In the Same Ballpark

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
In the spring of 1992, the Baltimore Orioles opened their baseball season at a brand new stadium called Oriole Park at Camden Yards. It sat right along the harbor in downtown Baltimore.

Announcer:
The Baltimore Orioles pulled out all of the stops for opening day at brand new Camden Yards, an old time ballpark in the heart of downtown.

Roman Mars:
The stadium was small and intimate. It was built with brick and iron trusses, a throwback to the classic ballparks from the early 20th century.

Announcer:
But on this day, it was the future, not the past, that was on the minds of Oriole fans as they flocked to Camden Yards in what was the first of 67 shut-outs, 59 of them in a row.

Roman Mars:
Camden Yards was really popular right from the start. Here’s a TV reporter interviewing a bunch of Orioles fans on opening day.

TV Reporter:
Outstanding. Outstanding day for baseball. Outstanding park. And an outstanding year for the Orioles.

Orioles Fan:
Incredible! It’s just unbelievable here, beautiful!

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Baseball writers from around the country heaped praise on the Orioles’ new park.

Roman Mars:
That’s producer, Emmett Fitzgerald.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Tim Kurkjian wrote in Sports Illustrated, “It’s magnificent, in an understated, baseball-only, real grass, open-air, quirky, cozy, comfortable, cool sort of a way.”

Roman Mars:
All the national attention took the team by surprise.

Janet Marie Smith:
We were just out to build a ballpark that worked for Baltimore, this blue collar city, home of crab cakes, Natty Boh, and Boog’s Barbecue.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
This is Janet Marie Smith, one of the designers of Camden Yards.

Janet Marie Smith:
You know, we weren’t looking to create something that would change the paradigm of baseball parks.

Roman Mars:
But that’s exactly what happened.

Roman Mars:
The success of Camden Yards set off a building boom in baseball as city after city built new stadiums based on the architectural principles laid down in Baltimore. That design revolution changed the experience of going to the ballpark and the relationship between baseball and cities.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
But to understand what made Camden Yards feel so special in 1992, we need a little bit of history. In the early 1900s, most baseball stadiums were relatively small and built in dense, urban neighborhoods.

Roman Mars:
But in the 1950s and ’60s, as white population fled downtown for the suburbs, baseball followed them. Teams built stadiums on the edge of cities where they would be more accessible to middle class fans who drove to games in cars.

Janet Marie Smith:
They often were acres and acres of parking surrounding the stadium.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
And the stadiums themselves were these massive concrete cylinders designed to house more than one sport.

Janet Marie Smith:
From Pittsburgh to Atlanta to Milwaukee, everyone had this big, round, hulking, concrete stadium that generally housed both baseball and football.

Roman Mars:
But these multipurpose stadiums, or concrete donuts, as they were sometimes called, really weren’t great for fans of either sport.

Janet Marie Smith:
The sort of joke was they became multi-purposeless.

Roman Mars:
They were perfectly round to fit both a football field and a baseball diamond, but that meant that the seats were often really far away from the action or angled in weird directions.

Janet Marie Smith:
So it ended up being a shape that accommodated everything but served nothing well.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
And the multipurpose stadiums were just way too big for baseball. The old urban ballparks had about 25 or 30 thousand seats. But these had 50 thousand or more.

Janet Marie Smith:
It just didn’t work, you know? Except for a playoff game, you simply weren’t selling that many tickets.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
So the stadiums often felt empty. And critics also complained that they all looked exactly the same.

Larry Lucchino:
They were not distinctive enough. You didn’t know if you were in Three Rivers Stadium or you were River Front Stadium or you were in Veterans Stadium. You really didn’t know what city you were in or could be in.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
This is Larry Lucchino. He was the president of the Orioles in the late ’80s and early ’90s. And during that time, the Orioles played in their own concrete donut, Memorial Stadium, which had once housed Baltimore’s football team, the Colts.

Roman Mars:
But in 1984, the Colts abandoned the city for Indianapolis.

