Thursday, August 29, 2013

It’s outta here: Remembering Veterans Stadium



It’s not hard to find stories in which somebody waxes nostalgic about the charming old ballpark that was a worthy cathedral to see the boys of summer play the great American pastime during his youth (blah blah blah). If home field during your youth was Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium, the setting of your baseball memories is much less fanciful. How did Philly end up with the concrete ugly duckling? 


When it opened, the "luxurious" Vet had seating for 56,000 baseball fans. Image courtesy of Card Cow.
 



By the early 1960s, Connie Mack Stadium was long in the tooth. Built when streetcars delivered fans to the ballpark, it didn’t have sufficient parking to suit the needs of the automobile age. After the Phillies threatened to flee to another city like the Philadelphia Athletics had done in 1954, the city got serious about building another venue.

In 1964, the first bond issue was approved, and Philadelphians were on their way to a new ballpark that would run up a construction tab of $45 million after cost overruns. (Recent reports noted that the final payment on the Vet’s bond issue will be made in 2014!) To get more for the money, the city decided to kill two birds with one stone, creating a stadium that would be home not just for the Phillies, but for the Eagles too.

The architects came up with a concrete bowl in the shape of an “octorad”—a geometric shape that made it possible to serve as both a football and a baseball stadium. Since its day dawned when the future had to be cast as something that looked nothing like the past, the stadium was sleek and functional. In the vein of being all things to all people, the new venue was even christened with a universal name—Veterans Stadium—honoring all veterans of all branches of the service of all times. 

The futuristic octorad was designed to serve baseball and football fans. Image courtesy of Card Cow.


In the beginning, people complimented the new baby. On opening day in 1971, the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin enthused, “It’s beautiful.” The Montreal Expos manager proclaimed the Vet the best new park in baseball and congratulated Philadelphia on taking the good things from all of the other new parks. The new venue did little to inspire the Phillies, who finished 67-95 in the park’s inaugural season.

After the novelty wore off, the Vet’s attempt to serve many ended up pleasing few, as spectators in the upper decks strained to watch the game through binoculars. The AstroTurf field surface was also a bust. The extra hard surface earned the nickname, “Field of Seams” because of its many gaps and uneven patches. It was blamed for numerous, including some career-ending, player injuries. In a way Veterans Stadium was emblematic of the 1970s—something that seemed “with it” when it debuted, but then quickly went out of fashion like earth shoes.

Were we duped? I guess it seems so since we only got 33 seasons out of the place. Especially if you consider that the Phillies’ predecessor venue—Shibe Park/Connie Mack Stadium hosted baseball games for 62 seasons. But we weren’t the only town to fall into the multipurpose stadium trap—Washington, DC, New York City and Houston, among others, tried similar designs.

How electronic billboards looked in primitive times.. Image courtesy of Card Cow.

 Just because it wasn’t pretty doesn’t mean I don’t have memories from the Vet. Watching the newly born Phillies Phanatic prance around while we broiled in the orange plastic seats on a steamy Sunday afternoon. Tracking stats for Greg Luzinski, MikeSchmidt and Steve Carlton on the primitive electronic scoreboard at games with my parents and brother. Discovering that the Vet wasn’t built for sound at a David Bowie concert. Seeing the railings wobble and shake as fans like my husband tried to egg the Phils on to victory in the 1993 World Series. 

And I suppose the Vet proves that looks aren’t everything. In spite of all of its warts, the Phillies managed to eke out seven National League East Division titles, three National League pennants and a World Series win during their time there.

Ten years ago, the Phillies played the final innings at the Vet and departed for the greener, all-natural grass infields of Citizens Bank Park, a new old-fashioned park designed to mimic the baseball palaces of earlier times. And the Vet was given a proper burial, imploded and repurposed as a parking lot.

Three things that aren't there any more--the Vet, the Spectrum and JFK Stadium. Image courtesy of Card Cow.


While the Vet was never charming, that’s okay. Historical places aren’t always picturesque, but they can be evocative of a time. The setting of my childhood baseball memories was gritty and utilitarian, but I suppose that lends a certain authenticity to the story.

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