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Retroparks and Baby Boomer Nostalgia

November 24, 2011

Camdem Yards(Note: this was written before the Red Sox won two World Series and thus disproved The Curse ot the Bambino.)

          On April 6, 1992, Camden Yards, a baseball park, opened in Baltimore. It differed from the spate of stadiums that had been built since the Sixties in that it had real grass and did not resemble a porridge bowl. The idea was to have it both ways – that is, incorporate all the modern amenities of escalators and a computerized scoreboard with an old-time red brick facade and an outfield fence that was not designed with such exact symmetry as to be drawn with a compass. Curt Smith, a professional fan, and Baby Boomer, said that he “sat in the upper deck and inhaled nouveau and tradition.” New Yorker writer and baseball savant, Roger Angell, said that this “is a fan’s park. They’ve done it at last.” And Mr. Angell, a septuagenarian at the time and father to Baby Boomers, may have been speaking through the loudspeaker of nostalgia. Here at last people could return to the Elysian Fields, not those of ancient Rome, but rather of Hoboken,New Jersey circa 1845 when America was a simple place of green pastures and good, honest yeomen.

Webster’s defines nostalgia as the “state of being homesick: a wistful or excessively sentimental sometimes abnormal yearning for return to or of some past period or irrevocable condition.” The historian, Carl Becker, called it a “ mythical adaptation of that which truly existed.” Another historian, Richard Hofstadter, on why nostalgia is so much a part of the human psyche, said that “if the future seems dark, the past by contrast looks rosier than ever; but it is used far less to locate and guide the present than to give reassurance.” In other words, the past is a place that can be re-touched in sepia-tones of gentleness, to be made a still portrait. It is an absolute image bathed in golden light. And no past is more subject to nostalgic re-conditioning than baseball.

Three years prior to the opening of Camden Yards, in 1989, the movie Field of Dreams had reaped an amazing windfall. The film was an unapologetic sap-fest, what with the standard All-American wife who stands by her man when he is seen holding forth to corn; the standard All-American saga of having to save the farm; and the All-American bonding of father and son through the ritual of playing catch. What the film represented most was the Baby Boomer’s return to their youth, to the time before they believed that you can’t trust anyone over thirty.

Kevin Costner and James Earl Jones, each well over thirty, are former radicals of the Sixties once dismissive of All-American wholesomeness, of mom, apple pie and Chevrolet, who now, as responsible adults, reconsider the old days and see them as a time of pure innocence exemplified by baseball. The actual plot involves a disembodied voice issuing from a cornfield telling the owner of the farm, Ray  (Kevin Costner), that if he builds it (a baseball field), he (his dead baseball playing dad) will come. The ghosts of many old-time players emerge from the corn to utilize the completed diamond, including the Chicago White Sox of 1919. The centerpiece of the flick is the famous speech by James Earl Jones, in which a black man recalls that America in the first half of the Twentieth Century was a good time, no doubt forgetting that his own people were then living under Jim Crow and being lynched for no better reason than to give the good white townsfolk some Sunday entertainment. But facts never get in the way of nostalgia. In the end, pop shows up to toss the ball with his former radical son, and people from all over America come to watch the White Sox play an honest game for a change.

The idea for Camden Yards was conceived in 1988 by Oriole owner, Eli Jacobs, and architect, Joseph Spear. They wanted to guide the modern ballpark away from the poured-concrete bowls of the Sixties and Seventies, and return it to its genesis, circa 1909, when Shibe Park in Philadelphia and Forbes Field in Pittsburgh were built using steel columns, beams and trusses. To add to the mythology, the land chosen for the retropark was the same site on which the god, Babe Ruth, lived above his father’s saloon. They managed to also include features from the two parks still left from the earlier era, FenwayPark (a brick façade) and Wrigley Field (ivy on certain parts of the walls). The fan could even look outside the park, toward right field, and get misty-eyed at the sight of the 1898 B&O Warehouse. Of course, there would be the comforts that no modern American can seem to do without (nostalgia has its limits), those being elevators, climate-controlled lounges, ostentatious play areas for children, and luxury suites that would go for a minimum of $75,000 per year.

On the night of April 4, 1992, two days prior to Opening Day, there was an exclusive party at Camden Yards to celebrate the meeting of commerce and the nostalgia of old-time baseball. The tickets went for $125, though for only $10.95 one could buy a vial of dirt from the now defunct Memorial Stadium, and for a few extra bucks a certificate signed by former Oriole greats, Brooks Robinson and Jim Palmer, agreeing that, yes, this was the same dirt we once played on. The elite of Baltimore came dressed in Gay Nineties attire and toured the park, everyone awash in glitzy nostalgia. Then they sat down in the luxury club-level seats, and watched the lit city-scape, for one of the other features of Camden Yards was that in was situated in a downtown area, like in the old days, and unlike in the recent past when stadiums were constructed on the outskirts to accommodate the ‘burbs with their need for safety and lots of parking.

