The Unbearable Whiteness of Paul Goldberger’s Ballpark

Baseball, America’s National Pastime, often serves as a representation of the nation. At the turn of the twentieth century, such unusual bedfellows as sporting goods magnate Albert Spalding and social reformer Jane Addams shared arguments that baseball represented America and served as a democratizing force. Since then, many others have picked up that mantle. Paul Goldberger, formerly the architecture critic of the New York Times and the New Yorker, is the latest in a long line with his new book, Ballpark: Baseball in the American City. Although he recognizes that baseball is not truly accessible to all, Goldberger argues that at its best, the game is a representation of America’s democracy, egalitarianism, and accessibility. Unintentionally, however, and despite frequent attempts to mask it, Goldberger’s book reveals that baseball is a representation of America, not at its aspirational best, but in its everyday realities of discrimination, exclusion, and inequality.

Goldberger sets out to link the development of baseball parks since their invention in the 1860s with the growth and change of American cities. He argues that the ballpark is a place where “the tension between the rural and the urban that has existed throughout American history” (vii) comes together in one location. Those arguments largely stand up, or at least are not egregiously threatened by the evidence Goldberger leaves out. That said, Goldberger’s book is not very good. It is riddled with factual errors, at times uses an unnecessarily confusing chronological structure, argues inconsistently, and relies on a smattering of secondary sources, entirely eschewing a wealth of primary sources that would complicate his narrative.

The biggest flaw in the book is Goldberger’s near total lack of analysis of race, class, and gender at the ballpark. Leaving that analysis out is the only way he can argue that ballparks are, at their best, a public space that is open to all Americans. Even the meager analysis of race, class, and gender that Goldberger provides reveals that ballparks were not accessible to all. When that limited evidence is mixed with just a touch of what Goldberger leaves out, the conclusion is unmistakable. Ballparks are a nearly perfect representation of a starkly and consciously divided America, not a democratic one.

To create the foundation for his argument that ballparks are akin to public spaces, Goldberger links their development to the development of rural cemeteries and city parks—particularly New York City’s Central Park—claiming that both were open to all. Plots in rural cemeteries, however, were far too expensive for most working-class urban residents to consider and cemeteries’ locations—far beyond the edge of cities, and often not in mass transit accessible areas—put them out of reach of most urban working-class Americans.

Similarly, Goldberger claims that Central Park’s designer, Frederick Law Olmsted, was determined “to make the park the property of no single group or class of New York’s citizens” and that “the park, in other words, was intended to be a democratizing force in urban life.” (19) It, however, was far from open to all. Park rules banned unaccompanied children and a host of games and activities (as simple as walking on the park’s grass) that were more likely to appeal to recent immigrants and working-class Americans. Goldberger recognizes that not “all activities would be allowed to take place within its [the park’s] borders.” (19) Yet, he writes that Olmsted’s “commitment to the democratic spirit of the park was deep and sincere.” (20) Despite these obvious contractions, Goldberger maintains that parks reflected the supposedly democratic nature of American life.

In reality, Central Park was only open to all if everyone behaved in accord with stereotypical understandings of appropriate behavior for middle- and upper-class Americans. The kinds of urban spaces Goldberger frames as the democratic and inclusive model copied by ballparks were themselves hegemonic spaces reproducing the cultural supremacy of native-born white male Americans. They were in no way democratic. His model for the inclusivity of the ballpark at their start was in itself exclusive, so too were those ballparks.

Goldberger insists that in the late nineteenth-century ballparks drew an economically diverse grouping of Americans, but his evidence only shows that they drew fans who wanted to behave differently. Some fans were more interested in raucously following along with the game and others doing so more quietly. To suggest, as he does, that working-class fans could not follow a game quietly, or that middle-class fans would not follow the game raucously, is specious at best.

Moreover, Goldberger recognizes that ballparks were economically segregated. He notes that early National League titans like William Hulbert and Albert Spalding intentionally constructed ballparks to separate upper-class fans from middle-class fans and exclude working-class fans entirely. He writes that in the 1960s Dodgers owner “[Walter] O’Malley, like Walt Disney, wanted to create a public experience in the city of private experiences, to expand the notion of an attractive public realm in a city notoriously short on public space. Like Disneyland, of course, O’Malley’s public space would not be truly public, and would require tickets at the gate.” (165) Goldberger acknowledges that there was an “economic divide that had always been present in baseball,” but continues to argue that ballparks were open to all. (227)

Goldberger never decides if ballparks are really a public space. He wants them to be, saying they are “spiritually public if legally private”  and that “the baseball park is a key part of American public space,” but also recognizes that they never truly are accessible. (viii) He closes his book by writing “public means for everyone, and it also means, by implication at least, that they are accessible to all.” (320) By his own definition, ballparks were nothing of the sort and yet he argues that they were—an argument that stands up if you only consider middle- and upper-class white men.

