Let’s (Long Beach) Post it: Why “Ballpark” author/architect critic Paul Goldberger endorses the LBC over the Big A on the Angels’ future landscape
By Tom Hoffarth
There’s a lot to be said for the Elephant Lot.
That’s the 13 acres on Shoreline Drive that has been proposed as the beachhead for the Angels’ new home, should the franchise take Long Beach up on an offer to relocate it from its current Anaheim digs. While we’re waiting for things to happen, or not, imagine what a new Big A in the LBC could look like; Paul Goldberger has.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic with the New York Times and now The New Yorker, Goldberger has some archetypal guidelines for any major league-seeking city to aspire to and believes Long Beach is well-situated to achieve them.
Why trust Goldberger? His new book, “Ballpark: Baseball in the American City,” (Knopf/Penguin Random House, 384 pages, $35) is about as good as it gets in retelling the history of the facilities used for the MLB (and even some references to the old Wrigley Field in L.A., as we noted in a book review in April).
Also there’s a 1990 during a Playboy interview where Donald Trump was asked:
Q: Let’s talk about your main interest: Buildings. Architecture critic Paul Goldberger of The New York Times hasn’t been kind to Trump buildings, panning them as garish and egotistical.
A: Paul Goldberger has extraordinarily bad taste. He reviews buildings that are failures and loves them. Paul suffers from one malady that I don’t believe is curable. As an architecture critic, you can’t afford the luxury of having bad taste. The fact that he works for the Times, unfortunately, makes his taste important. And that’s why you see some monster buildings going up. If Paul left the Times or the Times left him, you would find that his opinion meant nothing.
We just found another reason to appreciate Goldberger even more for something that holds up even more 30 years later.
In addition to our Q&A with him now on the LBPost.com site, focused on the Angels’ potential move to Long Beach, here are some other things we discussed:
From your experience in how these things happen, coastal commissions and urban planners come into play with all sorts of things that need to be signed off, which can cause adjustments and compromises. Is that just part of the process?
In California, the process is extreme. But then, anywhere today there are so many more hurdles to building any major public or private project of that scale that has to go through a public process and requires permissions, no matter who’s paying for it. It’s a fairly complicated bureaucratic process but that’s just how it is. It won’t be all that much easier in Anaheim, honestly. The Coastal Commission is an added layer of bureaucracy in California but the fact you have two major extremely successful ballparks built close to the waterfront seems to me there’s quite a bit of precedent. Part of the argument should also be: You do better building it a denser, urban area with a least a certain percentage of people who are likely to walk or take some form of public transportation rather than drive. In Anaheim, that percentage is probably zero. It may not be as high in Long Beach as San Francisco, but it will surely be higher than Anaheim. That has to be another encouraging factor to improve the system. It creates a great incentive to reinvest in that aspect.
Your book isn’t really about ranking ballparks, but more about how they fit into a historical timeline. You don’t seem to make any great claim that Angel Stadium has any great historical landmark status that would work in its favor.
The book is really trying to turn the entire story of ballparks into a narrative from the beginnings of baseball in the 19th century all the way to now. So while every current ballpark is mentioned, some are a great deal more than others. The thing about Anaheim’s ballpark – it’s neither so good to be singled out as one of the high points like San Francisco or Baltimore or Pittsburgh. Nor is it so bad to be talked about an example of something truly horrible. It’s just kind of … OK. It’s still fated to be an object that’s in the middle of acres and acres of asphalt. Frankly, my feeling has been that the most least appealing thing about it is its location.
It’s been a park reinventing itself from its original 43,000 in 1966, expanding when the Rams played football there to more than 60,000 in the 1980s, now back to the 40,000 range, very family friendly, with the tricked-up giant rock formation in centerfield. When you’re building a park today, are there gimmicks you try to avoid that may seem cool at the start but end up being kind of clumsy?
I’m a great believer in the idea that ballparks should all be different and do things that identify their places. I really thought the Big A scoreboard (a 230-foot tall, 210-ton red metal structure with a halo on the top created in 1966 behind the left-field fence but is relegated to the parking lot off first base) was a sort of funnier and cooler and nicer and more endearing weight than the whole center field water thing they have now.
Your last chapter in the book talks about ballparks that now want to be more like theme parks. Anaheim has talked about trying to give that site added value with shopping malls and other attractions, as a destination place when there are no games going on. How does that work?
If they add stores and malls and try to make it feel like it’s in an urban area, even though it’s not, that’s better than leaving it in a sea of asphalt. I can’t say that’s a bad thing to do. But it’s more like if you have lemons, make lemonade. The opportunity to move the park into a real city and reinforce all that’s going on in Long Beach anyway strikes me as incredibly exciting and a better option.
