Counterhistories of the Sport Stadium

We’re on winter break until January 4. Meanwhile, please enjoy 10 staff favorites from this past year. Today’s pick was originally published on April 6, 2020.
As large spaces where different sectors of the city converge, stadiums are sites of social and political struggle.

Weeks after Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African American, died in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department, a crowd of protesters converged on the city’s baseball stadium—Oriole Park at Camden Yards—to express their anger about the circumstances of Gray’s death. As they approached on April 25, 2015, they were greeted by police officers standing guard in front of the stadium’s antique iron gates. Hours later, when that evening’s baseball game ended, city officials ordered fans to remain in the ballpark, so as to avoid clashing with protesters still in the area.

The image of predominantly white baseball fans within the stadium sealed off from predominantly black protesters outside the stadium—in a majority-black city—showed how the ballpark has become, as sports critic Dave Zirin noted at the time, a “fortress … a barrier erected on the foundations of racial and economic inequality dressed in the trappings of spectacle and sports.”1 In that moment of conflict, Oriole Park was exposed as a monument to political and social exclusion.

The Freddie Gray protests—like so many instances of political activism in and around stadium spaces in recent years, from Colin Kaepernick’s to Megan Rapinoe’s—illustrate that ballparks are more than mere sports facilities. Large, monumentlike structures that exist in cities throughout the world, stadiums like Camden Yards are congregating spaces that shape and reflect the pressing issues of a given historical moment. And since they are, by definition, large spaces where different sectors of the city converge, stadiums can also become sites of social and political struggle.

This history of conflict is largely absent from most histories of the American sports stadium, including Paul Goldberger’s Ballpark: Baseball in the American City and Jerald Podair’s City of Dreams: Dodger Stadium and the Birth of Modern Los Angeles. Even when authors acknowledge such conflict, most accounts revert to a white masculine nostalgic story of quaint baseball stadiums in the past and present, where fathers and sons watch their heroes on the diamond in aesthetically pleasing arenas designed by visionary architects, developers, and team owners.

Stadiums do more than reflect a vision of urbanism crafted by elite classes and their architects. And they do more than provide entertainment for sports fans. Stadiums are akin to other commemorative memorial spaces—like public parks, civic monuments, and cathedrals—where society’s aspirations and struggles can be seen clearly. And because they proliferated in cities throughout the country during the second half of the 20th century—precisely the same time that boundaries of belonging expanded in the United States—America’s stadiums are themselves fascinating arenas in which to track struggles for equality and access to the city.

Camden Yards is a beloved landmark of Baltimore. The baseball stadium, which opened in 1992, is designed to transport you back to the city’s industrial past. The brick and cast-stone facade, the cast-iron gates that surround the stadium, the grandstands set close to the field, and of course, the mammoth former B&O Warehouse beyond the right-field stands have been enjoyed by baseball enthusiasts for more than a generation.

The firm that designed the facility, HOK Sport, was widely praised for its trend-setting retro-style ballpark. Indeed, HOK’s design of Camden Yards set in motion a baseball stadium construction craze across the country. Soon every baseball franchise seemed to have a look-alike facility.

Such stadiums, beloved by sports enthusiasts and architectural critics, are justifiably derided by critics as neoliberal boondoggles. Often foisted on the public with tales of economic revitalization, stadiums have become wasteful playgrounds for the urban affluent. But stadium chroniclers, especially baseball writers, tend to ignore or minimize these critiques, preferring to evaluate ballparks almost exclusively on aesthetic terms.

Ballpark: Baseball in the American City, the new book by Pulitzer Prize–winning architectural critic Paul Goldberger, is such a narrowly focused text, a seductively illustrated, seemingly well-executed architectural history of baseball stadiums—popularly known as “ballparks”—from the late 19th century to the present.2 Goldberger traces the ballpark’s evolution from humble beginnings in Brooklyn during its “first generation,” when the parks were erected in inner-city neighborhoods, to the early 20th century. This period, according to Goldberger, is the “golden age” of ballpark design. Those familiar with baseball history would not be surprised to find that Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field, Boston’s Fenway Park, and Chicago’s Wrigley Field figure prominently in this discussion.

