Urban Ballparks for All

Despite spending his California boyhood listening to the dulcet lullabies of Los Angeles Dodgers play-by-play man Vin Scully on his transistor radio, Philip Bess became a lifelong fan of baseball’s hapless Chicago Cubs. A cynic might call Bess’ long-distance embrace of the Cubbies an early sign of a doomed contrarian. Instead, the 47-year-old architect, author, and college professor half-seriously prefers to describe himself as “an Aristotelian Catholic communitarian”–a person who believes that “the best life for individual human beings is the disciplined life of moral and intellectual virtue lived with others in communities.”

This, quite naturally, has put Bess at odds with the owners of major league baseball teams and the designers of the ballparks in which they play.

Bess’ thin but incisive 1989 book, City Baseball Magic, has become a cult classic among those who want to do more than just grumble about eating $5 tube steaks in the nosebleed sections of new $500 million “baseball entertainment complexes.” In the book, Bess details how huge stadiums have torn the fabric of urban neighborhoods, distanced fans from the game they love, and fostered the inflationary spiral that has enabled greed to permeate baseball. Then he offers a solution: his design for a “traditional urban ballpark” (named Armour Field in the book) complete with club seating and luxury boxes, but on a smaller site with fewer frills and more intimacy than modern ballparks offer. The price tag, even adjusting for 1999 dollars, is less than half the cost of most stadium projects.

With a new preface its only update, this year’s 10th anniversary reprint by St. Paul’s Knothole Press feels as fresh and relevant as ever. Many believe City Baseball Magic influenced the recent spate of “old-fashioned” ballparks constructed in Baltimore, Cleveland, and Denver, a trend Bess contends is little more than a marketing gambit designed, literally, to provide megaparks with the veneer of tradition. He argues that not since Yankee Stadium was constructed in the ’20s has a park conformed to the traditional street-and-block gridwork that enhances pedestrian traffic and the social character of the surrounding neighborhood. Instead, stadiums are plunked down on sprawling “superblocks,” sealing them off from their urban environment and enabling owners to capture ancillary revenues on everything from parking to restaurants. Site and construction costs are almost always borne by taxpayers.

Bess, who loves urban living as much as he loves baseball, maintains that a traditional urban ballpark enhances the team’s identity and blends it with the city’s character, as happens at Fenway Park in Boston, Wrigley Field in Chicago, and other older stadiums. So long as team owners are minimally invested in the cost of ballparks and architect fees are a set percentage of the total tab, it is up to the public sector, Bess says, to make teams “just a player in the conversation” while compelling owners to be responsible corporate citizens.

As a professor of architecture at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, and the head of Thursday Architects, Bess doesn’t need baseball as much as the game needs his ideas. But he lives just two and a half miles from Wrigley, so he’ll continue to patronize his beloved Cubs.

Part of January-February 2000 cover story section.

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