Goldberger certainly only thinks about men as baseball fans. Despite women’s long history of going to the ballpark, Goldberger only mentions female fans in passing. This void is simultaneously shocking and telling. It takes him 168 of his 321 pages to write that “[Walter] O’Malley wanted a benign experience that would attract not only the men who had traditionally been the core fans of most teams, but women and families.” (168) Up until that point, Goldberger did not mention that women were part of, yet not included as equals in, this supposedly public space.

Goldberger does not quite so fully ignore race as he does gender, but he did not give it the rich analysis it deserves. In addition to often not including non-white Americans in his understanding of baseball fans, Goldberger occasionally does not seem to consider non-whites as Americans at all. He writes, “we can see through baseball parks how Americans went from viewing their cities as central to the idea of community in the first decades of the twentieth century to wanting to run away from them in the decades after World War II, and then how we have tried in our own time to use baseball parks to get our cities back.” (viii) Similarly, he writes baseball “has been an indicator not only of our architectural taste, but also of our attitudes toward cities and community, our notions of public space, and our changing views about the nature of place.” (x) While those claims might be accurate for the majority of whites—the people Goldberger is referring to when he says “we” and “our,” even if he does not realize it—they do not apply nearly as accurately for non-whites. In describing cities before World War II, Goldberger calls them “disheveled, scrappy, and for the most part good-natured places” when they certainly did not feel like “good-natured places” to many black residents. (136) Goldberger’s framing of ballparks and urban spaces highlight how sports serve to perpetuate and recreate the hegemonic idea that the only Americans who matter are middle- and upper-class white men, the very people who consistently made up the vast majority of baseball crowds.

When Goldberger does discuss race he frequently hedges or uses coded language. In describing Red Sox’s owner Tom Yawkey, Goldberger writes that there is a “widely held belief that Yawkey is racist.” (87) When someone, as Yawkey reportedly did, interrupted Jackie Robinson’s 1945 Fenway Park tryout by yelling “Get those niggers off the field!” there’s no reason to say the belief was “widely held.” It’s just true .

The Red Sox under Yawkey were also the last MLB team to integrate—adding the recently-deceased Pumpsie Green to their roster in 1959, 12 years after Robinson debuted and two seasons after he had retired. The Red Sox acknowledged that Yawkey was a racist when they removed his name from the street outside Fenway Park in 2018. Goldberger also uses the full litany of dog-whistle code words to describe urban areas saying that “the old neighborhoods that had baseball parks at their heart began to seem tired, their shabbiness obscuring their strengths as social vehicles to bring people together.” (137) He writes often that those cities were in “decline.” Rather than use coded words to discuss actual segregation at ballparks like Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, Goldberger simply ignores this important aspect of ballparks entirely.

Goldberger does not analyze race and racism when he discusses urban areas in the second half of the twentieth century. He does not mention redlining or other forms of residential discrimination that shaped cities. Instead, he seems incapable of thinking about anyone other than white people living in cities. He even completely ahistorically claims that suburbs were “for all.” (137) He knows that the federal government “effectively subsidized the move of middle-class families” to the suburbs but does not acknowledge that those subsidies were essentially for whites only. (137)

Perhaps the most clear and obvious place to talk about the role of race in the change over time in ballparks would be in talking about the Dodgers and Giants’ moves to the West Coast following the 1957 season. Instead, in describing problems with the Giants’ home ballpark in New York, Goldberger notes, “there was minimal parking, and its site high on Coogan’s Bluff was in the northern reaches of Harlem, a part of the city that was not attractive to the Giants’ fan base, much of which, like that of all New York teams, had relocated to the suburbs.” (147) Goldberger uses the words “Harlem”—perhaps the most iconic black neighborhood in the country—and “suburbs”—white families’ refuge from increasingly non-white cities—in the same sentence and yet still does not talk about the role of race and racism at the ballpark.

