Should We Always Deride the Donut?

If anything, the “ugly era” actually contributed to the aesthetic of Orioles Park at Camden Yards. (via Jim, the Photographer)

When Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened in Baltimore in 1992, it marked a turning point for baseball—and for American cities. Camden was a recreation of the classic pre-war neighborhood ballpark. With its tight urban siting, pedestrianized thoroughfare, and dramatic downtown views, Camden recycled not only elements of the physical landscape—most prominently, the B&O Warehouse out beyond right field—but the history of baseball in cities itself.

Through Camden, Baltimore was saying that baseball would be, once again, of a place. It was a forward-thinking stroke through retrograde design, a cue to a certain monied populace that downtowns were again places of leisure and entertainment and safe to congregate.

Other cities got the message. Since Camden opened, baseball has gauzily basked through nearly 30 years of nostalgic architecture, repurposing history for something that feels contemporarily authentic. Popular and critical opinion has generally expressed a preference for the neo-retro ballpark, inspiring praise of baseball’s timeless place in the city while almost universally deriding the soulless Modernism of the concrete donut stadium. This sentiment is finding new, nuanced expression in architecture critic Paul Goldberger’s latest book, Ballpark: Baseball in the American City, which picks up on classics like Phil Bess’ City Baseball Magic.

It makes sense that baseball would have adopted a revisionist approach toward the places in which it’s played. A large swath of its fandom, and even more of its professional class—the writers and broadcasters who give voice to the game—trade ecstatically in what seem to be the sport’s hard-coded narratives: finding the pastoral in the urban, timelessness over constraints, playing by the “unwritten rules.” This backward lens of viewing the game has coated it in stars-and-stripes amber, a self-reflective and anxious strain that has existed since its beginnings, and has been amplified ever since Camden Yards opened in 1992, grafting onto an ever-evolving sport, a conservative creep.

But in the rush to (re)capture an assumed past, has some of the game’s personality been lost? Did the “ugly era” of concrete donuts produce a more vibrant cultural space for the game’s character and expressiveness, and perhaps produce a more vibrant game?

An oft-used argument against Modernism was that it deadened the places in which it took root. And while this was often the case of the relationship of the concrete donut to its surroundings, flanked as it was by acres of asphalt for parking, a brief read of baseball’s material culture at the time indicates otherwise.

The concrete donut era brought baseball Rollie Fingers’ mustache, clad in the A’s gold-and-green, who would sometimes clash, in every sense of the word, in technicolor contests with the electric orange Orioles, when Jim Palmer wasn’t modeling his Jockeys. It was when, with baseball’s frontiers settled, room was made for the San Diego Chicken and Morgana, the Kissing Bandit and big, vocal personalities like Dock Ellis and Bill “Spaceman” Lee, who spoke truth to power from mounds in the middle of modern baseball bunkers, wearing uniforms that were as yellow as a crayon and so flamboyant as to appear foreign. Much of this territory, at least focused on the 1970s, is covered by Dan Epstein’s Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ‘70s, and much of the material changes are reflective of larger bohemian ideals seeping into the mainstream.

This growing sense of openness continued into the 1980s: In a diversity that saw an expanding Hispanic population, reaching 15.6% of the game’s makeup by 1992, complementing what was a watermark era of African-American participation, rising from less than 10% of the game’s demographic in 1961 to crest between 16-18% from 1972-1996. In Ozzie Smith’s defensive acrobatics. In Roger McDowell’s kangaroo court.

Responding to changed field conditions—think: larger ballparks plus Astroturf—baseball became a game of speed to a degree it hadn’t been in decades. As SABR’s John McMurray found, there were more stolen bases than home runs in 1976, the year the A’s stole a still-record 341 bags. The trend continued. In 1985, the Cardinals stole 314. In 1987, 3,585 bases were stolen, more than in any other season.

Cumulative ERAs across baseball averaged 3.72 from 1969-1990. Hits averaged 8.75 per game across the same time span. Home runs were hit at a clip of 0.78 per game from 1969-1990. From 2012 through the present season, there has been an average of 1.1 homers per game. These statistical comparisons are meaningless, except for the fact that many of the prognosticating class who have embraced the nostalgic trappings of the faux-retro ballpark are the same chatterers who bemoan the “three true outcomes” of the game played today. The dynamism they are pining for is the game of the concrete donut.

