The category of a “retro” ballpark is a bit of a fuzzy one, but basically it refers to recently built baseball parks that are nostalgic in design, generally meant to invoke the so-called “Jewel Box” parks built from 1895 to 1923, known for their intimate feel, quirkiness, and major use of exposed steel, brick and stone. Sometimes the retro ballparks are divided into “retro-classic” and “retro-modern,” with the latter category being the parks that compromise between retro characteristics and more modern characteristics, while parks in the former category are more purely retro. (In point of fact, however, even the most retro of the retro parks incorporate many modern amenities that distinguish them from the Jewel Box ballparks of a century ago.)
Retro ballparks have some or all of the following features:
* Baseball only, not multi-use stadiums for other sports and concerts and such
* No dome
* Real grass, not artificial turf
* Nostalgic construction features like green seats, and exposed steel, brick, and stone
* Outfield walls that aren’t straight or symmetrical
* Downtown location, meant to fit in with other businesses and residences and feel like a natural part of the neighborhood
The oldest of the retro ballparks (Fenway Park in Boston and Wrigley Field in Chicago have features like this, but they don’t count as retro because they’re genuinely from the Jewel Box era-1912 and 1914 respectively) is Camden Yards in Baltimore, which opened in 1992.
However, you can really go back a few years before that if minor league ballparks are included to 1988, when Pilot Field opened in Buffalo to house the minor league Buffalo Bisons. Pilot Field was intentionally constructed in an “old fashion” manner to appeal to traditionalists, and featured a lot of the characteristics that became famous when they were incorporated into Camden Yards and subsequent retro major league parks.
Since 1992, the new major league ballparks that are generally considered most retro, or “retro-classic,” include:
Camden Yards (1992) (Baltimore Orioles)
Rangers Ballpark (1994) (Texas Rangers)
Coors Field (1995) (Colorado Rockies)
Turner Field (1996) (Atlanta Braves)
AT&T Park (2000) (San Francisco Giants)
Comerica Park (2000) (Detroit Tigers)
PNC Park (2001) (Pittsburgh Pirates)
Citizens Bank Park (2004) (Philadelphia Phillies)
Busch Stadium III (2006) (St. Louis Cardinals)
Citi Field (2009) (New York Mets)
Yankee Stadium II (2009) (New York Yankees)
U.S. Cellular Field (1991, renovated and reopened as retro in 2009) (Chicago White Sox)
Really this understates the trend, though, as there are also several “retro-modern” parks, plus some, like Safeco Field in Seattle, that are retro in most respects but include a dome or retractable roof. If the term is not used very narrowly, the majority of major league ballparks today are retro.
So what are some of the main attractions of retro ballparks that has made them such a popular trend?
1. Baseball is a far more naturally nostalgic sport than football or basketball or most others. Baseball fans crave to feel connected to the storied history of their sport. Not that no football fans have a sense of history, or a fondness for, say, Red Grange or Jim Thorpe, but is it even remotely comparable to a baseball fan’s attachment to Babe Ruth?
2. Retro stadiums allow for a certain eccentricity or quirkiness. They don’t have the “cookie cutter” feel of the purely functional modern behemoth sports stadiums. This is aided by the fact that baseball itself doesn’t mandate uniform dimensions for its stadiums, so the outfields can be all different distances, configurations, etc. One stadium might be 330 feet down the left field line and 345 feet down the right field line, and another might be the opposite. Or a stadium might have an outfield wall in right-center that jogs in a few feet at an angle and then back out.
Think about how odd this is compared to other sports. It’s as if NHL rinks could be different shapes, or NFL fields could be 96 or 102 yards long instead of 100, or the baskets were 11 feet high on some NBA courts. It’s one of the quaint features, or “imperfections,” that gives baseball its character.
3. Retro stadiums have a natural fan base in the neighborhood. Instead of being located in the middle of nowhere surrounded by giant parking lots, they are in the midst of urban areas. People who live two, five, or ten blocks away can easily walk to a game. Restaurants, sports bar, etc. that cater to folks going to and coming from games spring up in the area, creating a mutually supportive economic relationship with the ballpark. People from the neighborhood feel this is “their team” and “their ballpark.”
Alas, retro stadiums may have become too popular for their own good. There now exists a backlash against their faux antiquity. What once was a sign of respect for the past is now seen in some quarters as phony, unimaginative trend-following. Building a 1915-style ballpark is beginning to seem “so ’90s.”