The American Ballpark: Public Space or Private Playground?

Whitney Terrell on Class, Race, Baseball, and a New Book by Paul Goldberger

When I was a kid, there were two ways to drive to Royals Stadium: my dad’s way and the wrong way. My dad’s way involved seeing Kansas City, rather than skipping over it on the highway, or staying home and watching TV: a cruise through the east side, a short cut past junkyards and a Hopperesque diner hard by a shuttered GM plant, a swoop under a railroad trestle that bore the angry graffiti “U Cunt,” and then a glide into the stadium’s curated gates.

The other ways? They were for losers and saps, suburbanites who feared the city, fools who were willing to sweat in traffic jams along I-70.

In his new book Ballpark: Baseball in the American City, Paul Goldberger, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and a Pulitzer Prize-winning architectural critic, makes similar assertions about the urban origins of baseball as a sport and as a built environment. “[T]he true fields of dreams were in Brooklyn and Boston and St. Louis and Chicago rather than in cornfields in Iowa,” he writes in the book’s opening, noting that there were nearly a hundred teams in Brooklyn and New York by 1858. It’s a convincing argument, as is his narrative about the ebb and flow of ball park architecture, where he believes improvisation and idiosyncrasy are key. But it’s his writing about the politics of how these parks got built, and who built them, that brought back the curiosity of my ten-year-old self, staring out the window of my dad’s clunky blue Opel, and wondering about the story behind the city around me.

Just as my dad believed there were two ways to drive to Royals Stadium, Goldberger believes there are two kinds of baseball owners and thus two kinds of ballparks: populist or elitist. The former approach was epitomized by Chris Von der Ahe, owner of the American Association St. Louis Browns and Sportsman’s Park which, in the 1880s, featured a beer garden in fair territory, and nearby venues for handball, cricket, bowling, and shooting.

Meanwhile, William Hulbert, the founder of the National League, and Albert Spalding, who succeeded Hulbert as owner of the Chicago White Stockings, restricted alcohol sales, sold more expensive tickets, refused to play on Sundays, when most working class fans would be free, and notably banned black players—all things the American Association didn’t do originally.

Here’s Spalding giving what today would have been his TED talk on the virtues of baseball, a game that he assures us “is the exponent of American Courage, Confidence, Combativeness; American Dash, Discipline, Determination, American Energy, Eagerness Enthusiasm . . . “ And so on. Like most TED talkers, Spalding was really just selling something. In his case, it was athletic equipment which, as Goldberger points out, was much more likely to be purchased by the middle-class customers he hoped to attract with this alliterative cant.

Royals Stadium—now Kauffman Stadium—is Spalding’s kind of park. That’s not to say it’s a bad place to watch baseball. The park opened in April of 1973, when I was five, and Goldberger is right to compliment the “graceful slope” of the grandstands, its openness, and its famed fountain display. I sat with my dad in the upper deck and watched the Royals greats of the 1970s and 80s—John Mayberry, Frank White, Hal McCrae, Paul Splittorff, Dennis Leonard, Willie Wilson, and Dan Quisenberry, just to name a few—play on an artificial turf field that often reached cleat melting temperatures in the summer.

In the days of “new” downtown ballparks like Camden Yards, owners would cite the economic benefit that their stadium would bring to the surrounding neighborhood. Now they want to own the neighborhood too.

But the real meaning of Royals/Kauffman Stadium has to do with its connection to the ballpark it replaced, Municipal Stadium, at Brooklyn Avenue and East 22nd Street. Municipal was a truly urban ballpark, a short streetcar ride from the center of downtown. Prior incarnations of the park (as Goldberger rightly notes) housed the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League, whose roster included Satchel Paige, Bullet Rogan, Hilton Smith, Buck O’Neil and Jackie Robinson. In fact, Branch Rickey, co-owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, saw Robinson play at Municipal Stadium in Kansas City before he signed him to a contract.

It was also right in the middle of a thriving black neighborhood. Jazz clubs used to crowd 12th Street and 18th Street and Vine and featured, in different eras, Count Basie, Jay McShann, and Charlie Parker. The residents of those neighborhoods were known for heading directly from church to Municipal Stadium, dressed in their Sunday finery, to see the Monarchs play.

During these same years that the Royals moved from the city to the suburbs, the white residents and fans of the team were doing the same thing—except they were moving west to the suburbs in Kansas, rather than east to the industrial park around the stadium.

That, too, had to do with race. The city’s dominant real estate firm, the J.C. Nichols Company, spent decades using restrictive covenants as a way to segregate what had been, prior to the company’s creation in the early 1900s, a fairly integrated city. These covenants read, “None of the said lots shall be conveyed to, used, owned, nor occupied by negroes as owners or tenants.” According to the historian Kevin Fox Gotham, between 1906 and 1953 the company also built more than 6,000 homes and 160 apartment buildings across the state line in Kansas, where few people lived. Conveniently, when Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954, there were no black residents to integrate or bus in these neighborhoods.

