A Short History of Ballparks

Editorial Staff Art

“Where baseball has its beginning., Frontispiece, Spalding’s National Game,” 1896. New York Public Library, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, Photography Collection, A. G. Spalding Baseball Collection.

The industrial revolution saw several new structure types added to the urban lexicon, warehouses, suspension bridges, skyscrapers, and ballparks among them. The last of these is much on our minds at ANTIQUES—and might be on yours, too—at this time of year.

The earliest ballparks consisted of little more than wooden bleachers hastily erected around the field of play. These would be replaced by grandstands as attendance ballooned during an era of increasing leisure for the working classes at the fin de siècle, but a rash of collapses and fires, such as the Black Saturday disaster at Philadelphia’s Recreation Park in 1903 that killed twelve people and injured over two hundred, underlined the need for modern structures that could withstand the moving weight of larger crowds. 

Grand stand entrance of the Philadelphia Shibe Park baseball stadium in a photograph of 1913. Library of Congress, George Grantham Bain Collection; Wikimedia Commons photograph

William Steele and Sons responded with Shibe Park (later Connie Mack Stadium) in Philadelphia, which owns the distinction of being the first concrete-and-steel ballpark, going into service for the A’s in 1909. Replete with mansard roof, decorative friezes, and terra-cotta sculptures, Shibe Park could accommodate forty thousand sitting and standing, stomping and hollering “cranks.” The pride of its city, Shibe Park would spark a building boom among baseball’s far-flung franchises, who clamored for like homes for their teams. 

“Polo Grounds, New York: New steel and concrete structure of the National League,” c. 1900–1912. New York Public Library, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, Photography Collection, A. G. Spalding Baseball Collection.

The greatest beneficiary of the ensuing ballpark building boom was a man who had cut his teeth engineering bridges. Frank C. Osborn of Osborn Engineering Co. had been chief engineer of Cleveland’s King Bridge Co., where he helped build the Central Bridge in Cincinnati (that bridge’s replacement, the Taylor Southgate Bridge, overlooks the present home of the Cincinnati Reds). Osborn wrote the book on steel construction (Osborn’s Tables of Moments of Inertia and Squares of Radii of Gyration), and using that material his firm would go on to build such storied ballparks as Fenway and Comiskey, Braves and Forbes Fields, and the Polo Grounds in the “jewel box” configuration preferred at the time: double (or even triple) tiered seating towering vertiginously over the field of play, which allowed the whole complex to be crammed onto a single city block.

A photograph of bands playing at the Astrodome in an undated photograph. University of Houston Libraries, Special Collections; Wikimedia Commons photograph.

Ballpark design would change drastically at midcentury, with city officials calling for symmetrical multi-use stadiums like the Oakland Coliseum and Astrodome (designed, respectively, by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill and Hermon Lloyd & W. B. Morgan with Morris Architects) that could accommodate baseball as well as football or soccer. 

SunTrust Park in an undated photograph. Photograph by thatlostdog– on Flickr.

The construction of a new Camden Yards park in Baltimore in 1992 signaled a return to “retro” jewel box ballparks with idiosyncratic dimensions. A truce between these retro jewel boxes and the massifs of midcentury is currently evident at more recently–constructed fields like Nationals Park in Washington, DC, as well as at the newest stadium in the country, Atlanta’s SunTrust Park, both of which are roughly symmetrical, but which are earmarked for only baseball.