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Modern baseball parks and fields are the new civic public arenas

Tuesday, June 11, 2013 - 11:42 am

Recently my wife Diane and I visited a collection of southern ballparks that are considered among the best in the nation, including the oldest and newest. I met with a number of people on my book project that will feature baseball (and some other sports) and politics, including stadium construction that is anchored in tax policy.

It is interesting that every city has pretty much had the same fight we had here in Fort Wayne: fights over funding, fights over what is to be torn down, political battles, eventually the ballpark gets built, economic development lags from projections but gradually builds, and then if the stadium is architectually attractive, it becomes the new symbol of civic pride. A few curmudgeons remain, but the ballparks become the newest public anchor of parks and downtown attractions.

Baseball parks have gone through a variety of stages during America's history. Public funding, directly and indirectly, for sports arenas is hardly new.

Political involvement in baseball (the dominant team sport until the 1960s) was far greater than it is today. The reasons are varied but especially because both reflect the social and cultural preferences of the people (i.e., voters).

Athletic teams have always been symbols of community pride. Today they are economic engines as well, especially in the new media world that puts a premium on live activities that aren't suited for replaying without commercials.

Parkview Field is a nationally recognized example of excellence in minor league baseball. Recently I visited six minor league baseball stadiums in the South, which are considered to be the biggest challenges to the TinCaps' superiority.

Baseball in its earliest days, also in Fort Wayne, went through the stages of the national trends — the rural game transferred to emerging cities (symbolically played at parks), wooden grandstands built to accommodate more people, and then to fancier ballparks made with cement and steel.

The earliest of these parks — Philadelphia's Shibe Park, Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, Crosley Field in Cincinnati, Brooklyn's Ebbets Field, old Comiskey Park — have been replaced. Wrigley Field and Fenway Park are the last major league ballparks of that era.

The stadium investment in urban neighborhoods were of better design and carried the names “park” and “field” for a reason: They were largely built in conjunction with the broader “city beautiful” movement of the era.

The “cemetery movement” after the Civil War resulted in elaborate cemeteries for reflection (the style of Lindenwood in Fort Wayne). Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is the classic cemetery dedication speech as a place for people to go to reflect.

This was followed with public investment in protecting battlefields and historic monuments, also intended as public places as part of broader cultural reflection and beauty.

The cemetery movement blended into the city beautiful movement (like Rudisill Boulevard connecting Foster and McMillen parks in Fort Wayne), which also resulted in the creation of the National Park Service in 1916, a year after Wrigley Field was built.

The post-World War II baby boom, plus massive highway construction, led to social changes that led away from the park/field construction and to “stadiums” built with parking and access the primary concerns.

In Fort Wayne our relatively bland Wizards stadium was a later and smaller version of the '60s “bowl” stadium.

Parkview Field, a mini-Orioles Park at Camden Yards with our own signatures, is a classic of the trend back to the city beautiful movement. These parks/fields are the new civic public arenas. While museums and civic centers are still trending the ultra-modern direction, they also are part of the new public architecture of America's urban areas.

All these stadiums had public funding controversies but now are featured symbols of their cities, bragged about by community residents.

Mark Souder is a former 3rd District congressional representative.