Peter Richman, in describing the party, offers a definition of nostalgia that is some ways is better than Webster’s: “…the past that Camden Yards was meant to evoke was, in many ways, equally an illusion. Most of the time it was as sordid and exploitative as it is today…The marketers of Camden Yards, whether they truly set out to exploit an illusion or, instead, merely found they’d stumbled upon a gold mine, had also hit upon a truth that applies most emphatically in our troubled age: The past is comfortable. You can go there and be safe.”

Now came the featured presentation that would sweep the rich people of Baltimore into a veritable orgasm of sepia-toned memories. James Earl Jones walked to the spotlit mound, and began to recite the Field of Dreams monologue wherein he tells the Kevin Costner character, Ray, not to fret about losing the farm that is now divested of its moneymaking corn to make room for a baseball field. Let us quote it in full:

“Ray, people will come Ray. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. Of course, we won’t mind if you look around, you’ll say. It’s only $20 per person. They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they’ll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh…people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.”

In this speech one can read the Baby Boomer’s credo: Let’s relive the days of yore, and make money to boot. This was Camden Yards when the affluent people gathered to stuff their rich faces with hors d’oeuvres and bask in the safe past. And two days later, on April 6, 1992, on Opening Day, after it had been built, the people came, they most definitely came, at least those that could afford it, and would come in subsequent years in a desperate attempt to live in the warm, cozy past when all was good and it could be good again. They sold out most games, as that year’s attendance totaled 3,567,819, compared to the previous year of 2,552,753.

Every city now wished to have their own nostalgic playing field with a Sbarro’s Pizzeria overlooking the action, to say nothing of a jumbotron to enable the fan to view the real action – oneself caught on camera. In 1994, there was Jacobs Field (Cleveland) and The Ballpark of Arlington (Texas); 1995, Coors Field (Denver); 1999, Safeco Field (Seattle); 2000,Minute Maid Park (Houston),Pacific Bell Park (San Francisco) and Comerica Park(Detroit); 2001,Miller Park(Milwaukee) and PNC Park (Pittsburgh). This year’s entry into pseudo-nostalgia is Citizens Bank Park (Philadelphia), which brings us full circle, since it was this city’s Shibe Park, almost one hundred years ago, that started this craze in the first place. Too bad it had been torn down it down in 1970 so that the Phillies could play in the concrete-bowled Veteran’s Stadium, the very embodiment of all that was wrong in modern sports arenas. Note that the word “stadium” is absent from the names of all the Camden Yard progeny, yet, from ’95 onward, the “Fields” and “Parks” are all preceded by corporate titles — another indication of the dichotomy that cleaves the mind of the Baby Boomer.

In the book Bobos In Paradise, the author, David Brooks, examines this phenomenon of the Baby Boomer now grown gray and self-satisfied, though nostalgic for his radical past. Hence the term “Bobo,” which is shorthand for Bourgeois Bohemian. The Bobo is an upper middle class, educated professional who seeks authenticity so long as it can be bought for an outrageous sum. He wants furniture that has texture, that has been made to appear old – and he will buy this piece for what it costs some families to shingle their roof. This is not unlike Clevelanders going to “authentic” Jacobs Field, passing the bronze statue of mythological great, Bob Feller, and then watching the pastoral elegance from the top luxury deck. The Bobo will install a $75,000 slate shower stall in order to get in touch with the nature of Thoreau – similar to how Seattle spent $517 million to build Safeco Field for the privilege of experiencing 1909, except, of course, for the upper-level swimming pool and “Hit It Here” Café. The Baby Boomers are the first generation raised on TV, and so get confused between reality and the appearance of reality. But, in the end, Brooks admits that he, too, is a Bobo, and sees nothing wrong with working hard and spending one’s earnings on authentic activities. The owners of the retroparks will be happy to hear that, since ticket prices are now beyond the reach of the authentic working class.

Joe Queenan, in his book Balsamic Dreams is less forgiving of what he calls the “naval-gazing” of the Baby Boomer generation, as if they are the only people to have ever turned fifty. Toward the end of his diatribe, he devotes an entire chapter to giving advice to his white peers with “their selfishness, their self-adulation, their fascination with the inner child who died a long, long time ago, and who did not die a natural death.” In one bit of counsel, he asks his gray-pony-tailed brethren to “deep-six the secular mythology,” to quit fooling yourself into thinking that in taking your son to a baseball game at one of the new retroparks, you are in fact cementing a spiritual bond not seen since Abraham brought Isaac down from the sacrificial slab. This is yet another case of Baby Boomers wanting to have “something and its opposite,” meaning that they behold ballparks as “postmodern cathedrals,” all the while holding forth against greedy, spoiled players. Retroparks are just stadiums, so please seek therapy to rid yourself of your “green-cathedral loopiness.” Then Joe turns, with the utmost compassion, to the son being dragged along on these pilgrimages, saying that the kid is too smart, really, to “buy into this crap anyway. That Field of Dreams, Boys of Summer hooey might work at Yankees Stadium or Wrigley Field. But how are you going to sell that yarn to a kid who grew up rooting for the Padres?”

