'Diamonds' is a gem for baseball fans

Phil Jackman

October 04, 1993|By Phil Jackman

The name of the book is "Diamonds. The Evolution of the Ballpark. From Elysian Fields to Camden Yards." It's a big job (9"x12 1/2 "), so there's room for lots of words on the cover. And it's big in so many other ways, too.

A year ago, a book on Oriole Park was released, and it proved a solid effort. Before that, it was "Green Cathedrals," a hit. Back a ways was "The Ballparks," which doubles as a terrific doorstop.

One might guess this sudden spate of books on a subject pretty much ignored for a century qualifies as overkill, unnecessary duplication. But this effort by author Michael Gershman has to rank as the definitive word on the subject.

Gershman, a noted researcher on the game, carries with him a finely honed sense of the kind of information, anecdotes, oddities and trivia that will appeal to all fans, and he expertly weaves them into a flawlessly accurate narrative of the homes that have housed the game's greatness.

For instance, right in the middle of a chapter entitled "The First Classic Parks (1890-1900)," we are informed, "What we now call the hot dog was named in 1905 by Hearts cartoonist Thomas A. Dorgan, who signed his drawing TAD.

"A Polo Grounds regular, Dorgan drew a cartoon animating the sausage by placing an elongated dachshund on a bun. The dachshund was a facetious symbol for things German in the early 1900s and many people suspected the mixed meats in the sausage contained dog meat, or worse. When Dorgan heard a vendor yell, 'Get a red-hot dachshund sausage on a roll,' he was inspired to dub the concoction the 'hot dog' and the name stuck."

Or how about this one from Chapter 8, "Minor Adjustments and Expansion (1946-1964)":

"In the original blueprints, a radiant heating system, 35,000 feet of three-quarter-inch wrought iron pipe, was to be installed in the concrete floor [of Candlestick Park] to heat half the 42,553 seats with natural gas. Instead of installing the pipes an inch down, as required, the builders put them five inches deep, rendering them useless. Attorney Melvin Belli sued the city in 1962 and got the cost of his season tickets back by insisting that they had come with a temperature guarantee."

Gershman is not one to over-emphasize peculiarities and

peccadilloes like bored players sneaking out of the old Huntington Avenue Grounds in Boston for a quick pop in a saloon next door "during the games," however.

He is meticulous in his attention to historical detail, all the while adding insight on the way things were at the time events were happening. As the sale of the St. Louis Browns to Baltimore interests neared in 1953, for example, the author points out, "The Browns had finished seventh or eighth every year since 1946, save for a dizzying rise to sixth in 1948.

"In another era and a more forgiving city, they might have had the charm of, say, the early Mets; viewed next to the Cardinals, who finished first or second every year from 1941 to 1949, the Browns were an embarrassment." They had to be dispatched.

It is the parks and stadiums, though, that are the stars of this show with all the attending political and business in-fighting serving as co-stars and sub-plots.

Noted with reverence and disdain are the facts in which the so-called "Jewel Boxes," Fenway Park, Navin Field (Detroit), Ebbets Field and Wrigley Field, sprang into existence during a few short years (1912-14), while from 1977-89 four more stadiums arrived to Gershman's analysis: "Ballparks reeked of humanity until domes came along."

Under a picture of the Metrodome in a chapter entitled "The End of the Dark Ages" states a caption, "The Metrodome in Minneapolis looks like a circus tent on steroids."

While understandably enthralled with the new park here -- "right-center and right field at Camden Yards are a primer in ballpark nostalgia" -- Gershman isn't one to swoon easily. Of the new Comiskey Park, open just three seasons, he says:

"This is a ballpark without a heart, a superficially attractive environment where fans who decry 'the yuppies at Wrigley' are blind to lawyers in uniform gingerly elbowing their way through to the taco stand. Even though it's an open-air park with Play-All grass turf, baseball is secondary to chatting and people-watching. At a game here in 1991, I discovered that, in a section of 500 people, I was the only one scoring the game."

"Diamonds" with its classic illustrations and pictures, interesting graphs and informed prose is a great gift for the true ball fan who has everything (except a good seat at the ballpark) and five months to kill.

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