Speaker 8:
A long, agonizing, frustrating two and a half months of waiting and wondering if the Baltimore Colts would be leaving town for good. It has happened, the shock is setting in. Emotions are running high.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
And the Colts cited the inadequacy of aging Memorial Stadium as a reason for leaving.

Larry Lucchino:
So there was a concern that unless something creative was done in Baltimore for the Orioles, that we might follow the example of the Colts and leave town for greener ballparks, if you will.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
The team’s owner, Edward Bennett Williams, wanted to build a nice, new multipurpose stadium so that the city could try and court another football team back to Baltimore.

Roman Mars:
But Larry Lucchino had a different idea. He went to Edward Williams.

Larry Lucchino:
I said to him, “Let’s look at the most successful baseball franchises out there, the Yankees and Yankee Stadium, the Cubs and Wrigley Field, the Red Sox in Fenway Park.” And what did they have in common? They all played in a baseball-only facility, a facility that was designed for baseball and that did not compromise architecturally for other sports.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Those stadiums actually had another thing in common, they were really old. Some of the last hold outs from the pre-war era of urban ballpark baseball.

Roman Mars:
And unlike the concrete donuts, the ballparks built back then had all these architectural quirks, Fenway’s Green Monster, or Wrigley Field’s iconic brick walls covered in ivy.

Larry Lucchino:
They were all a little bit of a different flavor of ice cream. We thought that something was lost when baseball moved from those kinds of facilities to generic multipurpose stadiums in the ’60s and ’70s.

Roman Mars:
Lucchino wanted to break out of the multipurpose paradigm and build a new kind of baseball only stadium, one that felt old.

Larry Lucchino:
An old-fashioned, traditional baseball park with modern amenities. If we used that phrase once, we used it ten thousand times.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
In fact, Lucchino became so zealous in his commitment to building a old-fashioned ballpark that he banned Orioles employees from even using the word stadium.

Larry Lucchino:
Indeed, we fined people five dollars if they used S word, “Stadium”, instead of referring to our project as a ballpark. A stadium connotes something very different in terms of size and monumentality.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Did you ever collect on those fines?

Larry Lucchino:
Yeah, we did collect. We had a little party. I don’t remember how much we got, but it wasn’t insubstantial.

Roman Mars:
The Orioles struck a deal with the Maryland S-word authority to build a new baseball only ballpark in Baltimore using mostly public money. The city and state government saw it as part of an effort to revitalize downtown. The stadium authority hired the architecture firm, HOK, and the Orioles brought in their own design director, Janet Marie Smith.

Janet Marie Smith:
My assignment was really to take those words that he used over and over again of an old-fashioned ballpark with modern amenities and try and make certain that we were really being true to that.

Roman Mars:
It wasn’t an easy task.

Janet Marie Smith:
No one else had moved into a center city and said, “We want to be a part of that tapestry,” in, golly, maybe 70 years. How are we going to create something that feels like it’s woven into the city of Baltimore and like it’s always belonged here?

Roman Mars:
Janet Marie Smith turned to the ballparks from the early 1900s for inspiration.

Janet Marie Smith:
I mean, what made those older ballparks special is that they were kind of wedged into a very tight, urban environment.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
And by wedged, she means that the urban environment actually dictated the shape of the field. Each ballpark had different dimensions depending on the plot of land on which it was built.

Roman Mars:
Which can only really happen in baseball. With most sports, the dimensions of the playing field are totally standardized, but not baseball.

Janet Marie Smith:
There are rules about the infield, you’ve got to have 90 feet between the bases, 60 feet 6 inches from home plate to the pitcher’s mound. But there’s no rule about the outfield.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
And so a lot of the early American ballparks were totally asymmetrical. Ebbets Field, built in a Brooklyn neighborhood called Pig Town, had a wildly irregular shape. The left field foul pole was over 50 feet further from home plate than the right field foul pole.

