As 2020 comes to a close, I can’t help but pine for the better days of yore. Which then got me thinking about old ballparks. Which led me to write this longish blog post.
I have been to 27 ballparks that no longer exist (not to mention seeing games at Anaheim Stadium, a pre -Mount Davis Coliseum and Royals Stadium prior to their multi-million dollar renovations that changed the character of those places significantly). My trip to Jarry Park in Montreal happened at such a young age, I can’t really write intelligently about it. Same for my visit to Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minnesota. But I have lasting memories of the other 25. I asked, “Where would they rate compared to the modern cathedrals?”
While I didn’t have my scoring system in place while I visited many of these, I give each park an estimated score based on memory. This is really for comparison purposes only. In reality, comparing the parks of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s with the parks of today is somewhat unfair. From 1960 to 1990, stadia were built for function; form was much less a consideration and few valued a “sense of place”. Many of the old parks were multi-purpose stadiums designed to house baseball AND football, which (in the end) led to ballparks that are way too big with plenty of poor seats. The evolution of stadium fare is fairly recent, and so if we use the modern standards for food and beer, which account for a good chunk of the park’s score, all of these would be left behind. The surrounding neighborhoods were less critical since stadium prices were low enough not to fret about “pregaming”, and we hadn’t yet enjoyed some of the economic booms that helped revitalized some of our inner cities. So you often had a subpar facility in a subpar setting with subpar food and drink (by modern standards). As such, of the 24 retired ballparks, all but a handful finished in the lower tier. The average score is just under 63 (the average of the current parks is just under 83). Half of these are as bad or worse than the current lowest rated park, the Oakland Coliseum. Of the current parks, only 6.7% finished with a score below 70, and only 30% scored below 80; of the old parks, 66.7% scored below 70 and all but 2 scored below 80 (and one of those two opened in 1996). In almost every case, the replacement was better than the old park. So as susceptible as I am to nostalgia, the current baseball facilities truly are sooo much better.
HERE ARE THE RANKINGS:
#25 EXHIBITION STADIUM; SCORE 40
Home of the Toronto Blue Jays 1977-1989
Perhaps the worst venue ever used for a North American big 4 pro sports team, this place was an utter abomination. Originally built to house CFL football (and its large field) baseball seats were cheaply added for the expansion Blue Jays. Many seats extended well beyond the outfield walls; in fact the furthest seat was 820’ from home plate. The original grandstand, the only covered section, became the outfield bleachers; the rest of the field was uncovered and exposed to the winds that would blow off Lake Ontario, making many night games miserable. And there was no beer in the stands for the first 5.5 years due to the province’s antiquated liquor laws. Brutal.
#24 KINGDOME; SCORE 43
Home of the Seattle Mariners 1977-1999
It was a dreary concrete dome with subpar baseball sightlines that started falling apart less than two decades into its existence. Tiles fell from the roof just before a 1994 game and forced the Mariners on the road for the balance of the year. And that may have been an upgrade for Mariner fans.
#23 VETERANS STADIUM; SCORE 47
Home of the Philadelphia Phillies 1971-2003
The “Field of Seams” was the worst of the circular multi-purpose “cookie cutter” bowls that were built in the 60’s and 70’s. The Vet was a cavernous place with 7 levels of seating, 30% of seats in fair territory, and a total lack of aesthetics. Fans in the 700-level were among the scariest humans on the planet, the turf was terrible, and half the seats required binoculars they were so far. The classy name honoring the veterans who served was the only redeeming quality about this pit.
#22 FULTON-COUNTY STADIUM; SCORE 50
Home of the Atlanta Braves 1965-1996
Site of Hank Aaron’s 715th home run, “The Launching Pad” was the worst baseball stadium I’ve ever been to with a grass field. The field conditions were often so awful, turf may have been an upgrade. Perhaps one of the reasons is that it didn’t have its own groundskeeping crew until 1990; the stadium used a municipal street-maintenance crew up until then. It was a charmless bowl that sweltered in the summer heat.
#21 OLYMPIC STADIUM; SCORE 51
Home of the Montreal Expos 1977-2005
This is a stunning piece of architecture built for the 1976 Olympics that was poorly crafted and poorly conceived for baseball. Meant to be a retractable roof stadium, it started without a roof, then couldn’t get it to retract properly once it was installed. Once it became a fixed roof, it leaked, causing rainouts in a dome. Huge slabs of concrete fell off multiple times, causing extended closures including in 1991 when the Expos had to play its last 13 home games on the road. Sightlines were poor. And the seats were these weird futuristic egg-shaped plastic numbers with a nubbin that made it uncomfortable for male patrons. Yet despite being a train wreck, I have many fond memories of games here with family, and would love to see Montreal get another shot at pro baseball.
