Baseball's homes plated in Lowry's stadium sojourn

Phil Jackman

March 11, 1992|By Phil Jackman

Phil Lowry is the type guy who would hop aboard a plane in Minneapolis and head to Baltimore just to take a look at the new ballpark. In fact, he did a couple of years ago just as the first shovelful of dirt was being turned at Camden Yards.

Our story begins about a decade ago when Lowry decided to do something about the monstrous oversight of a lack of a really good history of the ballparks serving major league baseball and the Negro Leagues since 1871.

A newcomer to the Society of American Baseball Research, he was encouraged by fellow members to get going on the project, many of the old-timers contributing counsel and knowledge.

The research and a draft were completed in 1983, but it wasn't until three years later the treatise was published in soft cover. Circulation was restricted to SABR members only and they were asked to correct or add to the manuscript.

The end result, "Green Cathedrals," due out in hard cover Friday ($24.95), is a classic. It's everything you wanted to know about parks, stadiums, fields and domes, not only the fabled ballyards of the American and National Leagues, but about the long-since forgotten playing fields such as Jailhouse Flats in Fort Wayne, Ind., which served as the Cleveland Bronchos' home away from home in the 1902 AL.

Then there's Perry Park in Keokuk, Iowa, home of the Keokuk Westerns of the National Association in 1875. Perry, it seems, had two lakes in centerfield, "which some outfielders fell into while chasing flyballs."

It was shortly after approval for the downtown park in May of 1988 that Lowry got word the Orioles had a strong inclination toward an old-fashioned type edifice that would blend in with the surroundings of downtown Baltimore.

While attending a SABR convention here, he talked to Orioles officials, soon noting "they were convinced that parks of the future would be taking on the looks of the ones constructed in the 1910s-20s.

"We talked about how to make it look like the old ballparks: different heights on the fences, different distances to the foul poles and in the power alleys. Little nooks and crannies being incorporated to give it a soul, saying 'This is Baltimore.' "

Phil Lowry got a hint of what it will be like to be accepted into heaven.

"I had tried to talk with all the people building parks in the late '60s and early '70s, but they all decided to go the same way; in other words, draw a circle in the middle of a parking lot. It was by no means best for the game.

"Baltimore has started a trend with its asymmetrical park; Texas [Rangers] is committed to something similar. Cleveland is thinking about it. It's real encouraging to see something different moving in."

If Lowry had his way and before too much longer, he'd like to see someone pull out the blueprints for the old Polo Grounds in New York and build it all over again:

"You can't build a better park than that one, right down to the 247-foot foul pole atop a high wall in rightfield to the 505-foot sign in centerfield.

"The Polo Grounds made the game different, unique. One of the big things lost in all these new parks is the long triple. There are no gaps anymore with a park being 330 down the line, 370 in the power alleys and 410 to centerfield. Forbes Field in Pittsburgh used to reward speed."

Lowry knows about old Forbes firsthand because that's where it all started for him back during his adolescent days: "It was before television, or at least we didn't have one, and my father used to take me to games and we always used to sit in the same place in the bleachers. It was a dollar for him, a quarter for me.

"I loved that place and it made me want to listen to as many games as I could pick up on the radio. I'd listen and wonder what parks in other cities were like. We used to have a paper in Pittsburgh called the Sun-Telegraph and it used to run a lot of pictures on baseball every day. You'd get an idea of what places like Wrigley Field or Ebbets Field or Sportsman's Park were like.

"But I had to see for myself. After going to school in Boston, I was in the service for six years and no matter where I was, I'd head for the nearest park just to see it." The obsession spread. No ballpark was too small, too out of the way to earn a visit from Phil.

All the while, the systems engineer with a master's from Harvard Business School now teaching took copious notes. He could pick up a good anecdote about a ballpark, past or present, half a county away.

"That first book on the parks was rather rough," he says. "This one is 95 percent new. You wouldn't believe the flood of information that came in from SABR members and just about everywhere else the last few years."

In a short history of all the parks that ever served major league baseball or the Negro Leagues is an interesting series of notes dubbed "Phenomena." Even the most devout Baltimore baseball historian may be surprised to learn OPACY follows 14 other parks here beginning with the Madison Avenue Grounds, which hosted a National Association Washington Olympics game in 1871.

Phil Lowry has a book out on all the arenas ever used by NBA teams and, quite frankly, I can't wait to get my mitts on that baby.

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