Seat capacities in stadium come into play in different ways. If Dodger Stadium has the largest facility with 56,000, there’s also the Tropicana Field in Florida that’s been artificially shrunk to 25,000 out of embarrassment that so many seats can’t be sold. How does seating come into play with an experience at the ballpark?
It does make a difference, but it’s all about intimacy and closeness. It’s hard to do that at much more than 40,000. It’s really difficult to do that at more than 50,000. That said, all 40,000-seat stadiums are not equal. It depends on how it’s configured and the footprint of the structure overall almost everything built today is somewhat larger than older ones. We put so much more into the seats. In the golden age of the start of the 20th Century, Ebbets Field was in the low 30,000s, but it was as tightly as you could squeeze that many seats with what it was. None of those places had large aisles, almost no public space, few places to eat, and few bathrooms. They were very meager.
Today people want seats that aren’t too tight, enough places to go and walk around and teams want something better than a high school locker room. All those things factor into space when you stretch the structure. So how you layout the seats become important. Old stadiums may also have pillars in the way. Pillars made it pretty bad for some people but they also supported the upper deck and allowed it to be farther to the front. So all those in that upper deck used to be closer to the field than in a ballpark that was cantilevered or set back father.
John Pastier, who many years ago was the architecture critic of the L.A. Times and wrote a lot about baseball, calculated that in 1991 when the new Comiskey Park in Chicago opened, the front row of the upper deck was actually farther from the field than the back row of the old Comiskey Park in the upper deck. It’s like everything had been on steroids. Boom – blown up and pushed out. A sheer number of seats seems like a reliable statistic, but if you don’t have it together with more knowledge of the overall layout, it can be misleading sometimes.
Old ballparks have such character. Many try to recreate that great, old-time feeling. But then there’s a need to factor in how the park is directed for sun and shade, not just for support and upper levels. When does function overcome form? And is there also a way that architecturally, you can create a soul for a stadium or if it’s something that comes organically? We heard you do an interview recently when you talked about this new version of Yankee Stadium seems to be lacking in a soul to some degree based on other versions of it that have been built and revived over the years.
You know, that’s a really good question and a fair question but not an easy one to answer. The problem first with Yankee Stadium is there’s an artifice that weighs on it. It’s a place that feels very self conscious and not relaxed. All the great ballparks I know have a relaxed feeling. And to be fair, some of those feelings did exist in the older Yankee Stadium and they were trying very hard to replicate that feeling. Maybe they tried too hard. These days in New York, it’s actually more relaxing to be at CitiField (home of the New York Mets in Flushing Meadows). For all I may complain about Yankee Stadium, I do like it better than its predecessor, which was still different from the original Yankee Stadium but very badly renovated in the 1970s where they effectively destroyed the original building while pretending to be saving it. At that point it was gone and they might as well start over. So no matter what all is wrong with it now, it’s still better than that version.
It’s hard to build a soul with anything. The minute you try to do it, you don’t have it. It has to come naturally and it also comes over time. Maybe the things that bother us now will bother us less over time. We related to buildings very much over time and how they feel when they’re new sometimes will be the same 40 or 50 years or more later. And sometimes it doesn’t. Some things acquire qualities over time. We change and they change and the world around us changes.
You also describe Dodger Stadium in your book as a metaphor for the city that wants movement and privacy. It’s difficult to often move into the stadium but once you’re there it does feel very secluded.
In spite of the fact it’s too big, or entirely automobile dependent – which is the worst possible model – Dodger Stadium is nevertheless one of the nicest places in America to watch a ballgame. It’s just horrible to get to and horrible to get out of. But it’s just nice when you’re there.
The Dodgers and Walter O’Malley also had the idea of building a dome stadium in Brooklyn. Then when dome stadiums happened, they looked more like airplane hangers and spaceships n Houston and Seattle and New Orleans. You can almost justify building a dome stadium anywhere because they only need to have a retractable roof, so they can almost be a convention center and multi-purpose. What if Long Beach considered something like that, with a roof, so it could be more than a ballpark when baseball isn’t in season. Or would that be defeating any sort of a purpose of a statement against multi-use places?
I’m really a great believer in the idea baseball belongs outdoors. It’s a more pleasant to be outside in L.A. or Long Beach than Houston in the summer. I don’t know if you can make the unbearable hot sun argument.
You could have made case for putting a dome stadium in San Francisco when it had Candlestick Park.
Well, I think a bomb would have better.
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