My 2005 novel, The King of Kings County, is a fictional re-imagining of this story, so I’ve thought about it quite a lot. But Goldberger’s book prompted me, for the first time, to connect the Nichols Company’s story to the Royals’ story. Those east side neighborhoods around Municipal Stadium were majority black in part because of the Nichols Company’s restrictive covenants, which prevented those residents from moving west. The removal of the stadium meant the displacement of an important economic engine for that community.

The definitive history of how the stadium ended up where it is today has not been written (would that we had a Goldberger to write it). But by the time Kauffman bought the expansion franchise that became the Royals in 1968, the location had already been set. The main players seem to have been Lamar Hunt, the owner of the Chiefs, who needed a venue bigger than the Municipal site could provide, Jackson County officials, and local business leader Dutton Brookfield, who pushed a 1967 bond issue to pay for the Truman Sports Complex, which would eventually house Royals Stadium and Arrowhead Stadium.

Still, Kauffman never complained, as far as I know, or pushed to return downtown. Like the other leaders involved, he seems to have endorsed Spalding’s view of baseball and sports in general as clean, rational, and fundamentally middle class. In those days, middle class meant white. It meant driving, rather than taking public transportation. It meant leaving the city’s east side but keeping the stadium in Jackson County, Missouri, so taxpayers could fund it.

Ballparks are less fields of dreams than symbols of how we, as Americans, have entrusted our dreams, our public spaces, even our national pastime, to private capital.

In The Kansas City Star, Brookfield described plans for a 700-foot “space needle restaurant” and a “Disneyland-type” family recreation center at the complex. But we ended up with a ballpark that’s a 15-minute drive east of downtown, with a view of I-70, surrounded by junkyards and a shuttered GM plant. The site is farther away from white fans who fled west to Kansas than Municipal Stadium was. The main “benefit” is that those fans can arrive by highway and avoid the complications (meaning black, brown, and poor people) of the city.

Goldberger’s book traces this move from the city to the suburbs and then back again as it occurred on a national basis. It’s no surprise that the dark, Empire Strikes Back sections of the book center on the mostly suburban, multi-purpose style of stadiums that Goldberger terms “concrete doughnuts” built during the 1960s and 70s in places as far flung as Pittsburg, Anaheim, Flushing Meadows, Houston, and Arlington. Along the way, there are substantive explorations of the way race played a role in the building of Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles and, perhaps less famously, the construction of the new Comiskey Park in Chicago.

Once the reader comes to learn Goldberger’s architectural preferences—yes to irregularity, improvisation, and a direct relationship to the urban environment, no to standardization, multi-purpose facilities, and suburban-style isolation—it’s not exactly shocking that he sees Baltimore’s Camden Yards, opened in 1992, as a seminal event. It was followed by what Goldberger rates as a string of successful, idiosyncratic, downtown ballparks including Jacobs/Progressive Field in Cleveland (1994), Coors Field in Denver (1995), Safeco Field in Seattle (1999) and Pacific Bell Park in San Francisco (2000).

I confess, as a Royals fan, that I was very jealous of the downtown parks that opened during that era—especially since, as Goldberger points out, many of them were built by HOK Sport, now Populous, an architectural firm based in Kansas City.

But as thoughtful and respectful as those buildings might have been when it came to their surroundings, the arc of Goldberger’s book makes it clear that these successes are really just luck and happenstance. The truth is, the public rarely has a real say in whether or not a particular city’s ballpark is constructed with imagination and care instead of brutality and greed. As in the world of architecture, where Goldberger made his bones, the public as well as the architect is subservient to the guy with the money.

This truth is emphasized by the sumptuous photos and illustrations in Ballpark. My favorite shows the official score card of the 1911 World Series between the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Athletics. John T. Brush, owner of the New York Giants, had recently paid to reconstruct the Polo Grounds, which he’d decided to rename as Brush Stadium. Brush’s name didn’t stick, but the overweening sense of self-love, visible in his portrait, placed in the dead center of the score card’s cover, is indelible.

It was hard for me to look at any other owner pictured in the book without superimposing Brush’s selfie. Some may have been benevolent, like Eli Jacobs of the Orioles, who built Camden Yards, and Kauffman himself. Others, like Judge Roy Hofheinz of the Astros, seem clearly cast in the Brush mold. But all are engaged in a kind of confidence game with the public, one that Goldberger carefully elucidates, if you are paying attention to his text. Here’s his gloss on Walter O’Malley’s plans for Dodger Stadium, which he would build on top of a Mexican immigrant community in Chavez Ravine. “O’Malley, like Walt Disney, wanted to . . . expand the notion of an attractive public realm in a city notoriously short on public space. Like Disneyland, of course, O’Malley’s public space would not be truly public, and would require tickets at the gate. And like Disney, O’Malley was determined to justify what he was charging by making his place as bright and wholesome as possible . . .”

The truth is, the public rarely has a real say in whether or not a particular city’s ballpark is constructed with imagination and care instead of brutality and greed.

That passage reminded me of how Denny Matthews, longtime broadcaster for the Royals, used to call Royals Stadium “the Magic Kingdom”—even though that family recreation center never got built. It also helped explain why the building itself has never felt like mine, or ours, though as taxpayers, my neighbors and I helped pay for it. From Brush to Spalding to O’Malley and even to “good” owners like Jacobs and Kauffman, the illusion of public space that isn’t truly public—the Magic Kingdom—is what owners have been selling all along.

