Ode to old ballparks: they had character

They aren't building major league ballparks with the individual personalities and odd physical characteristics that they used to, and, oh, the pity of it all! Today everything has to be perfect and gleaming and symmetrical -- a monument to concrete, aluminum, glass, and in many cases, synthetic turf.

Sure, there is still Boston's Fenway Park, with its 37-foot-high Green Monster (wall) in left field, only 315 feet from home plate -- a shrine for right-handed hitters who can get the ball up in the air. And there is Tiger Stadium in Detroit, where the right field fence is only 325 feet away, with an upper deck that overhangs the lower one. That great left-handed hitter, Ted Williams, probably would have paid the Red Sox (with whom he spent his entire major league career) if he could have played his home games in Detroit.

Beauty still abounds in Chicago's Wrigley Field, where the walls are thickly covered with ivy and a night game has never been played for the best reason imaginable -- no lights. With its lush, green background and favorable outgoing winds, Wrigley Field has always been considered a hitter's paradise.

Many veteran baseball fans still remember the old ballparks with the same fondness reserved for their first ice cream cones, fielder's gloves, or long pants. Theirs is an architectural love affair that never has cooled.

Modern ballparks, because they need more seating capacity to generate revenue -- and because they often must share their facilities with pro football and soccer -- almost all look as though they came off the same assembly line.

The distance down both foul lines is almost invariably 330 feet. The wall in straightaway center field is almost always 400 feet from home plate. And there are few screens on top of fences to contest the ball -- or angled walls to produce surprise bounces.

It was not like that at Brooklyn's Ebbets Field, which was torn down 22 years ago and turned into apartment houses when owner Walter O'Malley moved the Dodgers to Los Angeles.

What most people remember first about Ebbets Field was its concave right field wall, only 297 feet down the line. It turned routine singles into doubles and triples and occasionally inside-the-park home runs.

No fly ball ever came off that wall without some kind of weird carom, often made worse by the wrong guesses of visiting outfielders, although even Dodger players frequently had their problems. The 20-foot-high wire screen that topped the wall was built not so much to make it tougher to hit home runs, but to save the Brooklyn club from having to pay for broken windows across the street.

Another unique characteristic of Ebbets Field was an advertisment painted on the bottom of the right-field wall. It read: "Hit Sign, Win Suit." Most ballplayers ignored it, knowing that it would have taken a sinking line drive to earn this double-breasted giveaway -- a difficult kind of hit to pull off on purpose. Besides, the tailor was giving only one pair of pants.

In Fenway Park recently, shortstop Fred Patek of the California Angels, who is barely 5 ft. 4 in. tall standing on his wallet and who entered this season with a total of 28 American League home runs, hit three fair balls into the 23 -foot net above the Green Monster.

Patek's feat had the Guinness Book of World Records prople on the phone the next day. And sports writers were recalling how Tex Hughson, when he pitched for the Red Sox, used to spend an hour in a phone booth before every home game so that Frenway Park would seem more like Yellowstone Park.

When the Polo Grounds, built in 1889 as the home of the New York Giants, began taking direct hits from the wrecker's ball in 1964, it was the oldest ballpark in America.

It got its name, not because polo was ever played there, but because that was how the park the Giants previously played in had always been identified, so why confuse the fans?

The Polo Grounds, which had a right field foul line of 259 feet and left field line of 280, gained its first measure of fame as the birthplace of the Chinese home run, a reference to the notion that many Orientals are more apt to be short than tall.

If a batter had the right kind of swing in the Polo Grounds, it was entirely possible for him to hit a routine fly ball to either left or right field that would become a home run. If the ball didn't actually find the seats, it often had enough height to nick an upper grandstand that jutted out liek the bow of a ship. Under Polo Grounds rules, umpires had no choice but to call those cheap shots home runs.

Though remembered fondly after they have disappeared from view, not all old ballparks should be romanticized. Nor should all modern parks be called dull and predictable.

Said former Dodger captain and shortstop Pee Wee Reese, who played 15 of his 16 big-league seasons in Ebbets Field: "It was fun in those days. But how can you expect baseball fans who were born only a few years ago to identify with old ballparks they have never seen?

"The answer is, you can't. Most baseball owners in recent years have had to make concessions to the pro football people, who need a place for their game, too. And in a lot of places now you have synthetic turf instead of grass. I'm not sure this is all bad."

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