Roman Mars:
That variety means that some ballparks are better for pitchers, others are better for hitters. Some ballparks give up more home runs to right handed batters, others to lefties.

Janet Marie Smith:
So the park itself really does shape the outcome of the game.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Larry Lucchino wanted an irregular playing field like those old time ballparks, but he felt that the shape needed to respond to the built environment around the site.

Larry Lucchino:
To make sure that this ballpark was integrated into its neighborhood, it didn’t feel like a flying saucer that descended and just landed in the neighborhood.

Roman Mars:
The Inner Harbor site where Camden Yards would be built had one distinct architectural feature, the B&O Warehouse, an extremely long brick building built at the turn of the 20th century.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
It was abandoned at the time and a lot of people thought that the Orioles should just tear it down to give themselves more room to build on and to open up a view to the water.

Larry Lucchino:
One sports editor wrote that it was an empty, rat-infested fire trap and it should be done away with.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
But Janet Marie Smith didn’t want to do that.

Janet Marie Smith:
We felt strongly that tearing down the very context that might give form to an asymmetrical playing field, an asymmetrical seating bowl, was running against the grain of what Larry wanted.

Roman Mars:
So they left the warehouse, which would eventually sit just beyond right field, and designed the shape of the playing field around it.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
In fact, Lucchino says that the decision to preserve the warehouse really dictated nearly every other design decision that went into Camden Yards, from the shape of the stands down to the materials that they used in construction.

Larry Lucchino:
It gave us a sort of brick motif that we used in the ballpark and it gave us the iconic symbol of this ballpark for Baltimore. And it looked a lot like Baltimore and felt a lot like Baltimore.

Roman Mars:
If you go to Camden Yards today, it’s almost hard to tell where the stadium ends and the warehouse begins.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Larry Lucchino and Janet Marie Smith were both at Camden Yards on opening day.

Janet Marie Smith:
I could tell you that we were all anxious, you know? Hair standing on our back like, “What if it doesn’t work?” There were any number of things that ran counter to the norm in sports stadium design that could have gone wrong and any number of things that were normal that could have just gone wrong. You know, the toilet’s not flushing, I don’t know, pick anything.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
But nothing went wrong. The tickets sold out. The toilets flushed just fine. And the Orioles did their job on the field.

Announcer:
“…veers in, says “Yes,” into his motion. Here comes the pitch. Sorento takes the call. Strike three. And the Orioles are in the wind column on opening day.

Larry Lucchino:
Janet and I found each other just as the game ended and embraced each other. I think she said, “It plays! It plays!”

Janet Marie Smith:
It was a big headline across the front page of the Baltimore Sun the day after opening day that said, “It’s a hit!” You know, in big, two and a half inch letters as if we’d won the election or something.

Roman Mars:
All that year, people kept coming out to the ballpark in droves.

Larry Lucchino:
When we opened in 1992, the attendance went from something like 2.2 or 2.3 million to 3.6 million, and the second year was 3.7 million.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
In their first two seasons at Camden Yards, the Orioles had the second highest attendance in the Major Leagues. And pretty soon other teams started to take notice.

Larry Lucchino:
Owners from Texas and from Cleveland and Colorado came to visit us rather extensively.

Roman Mars:
Then, in 1994, another old-fashioned baseball-only ballpark called Jacob’s Field opened in downtown Cleveland. And that was just the beginning.

Mark Lamster:
It became impossible to build a new ballpark and not have it look like an old ballpark.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
That’s Mark Lamster, architecture critic at the Dallas Morning News and a Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Mark Lamster:
In that way, I’d always like to joke that baseball owners were a bit like teenagers. What the first cool one does, then all of a sudden everybody else does. So if one person has a retro ballpark and it’s successful, then the conventional wisdom becomes, “In order to be successful, you have to have a retro ballpark.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
In the 25 years since Camden opened, there have been 20 new stadiums built, and there’s not a concrete donut in the bunch.

Roman Mars:
And just like Camden Yards, most of these new stadiums have been built close to city centers. And all but one of them have been paid for, at least in part, with public money.

