Michael Lindgren is a frequent contributor to The Washington Post.
My first apartment after college, when I was an earnest young publishing drone, was a bare three blocks from Fenway Park — close enough to hear the cheers drifting in through the open window on sweltering summer nights. It was 1991 and I was, in writer Paul Goldberger’s formulation, unwittingly part of Fenway’s “tightly woven connection to its city’s urban fabric.”
“Ballpark: Baseball in the American City” is both a beautifully illustrated history of North American baseball stadiums and a defense of the simple but enduring idea of a ballpark that fits neatly into the hum and hive of a grid of city streets, accessible primarily by public transit.
A Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic, Goldberger has an easy way with his descriptions, and his analyses of various ballparks are done with clarity and wit. The book is studded with insightful observations, such as that early ballparks would have been impossible without the advent of streetcars; public transit and baseball essentially grew up together. “Without trains,” he states flatly, “baseball would not have become a national game.”
Likewise, everyone knows that the turn in the 1960s to now-maligned circular, multisport stadiums like Veterans Stadium, in Philadelphia — Goldberger calls them “concrete doughnuts” — was driven by the rise in the popularity of professional football. It had never occurred to me, though, that the core of this dynamic was football fans’ affection for pregame tailgate parties, which are, of course, impossible without a parking lot.
Goldberger has philosophical, even poetic, criteria for what makes a good shrine to the horsehide. “The most important thing,” he writes, “was that the space of the ballpark itself was . . . so open as to allude, at least symbolically, to the notion that the outfield extends into infinity.” His evaluations — he likes the Pittsburgh Pirates’ new stadium but dislikes Chase Field, in Phoenix — seem to me to be accurate and well-judged, with one conspicuous exception.
Goldberger considers the current homes of the Yankees and the Mets, both dating from 2009, as moderate successes, and here I must disagree. I have come, over three dozen or so trips to both venues, to consider Yankee Stadium a cheerless, oppressive disaster, whereas I find the Mets’ ballpark kitschy but essentially appealing. As for Nationals Park, Goldberger’s verdict is resoundingly lukewarm: The Nats’ home “looks a lot like the banal office buildings with which the District of Columbia is filled” but is thus at least “an apt reflection of Washington as it is now.”
More important than these specifics, though, is the elegant way Goldberger’s narrative echoes the changing tides of the American city. He identifies four distinct phases in ballpark history: the original city-bound venues like Wrigley and Fenway, the unpalatable suburban doughnuts mentioned above, and the retro-styled ballparks kicked off by the construction of Oriole Park at Camden Yards in 1992.
The last and perhaps most ominous phase is the recent trend toward sterile, corporate campuses like SunTrust Park in Atlanta. These abominations, which use “the baseball park as the keystone of a larger real estate development that re-envisions the city as a privately controlled series of spaces,” end up having “as many of the qualities of a theme park as of a traditional city.”
Goldberger’s excoriation of this last rises to the pitch of the impassioned and serves as an eloquent expression of “the urban idea . . . that a moderate amount of disorder is a fair trade-off for the virtue of having a truly public place.” A baseball park is itself a simulacrum of a city, he writes, and thus “does not need to be inside another simulacrum.” This latter universe has no place for impoverished editorial assistants. They can come once, if they can afford it, or not at all.
Wrigley Field in Chicago is what Goldberger calls one of “the immortal ballparks,” a “cherished icon” with “abundant charm” that inspires “deep affection.” Its small dimensions and proximity to Lake Michigan, of course, make it the ultimate hitters’ park when the wind is blowing out toward the ivy-covered outfield fences — as it was on May 17, 1979.
The events of that fateful day — an improbable 23-22 Philadelphia win that featured 50 hits, including 11 home runs — are engagingly related in Kevin Cook’s hugely enjoyable “Ten Innings at Wrigley: The Wildest Ballgame Ever, With Baseball on the Brink.”
A natural raconteur with a jaunty press-box style, Cook divides his tale into three parts. The first is a witty and compact history of the Phillies and Cubs franchises up to the date of the game; the term “star-crossed” might well have been invented for both clubs, which had exactly zero World Series wins between them dating back to 1908.
Part two of “Ten Innings at Wrigley” is given over to an inning-by-inning recap of the fearsome cannonading, which Cook deftly intertwines with sketches of the competing players and snippets of play-by-play taken from a recording of the Philadelphia radio broadcast. And the third is a five-part meditation on “legacies” that includes colorful accounts of the Phillies’ 1980 championship and the tribulations of surly Cubs slugger Dave “Kong” Kingman.
Cook’s title describes “Baseball on the Brink,” but he wisely does not oversell the symbolic ramifications of this one game, deeply wacky as it was. He does provide a skillful description of the notorious split-fingered fastball, for which a pitcher “released the ball with a hard downward flap of the wrist, as if he were swatting a fly” — a novelty that would soon spread like kudzu over pitching staffs in both leagues. And he winningly captures the atmosphere of a looser, shaggier Wrigley, with off-duty waitresses and college students smoking pot in the bleachers and jawing at Phillies outfielders.
Most striking, Cook attempts the risky but successful, I think, ploy of adopting the perspective of troubled Cubs pitcher Donnie Moore as a central narrative thread. Some of us will pick up this book already knowing that Moore, unstrung by a spiraling career and drinking problems, would commit suicide after attempting to kill his wife on July 18, 1989. It lends a poignant element of foreshadowing — a glimpse of the darkness ahead — to what is otherwise a raffish, freewheeling book. A day game at Wrigley played at the tail end of the 1970s offers plenty of sunshine, but the sun always sets in the end.
By Paul Goldberger
364 pp. $35
By Kevin Cook
Holt. 253 pp. $28