We talk a lot about ballparks and ballpark construction around here. About public financing, threats of teams to move, the economic benefits of new parks and the aesthetic choices of ballpark designers. If these topics even remotely interest you, boy howdy, should you set aside some time today to read this brilliant piece by CBS’ Dayn Perry.
It’s a story about the Chicago White Sox and their three ballparks. “Wait, Craig,” you exclaim, “the Sox have only had two parks in the last 108 years? Comiskey Park and New Comiskey/WhateverTheHeckTheyCallItNow park.” “Ah yes,” I reply. “But you’re overlooking Armour Park.”
Armour Park was never built. But it was designed in the 1980s by an architect named Philip Bess. Bess applied for and received a grant to design a ballpark concept which would fit nicely into an existing neighborhood, combining the beauty of the old classic ballparks but which would have modern conveniences we now take for granted. It wasn’t something the White Sox knew about ahead of time — this was a labor of love and intellectual curiosity for Bess — but the design did get in front of Jerry Reinsdorf and various White Sox and Chicago officials. They didn’t care for it and it was rejected and they decided to go with New Comiskey Park instead.
What they rejected, though, was brilliant. Brilliant aesthetically and brilliant in design and conception. It integrated itself into the South Side neighborhood that New Comiskey would eventually disrupt and, as Perry convincingly argues, would actually have provided a lot of urban renewal and economic benefit that the new ballparks are always promised to deliver but never actually do.
In addition to providing an almost painfully tantalizing glimpse at what could’ve been for the White Sox, Perry’s story makes a lot of points people tend to overlook about the post-Camden Yards ballparks. For example, while people speak highly of the new wave of ballparks because they tend to be located in downtown areas, they really aren’t any more “neighborhood ballparks” than their poured concrete multipurpose predecessors were. Their footprint is still huge, parking still rules and in many subtle ways they are aimed at drawing people away from surrounding neighborhoods rather than toward them. If you doubt this, make sure you read the part of the story in which Perry discusses the original ideas for Camden Yards. Short version: it ended up being cool by sheer accident. HOK, credited with the retro-park boom, actually preferred something that looked way more like Veterans’ Stadium than what O’s fans now know and love.
At the same time, while often lauded for their aesthetics and idiosyncrasies, the new ballparks are pretty dang phony in a lot of ways. There’s a reason why Fenway Park has the Green Monster: it has to have it because of the size of the plot of land on which it sits. The current parks’ “quirks,” like the Crawford Boxes in Houston or the deep outfield dimensions of Comerica Park are manufactured to add character and variation on what are, in essence if not actual design, still cookie-cutter parks on parcels of land that do more to disrupt neighborhoods than enhance them. Put differently: the best ballparks, like Fenway and Wrigley, are built in neighborhoods. The newer ones tend to have neighborhoods built around ballparks. There is a difference.
Perry’s story is a long one — set aside at least a half hour or so for it — but it’s so well-constructed and touches on so many interrelated aspects of ballpark design that it has to be that long. It’s definitely worth your time.