#20 METRODOME; SCORE 52
Home of the Minnesota Twins 1982-2009
The Metrodome was a practical facility constructed under budget. It was the only venue ever to host a Super Bowl, World Series, MLB All-Star Game and Final Four. But it sucked as a baseball park. Fielders often lost pop ups as they blended into the white roof. Because it was a football stadium that could be converted to a baseball field, many seats didn’t point toward the infield; some actually pointed away from it forcing a full head turn. Seats were cramped. There was Plexiglas over one of the outfield walls. And the rightfield wall was a Hefty bag. Other than climate control and its ability to trap crowd noise, there was little good here.
#19 ASTRODOME; SCORE 54
Home of the Houston Astros 1965-1999
The “Eighth Wonder of the World” was an important stadium: it was the first indoor baseball stadium, the first place to use artificial turf, and the first animated scoreboard. It had luxury boxes and in-stadium restaurants for the well-heeled, air conditioning for all fans, and lighting designed so the stadium looked good on color TV. A year after opening it became America’s third-most-visited man-made tourist attraction, behind only Mount Rushmore and the Golden Gate Bridge. But importance did not equate to it being a great baseball park. Seats were far from the field. The large size made good crowds feel small. And the artifice of the place goes counter to baseball’s pastoral history. Seeing a game here never felt right.
#18 MUNICIPAL STADIUM; SCORE 56
Home of the Cleveland Indians 1932-1993
The “Mistake by the Lake”, with a seating capacity of nearly 75,000 for baseball, was about double the size it needed to be. Opened in 1932, the Indians actually abandoned the Stadium in 1934 and played at the smaller (and lower rent) League Park venue for all but doubleheaders and high attendance games until 1947. It was cavernous; the Indians became the first team to use a bullpen car in part due to the size of the place. Infield sightlines were fine, but there were many obstructed view seats, and the severe overhangs meant those in the lower reserved would be unable to see airborne balls. Demolished to make room for the new Browns stadium, most of the debris was dumped into Lake Erie to create an artificial reef, making it now “The Mistake IN the Lake”.
#17 CANDLESTICK PARK; SCORE 57
Home of the San Francisco Giants 1960-1999
Home to The Catch and the final Beatles concert ever, Candlestick was also the final park that I hit as a 22-year-old kid to complete my first circuit of MLB stadiums. As such, I have a soft spot in my heart for it. Plus we know it’s pretty good in an earthquake. But otherwise, it was a cold, grim, concrete slab. Cold and brisk winds would often whip in off the Bay making mid-summer games outright frigid. Trash would whip around the chain link fences. Traffic in and out was terrible. Its mantra was vinim, vidi, vixi or “I came. I saw. I survived.”
#16 THREE RIVERS STADIUM: SCORE 58
Home of the Pittsburgh Pirates 1970-2000
Another of the cookie cutter circular multi-purpose bowl stadiums, Three Rivers replaced Forbes Field, a classic park that opened in 1909. It held over 58,000 for baseball for a team that drew consistently in the teens, making it a big concrete bowl with thousands upon thousands of empty seats. Like most of the multi-purpose parks, lower bowl seats moved along tracks to form a diamond for baseball or rectangle for football. There was virtually no cantilevering and very few seats under cover throughout the park.
#15 RIVERFRONT STADIUM; SCORE 59
Home of the Cincinnati Reds 1970-2002
Another of the cookie cutter circular multi-purpose bowl stadiums, Riverfront replaced Crosley Field, a classic park that opened in 1912. It held almost 53,000 for baseball for a team that drew consistently less than that (even in The Big Red Machine years), making it a big concrete bowl with thousands upon thousands of empty seats. Like most of the multi-purpose parks, lower bowl seats moved along tracks to form a diamond for baseball … Wait, is this Three Rivers or Riverfront? Ah, same thing. (Though this one eeks it out thanks to those Skyline chili dogs).
#14 RFK STADIUM; SCORE 60
Home of the Washington Nationals* 2005-2007
(*also home to the Washington Senators 1962-1971)
At the east end of a corridor that includes (as you move west) the Capitol, The Mall, Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, RFK has been part of the DC scene for nearly 60 years. Among the first of the multi-purpose bowl stadiums, RFK has nice exterior architecture and served as a fantastic, intimate football stadium, but was too large for baseball. 70% of the seats were in the upper deck, and the overhang rendered many of those lower bowl seats as obstructed. At least it was a grass field.