The Baby Boomer will often skip the imitation nostalgia and go right to the source – i.e., Fenway Park and Wrigley Field. Wrigley sells out most games, regardless of having hosted throughout the years perennial losers, the Cubs. People come not to root for a winner, but rather to watch a game in a place where, to quote James Earl Jones, “the memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces.” Where else in our safety conscious nation would it be permitted to have the outfield wall made of stone and covered with ivy?

The other original temple, Fenway Park, seems to elicit even more reverence, what with its having been the home of so much heartbreak. Yet the nostalgia is such as to make even the most cynical Bostonian weep with affection. For instance, take Dan Shaughnessy, the dour sports writer for the Boston Globe, author of the book Curse of the Bambino. He wrote another book called Fenway, which, on cue, he dedicates to his son, Sam, and thereafter, and with no apology, gets more sentimental than a mother at her daughter’s high school graduation. He says that “baseball is about generations.” He remembers the first time he, an eight-year-old boy, visited Fenway with Dad in 1961. Now he takes his own three kids to Fenway on a regular basis. None of the tykes seem to mind the poles that, on occasion, will “obscure Nomar or Pedro on the mound,” since “these poles are the same green beams that blocked the vision of my dad and his dad when they would take the trolley in from Cambridge to watch the Red Sox in the 1920s.” The hard-bitten journalist, wiping a metaphorical tear from his eye, says that, by golly, “Fenway Park is just about my favorite place on Earth.”

In the latter part of the book, he allows other Baby Boomers to sigh with memories of Fenway “dipped in magic waters.” The horror writer, Stephen King, asks: “Doesn’t everybody remember their first time at Fenway?” – as if that should settle the issue once and for all. Bob Costas, the sportscaster, recalls of his inaugural visit to the home of the Red Sox “the vividness” of the experience, and then laments that “when we lose Fenway, we lose that sense that somebody sat here and watched Ted Williams hit.” George Will, the ultra-conservative scribe, says that “the appeal of Fenway Park is that, like life, it’s unfair…But the alternative is boredom,” whereupon he credits the building of Camden Yards with bringing back into baseball the inherent randomness of life. And of course, James Earl Jones has his chance to add to the nostalgia. In Field of Dreams, he and Kevin Costner watch a game at Fenway in order to come to some life-altering decision. In Shaughnessy’s book, Jones says that in “the movie, we were talking about spirit and magic, and to cover that, Fenway was the ideal park.”

On June 26, 2004, the Red Sox were playing the Phillies at Fenway. On television, a young Philadelphia couple and their child were interviewed as to what they had done thus far on their visit to Boston, to which the woman said that they had made the rounds of all the historical sites, with Fenway being the final destination, while the husband hugged their son as if having fulfilled all his parental responsibilities now that they had made the mythical pilgrimage to the “green cathedral.” And these were people from a town with baseball’s newest retropark, Citizens Bank Park, with its 50,000 square feet shrine to former Phillies demigod, Richie Ashburn, not to mention its quirky seating angles based on the original modern ballpark, Shibe Park.

What the retroparks are imitating is a certain sports arena constructed between 1909 (Shibe Park) and 1923 (Yankee Stadium). The irony is that many of these parks had their eye on the mythic past as well, using classical designs. Comiskey Park was Roman, Cincinnati’s Redland Field classical, while Shibe Park had Ionic (ancient Greek) pilasters. But this went along with the mythologizing nostalgia of baseball, being that, at the same time as these temples were going up, in 1907, an official commission declared that Abner Doubleday had invented the American Pastime. This was a total falsehood, but it satisfied the yearning that all worshippers, whether religious or secular, have to believe in that one true beginning, that one true progenitor, that one Adam, one Romulus, one George Washington. This was mass nostalgia to the point of delusion, as, in 1939, the Baseball Hall of Fame was opened in Cooperstown, New York, where it was claimed Doubleday, on pastoral fields, had come up with the rules of the game. Most people still believe in this Edenic genesis, as dads tell sons, while walking hand in hand through the tunnel leading to any of the retroparks of America, that the father of baseball was Abner Doubleday. In a word, humans, whether living in 1909, 1939, 1992 or 2004, have some kind of inherent need to look backward to find solace.

The retroparks are a harmless vehicle through which the Baby Boomer and now the next generation of fathers bond with sons about a past that glows evermore golden as it wafts off over the horizon never to harm another soul. The parks are our collective Field of Dreams. In the movie, Ray, having been estranged from his father due to his radical youth, has another chance to reconcile with the old man who once played professional baseball. But Ray does not know how to break the ice, and so, as the sun sets over the Midwestern plains, the Baby Boomer calls out to the retreating member of the older generation, “Hey, Dad, wanna have a catch?”

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One Comment
  1. Oren Dobkin permalink

    Almost exactly nine months after World War II ended, “the cry of the baby was heard across the land,” as historian Landon Jones later described the trend. More babies were born in 1946 than ever before: 3.4 million, 20 percent more than in 1945. This was the beginning of the so-called “baby boom.” In 1947, another 3.8 million babies were born; 3.9 million were born in 1952; and more than 4 million were born every year from 1954 until 1964, when the boom finally tapered off. By then, there were 76.4 million “baby boomers” in the United States. They made up almost 40 percent of the nation’s population…

    My current online site

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