Baseball Parks Etched in Memory
HOW to explain this abiding affection that baseball fans have for the stadiums that have vanished from the American landscape? Ebbets Field? The Polo Grounds? Shibe Park, Sportsman's Park, Griffith Stadium, and the others?
It is not at all difficult, really; for the answer lies in the simple affection we hold for our childhood. It was in a childhood summer that most of us first glimpsed these places in our hearts; and they thus remain inseparable from the innocent notion that the world would forever be as warm and green and as washed with sunshine as the cozy city ballparks where our heroes played our game.
Ballparks, no less than cathedrals, museums, theaters, and concert halls, are the places of dreams. These two books give texture and form to such memories and dreams.
Lawrence S. Ritter, whose 1966 "The Glory of Their Times" remains a seminal contribution to baseball literature, concentrates on the marquee ballparks that have fallen to the wrecker's ball in Lost Ballparks: A Celebration of Baseball's Legendary Fields (Viking Studio Books, 210 pp., $25). He points out that a part of a city's history is contained in the history of each of its unique and departed parks. Neighborhoods rose with the ballparks in the years after they were built. And then, often, the ballpar ks declined with their neighborhoods in the years following World War II.
For 200-odd pages, these parks and their neighborhoods live again in all their vitality and glorious idiosyncrasy. At Crosley Field in Cincinnati, the Superior Towel and Linen Service building still peers over the left-field fence, as does the Siebler Suit billboard, inviting hitters to hit the sign and win a suit. At Shibe Park in Philadelphia, Connie Mack once again conducts the affairs of the Athletics from the palatial splendor of his tower office. In right field, he builds a 35-foot-high "spite fenc e" designed to prevent 20th Street residents from watching the games from their rooftops, but destined to become as much a signature of Shibe Park as the left-field wall is for Fenway Park in Boston.
The ballparks are gone, but the city history continues in these neighborhoods. Hospitals occupy the former sites of Griffith Stadium in Washington and the Yankees' Hilltop Park in New York. The football stands for Boston University's Nickerson Field rise where the right-field pavilion of Braves Field once was. In Pittsburgh, a portion of the ivy-covered left-field wall still stands where it has always been, today a part of the quadrangle on the University of Pittsburgh campus.
Ritter's choice of photos provides a time-lapse history of these fields, from groundbreaking to demolition; his prose is sparse, efficient, complete, and quite remarkable in that it never intrudes on the reader's own gauzy notion of what these parks once were.
In Green Cathedrals (Addison Wesley, 275 pp., $24.95), Philip J. Lowry reminds us that major league baseball was played long before the construction of the extraordinary generation of stadiums that Ritter chronicles and continues to be played today, long after their demise. Here is a reference book of every park where major league baseball has ever been played. Lowry's premise is that old is better than new, and his method of making a point is by repeating it. That becomes a bit tiresome.
But his research is truly impressive. How many people know, for example, that baseball's first covered field was not Houston's Astrodome but the 59th Street Bridge Field in New York, home to the Negro National League New York Cubans in 1939 and located completely beneath the Queensboro Bridge?
Neither of these books is a great piece of literature, yet both are a delight. They are scrapbooks, a spur to the memory - and that's what they should be.