#13 MILE HIGH STADIUM; SCORE 63
Home of the Colorado Rockies 1993-1994
Mile High Stadium was originally built as a baseball park and increased capacity over time to accommodate the Broncos, eventually reaching 80,000 with the addition of the three-tiered east grandstand. When Denver was awarded an expansion franchise, they needed to convert the stadium for baseball until Coors Field was ready, and did so by moving that 535-foot long, 135-foot tall, nine-million pound east grandstand back 145 feet through the use of hydraulics. Despite the huge number of seats, pent up demand allowed Rockies to fill the stadium to over 60% capacity including one 3-game weekend series that drew over 217,000 fans. But upper bowl seats were high (literally and relatively), those outfield seats were far from the action, and you were fully exposed to the elements. It felt like the football stadium that it was. If you had an elusive good baseball seat (i.e. an infield seat in one of the two lower bowls), the huge crowds made the atmosphere quite memorable; but it wasn’t a great venue for baseball.
#12 JOE ROBBIE STADIUM; SCORE 64
Home of the Florida Marlins 1993-2011
Joe Robbie/ Pro Player Stadium/Dolphin(s) Stadium/Landshark Stadium/Sun Life Stadium was a football stadium that converted into a workable baseball park. Almost every seat was exposed to the elements making the Florida summer heat and the regular afternoon thunderstorms an on-going issue. Some seats had obstructed views as the park’s football sightlines didn’t always translate to baseball. But they had the Marlins Mermaids, a cheerleading squad as gorgeous as any in any sport not in Dallas, and (to mock the lack of PC of having hot women shake pom poms) the comic relief of the Marlins Manatees, a group of fat guys getting “equal opportunity” to cheer. The early season and late season games were nice and warm, the Teal Monster leftfield wall was unique, Billy Marlin put on a good show, and the concessions had some gems. So there were some positives.
#11 SHEA STADIUM; SCORE 65
Home of the New York Mets* 1964-2008
*and the New York Yankees 1974-1975
Shea Stadium was one of those circular cookie cutter multi-purpose stadiums, except it was open in centerfield (making it more of a horseshoe than a circle) and used natural grass instead of turf. Five decks of seating could put the cheap seats high in the sky where you felt like you were competing with the constant roar of the planes taking off from nearby Laguardia. The cheesy Mets Magic Hat that celebrated home runs and the huge Diamond Vision scoreboard were hallmarks. It was also one of the first parks to make use of extensive escalator systems to navigate between levels. Add some of the better concessions in baseball and some of the most colorful fans in the game, a game at Shea was a blast despite it being rough around the edges.
#10 JACK MURPHY STADIUM; SCORE 66
Home of the San Diego Padres 1969-2003
With perfect weather and a location in America’s finest city, The Murph had a lot of things going for it regardless of the structure. Named after a famous San Diego sports writer until San Diego-based telecommunications equipment company Qualcomm bought the naming rights in 1997, Jack Murphy Stadium was another in the line of cookie cutter multi-purpose stadiums built to house both football and baseball. Unlike some its counterparts, the centerfield area was (originally) more open making it feel a little more like a ballpark, and the surface was natural grass. Sightlines were compromised to accommodate both sports, and the bad seats were far from the plate. But it did have The Chicken for years, and offered fish tacos long before they became a national thing. While flawed, it wasn’t a bad place to watch a game, but you really needed to score good seats.
#9 BUSCH MEMORIAL STADIUM; SCORE 70
Home of the St. Louis Cardinals 1966-2005
The nicest of the so-called “cookie cutter” multi-purpose parks, Busch Memorial Stadium signaled a sense of place with its 96 graceful roof arches, sea of red seats, and large cardinal-clad crowds drawn from a strong regional fanbase. Like all of the multi-purpose facilities, upperdeck seats were far from the field, and sightlines weren’t always optimal for baseball due to the need to also accommodate football. It was hard to rate because it iterated over time. If I only considered the late 80’s multipurpose version with the Astroturf, it’d likely score in the mid-sixties. While the place was known for its high temperatures in the dead of summer (Casey Stengel famously quipped when asked what he thought of this place, “It holds the heat well”), it was particularly nasty in the turf years when field temps could reach 150 degrees (players often lined their cleats with tin foil to avoid foot burns). If I considered the late 90’s version when it was a baseball-only park with natural grass, a picnic area in the bleachers, and additional scoreboards replacing upperdeck centerfield seats, it would likely be in the mid-to-high 70’s. I settled here based on the relative length of time the park had turf. But regardless of score, it was a respected facility and unlike the other cookie cutters, many were a little said to see this one replaced.
