Many writers cite the green expanse of a baseball field that pops into view upon emerging from the sub-grandstand walkways of the nation’s ballparks. The field–and the idea of a field–is integral to our historical and cultural image of baseball, from Elysian Fields on. Even then, in New York in the mid 19th century, green space was hard to come by. The New York Knickerbocker Base Ball Club crossed the river to New Jersey, inaugurating baseball’s version of the escape from the crowded masses of the city to a bit of open land and leisure.
Inverting the initial formula, ballparks were soon plunked into middle of the city, setting the fabled field on the outskirts into the mire as a stand-alone sanctuary. And even still, the ballpark in the center of the teeming city is still a novelty. Cities capitalize on every square of property, apportioning commercial value to each hash on the grid. In that context, a large, roofless structure committing acres to emptiness can shimmer like a mirage threatening to fade into pawn shops, convenience stores and financial centers with the next glance.
Every time I watched Wrigley Field pass by from the El train in Chicago, for example, it promised–if a piece of architecture can “promise” something–a wide open lawn; the angular green grandstands and the arched girders of the lights directed my vision downward to the green grass just out of view. In the city, you get used to a confined field of vision, to seeing only short distances and orienting yourself from a low position, based only on the few landmarks you can see. In Wrigley, though, in the grandstands, you are a crow on a telephone wire. You can see for miles, and immediately in the fore is the widest view of anything in the city that isn’t a lake. The center of that wide view is a giant perfect lawn.
What got me thinking about the central role that the ballfield plays out in the American vision of baseball is an article from the LA Times about the re-grassing of Chavez Ravine’s playing field. Nodding to Walt Whitman, Chris Erskine pays the baseball writer’s homage to American lit history at first, then goes on to chronicle the nuanced work of CR landscapers Eric Hansen and team as they re-sodded the field. I don’t understand it particularly, but it involves exotic grasses and sand and poking holes, &tc.
Notable about the article and the phenomenon of intensely well-tended green spaces is the juxtaposition between the reality of a thing and its idealized form. Whereas the Knickerbockers and trillions of American kids found and continue to find a piece of ground that is by definition untended (un-cared for, you could say, or un-cared about), the pro version has become, like many aspects of the pro game, a highly specialized, hyper-professional extrapolation of the nascent idea and ideal. The archetypal ballfield was a symbol of tempered wilderness and an amateur’s leisure; of the absence of one thing (city-fication) that enabled another thing (manly virtue, healthy non-economic competition, taking the air, whatever) to flourish. At the risk of lamenting old shit, nowadays ballfields are contained, managed and adorned with the trappings of our times, much in the manner of the game itself.
Agrarian promise is now an air-tight, money-back, high definition guarantee.
A NYTimes article from the 80s about Wrigley, just following the introduction of night games. NYTimes
A not-so-friendly goat sacrifice outside of Wrigley. The Sporting Blog
The history of suburbia. Findarticles.com
Evolution of the Baseball Field. 19th Century Baseball
One response to “On baseball fields, and space, and grass”
I almost think the difference between the sandlot and the pristine big league outfield grass is part of the allure. I kind of like the massive open flat perfect major league outfield. The fact that I was 12 and taking bad hops off the face because we had to dig our own infield made Dodger Stadium that much more magical in those days.