Next, Goldberger scurries through the “second generation” of ballparks, the so-called “concrete doughnuts” of the postWorld War II era, utilitarian structures like Shea Stadium in New York, among many others, that tended to be erected in suburbanized environments. Ballpark enthusiasts like Goldberger are fond of criticizing the sterile “cookie-cutter” quality of stadiums built in this period. But the critiques often overlook the fact that such facilities were far more accessible to a broader public than those that have been constructed in recent decades. As Daniel Rosensweig has astutely observed, “Cheap tickets, wide public concourses, and a lack of segregated seating enabled an unprecedented degree of fan diversity and mixing.”3

The stadium can be understood as a reflection of the power relations that undergird US society today.

The bulk of Goldberger’s analysis highlights the impact of the widely celebrated Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which dramatically ushered in what he calls the “third generation” of ballparks, many erected in downtown areas of cities. Goldberger ends his sweeping account with the advent of SunTrust Park in suburban Atlanta, which he sees as signaling another era. Unlike a stand-alone suburban or downtown ballpark, these “fourth generation” ballparks are themselves centerpieces of massive mixed-use real estate developments.

Goldberger correctly asserts that the ballpark is a defining feature of the civic realm that is a reflection of American attitudes toward the city. The ballpark, he insists, illustrates the tension between the rural and the urban; specifically, it’s where the “Jeffersonian impulse toward open space and rural expanse, and the Hamiltonian belief in the city and in industrial infrastructure—are joined, and cannot be torn apart.”

But rather than reflecting a transhistorical dynamic—especially one rooted in mythical visions of farsighted founding fathers—the stadium can be better understood as a reflection of the power relations that undergird US society today. The book’s inattention to these relations makes it an inadvertent invitation to explore the intricate entanglements among developers, architects, sports leagues, and public officials that might shed light on those who profit from the staggering number of stadium construction projects that have proliferated across the country.

For example, Goldberger mentions—but does not explore—one of the most obvious features of interior stadium design: the proliferation of luxury suites and “premium seating” sections that dominate contemporary stadiums. And he overlooks a feature immediately obvious to anyone in attendance: the corporatization of the stadium space—marked by the ubiquitous presence of advertisements on nearly every inch of available real estate—in addition to the now standard practice of the corporate branding of stadium names. Such corporatization has had a profound impact not just on the audience experience but also on the very layout of stadiums. Goldberger does not investigate, perhaps because such an analysis would require him to modify some of his conclusions, including the claim that the Camden Yards model represents a “vibrant and open urbanism.”


Cities Run by Real Estate

By Gordon Douglas

A book that aims to offer a historical account of the ballpark beyond its aesthetic value is City of Dreams: Dodger Stadium and the Birth of Modern Los Angeles, written by historian Jerald Podair. The book revisits the well-known story of the Dodgers’ departure from Brooklyn for Los Angeles in 1957, when owner Walter O’Malley broke the hearts of loyal fans by moving his team to the West Coast.

At its best, City of Dreams details the fierce political struggle to build Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine, an area north of downtown that had housed a Mexican American community. Podair convincingly shows how O’Malley and his supporters saw the stadium as an anchor for a more centralized “modern” city based around downtown cultural institutions. Meanwhile, a diverse coalition of stadium opponents fought to maintain the city as a decentralized metropolitan area that would be governed as a loose collection of satellite communities. The book’s examination of the Dodger Stadium conflict during the late 1950s and early 1960s reveals the bitterly contested political dynamics behind stadium construction projects.

And yet, City of Dreams is really about Walter O’Malley’s perseverance and his triumph, which resulted in an attractive baseball stadium that, Podair insists, propelled the “birth of modern Los Angeles.” Despite this claim, the author never makes clear how O’Malley’s vision modernized the city, aside from producing a nice ballpark that provided fairly affordable entertainment and some tax dollars for the city’s coffers. Although it presents a stadium history with a wider cast of historical actors, City of Dreams, like Goldberger’s Ballpark, is ultimately the story of the American stadium as a reflection of developers and sports team owners.