And let’s not forget how those concrete donuts and domes themselves could be employed as 10th men in the outfield. The Twins exemplified this best, employing the Metrodome as a home-run vacuum while deafening opponents. The bland, suburbanized multipurpose donut was in fact a laboratory of dissolving boundaries and experimentation, both within the game and within the game’s culture. It speaks to an era when baseball, building off its earlier color-barrier breaking years and westward push, could be seen as a progressive force.

This isn’t to suggest that baseball was progressive or that its shape-shifting and boundary-pushing happened only because of the concrete donut. But it’s worth noting that the era’s most regressive event, “Disco Demolition Night,” in which an angry crowd of predominantly white spectators rioted with glee in burning the artifacts of a predominantly black music, took place in an old baseball palace, the fading grandeur of Chicago’s Comiskey Park.

Baseball was but one—albeit a large—domino to help recast American cities as great good places in the public mind. Beginning in the late 1980s and through the early 2000s, the media backdrop of cities as where the young find fun, sex and themselves—insert “Friends” and “Seinfeld” references here—predominated. The musician and cultural critic Ian Svenonius, writing in his 2006 book, The Psychic Soviet, even coined the phrase “Seinfeld Syndrome” to describe the way in which the show would catalyze the repurposing of city space for entertainment and developer’s needs.

Camden Yards debuted at this time, which is also when the town planning theory “New Urbanism” began to hold sway in architectural and planning circles. New Urbanism, according to the charter issued by its namesake organization, the Congress for the New Urbanism (disclosure: this writer worked for CNU as the director of communications from 2011-2013), stands for “the reconfiguration of sprawling suburbs into communities of real neighborhoods.” It advocates for walkability, connected streets, and human-scaled architecture that puts people first. It is difficult to argue with its core set of urban planning principles.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Yet as an architectural discipline made manifest, there have been issues of equity, design, and its sense of a simulacrum of authenticity, as in the exclusive Florida communities of Seaside, of “Truman Show” fame, and the Disney-developed Celebration. New Urbanism undergirds, at least in theory, many of the neo-traditionalist ballparks that have been built since Camden. That disconnect between intent and application, the tension between fake and real, can be felt in ballparks like Cleveland’s Progressive Field and St. Louis’ Busch Stadium. If you squint, they all look the same, a somewhat ironic turn given the supposed sameness of the damned donut park.

By definition, architecture attempts to prescribe the definitions of place. It is difficult to divorce the values and social structures embedded in architectural ideas from the architecture that then takes shape. The impulse to break free from rigid, or spent, definitions of place is what drove the initial Bauhaus and Modernist movements—to move beyond the dead ideals of old Europe and its wars.

In the United States, a return to pre-war urbanism is, for many who came of age in suburbia, significant of nothing but an adult playground; to many others, it signals a return to a time when they were not welcome. Those architectural forms are emblems of exclusion. To re-appropriate a traditionalist form is just one point Chris Rock eloquently makes while comically and mournfully noting that many Black New Yorkers today, removed from the days of Shea, ask, “What the f— is a Met?”

Engaging in nostalgic practices for the concrete donut, of course, is to engage in the same sort of practices that eventually gave rise to the neo-retro park, of which many—Pittsburgh’s PNC Park, San Francisco’s Oracle Park and certainly, Camden, for starters—remain magisterial. And of the extant midcentury ballparks, the Emil Praeger-designed Dodger Stadium, always considered a tier or two above the stadiums of the time, is endlessly lauded—and nightly packed. Across the freeway in Anaheim, over 37,000 show up nightly to see the always-maybe-next-year-in-Los-Angeles Angels.

Casting blame or praise solely on design typologies limits and lessens the agency of those responsible for shaping—and challenging—the ways in which our collective spaces are used. Baseball is a living game. Like its styles of play, notions about where and how it should be played will shift. This is important to pay attention to because in the cyclical nature of popular culture, the concrete donut era of Modernism and its cousin, Brutalism, is having a moment.

We’re at a point in history where many Modernist buildings are approaching their 50th and 60th birthdays, gracefully aging into the time when, where it’s warranted, historic preservation status applies. Mad Men still casts a cool of midcentury modern over the culture. The same sort of motivated individuals who felt that traditional cityscapes of lore were under threat by Modernism in the 1960s are the same sort of folk who may view the vulnerability of Modernist landmarks defensively. In short, Modernism is being charged with the energy that it was initially fought against, and the idea of the concrete donut—if it can be incorporated into the urban fabric more seamlessly—may come into vogue once more.

