Of all the melancholy ballads Frank Sinatra has recorded in a career dedicated to the care of suffering lovers, the one that strikes me as the most heartrending is There Used to Be a Ballpark. Remember it? Frank is working his way through the old hometown—his, yours, anyone's—and discovering that nothing is the same anymore. Then he's dealt the cruelest blow: The old ball yard, where he had spent the happiest hours of his youth, is gone, replaced no doubt by some god-awful thing with a dome.
Now that's one sad song, made sadder still for being true. The fact is, there are too many places in this country where ballparks used to be. If this lamentable trend persists, ballparks as we once knew them will become as extinct as the flannel uniform and the cardboard suitcase.
When I say "ballparks," I refer to structures recognizable as ones where baseball is played. I do not mean the look-alike roundhouses called "multipurpose stadiums" that popped up in the late 1960s and early '70s. And I emphatically do not mean their even more despicable cousins, the domes. No, I mean places that conform to the dimensions of baseball fields, with seats paralleling the foul lines, bleachers and real grass. They don't build that kind anymore.
Oh, they almost did in Kansas City when Royals Stadium was put up in 1973, but they botched the job by using artificial turf and installing pretty waterfalls where fans ought to have been. They actually got it right when they built Anaheim Stadium in 1966, but when the NFL arrived 14 years later in the form of the Los Angeles Rams, the seating capacity was expanded and the place became just another multipurpose oval. Anyway, what a real ballpark should be is old, and Royals Stadium and the Big A don't qualify. Neither does Dodger Stadium, opened in 1962. Yankee Stadium (1923) used to be old, but then they rebuilt it, changing it radically. Milwaukee's County Stadium (1953) and Baltimore Memorial Stadium (1954) aren't quite old enough. And while Cleveland Stadium (1932) is fairly old, it was multipurpose to begin with.
No, only four classic structures remain—Fenway Park (1912), Comiskey Park (1910), Wrigley Field (1914) and Tiger Stadium (1912)—and three of them are threatened by the wrecker's ball. Comiskey, say the White Sox owners, is a crumbling ruin. If the city doesn't come through with a planned stadium, they may move the Sox to the dome under construction in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Unfortunately the preservation of Comiskey has drawn little fan support, there being scant room for another ballpark controversy in a city already in turmoil over the fate of old Wrigley. The issue there, as it has been for decades, is lights. The Tribune Company, which owns the Cubs, wants lights. The commissioner's office wants them. The networks want them. Without lights, they argue, Wrigley wouldn't have gotten the 1990 All-Star Game, and the Cubs won't stay in town much longer. But the people who live around Wrigley don't want night baseball. A compromise of sorts has been reached, whereby eight night games will be played this summer and up to 18 in future seasons, but the matter isn't settled, and neighborhood residents are digging in for a fight that could ultimately doom baseball's most beautiful park.
Tiger Stadium, which does have lights, is also threatened with eternal darkness. Tigers owner Tom Monaghan, who is a collector of Frank Lloyd Wright furniture and vintage cars, and professes to be an admirer of the ballpark, has started to make noises about the possibility of playing someplace else. Detroit mayor Coleman Young sounds an even more ominous note. "It's obvious," he says, "the damned thing is falling down."
Fortunately the park has a champion in the Tiger Stadium Fan Club, whose members are planning a massive "hug-in" at the stadium on its 76th birthday, April 20. They intend to form a human chain around the park and embrace it. Club members, according to their January newsletter, "reject the notion that 'old' necessarily means obsolete and that 'new' always means improvement."
Bully, I say, for them. These ancient halls are as representative of baseball's formative years as the stately houses of government in Washington are of the nation's. It's no small thing to watch a game in a place where Ty Cobb played. And the old parks have the character of age. I defy anyone to tell me the difference between Three Rivers Stadium and Riverfront Stadium. But you aren't likely to forget Wrigley Field.
These old buildings deserve preservation, if for no other reason than to show succeeding generations what a real baseball park looks like. Better that than to have to tell your grandchild, in mournful tones reminiscent of that other relic, Ol' Blue Eyes, "And there used to be a ballpark right here."