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A consumer's guide to the best and worst of sports media and merchandise. Ground rules: If it can be read, played, heard, observed, worn, viewed, dialed or downloaded, it's in play here.

July 19, 1999|STEVE PRATT

What: "Modern Marvels: Baseball Parks"

Where: The History Channel, tonight, 7 and 11

From the first ballpark built in 1862 to the first super stadium in 1922 to the "concrete doughnuts" of the 1960s and finally to the retro-stadiums such as Camden Yards in Baltimore, the History Channel's "Modern Marvels: Baseball Parks" takes a look at the evolution of ballparks in America. With cities such as San Diego, San Francisco and Houston looking to duplicate what Baltimore, Cleveland and Denver have done with their downtown stadiums, it is easy to see why team owners are working with city planners to return to baseball's earliest roots, providing an intimate, baseball-only, fan-friendly setting.

The first ballpark, Union Grounds in Brooklyn, was built to keep people from watching the fast-growing sport of baseball for free. Considered large for the time, it had seats for only 1,500 people, was made of wood and was horse-shoe shaped. As the game grew, similar stadiums began popping up on the East Coast. But ballparks built in the heart of the city were susceptible to fire--21 burned down in the 1890s, the result of discarded cigars and smoldering matches.

Before each commercial break of the one-hour program, interesting facts are shown about ballparks. For instance: In 1905, red hot dachshunds on a roll were popular items at ballparks. The name was eventually shortened to hot dogs after a newspaper columnist complained he couldn't spell dachshund.

From 1909 to 1914, ballpark construction went through a golden age. Eleven ballparks such as Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park in Chicago, Fenway Park in Boston, Shibe Park in Philadelphia and Ebbets Field in Brooklyn would rise as shrines to baseball. The new stadiums were safer and more durable and eventually led to the construction of hallowed Yankee Stadium, which was the first designed with three tiers rising behind home plate and could seat 75,000. It was built for $2 million.

The 1960s brought multipurpose facilities that could be used for football and other events. Stadiums such as Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati and Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia did not have the character of the ballparks they replaced. From 1970 to 1989, only one stadium was built for baseball only, Royals Stadium in Kansas City. In 1965, the Astrodome opened in Houston and was dubbed the "Eighth Wonder of the World." The first domed stadium was home of the luxury suite and featured a bowling alley, barber shop and chapel.

Today's ballpark is a city unto itself. Stadiums provide food, shelter, medicine and sanitation. At a typical game, fans buy 26,000 hot dogs and sausages, 37,000 cups of soda and beer and loads of popcorn, peanuts and pretzels. Watching "Modern Marvels: Baseball Parks" reminds you just how special a day at the park can be.

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