More so for baseball though, it’s the idea, or rather, ideas, that the concrete donut signifies. Whatever one’s architectural analysis of the concrete donut era, it was a time where the game and its materiality were confronted by flexible forms of identity, of design, of personality. Whether consciously or not, the neo-retro trend has coincided with a conservative crisis of conscience in baseball. In an attempt to build something aspirational representing the spirit of the game’s past, something that’s supposed to feel foundational, a feeling of fixity has set in. The game, or at least the culture trapping it, feels fixed. 

But it only feels like that. Baseball isn’t fixed. Its foundation is and should remain flexible, which is perhaps the biggest lesson the concrete donut era provides.

Perhaps the A’s, hoping something BIG happens with their hoped-for waterfront home, should temper desires for moving or bust. Tampa Bay, pulling out all sorts of Hail Marys to move out of the last remaining fully-enclosed dome, Tropicana Field,  is playing fantasy footsie with Montreal, where the starkly modern Olympic Stadium sits empty—except when it’s packed to the gills during now-annual Blue Jays exhibition games.

Maybe the Rays really will go to Montreal. Maybe, with a new narrative around the era of the donut and a recognition of how delicious and rich that time in baseball actually was, the Rays can simply move into Olympic Stadium. And if they did, we would know one thing for certain: It would sound great.

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Dennis Bedard
4 years ago

Architecture, and not by design, has always reflected the prevailing culture and ethos of the times. And so it is with the concrete caverns. These behemoths were in line with sprawling suburbia, shopping malls, and interstate highways, to name just a few. Their raison d’être, so to speak, was economies of scale. Build something that can accommodate football, baseball, soccer, and rock concerts and put in enough parking lots to pack them to capacity. They also recognized that the old ball parks were an accident of geography, built so that Mrs. Horowitz could still hang her clothes in the sunlight every morning. It says something about the maturation of our country that when these soulless “donuts” become outdated, we become nostalgic and turn to the past to build the future. As a footnote, you gotta love your quote: “in which an angry crowd. . .” of white spectators rioted. NO! The operative word here is “DRUNK.” If you are writing about Disco Demolition night, you must include “Ten Cent Beer Night” in Cleveland in 1974, another promotional fiasco never to be repeated.

4 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Bedard

You never know, though. In 1987, the St. Louis Cardinals hosted Seat Cushion Night, which ended in a walk-off win and hundreds if not thousands of seat cushions thrown on the field. It was said that the event would never be repeated. They were wrong. In 2006, the Cardinals again hosted Seat Cushion Night. Once again, there was a walk-off victory (breaking an 8-game losing streak), which caused it to rain seat cushions once again. (I’ve always wondered if my Dad is the only person who attended both games and never threw a seat cushion.) I’m pretty sure there won’t ever be a third attempt, though…

4 years ago

This is one of the best articles I’ve read on THT in a long time. Please write a book about baseball architecture, and in the meantime I will read everything else you’ve written.

Barney Coolio
4 years ago

I did appreciate the utilitarian aspects of the donuts. Having a separate stadium for the NFL seems really wasteful. But the modern stadiums are just too good. Being able to easily take public transit to downtown San Diego or San Francisco is really nice. I have never seen a game in Pittsburgh, and I know 3 Rivers was downtown, but that park looks amazing.

Chungus Khanmember
4 years ago

Great read. I have always been fond of the donuts, at least the better ones, perhaps because they were the parks of my childhood. But they had such fun seating maps and odd little quirks too. And when done nicely, like Busch, could be interesting architecturally too. I also loved the byzantine mazes of ramps and such.

4 years ago

The A’s new stadium plan deserved more mention here. It’s exactly what you are calling for in that it’s a departure from neo-classical architecture. In play style, it does look like the same jewel box we’ve seen, but style-wise it’s a sleek, futuristic hobbit hole.

4 years ago

One paragraph in and I knew this was eventually going to devolve into a defense of the Bauhaus movement and Brutalist architecture. There is a reason that all across the world as we woke from the stupor of our concrete fueled binge during the 50’s and 60’s and beheld these monstrosities with sobering eyes that we recoiled in horror at what our wild indiscretions begat. The return to the retro-styled community nestled stadiums was simply a return to sanity, following a dark nihilistic period. Likewise, every blighted building that descending from that retched incubation of the Bauhaus school that is removed from this earth is simply a step towards a better world.