#8 MEMORIAL STADIUM; SCORE 71
Home of the Baltimore Orioles 1954-1991
While Memorial Stadium was shared with the NFL’s Baltimore Colts, and even used by the Ravens for two years, it was really a baseball facility with sightlines built for baseball. Named after the city’s soldiers killed in battle, the Stadium featured a somber but inspirational tribute at its main entrance to those who made the ultimate sacrifice in World Wars I & II. “The Old Grey Lady of 33rd Street” sat in a somewhat sketchy neighborhood, and featured a natural grass field, nearly 54,000 baseball seats, a tomato patch courtesy of groundskeeper Pat Santarone, the antics of Wild Bill Hagy, and consistently winning baseball. It lacked some of the fancier amenities of modern parks, but was a solid place to catch a game.
#7 ARLINGTON STADIUM; SCORE 73
Home of the Texas Rangers 1971 to 1993
After being thwarted over two rounds of MLB expansion, Arlington scaled back its plan to build a domed stadium capable of hosting an MLB team, and proceeded to build an open-air unsheltered 10,600-seat ballpark, subsequently expanded to be a 20,000 seater. When the Washington Senators, one of the expansion teams that DFW didn’t get, agreed to move to the Metroplex, the team quickly expanded the park to 35,000 by adding a large bleacher section in the outfield; by far and away, this ballpark had the highest percentage of its seats in fair territory than any ballpark I’ve ever reviewed. Subsequently, a small upper deck and two rows of “luxury boxes” brought capacity up past 41,000. This piecework approach to construction made Arlington Stadium a hideously ugly facility with a paucity of good seats. But I really kinda liked it. It felt more like a trip to the State Fair than a ballpark due to its quirky design. Plus it introduced nachos as a ballpark food staple. In the end, this odd heat-baked park lasted 22 years and featured nary a playoff or All-Star game. But it DID feature Nolan Ryan’s 7th career no-hitter, a game I saw in-person on May 1, 1991 which remains one of my most memorable live baseball events.
#6 GLOBE LIFE PARK; SCORE 76
Home of the Texas Rangers 1994-2019
In many ways the park was a representation of Texas: big and standalone. There was something imposing about this edifice that stood proudly but solitarily in an Arlington field. The exterior architecture of this place was gorgeous. The engraved Lone Star pink granite and “Texas cues” in the building’s red brick façade let you knew exactly where you were before even entering the park. Between the Texas shaped billboard by the centerfield scoreboard to the many Texas flags waving in center, you had a good sense where you were inside the park as well despite a lack of skyline. It was the first of the new wave of parks to include extra features such as museums, youth ballparks, and family fun. They offered some crazy, creative ballpark fare including the first 2-foot hot dog in the majors, and some decent barbecue. And given they had no backdrop of a city (the park isn’t close to anything), the office complex in the outfield, with the steel white balconies, was aesthetically pleasing. That said, the interior was a bit of a pastiche with mis-matched homages to old Tiger Stadium (the right field porch), the Yankee Stadium (the frieze), and old Comiskey Park (the arches). The upper deck was far away from the action thanks to all the suites. And, most critically (and the main reason for the park’s premature retirement) there was a lack of shaded seating in the main bowl, thus exposing you the full brunt of the summer Texas heat. Day games were punishing, and even night times with opening pitch temperatures in triple digits were no cupcakes. But I made many fond memories there and was sad to see arguably the prettiest suburban stadium ever built on this list of FORMER parks.
#5 COMISKEY PARK; SCORE 77
Home of the Chicago White Sox 1910-1990
Comiskey Park was once considered the Baseball Palace of the World and was deemed by most to be the superior ballpark in the city of Chicago. With its many arches and double decker seating design, it bore resemblance to the Roman Coliseum. Baseball’s first perfectly symmetrical ballpark, it put those in the upper stands incredibly close to the action, but left those under the overhang in the lower bowl with severely obstructed views, often behind support poles. Home to the famous exploding scoreboard, Disco Demolition Night and notoriously belligerent fans, the neighborhood became less desirable in its latter years which negatively affected attendance. For 20 years, it was the oldest standing park in baseball, and while it never got the love of Wrigley, Fenway or even Ebbets Field, it made a definitive imprint on the stadium experience over its 80 years of existence.