Moreover, in a shockingly euro-centric framing of America, Goldberger claims that the residents of Chavez Ravine in the 1950s, then a Chicano neighborhood that the city of Los Angeles had mostly cleared of residents intending to build a housing project before red-scare politics derailed the plans, were “Mexican immigrants” and “Mexican families.” These families were Americans of Mexican ancestry, conceivably some of whom had been living in California since before it was a part of the United States. To call them “Mexican” and not “American” is both deeply offensive and a window onto the Goldberger’s understanding of America, or the Americans that matter, as all white.

Another seemingly obvious place to discuss race and racism stared Goldberger in the face when talking about the Chicago White Sox’s efforts to replace aging Comiskey Park. Goldberger wrote, “the team’s preferred site required the removal of roughly seventy-eight houses in a neighborhood called South Armour Square, most of which were occupied by African American families, and which the state and the city were prepared to condemn for the sake of getting the ballpark built.” (200) Despite saying that most of the families surrounding the White Sox’s ballpark on the South Side of Chicago were black, Goldberger never analyzes why the demographics of the city came to be that way or what impact that had on the ballpark. Goldberger’s refusal to analyze race continues into contemporary ballparks. Although he recognizes that the Braves’ new ballpark in suburban Atlanta, which opened in 2017, is not mass transit accessible and therefore nearly impossible to reach for most non-white residents of the greater Atlanta area, he cannot see that its very inaccessibility to non-whites fans might be the reason the team moved.

The one time that Goldberger actually begins to analyze the role of race and racism in baseball highlights how much that kind of analysis is wanting in the rest of his book. When discussing the debate over whether the Detroit Tigers should remodel nearly 90-year old Tiger Stadium, or have the city and state build a new park for the team, Goldberger recognizes that most of the advocates for keeping the old park were white Tigers fans and most of the public officials supporting the construction of a new park were black. Goldberger writes that these public officials felt little connection to Tiger Stadium because the team did not integrate until 1958. If Goldberg applied this kind of analysis throughout the book, it would properly cast both baseball and the America it represented in a very different light.

The lack of analysis of race, class, and gender leads Goldberger to make ahistorical and inconsistent claims—for instance, that ballparks of the 1990s and 2000s “were no longer representative of the diversity that has long been a critical part of baseball’s fan base, but instead, a way of withdrawing from the city into an upscale bubble.” (319) Ballparks were never truly representative of the diversity of cities. By design, major league baseball’s fan base has never been particularly diverse, and ballparks have always been a way of withdrawing from the city into an upscale bubble as Goldberger himself recognized in discussing the 1880s. And yet, on the same page, Goldberger writes that ballparks of the 1990s were “doing nothing that is not consistent with the history of the game, since the baseball park has long been far more than just a neutral venue for sport.” (319) On the following page, he writes “all of these places, from the original Sportsman’s Park with its beer garden in the outfield to the more recent Comerica Park with its Ferris wheel and other rides, were private zones that were created to offer a contrast to the disheveled, messy, and energetic city outside their gates.” (320)

Goldberger can’t have it both ways. He can’t argue that ballparks were democratic when all the evidence shows they were not. But the author cannot accept that evidence because he needs ballparks to be representative of what he sees as the best of urban life, the best of a democratic, inclusive, egalitarian America. In truth, ballparks are representative of American cities and American society, as exclusive places built on racial, gender, and class segregation and discrimination, but that analysis would not give Goldberger the uplifting argument he’s looking for. It would lead to analysis that pointed to the inexorable divisions that have always existed in American society.

Goldberger seems afraid to recognize that baseball was built on a framework of white supremacy and that team owners consistently worked to appeal directly and exclusively to white middle- and upper-class fans. It’s almost as though if he were to recognize the role of race and racism in shaping the design, location, and construction style of ballparks, not to mention the role of race and racism in the experience at the ballpark itself, the idea of America as a good nation of equality and democracy would fall apart. Goldberger sees ballparks as representative of the best of cities and cities are representative of the best of America. If ballparks are racist, then cities are racist, then America is racist, and all of its pronouncements about equality, democracy, and justice are outright fabrications unless you are a middle- or upper-class white man. The evidence for this stares Goldberger in the face, but he elides it by refusing to seriously analyze the role of race, class, and gender in everything he discusses.

Seth S. Tannenbaum earned his Ph.D. in American History from Temple University. He will be a Visiting Scholar in the Department of History at Drexel University during the 2019-2020 academic year. His manuscript in progress is tentatively titled “Ballparks As America: The Fan Experience at Major League Baseball Parks in the Twentieth Century.” You can follow him on Twitter at @SethSTannenbaum.