, the retro ballparks were sold to city, county, and state governments as a form of economic development and urban regeneration.
None of that has happened. Not even with Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which started the whole thing and cost taxpayers $282 million, according to Field of Schemes. According to Bloomberg in 2013, sports stadiums don’t fulfill development goals because they’re empty much of the time, the jobs they create are low-wage, and they divert spending on food and beverages from other businesses. In Baltimore, says Field of Schemes, the number of employers in the area fell between 1998 and 2013, while crime and unemployment were up.
Tim Chapin, an urban planning professor at Florida State University, told Bloomberg that Camden Yards had not saved downtown Baltimore or improved the poorer neighborhoods near downtown. Former Maryland legislator Julian Lapides said that the whole area was vacant on game days. “It’s a big hole in the center of the City.”
In that respect, stadium deals are no better than ordinary economic development funds. Back in December of 2012, the New York Times found that states and cities spend up to $80 billion a year on economic development incentives with nothing much to show for it in the way of stronger economies or more and better paying jobs.
The area around Camden Yards, however, is still better than some retro parks, such as Citi Field or Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park, which are entirely surrounded by parking. The real appeal of old ballparks (like Fenway and Wrigley) and the nostalgia for lost ones (like Ebbetts Field, Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field, and others) comes from their history—many former ballparks have the location of home plate marked with a plaque, and Pirates fans still gather at the site of Forbes Field on the anniversary of Bill Mazerowski’s World Series-winning home run against the Yankees—and the way they were part of a neighborhood.
The area around Boston’s Fenway Park has seen a lot of changes come and go, but in addition to the new glass and steel luxury towers going up on Brookline Avenue, there are old warehouses (long-since converted into memorabilia stores and sports bars) and apartment buildings of similar age, their flaking brick facades and sagging wood floors belying their high rents. In Chicago, Wrigley Field gave its name to its neighborhood, Wrigleyville, which is still somewhat affordable and where people in neighboring houses can watch the game from their roofs.
Fenway and Wrigley prove two things: that neighborhoods can develop around ballparks, so long as the neighborhood isn’t torn down for parking and teams don’t need new ballparks every 30 years. But as long as team owners use threats to move a beloved team as emotional blackmail against an entire city—and public officials think can win votes on bad deals—sports franchises will continue to feast on public funds like a slugger on hanging sliders.
In life, like in baseball, sometimes the only thing to do is take the pitch because you can’t do anything useful with it.
Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston who writes about urbanism and history. This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.