#4 COUNTY STADIUM; SCORE 78
Home of the Milwaukee Brewers* 1970-2000
*also home to the Milwaukee Braves 1953-1965, and the Chicago White Sox for 20 games 1968-69
I always thought that this was a grossly underrated park. I first went in 1989 as a young adult on my last father-son roadtrip, and Dad still talks about that game today. The park was a classic Midwestern structure that valued function over form: a basic two-deck facility with lots of onsite parking and good sightlines for baseball. Staff were super friendly as were fans, even if they were a little drunk from the pregame tailgate. Brewer home runs were celebrated by Bernie Brewer sliding into a big vat of beer (unlike the current sanitized version). And certain traditions started here and carried over to Miller Park: the Beer Barrel Polka during the 7th inning stretch, the Racing Sausages, and the tradition of eating a lot of encased meats and dousing them with Stadium Sauce. Allegedly, a crowd of 45,000 once ate 100,000 sausages in a game, for an AVERAGE of over 2 per fan. (I love Wisconsin!) It may have lacked amenities and revenue generators, and players hated the basic infrastructure (pitcher Curt Leskanic complained that the clubhouse was so small, “you have to go outside to change your mind”). But for the average fan, it was really a neat place to watch a game.
#3 YANKEE STADIUM; SCORE 78
Home of the New York Yankees 1923-1973; 1976-2008
Yankee Stadium was probably the most important sports facility in North America. Home to the most successful franchise in American sport, it housed more hall of famers, and more seminal baseball moments than any other park. But importance doesn’t necessarily equate to excellence. The overwhelming majority of seats were in the upper deck. Its South Bronx neighborhood deteriorated significantly in the 70’s and 80’s making attendance a bit of a gamble (I remember a harrowing 4-train postgame ride back to Manhattan that featured a fight on my subway car between two people armed with their souvenir bats from Bat Day). And it was often not in pristine shape with many instances of trash blowing around the stadium. But it had a sense of grandeur that even the stately new Yankee Stadium couldn’t match. It had the voice and gravitas of Bob Sheppard on the public address. And it had the ghosts of past Yankee Legends that gave the place an unmatched mystique and aura (which, counter to Curt Shilling’s 2001 assertion, were not just names of nightclub performers).
#2 TURNER FIELD; SCORE 80
Home of the Atlanta Braves 1997-2016
It’s weird to have a 21st Century ballpark on this list. Unlike every other park here that needed replacing to get a baseball-only facility with good sightlines, luxury seating and increased space for concessions, Turner Field had all that. It just happened to be in the “wrong neighborhood” for the Atlanta Braves fan base. And after just 20 years, rather than spending $350million on upgrading infrastructure and refreshing the stadium, the Braves just moved to the suburbs. In doing so, they left a facility in which they won 12 division titles including their first 9 seasons in the park. It didn’t have much of a panoramic view, but it DID feature some of the better concessions in baseball; a fantastic scoreboard; a tomahawk chopping 40-foot Chick Fil-A cow; a 42-foot Coke bottle made from bats, balls, jerseys, bases, gloves and other such gear; and an excellent team Hall of Fame. Built in a more oval shape for the 1996 Olympics (but with the intent on it being a permanent baseball facility long term), 35,000 seats were removed with that cleared footprint becoming the centerfield main entrance/plaza. Alas the neighborhood never really gentrified as had hoped (there was only one bar of note in the area and a couple of chain midrange hotels, and that was it) so it became more a get-in/get-out park. In the end, it was a solid place to catch a game and somewhat shocking that it only lasted 20 seasons.
#1 TIGER STADIUM; SCORE 84
Home of the Detroit Tigers 1912-1999
I saw my first game here as a kid in 1977, my last in 1999, and likely 50 others in the 22 years in between. I saw Whitaker and Trammell become the best double-play combo in baseball history, Cecil Fielder hit one clear out of the stadium, and through the family’s 24” color TV, Kirk Gibson hit a homer to seal the 1984 World Series, the only championship from a Motown feline-named team in my lifetime. I learned which ticket windows had the best seats in the days prior to centralized ticketing; where to park to ensure you weren’t boxed in; and the know-how to get my Ball Park Franks from the vendors rather than from the grills down below. My Dad and I made lifetime memories when I was a kid, and I continued to go well into adulthood, sharing my love of the place with my to-be wife and a host of friends and colleagues. While it was an imperfect ballpark from yesteryear (an enclosed two deck structure with cramped concession areas, antiquated infrastructure and 8 decades of grime), there weren’t any better seats for the Average Joe than the upper deck infield seats that put you right on top of the action. It smelled like a ballpark. It felt like a ballpark. It instilled my insatiable love of going to the ballpark. And in my books, it was the best of the ballparks that are no longer in use.
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