WHY DO MLB BALLPARKS LOOK DIFFERENT?
Updated: Jun 3, 2020
This article was originally published on May 6th, 2020.
In the majority of professional sports, the playing surface and goal size are standardized around the world.
Athletes working within the constraints of a 100-yard long football field or 10 feet high basketball hoops are part of the appeal of the sports. However, the odd sport out is baseball.
Baseball like other sports conforms to a standard on the infield, the pitcher's mound is always 10 inches high, and the bases are always 90 feet from each other. However, it is when you leave the infield that baseball fields start to differ dramatically, and where each cities character begins to shine.
So, why do MLB ballparks look different?
The basic layout of the infield of a baseball field has seen limited changes since the Knickerbocker Rules, back in the 1840s.
However, due to the sport being played mainly in rural communities, therefore no one saw the need to implement outfield boundaries. This would mean that fields would have to chase a ball no matter how far the ball ha been hit.
Baseball wouldn't see the introduction of an outfield wall until baseball began to grow in popularity in U.S. cities. The first outfield was is believed to have been built at the Union Grounds in Williamsburg, New York, across the East River from Lower Manhattan. Local businessman William Cammeyer who used the Union Grounds as an ice skating rink during the winter months decided to turn the site into a ballpark in the spring of 1862, surrounding it with a “broad fence six or seven feet in height.”
Cammeyer built seating for 1,500 spectators in a bid to entice the best baseball teams to use Union Grounds as their new home. His advertisement would state "none but first class clubs need apply," he would end up signing three teams as tenants, signing up the Eckford, Putnam, and Constellation Clubs. Instead of charging his new tenants rent, Cammeyer would instead impose a 10 cent fee on spectators, who would want to watch the games.
With Cammeyer's small idea of building a wall around his new ballpark, so that he could make money from spectators, he inadvertently created one of sports' greatest accomplishments, the homerun.
As baseball grew in popularity, businessmen around the U.S. began to identify the opportunity that local ballparks could offer.
As new baseball fields began to spring up at an alarming rate, little attention was placed on what size the playing fields should be, with some being as short as 180ft down the foul lines. The National League began to identify the unfair advantage posed by playing in some stadiums, and in 1884 the National League would implement a 250ft minimum within its stadiums.
The next phase for ballparks would start with an 1894 game between the Baltimore Orioles and the Boston Beaneaters. During the game, a fire would break out at Boston's, mostly wooden, South End Ground. The small fire would end up quickly spreading, destroying the ballpark in less than 45 minutes. Despite the fire claiming the stadium, all fans and players made it out without injury. The Boston Globe reported, “It was a hot game, sure enough,” referencing both the fire and a brawl that had broken out during the game.
Despite the Beaneater's rebuilding their South End Grounds in only two months, the fire would pave a new future for ballparks. Baseball would soon move away from swiftly built wooden structures and move towards permanent stadiums.
As owners no longer questioned baseball's ability to turn a profit, 'Jewel-Box-Stadiums' constructed from concrete, steel, and brick began to make an appearance. These new 'Jewel-Box-Stadiums' made for a more intimate fan experience in the golden age of baseball.
'Jewel-Box-Stadiums' can be defined by their unique quirky features, as architects had to find innovative ways to insert ballparks among plots of land that were surrounded by busy transportation networks, commercial districts, and residential areas.
These quirks can be seen today as Red Sox owners looked to sandwich Fenway Park between existing dimensions set by city streets. The most iconic quirk being the Green Monster, 37ft high wall out at left field, which was designed to stop home runs from damaging products at a used car business, on the other side of Lansdowne Street.
These quirks proved that they could be beneficial for some, with one of baseball's most memorable moments only being possible due to an oddity at the New York Giant's Polo Grounds.
The Polo Grounds unique design meant its field shape was more rectangular shaped, with center field reaching 483ft. In the history of the Polo Grounds, only four people ever managed to hit a home run into center field.
One moment that people know from the Polo Grounds is Willie Mays' 'The Catch.' Vic Wertz's fly ball flew 460ft into center field that day before Mays was able to make the catch. In comparison, the longest center field for a modern MLB ballpark is Detroit's Comerica Park at only 420ft.
With so little consistency within ballparks, Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck took things another step, in 1947, by installing temporary fencing, to either shorten or lengthen the outfield by as much as 15ft, depending on their opposition.
After World War II careful urban planning would see the suburban sprawl shape modern cities.
As more and more people left downtown areas for the suburbs, baseball followed. All-weather domed stadiums built on vast land parcels, with plenty of parking, designed to accommodate both baseball and the increasingly popular football teams, began to emerge. Between 1948 and 1989, seventeen multipurpose stadiums were built from Oakland to Toronto.
As these new modern stadiums were designed for two sports, they were suited for neither. There are only a select few ways that baseball and football fields can fit on top of each other. Therefore, the days of quirky outfield became a thing of the past, replaced with uniform cookie-cutter designs.
As these stadiums were created out of reinforced concrete, they now had the opportunity to increase capacity by adding a third or fourth deck. However, this now created the problem that seats were now further from the action as well as angling fans towards the center of the field, rather than home plate. Therefore, the concrete donuts lacked the character and charm of those stadiums that had come before them.
Across the country, however, NFL franchises would end up choosing to leave their multipurpose stadiums behind, leaving baseball teams as primary tenents
As the Raiders have left for Las Vegas and the Athletics plan on moving, out of the Oakland Coliseum, to a new purpose-built stadium at Oakland harbor, the era of concrete donuts looks to be coming to an end.
Return Of The Jewel Box
The new era of ballparks would begin in 1992, in the city of Baltimore.
Baltimore's concrete donut, the Memorial Stadium, originally having opened in 1949, had played host to both the Orioles and the NFL's Colts, and had been in desperate need of an update. By the time the state of Maryland had found funding for a new stadium, the Colts had already left for Indianapolis, leaving the Orioles as the only potential tenants.
With only one sport to satisfy Baltimore along with the state of Mayland decided to look at the possibility of reintroducing the Orioles to the cities downtown area, which had been experiencing a renaissance.
The architects along with the Orioles decided Camden Yards would return to a classic jewel box style, with artificially quirky dimensions based on baseball stadiums of the early 1900s. All the while adding space for modern amenities such as suites, indoor concourses, and updated concessions. Furthermore, as the stadium was purpose-built for baseball every seat in the ballpark is designed to have a good view.
Camden Yards most iconic feature is now the red brick industrial warehouse, which was incorporated into the stadium's design. However, Ken Griffey Jr. is so far the only player to bit a ball off of the warehouse.
The retro-classic design of Camden Yards has seen baseball fans flock to games to experiences, the unique character.
Camden yard would further reinvent the playing field, becoming the first stadium since Ebbets Field in 1913, to have only straight outfield walls. As all multipurpose stadiums utilized only curved outfield walls, to cut out quirky dimensions.
As MLB teams updated their ballparks, one by one they returned to unique character-filled jewel box designs. Of the 30 active MLB parks, no two ballparks share the same outfield dimensions, each offering a unique perspective on the game of baseball.