By Jody DiPerna
Pittsburgh Current Lit Writer
Old-timers say there was nothing like the smell of Forbes Field. I imagine a mix of wood and grass, peanuts and spilled beer, the thicket of Schenley Park and smoke from the Mon Works. Veteran architecture journalist Paul Goldberger could not speak to the smell, but he did speak to the Current about the iconic Oakland ballpark. In his new book, “Ballpark: Baseball in the American City” (Knopf, 2019), Goldberger takes us from the mid-19th century through the present-day commodification of ballpark neighborhoods, examining all the balancing inherent in baseball and how major league parks balance public versus private space, and holds the tension between urban and pastoral. (Answers have been edited for length.)
What makes a really great ballpark?
Intimacy with the game, a sense of connection with the field, and something that encourages a sense of connection among the crowd to each other, plus something distinctive. Standardization is an enemy of baseball. You want each ballpark to feel a little bit different, emblematic of its place. Pittsburgh has had examples of the most characteristic of every generation of ballparks. Forbes was as good as the early parks were. Three Rivers was as bad as that era was. And PNC is among the best, maybe the very best of this generation. I love it. It is as close to a total success as any new ballpark of the post-Camden Yards generation.
You refer to Three Rivers Stadium and others as concrete donuts. I prefer concrete toilets.
I’m not going to argue with that. I refer to one as having all the charm of a highway underpass.
They feel like bunkers you can’t see out of. Even if you could, there’s nothing to see — they were all surrounded by a sea of parking.
Exactly right. There’s no sense of connection to the world. Part of the joy of the early ballparks was that they were in neighborhoods and people walked to them or took streetcars. They were woven into the urban fabric. It’s completely untrue that that is incompatible with a contemporary city as, in fact, PNC proves. The joy of walking across the bridge and going to the ballgame and looking at downtown. It’s fantastic.
You write about the unique placement of the luxury boxes at PNC. The design feels more democratic.
The luxury boxes exist, but they’re tucked away and don’t control the design of the ballpark. It’s much more discreet — they don’t control the vista. PNC is also helped by being a little bit smaller than other parks. That difference in seating capacity makes a real difference in intimacy.
Can you place ballparks in a larger historical, architectural context?
Baseball tends to follow larger architectural trends, it doesn’t lead them, but it follows them. If you go back to the wooden ballparks of the 19th century, they picked up on a lot of Victorian details common in architecture at the time. Almost everything from that early 20th-century picks up on some larger architectural trend. In every generation, they follow trends in the broader architectural world. Starting with Camden Yards, the whole movement toward more traditional architecture, away from modernism, played out with baseball, with the retro stadium. I’m hesitant to say it’s exactly the same, but it’s the same impulse — this belief that modernism had not served everyone’s needs terribly well, it was not popular. In baseball it was the least popular of all: modernism was so unsuccessful in baseball. We were pushing back against it in many areas in the ’80’s and ’90’s. It was inevitable that ballparks would follow. There is a struggle — do we want it to look too traditional? Is there a risk of it being a little too Disneyland, a little too theme park? Can we do something more modern, no concrete donuts, no huge brutal concrete structures, but not a lot of cute, retro details either? One of the nice things about PNC is that it straddles those two. It’s not annoyingly cutesy historical and it’s not aggressively modern either.
I hope you follow this book up with one about the use of ballparks and space by the Negro Leagues.
As I said in the preface, I didn’t deal with that, not because it’s not important — quite the opposite. It’s so important. It’s a huge story, really rich and amazing. I hope someday that story is told.
The Pittsburgh Crawfords had their own field here in the Hill District — Greenlee Field.
It reminds you how all this stuff connects to so much. It’s not just the narrow story of a few buildings. It’s about a whole culture and all the other things. I love hearing that. `