Neil DeMause:
Camden Yards really hit upon the formula, right?

Emmett Fitzgerald:
This is Neil DeMause, a journalist who studies stadium economics.

Neil DeMause:
Here’s something that’s supposedly a win-win-win, right? It’s a win for the team because they get new revenue. It’s a win for the fans because they get a stadium that they love. And it’s a win for the city because they get to revitalize a district.

Roman Mars:
But most economists agree that if you want to revitalize a neighborhood, there are plenty of better ways than building a ballpark. DeMause says that when a new stadium gets built, you’ll see some sports bars pop up nearby, but most businesses can’t rely on baseball crowds as a customer base.

Neil DeMause:
You know, there’s 81 games a year. That means there’s what, 280 days a year when there’s nothing going on there? That’s an awful lot of non-activity that you have to make up for.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
There’s also the more fundamental question of whether the public should have to pay for privately-owned buildings. Mark Lamster says, “It’s tricky. Sports teams occupy this strange space. They’re both businesses and public amenities.

Mark Lamster:
Sports are really important for cities. They help create an identity, people love them, they bring cities together. There is some justification for a city supporting even a privately-owned team.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
But Lamster says, “Most cities have much more urgent spending needs than a new baseball stadium, like education.” And it’s hard to say what level of taxpayer contribution is fair.

Mark Lamster:
Especially when it’s going straight into the pocket of very, very, very wealthy individuals.

Roman Mars:
But these difficult questions haven’t stopped the retro ballpark building boom. Across the country, baseball teams have done everything they can to follow the Camden template, right down to hiring the same architecture firm, HOK Sport, which has since spun off into its own independent firm called Populous.

Mark Lamster:
It’s almost a law that the new ballpark is by Populous.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
And like Camden, most of the new Populous stadiums are small, baseball-only ballparks with comfortable seats and fancy food options. And aesthetically, they’re designed to look like the ballparks from the early 1900s.

Mark Lamster:
The pallet of Camden Yards has become a cliché of ballpark design. That is, the brick, the green painted iron, the green seats, the typography. It is all of a piece and it became widely adopted all across the country.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Each of these new parks had an asymmetrical playing field. And like with Baltimore, their dimensions were often determined by the surrounding cityscape.

Roman Mars:
In San Diego’s Petco Park, the historic Western Metal Supply Company building dictates the length of the left field line. Instead of building a foul pole, the team just painted a yellow stripe down the corner of the warehouse.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
AT&T Park in San Francisco is squeezed right up against the San Francisco Bay. The right field line goes all the way to the water, giving fans a spectacular view and creating a unique local drama, splash down home runs. When someone hits a ball into the bay, a flotilla of kayakers descend on the souvenir.

Roman Mars:
But not all of the new retro ballparks were so successfully integrated with the urban landscape. Take Citi Field, the new Mets stadium in Queens.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
It has an asymmetrical shape, but not because it’s wedged into a tight urban lot.

Mark Lamster:
It’s actually set out in the same place that its predecessor, Shea Stadium, was in the middle of a parking lot. It has all these idiosyncratic dimensions, but there’s really no reason for its idiosyncrasy, it’s not driven by any particular constraint of the area around it. It’s entirely artificial.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
When you’re at Citi Field, Mark Lamster says you can feel how hard the architects worked to manufacture a sense of history and authenticity. He says that everyone in the league has been so focused on building these old-fashioned, idiosyncratic ballparks like Camden, that they’ve actually created a new architectural orthodoxy.

Mark Lamster:
They all have exactly the same DNA, they’re all designed by the same firm, they all kind of look the same except the whole idea is that each one is idiosyncratic and individual. It’s a tall tail.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Despite his critiques, Mark Lamster says, “There’s no denying that the post-Camden ballparks are better places to watch baseball than the old concrete behemoths.

Roman Mars:
Even Citi Field in New York, the stadium Lamster accused of trying a little too hard, is still way nicer than its predecessor, Shea Stadium.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Can you describe Shea Stadium?