That’s why I found Goldberger’s final chapter, “The Ballpark as Theme Park” to be so ominous. As an example of the newest trend in ballpark construction, Goldberger focuses on the Braves, who left downtown Atlanta (one of the most diverse cities in the nation) for a suburban location in Cobb County. There, he writes, the club can build “not only a new ballpark, but an entire complex of shops, restaurants, bars, condos, hotels, and offices—what would amount to an entire neighborhood with the ballpark at its heart, and one that the Braves organization could control . . .”

In the days of “new” downtown ballparks like Camden Yards, owners would cite the economic benefit that their stadium would bring to the surrounding neighborhood. Now they want to own the neighborhood too. Spalding always wins. Von der Ahe, the immigrants, and the “masses” always lose. That’s how capitalism works. It’s how baseball works too.

That’s heresy in Kansas City today where Kauffman is hailed as a philanthropist hero. He is rightly credited with keeping the team in Kansas City, giving piles of money to charity, and creating the Kauffman Foundation. Reports are that he was even-handed with his players, regardless of their race. Here’s a typical encomium, taken from a column by Joe Posnanski, then with The Kansas City Star: “Before Kauffman died, he wanted only that his Kansas City Royals would stay in town, that they would be sold for a fair price, that the money go to charity . . . It was such a noble gesture from a noble man.”

When I was a kid, my parents and I would make a special trip to trick-or-treat at Kauffman’s home in Mission Hills—a very tony and white neighborhood built by, you guessed it, the Nichols Company—due to the fantastic candy he gave out. In a similar fashion, I have often felt reflexively grateful for the baseball sweets Kauffman doled out to my family. Like the day in mid August of 1980, when my dad and I saw George Brett go four for four against the Blue Jays, pushing his average to .401. Or the night, 34 years later, with the team under a new owner, when my sons and I screamed as Salvador Perez pulled a single up the third base line, defeating the Oakland A’s in the 2014 AL wild card game.

But is begging for goodies from “noble” men an American ideal? Plus, though Jackson County taxpayers technically owned the stadium—a rarity, as Ballpark makes clear—we still paid to watch all of those moments. The upper deck, club level, and dugout box seats segregated us by income level, which doesn’t happen in real public parks. Nor did we receive a discount when Kauffman’s successor, David Glass, the former CEO of Wal-Mart and renowned nobleman of the people, produced four hundred-loss seasons in the space of five years. Even candy that sour wasn’t free.

Reading Goldberger’s Ballpark finally helped me understand why I’ve never thought of Royals/Kauffman Stadium in the poetic terms used by John Updike, A. Bartlett Giamatti, and the other sages he occasionally cites. Bo Jackson sprinting up an outfield wall like the Roadrunner? That’s poetry. So is a game of catch with my son. But ballparks are less fields of dreams than symbols of how we, as Americans, have entrusted our dreams, our public spaces, even our national pastime, to private capital, embodied by the owners Goldberger so revealingly profiles.

This is where Goldberger and I interpret the excellent history he’s assembled here differently. In the prologue, he writes, “The baseball park was always a special kind of place, usually privately built and privately owned but able to instill people with a greater sense that it belonged to them than most places that had been built by the government: this garden in the center of the city, this piece of rus in urbe, was spiritually public if legally private, and in almost every city it formed a defining element of the civic realm.”

Unlike Goldberger, I don’t trust private capital to develop public space. Baseball owners and CEOs of private companies repeatedly ask for this trust. But the spaces they build are their palaces, not our public squares. And when companies inevitably fail to act in a “spiritually public” manner—when they segregate a city’s entire population, say—there’s no one to vote out of office, no law to repeal. On nights when I have tickets to the Royals game, I feel like the only truly public space I’ll pass through is the east side, where neither the Royals nor the Nichols Company ever built anything. On some nights, the median of Cleaver II Boulevard might be pocked with soda cups, but for the most part, the city mows it and cleans it regularly and, and when its green hills slope around me like felt on a humid summer evening, I think, Hey, we’re doing a good job here. I feel a similar pleasure when I see the Teamsters’ offices, just before the Hiland Dairy building, stubbornly hanging on in their office park.

This space, its people, and even its graffiti began my real connection to the city, to my neighbors on the east side and to the white, blue collar residents beyond the stadium in Independence. Both neighborhoods surely provided workers to the GM plant. Both would have been harmed by its closing and by the Nichols Company’s racial covenants, which taught that they shouldn’t resist the bosses together. Race, capitalist class division, and sexist profanity. That was a more honest lesson about life in the civic realm than I ever got at the ballpark—and one that, with the help of Goldberger’s thought-provoking book, I’m still learning.

Whitney Terrell
Whitney Terrell
Whitney Terrell’s most recent novel, The Good Lieutenant was selected as a best book of 2016 by The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and Refinery 29. He is also the author of The Huntsman and The King of Kings County. His nonfiction appears in The New York Times, Harper's, The Washington Post, Slate, and other publications. He is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and is a co-host of the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast at Literary Hub.





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