Long before Ray Kinsella obeyed a mystical voice that urged him to cut a diamond into an Iowa cornfield, real voices called out to The Osborn Engineering Company of Cleveland to design or remake baseball stadiums in New York, Boston and elsewhere. The fields that Osborn dreamed up became such gems as Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park and the Polo Grounds. In the glorious era before concrete multipurpose structures with artificial grass became the sorry vogue, Osborn was the last word in baseball stadium design. An Osborn ballpark was a thing of genius, intimate and comfortable even though it was often wedged into an urban landscape already defined by streets and buildings.
The Osborn Company's first baseball job was rebuilding Cleveland's League Park, which opened in 1910. The firm also planned the 1911 rebuilding of New York's Polo Grounds following a fire. Osborn was responsible for designing Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. (1911), Detroit's Tiger Stadium (né Navin Field, later Briggs—1912), Braves Field in Boston (1915), Yankee Stadium (1923), Cleveland Municipal Stadium (1932—now simply Cleveland Stadium), Milwaukee's County Stadium (1953) and D.C. (later RFK) Stadium (1962). The company oversaw the redesign of Fenway Park, including the construction of its famous leftfield wall, in 1934. It also designed the expansions of Chicago's old Comiskey Park and of St. Louis's Sportsman's Park.
Osborn isn't quite as active as it once was in the stadium business—its last design for a new big league ballpark was for Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium, constructed in 1970. It designed modifications, including the historic addition of lights, for Chicago's Wrigley Field in 1988, and while it still solicits ballpark business, the company has many irons in the fire these days—office buildings, bridges and other major institutional and commercial projects.
But if Osborn is less a stadium superstar, the influence of its glory days lives on. In a relatively recent phenomenon, architects both at Osborn and at other firms are consciously trying to evoke the mood and flavor of the old parks through their contemporary stadium designs. The new Comiskey Park, which opened this spring in Chicago, is an example of a new-old stadium, as is the big league ballpark being built in Baltimore. "One of the things we learned from Osborn's work," says Janet Marie Smith, the Baltimore Orioles' vice-president for stadium planning and development, "was to make good urban-design decisions for a stadium that had the virtue of being a great place to watch baseball." Others agree; designs for prospective major league ball fields in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Arlington, Texas, are all of the new-old style.
The legacy of Osborn's golden sporting era has been preserved not only in spirit but also in fact. The original oversized, ink-on-linen-cloth drawings of some of the company's creations still exist. They are kept in a back room at the Osborn offices in downtown Cleveland.
In the unassuming lobby of Osborn's office suite hang framed pictures of several Osborn designs—Milwaukee's County Stadium, an Ohio insurance building and others. Within one of the glass-walled offices sits the keeper of the firm's sports history, director of architecture Dale Swearingen. He's no wizened archivist; a 1973 graduate of Kent State, Swearingen, 41, is a baby boomer through and through. But he keeps copies of Osborn's 76-year-old Braves Field designs beside his cluttered desk and sometimes gazes at them for inspiration. He admires the simplicity of the details—the pipe handrails, the steel trusses that supported the roof. "These stadiums are classics, they've stood the test of time," says Swearingen. "What is it about Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park or Wrigley Field that people say made them good, and that makes people think modern stadiums are bad? Is it a revolt against modern technology? I don't know. But I do know that no one wanted to tear those buildings down five years after they went up."
"God is in the details," said the famous German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. For Swearingen, God is in the details of Fenway Park's Green Monster or of old Yankee Stadium's distinctive upper-deck facade.
Not all of the company's designs have survived the decades, Swearingen says. Missing are the blueprints for work on the Polo Grounds, which featured a startling rooftop terra-cotta frieze. Also gone are the linens for Griffith Stadium and for what was then Navin Field.
The jewels that survive are kept in deep document drawers in Osborn's mail-and-blueprint room. There are sheaves of wrinkled treasures; each page has the weathered texture of an old glove. The drawings are very fine, the lines precise. These linens now serve as research for curious writers and as guides for designers seeking to evoke the old.
The Sinatra lament There Used to Be a Ballpark should be playing as Swearingen opens a drawer labeled YANKEE STADIUM: AMERICAN LEAGUE BASEBALL. He withdraws a linen dated Oct. 20, 1921. It is a rendering of the upper-deck facade, with each of the curved sections punctuated by nine small arches, which are in turn separated by columns topped with flagpoles. Swearingen pulls another illustration from the stack. It is of the YANKEE STADIUM lettering that once decorated the main entrance. Each letter stood three feet one inch high; the full name of the ballpark spread across 34 feet.