Mark Lamster:
Can I describe Shea Stadium? Yes, I can describe Shea Stadium. Think of a toilet, put seats in it, that’s Shea Stadium. Was it a nice place to watch a game? No. Is the new place a nice place to watch the game? Absolutely, it’s a much, much nicer place to watch a game. It’s a really great place to watch a game.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
And being a nice place to watch a game is important for baseball. In recent decades, the sport’s television ratings have started to slide, but attendance numbers are strong.

Mark Lamster:
And these ballparks are part of the reason why because they’re fun places to go. People enjoy sitting there watching a game.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
And for me, enjoying the game has always had a bit of nostalgia to it. I don’t even follow baseball that closely, but I’ll go eat a hot dog and listen to the organ music because it feels like a fun tradition.

Mark Lamster:
More than any other sport, baseball is about its own past and plays to its nostalgic history.

Roman Mars:
That obsession with history drove the retro ballpark revolution, but as an architecture critic, Mark Lamster is ready for some team out there to embrace the future.

Mark Lamster:
Why were we looking back nostalgically when we designed these ballparks instead of looking towards new materials and new ways of building and new architecture.

Roman Mars:
And if Camden Yards has taught us anything, it’s that when someone does come up with a great new way of building a ballpark, every team in the League is going to want one of their own.

Comments (13)

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  1. Chris

    As a baseball fanatic, I absolutely love this episode. At the end, you mentioned the idea of a new style of architecture for baseball parks. I certainly agree with the sentiment, but there was no mention of Marlins Park, which was built in 2012 in a contemporary style. While I’m not necessarily a huge fan of the design (nor do I dislike it), it is a model that future stadiums can follow. As a side note, though, the newest stadium in Atlanta does have the classic design to it. Read from that what you may…

    1. Mattk

      I agree, a huge oversight. The podcast ends with a statement about looking forward, a new architecture, but nothing about Marlin’s Park. Why?

  2. Ryan

    It’s mentioned in the episode that Camden Yards was the first urban baseball stadium built in decades, but as a point of local pride, Toronto’s Skydome (now Rogers Centre) beat it by 3 years. Admittedly, the Skydome is still a concrete bowl (with a lid) with room for 50,000, but it’s a transitionary step. At the very least, its site was chosen for proximity to transit, and to revitalize the downtown core, although on a big enough piece of land it wasn’t shaped by the site.

  3. Arthur

    Anyone interested in learning more about how this revolutionary ballpark came to be should read “Ballpark: Camden Yards and the Building of the American Dream”. A lot about the park seems obvious in retrospect, but there were significant difficulties getting it built.
    As mentioned in the story, a lot of area residents were really mad that they weren’t building a facility which would accommodate football, because people were still stinging from the Colts leaving only a few years prior and believed that a new team would not want to move into the rapidly aging Memorial Stadium. Also, at the time, the process of the Inner Harbor area becoming the go-to place in Baltimore was still in its very beginning stages (the nearby Convention Center and Aquarium had only opened in 1979 and 1981, respectively), so placing the park where it is was not the no-brainer it seems to be now.
    There’s also a significant controversy over the role of an architect named Janet Marie Smith. Some have downplayed her contributions to the park’s design, while others claim she was responsible for the decision to preserve the B&O Warehouse (many don’t know the building had been prepared for demolition before they decided to save it) and has been a victim of sexism in architecture.
    Really nice job on this story, and there is a lot more to dig into about this remarkable building.

  4. Eric

    Coors Field, in Denver, is built in the same style as Camden Yards. It has completely revitalized the ‘Lo-Do’ neighborhood and even expanded the urban fabric in the area. It’s a unique example where the urban fabric actually grew toward the stadium and arguably became an extension of downtown.