4 years ago

“which an angry crowd of predominantly white spectators”

Nonsense. They weren’t angry, they were drunk. Ask anyone who was there or read the newspaper accounts.

Also, exactly what do you think their race had to do with it? That descriptor should have been left out, for obvious reasons.

The error and the racist reference about something I do know about makes me wonder how much else of this article is also in error.

Dennis Bedard
4 years ago
Reply to  Johnston

Good point. Race has absolutely nothing to do with the event and is a gratuitously politically correct comment meant to demean the fans as racists. But the rest of the article is spot on. It has the makings of a book that would be required reading in most college courses on architectural history ( this assumes that colleges still teach the subject).

4 years ago
Reply to  Johnston

There’s an extensive literature documenting the disco backlash as a reaction to music that was coded as black and queer, if you care to peruse it. The race of the rioters in this case was absolutely relevant when referring to the regressive nature of the event.

4 years ago
Reply to  3cardmonty

There is extensive literature documenting that Shakespeare was not the author of his plays. And likewise, very little of it is compelling. White america had been appropriating or outright stealing black music since the early 30’s. So the argument that the backlash to disco due to it being coded black is one I find very unconvincing. As for gay coding, the public at large were clueless about Liberace until the late 80’s. They were pretty oblivious to the “gay coding” in disco music. There are an extensive number of reasons that Disco music faced backlash in a mid-western city and most of them are more closely related to class and regional distinctions (Disco at the time was largely considered music for the the Coastal elites instead of working class mid-america) And leaving out the contributing effect of the 10-cent beer night when attempting to frame the disaster of the promotion is intellectually negligent at best.

4 years ago

Read and enjoyed Goldberger’s book (which I would highly recommend to anyone who’s interested in this stuff). I’m not totally convinced by this defense of the concrete doughnut stadium, but linking the style of baseball to the much-derided Astroturf is an interesting point. (Of course, most stadiums never had Astroturf.)

I do agree that the retro design era ushered in by Camden Yards is to some extent creating simulacra of urban integration, which is something Goldberger explores in his book. You really can’t go back to the design philosophy and constraints that created Fenway or the Polo Grounds, because cities and stadiums just aren’t planned that way anymore–cramming major buildings into oddly-shaped lots that have to fit themselves around existing features.

4 years ago

The cookie cutter ballparks definitely had their issues, but they were never ugly! There’s a certain attraction to the pure symmetry of the design.

Meanwhile, overly weird features like the Green Monster and (previously) Tau’s Hill are much uglier!

4 years ago

I always preferred to call these stadiums ashtrays, as I thought they were as harmful and ugly as smoking.

Correlation is not causation and Rollie Fingers mustache and Bill Lee’s spaciness have f—all to do with “donuts”.

Because of their multi-purpose nature and round shape the seats were on average further from the field and at a worse angle than more modern purpose built baseball facilities.

I think that the better balance between power and speed which made baseball in that era greater than before or since did have a lot to do with Turf, which we don’t want to bring back because of the injury issues. (And no, that wasn’t my childhood/adolescence.)

Dave T
4 years ago

Both Dennis Bedard and kds address an issue that the author ignores: one of the practical complaints about the “cookie cutter” stadiums was that, in trying to accommodate both baseball and football, they made compromises that resulted in a worse fan experience than stadiums purpose-built for one of the two sports.

Sight lines and seat configuration weren’t great for baseball, but they also didn’t concentrate most seating behind the two sidelines as is preferable for football. Stadium seating capacity was larger than ideal for baseball but smaller than ideal for football.

I agree that there are other aesthetic considerations separate from those practical differences. It’s telling, however, that the author singles out Dodger Stadium – which was purpose-built for baseball – as better regarded than other stadiums of the era.

Chuck Bigby
4 years ago

My question is, how much could they change Stade Olympique to build a better aesthetic? Can they reshape the outfield with bullpen insertions and whatnot?

One thing is for certain, the stadium occupies a huge volume. That upper deck has zero intimacy for baseball and isn’t going anywhere either.

4 years ago
Reply to  Chuck Bigby

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