Football, Baseball, and the Era of the “Superstadium”

I don’t know about you, but I spent my weekend, along with millions and millions of others, watching football. On Saturday, I watched my hometown Fresno State Bulldogs blow their chance to beat my adoptive hometown Wisconsin Badgers in double-overtime and, on Sunday, I watched the Packers beat the Bears in a mostly-ugly Sunday night matchup. (Okay, so maybe I didn’t watch nearly as much football as most others did. Still…) Watching the games, though, and following along with all of the football chatter on places like Twitter and Facebook, I started thinking about just how big the NFL is these days. With today’s fantasy football culture, the once-a-week-event nature of the sport, the enormous television contracts, and everything else the NFL has going for it, it’s incredibly impressive what the league has turned itself into. Other business-owners and sports-commissioners can only look on the NFL with envy.

It’s easy to forget, then, just how closely the two sports – baseball and football – were tied together in the 1960s and 1970s. That, of course, was the time when the large multi-use stadiums were being built across the country. From the opening of RFK Stadium in 1961 (then called DC Stadium) and the highly-anticipated Astrodome in 1965 through the likes of Veterans Stadium (1970), the Kingdome (1976) and all the way up to the Metrodome (1982) and Tropicana Field (1990), the multi-use stadium fad swept the country as cities fought to modernize. From the Wikipedia article:

“The advantage to a multi-purpose stadium is that a singular infrastructure and piece of real estate can support both teams in terms of transportation and playing area, and money (often public money) that would have been spent to support infrastructure for two stadiums could be spent elsewhere. Also playing into the advent of the multi-purpose stadium was Americans’ growing use of automobiles as a form of transportation, and therefore the need for professional sports stadiums to accommodate parking. As most cities lacked the space to construct the stadiums with necessary parking lots near their city centers, most multi-purpose stadiums were built in suburbs, away from the city centers but near freeways or highways.

A subset of the multipurpose stadiums were the so called “cookie-cutter stadiums” or “concrete donuts” which were all very similar in design. They featured a completely circular or nearly circular design, football fields that were accommodated by rotating sections of the box seat areas to fit the football layout better. These fields often used artificial turf. The first of these stadiums was RFK Stadium. It was followed during the 1960s and 1970’s by Shea Stadium, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, the Astrodome, Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, San Diego Stadium, Riverfront Stadium, Busch Memorial Stadium, Three Rivers Stadium, Veterans Stadium, the Kingdome, and the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome.”

San Francisco’s Candlestick Park and California’s Anaheim Stadium were also converted into multi-use facilities shortly after they opened.

Now, we all know how this fad played out: after infecting a large percentage of the leagues, people soon realized that, while their multi-use stadium may be acceptable for both sports, they were never good for either. The stadiums lacked personality, the seating was poor in both configurations, and the fields, whether grass or astroturf, were unpleasant. By the mid-’90s, when Atlanta replaced Fulton County Stadium with Turner Field, the cities were looking to either replace or renovate their barely-30-year old stadiums. And, thanks to Bud Selig, they did, with only three stadiums still in use today for both football and baseball (four if you count Toronto, though one is being retired this year and another has city approval to build a new stadium sometime soon).

But, in the 1960s as these modern stadiums were being built, it was hard to know that this is how they would turn out. Indeed, the feeling at the time was one of excitement and awe at the technology that was being used to make these stadiums a reality and at the amenities that were being offered. A look at some old Popular Science magazines from the era provide a good glimpse of this:

(Please click “Read More” to continue reading.)

Indoor air-conditioning in August in Houston at a baseball game?! This July 1964 feature gushes:

“There’ll be no sweat for the Houston Colts when they open their 1965 National League season in this domed ball park. It’s air-conditioned. A 6,000-ton cooling system circulating 2.5 million cubic feet of air per minute will keep temperature a constant 74 degrees regardless of body heat generated by 45,000 baseball or 66,000 boxing fans on the hottest, most humid day in August. Fresh air will be drawn in at the rate of 250,000 cubic feet a minute, smoke and hot air forced out.”

Grandstands that can be wheeled around the ballpark? Very neat, according to this July 1960 piece:

“Part of the new baseball-football stadium to be completed next year in Washington, DC, will roll on wheels.

One 400-foot lower grandstand section, including a built-in dugout, will rest on 83 steel wheels 24 inches in diamter. It will reach from the first-base line at home plate to the left-field foul line.

At the close of the baseball season, the section will be pulled by tractors on two tracks – one bolted to the stadium wall, the other buried underground in the outfield. Gaps at the two will be filled with temporary seats.”

Watching a TV replay with 60,000 of my closest friends? Why, that’s as good as being at home, says this April 1973 issue:

“Perhaps the most startling thing you’ll encounter while viewing an event from you theater-type seat in this sports palace [Louisiana’s Superdome] will be a hexagonal TV gondola hanging from the ceiling. It will contain six 22-by-26-foot Eidophor TV screens that will ffer instant slow motion replays of events you’ve just seen on the field, or closeups of speakers standing hundreds of feet from your seat so you can see facial expressions not ordinarily visible at that distance. This means you’ll never see less than someone who is watching on a home screen. No matter where you sit, the giant TV screen will never appear smaller than the image you’d see on a three-square-foot TV screen at a distance of 10 feet.”

The best example of just how excited people were for this new era of multi-use stadiums, though, can probably be found in this November 1973 piece, titled “Who’s ahead in the superstadium game?” The article details some of the history behind each of the newer (and not-yet-built) stadiums, from the Astrodome to the “no frills structure erected in Foxboro, Mass.” and beyond, to the stadium about to be built in “an area in New Jersey known as the Hackensack Meadows.” While the entire article is worth taking a look at, the attitude towards these “superstadiums” that it conveys can be summed up nicely with this quote:

“At groundbreaking ceremonies on a snowy November day, Sonny Werblin spoke in the true spirit of the stadium builder as he surveyed the expanse of garbage-littered marsh: ‘We will stand here again someday and marvel together at what men of determination, good will and strong faith can achieve. The Good Lord willing, we will transform what is before you today into an area of beauty, excitement and pleasure for you, your children and generations to come.'”

What makes that quote particularly great is that the stadium he is referring to (Giants Stadium) will, of course, be demolished next year to make room for another, more modern stadium. That’s just how things are these days, as the MLB and NFL continue to grow and grow. It’s amazing that, only 35 years ago, their fortunes were so closely intwined that they were building stadiums together. How times have changed.

Larry Granillo

About Larry Granillo

Larry Granillo has been writing Wezen Ball since 2008 and has dealt with such touchy topics as Charlie Brown's baseball stats and Ferris Bueller's day off. In 2010, he got the bright idea to time every home run trot in baseball; he has been missing ever since.