    The Denver Post recently wrote about how Coors Field has influenced the economics and design of the surrounding neighborhood. It’s a great follow up to this post at takes a solid in-depth look at the last 25 years of a successful retro ballpark. (Go Rockies!)

    http://www.denverpost.com/2017/06/04/lodo-resurgence-coors-field/

    1. Pat

      True, it did create it’s own neighborhood, a hipster expensive one. But unfortunately, Coors Field is so boring and other than the purple “mile high” seats, unremarkable. In my opinion, it’s overpriced for how lackluster the team is.

  5. “Why were we looking backwards when we designed these ballparks instead of looking towards new materials, and new ways of building, a new architecture?”

    Because architecture, like many other arts (painting, sculpture) has been in vapor lock for about a century. So there isn’t a choice between “new” architecture and “nostalgic” architecture… The only choice is, which variety of nostalgic architecture do you prefer?

    (BTW, my preferred email uses a .photography domain, which your form bounces out. Tsk, tsk. New gTLDs have been out for two years already, folks.)

    1. In fact, I’ve come up with a measure of this, called the Expo 67 Test:
      http://halobrien.com/2012/11/27/the-expo-67-test/
      =============
      Or there’s this piece of mine, “Looking Dated.” It shows a 1927 ad for Mercedes Benz, with a car and model out front of a Le Corbusier building.

      The fashion looks dated because fashion moved on.
      The car looks dated because industrial design moved on.
      The architecture doesn’t look dated because architecture hasn’t moved on.

      http://halobrien.com/2013/11/17/looking-dated/

  6. Joe S. - St. Louis

    I always enjoy the podcasts, but especially enjoyed this as have been to 27 MLB ballparks and almost all of the stadiums mentioned in this podcast. Though only a few of the cookie cutter parks.

    One thing that frustrates me, is everyone categorizes Target Field in the throw-back category. Yes, it is designed by Populous, and has some historical elements like the big old Minnesota logo in center. But to me I have always thought it was the first post-retro park. I really liked it and think it is a forward thinking design. Here are a few shots:

    http://populous.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/TargetField-Minneapolis-UrbanConnection.jpg

    http://populous.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/TargetField-Minneapolis-LeftFieldView.jpg

    http://www.mortenson.com/~/media/images/projects/sports%20and%20event%20centers/target%20field/targert-field-4.ashx?h=451&la=en&w=680

    I really enjoyed going to a game there, and felt it was a modern feeling park.

  7. I was delighted to hear this this podcast about Oriole Park at Camden Yards (OPACY) in Baltimore. I have been a fan of this podcast for years and have sought out locations including the Winchester House because of your stories.

    As I’m sure you found in your research about Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the current Oriole Park is actually the 6th, depending on how you count it. I am proud to be affiliated with Peabody Heights Brewery, which sits on the site of Oriole Park V.

    An original wall still remains from the fire that burned the stadium down.

    Thank you for sharing a piece of Baltimore. We still like you Roman, even though you would move to Pittsburgh first.

    http://www.mdhs.org/underbelly/2014/10/02/lost-city-the-burning-of-oriole-park/
    http://ghostsofbaltimore.org/2015/05/15/why-is-it-named-oriole-park-at-camden-yards/
    http://www.davidbstinsonauthor.com/tag/peabody-heights-brewery/
    http://www.peabodyheightsbrewery.com/

  8. Great episode. I nodded along the whole time.

    A nice detail might have been to include New Comisky Park now called-Guaranteed Rate Field- (aweful!) Was created by the same firm that made Comisky. It was not well received and has undergone a lot of renovations. Having worked there for a summer a couple years after it was built, it is in a completely different and lower category than the newer that came after.

    Also, the New Yankee Stadium is awful…but that deserves a whole other show.

    Take care and Roman, you are an inspiration. Inspired by you to start my website!

  9. Jed Leland

    As a fan who visits OPACY 15 to 20 times a season (since it opened in 1992) I’ve never grown tired of the park and I’ve never taken for granted the beauty of watching a game there. I’ve been to many parks and while PNC and Safeco are great parks, OPACY will always be the first and finest of the modern parks.

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