Take Me Out to the Ballgame: The Evolution of Early Stadiums

The Super Bowl stands as the marquee American sporting event, with the 2015 iteration enjoying a domestic viewership of 114 million.  The Super Bowl, however, only displaced the World Series for the top spot in the 1990s.  While the games are the obvious focus, the city and the stadium have as much to do with the game as the contest itself.

Pro Stadiums Interactive Timeline (new window)

In his blog posting, “You Should Watch the Super Bowl, You’re Paying for It,” economist Jared Meyer asserts that for the 2010 season (incorporating all 121 major league sporting facilities) that the American taxpayers were on the hook for $31 billion towards stadiums – with some of that money allocated for stadiums that no longer exist.  This trend of using taxpayer money to build stadiums and the surrounding infrastructure has roots that spread back to the nineteenth century.

Professional baseball has held the greatest early influence with regards to stadiums.  Early venues were often built as multi-use facilities, like the Polo Grounds in New York, built in 1876.  As the name implies, the site was originally built to host polo matches but  renovations in 1880 made it possible for the staging of baseball games.  As baseball began to grow in popularity the stadiums became more baseball-centric.

The map shows that by 1899 there were fifteen stadiums being used for professional baseball.  There are a few things to be noted with this emergence.  The first, is that baseball teams were not lucrative compared with the teams of today, which means that teams came and went, in addition to the fact that it was not uncommon for a stadium to be the host to more than one team.

1910 MLB map

With the evolution of business practices and the emergence of new building technologies stadiums began to take more permanent form in the 1910s

Ten years later, in 1899, fourteen stadiums held professional baseball games.  By 1910, however, there were fewer stadiums in existence, numbering just eleven.  What is interesting is that by 1911, twelve different stadiums had been demolished, and two others had burned down to be rebuilt.

You can get a sense of the impermanence by sliding through the years before about 1915 on the interactive map (Click on the image if it is not already open).  This shifting and somewhat ephemeral landscape indicates two things.  First, professional baseball, though popular, had yet to develop its business model.  Both baseball’s management and the teams’ owners did not create a structure for long term success.  The league often kicked a team out due to poor turnout, while teams also folded due to their own poor management.  This aspect began to change in 1903 when the National and American Leagues agreed to have their respective champions meet in what is now known as the World Series.  This matchup created a fervent interest in the game while creating a sense of dramatic rivalry between the leagues.  The second aspect shows a shift in the stadiums themselves exemplified by Fenway Park and Wrigley Field, both of which were built in the 1910s.  Early stadiums were often made of wood, a cheap alternative to brick or concrete, which is the reason that they could be replaced with ease, and also why they could be prone to fire.  The emergence of cheap steel became one of the big factors for building a lasting structure.  As architects figured out new ways and designs for its use, steel became the all-important building block.

Fenway Park opened in 1910 using these new methods.  Wrigley Field followed in 1914.  Both structures incorporate brick and concrete into their design but steel girders hold the coverage over the attendees while providing the basis for a more vertical stadium.  From this point forward the stadiums that were built lasted into the 1950s, which in turn was a second time of great change in both the locales and the number of teams.

The combination of evolving business practices to solidify major league baseball in conjunction with the technological advances in stadium architecture and construction manifested themselves in creating a stable sporting product.  The locations of these stadiums also shows the sport’s ability to take advantage of early twentieth century urbanization patterns, by catering to large populations. That the majors stayed in this basic configuration until after World War II indicates the lasting effects of these practices.

By Huston Ladner, American Studies PhD Candidate, University of Hawaiʿi at Mānoa.  He has worked with David Goldberg, the programmer and coordinator for the Digital Arts and Humanities Initiative, on the interactive timeline upon which this post is based.