What's the Life Span of a Ballpark?
The on-screen graphic was startling.
Fenway Park was celebrating its 100th birthday Friday. It's the oldest ballpark in the major leagues. Wrigley Field is next, the Cubs having moved there to begin the 1916 season. (Wrigley's actual centennial will be in 2014, since the Federal League's Chicago Whales built the park and played there for the 1914 and 1915 seasons.)
Third place? This was the stunning piece of information.
Intellectually, I know that the once-sparkling diamond in Chavez Ravine turns 50 this year. Emotionally, it's a tougher thing, because I live in New York and I know people who still haven't forgiven the Dodgers for leaving Brooklyn, who still dream that the team will someday return. I'd put that belief somewhere on the credibility scale alongside the certainty some Southerners have that the Civil War is going to be best two of three.
It got me wondering about the life expectancy of a ballpark and whether we're in the midst of an unusual period of turnover.
The contemporary ballpark era began with the opening of Oriole Park at Camden Yards in 1992. It was the first new park that had the aura of the classic old ones of blessed memory: seats close to the action, a seating capacity scaled for greater intimacy than the big multiuse stadiums that dominated the 1970s and '80s, a vista that incorporated the cityscape around it instead of presenting a sealed and antiseptic environment devoid of identifiable place.
It also made the Orioles a ton of money.
The park itself was the draw. The experience being sold took the virtues of the old and enhanced them with the amenities and comforts of the new. Retro parks became the hot new thing, a rare case in which the trendy coincided with the generally beneficial.
In the years since Camden Yards, 23 new parks have debuted on the major league scene. That seems like a lot.
I became a baseball fan in the 1960s. The stadiums were often named for the team's owner, or at least the one who built it. They were instantly identifiable by some quirk or element: Forbes Field's high left-field wall, Wrigley's ivy, Tiger Stadium's overhang. Death Valley in left-center at Yankee Stadium, the echoes from all the empty seats at Cleveland Municipal.
There were 20 teams, and half of them played in places that were at least 40 years old. Within 10 years, there would be 24 teams, and five of the 10 elderly stadiums were gone. Interestingly, only one of the remaining five was replaced before the year 2000.
From 1953 to 1973, 25 new stadiums came into the big leagues. That sounds like a comparable number to the Retro Park Era, but there is a very large asterisk attached to it. Of that number, 21 were accommodations for a team that had either moved or been created through expansion. (The figures of 25 and 20 include, for example, both the Los Angeles Coliseum and Dodger Stadium; Los Angeles' Wrigley Field and Angel Stadium; Seals Stadium and Candlestick Park.) Only four new stadiums were created for teams in place: Busch, Riverfront, Three Rivers and Veterans.
They also happened to be the four stadiums that best demonstrate everything wrong with baseball in the 1970s and '80s. But I digress.
In contrast, of the 23 stadiums that first hosted major league baseball between 1992 and 2012, only six were the result of expansion or team movement.
(And if you're wondering, there were only six new stadiums between 1974 and 1991, two of them through expansion. That doesn't sound like a lot, but it pales next to the 35-year period from 1917 to 1952, when exactly two new stadiums were built: Yankee and Cleveland Municipal.)
The stadiums replaced by the 17 new ballparks from 1992 to 2012 lasted an average of 42 seasons (median: 35). The stadiums from when I started following baseball lasted an average of 54 seasons, a pretty significant difference. (Take out Fenway and Wrigley, and the average drops to 48.)
And consider this: There have been 23 stadiums where major league baseball lasted more than 40 years from first season to last. Six are still operating today: Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, Dodger Stadium, Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, Kaufmann Stadium and Angel Stadium of Anaheim.
We are replacing ballparks a little faster than we used to. Fortunately, only one of those six appears to be on the endangered list - and it's the one that ought to be.