Baseball Stadiums, Gentrification, and American Culture

by on August 29, 2017

As I was reading chapter one of Benjamin Lisle’s Modern Coliseum: Stadiums and American Culture, I did something I have not done before: I sent an email to the author thanking him for writing this book.

I did so because that first chapter provides a powerful indictment of the racism and elitism that led Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley to move the team to Los Angeles. At a time when a bizarre historical revisionism has attempted to justify O’Malley’s action, and to pin the blame on New York City’s equally nefarious Robert Moses, Lisle offers sufficient facts to justify a “Case Closed” sign on O’Malley’s treachery.

Unlike Roger Kahn and other writers on 1950’s Brooklyn, Lisle did not live through those days. But he has written an account that captures that era of Brooklyn as good as any yet produced. I recommend buying this book for the section on the Dodgers alone; the contrast between Ebbets Field and Chavez Ravine—where O’Malley’s racism led him to uproot a thriving Latino community to build Dodgers Stadium—could not be more striking.

Stadiums and American Culture

Lisle’s core message—-that the shift from iconic, structurally unique central city stadiums gave way to suburban ballparks as the white-middle class moved to the suburbs—is not new. But Lisle makes the case better than anyone else has in my long experience reading baseball books. Readers can feel the difference between attending a game in New York City’s Polo Grounds (former home of the Giants), Shea Stadium, and now Citi Field. Lisle’s contrast between St. Louis’s Sportsman’s Park and the new 1966 Busch Stadium will prove particularly illuminating for Cardinal fans.

Lisle evokes the sterility of the generation of stadiums he describes as “cookie cutter modernism—such as Veterans Stadium, Three Rivers Stadium, and Riverfront Stadium. These stadiums reflect the soulless homogeneity of the 1970’s suburbs. All were initially cheered for having lots of parking and view lines far from the field but unobstructed by poles.

The story of the Houston Astrodome, deemed the “8th Wonder of the World,” shows what happens when the business and political elite unite to use a new stadium to make what they see as a larger statement about their city. Lisle’s account reminds us that Houston in the 1950’s was identified with the space program, so a futuristic stadium perfectly fit the times. Yet rarely have we seen public decisions so thoroughly handed over to private interests.

The Astrodome ushered in today’s era of luxury boxes and segregated seating for the rich. “Stadiums like the Astrodome and the Superdome became living-room analogues—comfortable seats assembled around screens in air-conditioned rooms.” Lisle quotes an LA Times reporter on the Superdome: “Being here is like being at home—only more so.” With lucrative television deals driving profits, actual attendance at games became less important.

Pricing Out “Average” Fans

Lisle links the construction of these spacious, cleaner stadiums with large parking lots to owners’ desire to get what Walter O’Malley would call a “better class of fans.” O’Malley was not alone in feeling uneasiness with his team’s growing non-white fan base.

He and others sought suburban whites and particularly white women to come to games, and believed African-American fans scared them off. Suburban fans were wealthier, and could afford to pay more for seats. Today’s off the charts ticket prices have their roots in the owners’ decision to build new stadiums that prioritized physical comfort and parking over closeness to the action.

Allowing owners to structure new stadiums around the needs of affluent fans would not be so bad if the taxpayers were not picking up the tab. But they are. Lisle describes how St. Louis political and economic elite desperate for “urban renewal” circumvented the electorate and democratic procedures to get public money for a new Cardinals stadium.

This is par for the course in American cities, with San Francisco the rare exception. I encourage San Francisco folks to read how former Mayor George Christopher ripped off the taxpayers on the Candlestick Park deal. Christopher’s relationship with developer Charles Harney has long been criticized, but Lisle offers facts that should have at least have led to the resignation of San Francisco’s mayor, if not his criminal indictment.

A New Generation of Stadiums

In 1992, Baltimore’s Camden Yards ushered in a new model for stadiums. The cookie cutter stadiums were replaced by those consciously evoking the unique features of their pre-1950’s predecessors.

That’s a good thing. And its good despite the high ticket prices. But it is hard not to forget reading through Lisle’s account of beloved stadiums now gone that the two favorite places in baseball remain historic Fenway Park and Wrigley Field.

I have read few nonfiction books I enjoyed as much as this one. Anyone who appreciates baseball history will love it. This review does not mention all of   the cities covered in the book, such as his section on Washington DC’s shift from Griffiths Stadium to Nationals Park. That part of the book will especially delight old Senators fans.

The book is also filled with historic photographs that give readers a real sense of the unusual dimensions of some of the now destroyed historic ballparks.

Lisle might have titled the book something like “The Gentrification of Baseball” so that it would attract urbanists who might not be big baseball fans. This is a book about cities, not just baseball.

Listle offers a provocative new take on an era when baseball was still the National Pastime. Modern Coliseum is a must read for all fans of baseball history.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He saw his first game at Chavez Ravine when it opened in 1962. Shaw discusses San Francisco Mayor Christopher’s other wrongs in his book, The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco.

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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