It’s all about baseball, folks, and it’s a pure-dee KILLAH.
The Comiskey effect: Can MLB revive what it lost in the retro building boom?
CHICAGO – During the last season of Comiskey Park’s existence, its replacement was rising adjacent to it.
As Comiskey’s final months ticked away in 1990, the new stadium’s giant concrete grandstands began to take shape, eventually towering over the old ballpark across 35th Street on the south side of Chicago.
Comiskey opened on a sweltering July 1, 1910 afternoon, the fifth of 13 so-called “jewel-box” ballparks built early in the 20th century. The ballpark was part of baseball’s first steel-and-concrete stadium construction boom, of which only Wrigley Field and Fenway Park remain.
Eighty years later, something very different was looming to the south.
While Toronto’s multipurpose SkyDome opened in the middle of the 1989 season – ushering in a new type of stadium, the first with a retractable dome – new Comiskey was the first baseball-only facility to open since Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium debuted in 1973.
Later named U.S. Cellular Field, and now called Guaranteed Rate Field, the facility featured a top-row, upper-deck seat 130 feet above the playing surface – more than twice the height of Comiskey’s, whose last row was 62 feet above field level.
Chicago native Matt Flesch recalls visiting Guaranteed Rate Field during its inaugural season.
“I remember being depressed that there were escalators. I couldn’t believe how high it was. The players were like ants,” Flesch said. “After new Comiskey was opened, in that first year when going to games, they were slowly tearing down old Comiskey. So you’d see old Comiskey with a gaping hole and a wrecking ball hitting it. And then you’re walking into this death star and you’re like, ‘Oh man, I cannot believe we are tearing this down.’”
Flesch released a documentary last year called “Last Comiskey,” which covers the final season at the old park and the White Sox team that played there.
“Bill Gleason was a famous longtime sports writer in Chicago. He has a great quote in the documentary. He said, ‘In Europe, they preserve their magnificent old buildings. In America, we tear everything down.’”
The architecture firm HOK, later named Populous, designed Guaranteed Rate Field. The firm also created Camden Yards, which opened in 1992 in Baltimore. Populous has designed or renovated 20 MLB parks.
Camden Yards was viewed as a revelation in design, harkening back to a bygone era because it featured the B&O Warehouse beyond right field, asymmetric dimensions, and wrought-iron flourishes. Camden Yards ushered in the greatest stadium construction boom since the jewel-box era.
In contrast, it made Comiskey’s replacement appear to be a massive error: it was generic, gigantic, and soulless. (HOK gave White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf a Camden-like option, but he turned it down.)
It’s one hellaciously compelling, soul-stirring read, even if you aren’t really much of a fan of the ol’ bes-o-boru, closing thusly:
Compared to Globe Life Park, the Rangers’ previous home built in 1994, architecture firm HKS moved the decks on average about 30 feet closer to the playing surface.
The last row of the upper deck is 33 feet closer and 5 feet higher in elevation. The first suite level is 39 feet closer, and the closest seating behind home plate is 10 feet closer. There are also 8,000 fewer seats in the new stadium.
Fred Ortiz, a partner at HKS, shared with me a few years ago two black-and-white photos that influenced the design. One was from the upper deck of another long demolished jewel-box park, Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., the franchise’s first home in 1961. The second was the same photo but with the steel support beams photoshopped out.
“What if we could eliminate those and bring fans closer to the field,” Ortiz said of the inspiration, “and change the dynamic of the cross section of a typical ballpark?”
While that exact effect wasn’t quite created, it was arguably the greatest change to ballpark design since Camden Yards opened.
If MLB clubs truly want to engage a new generation of fans, perhaps they should think about returning to what we once had: the experience of being close to the game, of better hearing it, seeing it, and feeling it. Perhaps that’s the lesson in moving from old Comiskey to new.
I repeat: even if your feelings about the game known far and wide as America’s Pastime are lukewarm at best, do NOT let this one get by you. The crack of a traditional wooden bat meeting the ball; the taste of those ballpark chili-dogs; the lush, manicured green of the infield diamond, marked off by the brown of the base paths; the feel of a well-broken-in fielder’s glove, the warm scent of linseed oil wafting from it; the umpire’s bawling cry of “Heeeerike TWOOO!!”—this article is richly redolent of all those precious things and many, many more.
The history of baseball is the history of the nation that birthed it, nothing more nor less, and the piece is bound to introduce you to a chapter of that wonderful history you almost certainly weren’t previously acquainted with. Don’t dare miss it.