What if we examined the mid-20th-century stadium-construction boom alongside the freedom struggles of the 1960s and ’70s?

Rather than taking the perspective of the architects, the developers, and the team owners, what if accounts of the American stadium were told from the perspective of those who labor on the field and in the stands? The figure of Jackie Robinson shows up as an incidental footnote in Goldberger’s and Podair’s histories, but his breaking of the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947 ushered in a new era of black athletic participation and activism. What if we examined the mid-20th-century stadium-construction boom alongside the freedom struggles of the 1960s and ’70s, when athletes, workers, and spectators from marginalized populations entered the ballpark in unprecedented numbers?

One way to offer this counterhistory is to abandon the baseball aficionado’s nostalgic attachment to the ballpark and examine other multiuse sports facilities. In Los Angeles, for example, the city’s actual first modern stadium—the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, located a short drive south from Dodger Stadium on the 110 freeway amid South LA’s predominantly black and Latinx neighborhoods—shows not just other ways of understanding stadiums but also other ways of using them.

Opened in 1923, the massive single-tier oval was itself a manifestation of an earlier era of stadium-centered revitalization, when elite boosters built it to lure the Olympic Games to the city. But because the facility was publicly managed and designed to house multiple sporting and civic events, it catered to a surprisingly wide social demographic.

The Coliseum was a space where talented black and Mexican American athletes played on racially integrated teams before they did in many arenas in other parts of the country. It was where pioneering black athletes Jackie Robinson, Kenny Washington, and Woody Strode starred for the UCLA Bruins football team during the 1930s and ’40s. It was also a space where black Angelenos organized civil rights rallies in the 1960s and staged cultural expressions of Black Power at the historic Wattstax concert of 1972, when 100,000 spectators converged to commemorate the 1965 Watts uprising.

The Coliseum was a space where women performed as athletes and entertainers. The prominence of track and field events at the stadium, such as the annual Coliseum Relays, made it possible for women athletes to compete in a manner that was seldom seen in the hypermasculine environment of the baseball stadium.


Athlete Activists

By Jules Boykoff

Moreover, the Coliseum was designed as a commemorative space. The peristyle section on the east side was originally envisioned as a memorial to veterans of World War I, but over time it was transformed into a memorial to significant events in Los Angeles sports and civic history. In a stark contrast to the polarized scene of the 2015 protests at Camden Yards, in 1968 Angelenos organized a memorial service days after the assassination of Martin Luther King. The event included speakers from across the political and social spectrum, from white liberal politicians to César Chávez to black nationalist groups like Mualana Karenga’s US organization.

Since 2013, day-to-day operations have been managed by the University of Southern California, but the memorial structure of the facility remains part of its design. Similar counterhistories of occupation—of using stadiums to integrate across racial, gender, and political lines, rather than segregate—can be excavated in municipal stadiums across the country.

Today’s stadiums are privatized, segregated, and securitized, but they also contain the ever-present potential to be repurposed into venues of self-expression and collective claims making. Indeed, one cannot understand the athletic activism of Colin Kaepernick, Megan Rapinoe, and others without an accounting of preexisting histories of protest and performance at the ballpark. So long as the contemporary ballpark provides a site for the exploitative dynamics of class, racial, and gender exclusion, so long it will remain a contested space where struggles for the city will be staged in dramatic fashion.


This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloomicon

  1. Dave Zirin, “Camden Yards and the Baltimore Protests for Freddie Gray,” The Nation, April 27, 2015.
  2. Many of the arguments Goldberger makes were more convincingly articulated by Benjamin Lisle’s Modern Coliseum: Stadiums and American Culture (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).
  3. Daniel Rosensweig, Retro Ball Parks: Instant History, Baseball, and the New American City (University of Tennessee Press, 2005), pp. 84–85.
Featured image: Camden Yards, Baltimore (detail) (2016). Photograph by David Mark / Pixabay