Wednesday, March 10, 2021

The Crowds Will Come Back, Sooner Than You Think

"It'll be a long time before I go to an event with a big crowd again."

First of all, that's a lie. The big crowds will be back, sooner than you think. And you'll be back, sooner than you think. While Alabama is planning on full crowds at Bryant-Denny Stadium this fall, The Texas Rangers are going to have no seating restrictions and potentially a full house at their season opener in a matter of weeks.

The proof of attendance jumping quickly after a pandemic is easy to find, because it's what happened 100 years ago during the last pandemic. I could go back to the plagues in the 1500's that are described almost off-handedly in the book I'm reading about the Renaissance and that the theatre continued most places, but sports attendance is the most relatable.

More stadiums were built in the five years following the 1918 pandemic then at any other time in American Sports History. There were dozens. Lots of them are still around, and most of them are considered iconic.

Yankee Stadium, Opening Day, April 1923
Yankee Stadium, Opening Day, April 18, 1923

Three of them, just for a start: The Rose Bowl, the original Yankee Stadium, and whichever other college football stadium is your favorite. You may think I'm being flippant in that regard, but 17 college football stadiums built between 1919 and 1924 are still in use. 

Among them? Ohio Stadium, LSU's Tiger Stadium, Neyland Stadium, the L.A. Coliseum, Spartan Stadium, Stanford Stadium, and nearly anything named Memorial Stadium (Cal, Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, etc.). I didn't even count Solider Field and it was built in 1924.

14 more great college stadiums still in use were built by 1930. Legion Field, Bryant-Denny, Michigan Stadium, Kinnick, Sanford. The first proper build-out of Kyle Field to make it a stadium happened in 1927 and therefore counts here since I'm making the list. 

A mere 13 total stadiums still in use were built in the entire decade of the 1930's, including Notre Dame Stadium.

As a track and field fan I would be remiss not to mention Oregon's famed Hayward Field, originally built mostly as a football venue for the Ducks, but gaining more fame in the track world- that opened in 1919, too.

More great stadiums were built in that 1919-1924 era found the wrecking ball. In addition to the Original Yankee Stadium, there's Kansas City's Mulebach Field/Municipal Stadium, opened in 1923. West Virginia's original Mountaineer Field opened in 1924. The original Memorial Stadium in Baltimore opened in 1922. Minnesota's Memorial Stadium, home to the Golden Gophers during their glory years in the 30's and 40's, opened in 1924. San Francsico's Kezar Stadium, the original home of the 49ers and Raiders, took a year to build and opened in 1925. Pitt Stadium where Tony Dorsett and Dan Marino first garnered national attention, took less than a year to build and opened in 1925.

When the Yale Bowl opened in the fall of 1914, it was the biggest stadium in America at a 70,000 capacity. Hardly a venue in America even approached 50,000 spectators at that point and the biggest stadiums were all baseball parks. Consider the now-iconic venues built between 1909-1914- Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, Comiskey Park, Tiger Stadium, Forbes Field, Ebbets Field. None of them surpassed 40,000. Fenway was one of the biggest at 35,000, a number they are still pretty much at today and the park is considered small. 

1911 World Series at the Polo Grounds

New York's famed Polo Grounds was considered a huge ballpark at the time, and it was, size-wise, with its unique horseshoe shape resulting in a center field fence varying from 460 to 480 feet from home plate. Burnt almost completely to the ground in early 1911, it was completely rebuilt by that summer (permits? regulations? what are those?) and an "overflow crowd" was considered 38,000. The Yale Bowl blew by every stadium mentioned, in some cases double the capacity (or more than, as Comiskey Park's official capacity was about 30,000) and set the standard. The pandemic freaked people out about distancing, just like right now. Games were still played then, but attendance was smaller. The 1918 World Series didn't have one game with more than 20,000 people watching because of WWI issues and the burgeoning sickness. 25,000 were at the 1919 Rose Bowl but that was the max capacity of Tournament Park, the Rose Bowl's predecessor.

As soon as people could take off a mask, developers built stadiums, perhaps almost on speculation. Those builders were rewarded handsomely as crowds poured into their new concrete bowls, ushering in an era of massive attendance at spectator sports that still exists today. A crowd of 20,000 was considered really good anywhere in the 1910's. By 1924, five years after that pandemic, it was considered quaint- and still is to this day.

Stanford Stadium was built in 5 months in 1921 and and opening day capacity was 68,000, just under the Yale Bowl for biggest stadium in America at the time. Soon, 75,000 and even 80,000 was out there. The L.A. Coliseum opened at 75,000 in 1923. Yankee Stadium opened at 58,000 and got to 82,000 max by 1927. Nobody was concerned about social distancing by then. 

Considering how many minor league baseball teams there were in America, it would be reasonable to assume that lots of smaller minor league ballparks were built in the early 1920's. In 1922, according to baseball-reference, there were 31 minor leagues in the USA. At 8 teams a league, that's 248 teams. So it's not unreasonable to assume that there were 200 small ballparks in America, and a great deal of them were built during this stadium boom. 

But it's one thing to reason that and another thing to find proof. Wikipedia is not the greatest source for finding proper building dates for anything. And if that ballpark has been turned into something besides a ballpark, it may not be listed properly. Even baseball-reference is sketchy. Sure, they have the roster for the Western Association's 1923 Springfield (Missouri) Midgets, and even the roster and some stats- even if they link to improper biographies. But a stadium? No chance. Checking the Enid (Oklahoma) Harvesters, no stadium listed there but the Wiki says they played at Association Park, built in 1920. But there's no page for Association Park, nor does it make the "defunct baseball venues in the United States" category page. How many of these hidden former parks are there? How many were built between 1919-1924? Uh, I'm going to say a lot.

Indoor stadiums are much more difficult to find and verify. Any big venue that could hold a basketball floor was used as a basketball stadium. If a big barn was built between 1919-1924, it more than likely hosted a basketball game at some point. And then, if it saw an opportunity, it probably added pipes under the floor and hosted a hockey game. Of course an ice arena was built in Minneapolis at this time (the Minneapolis Arena, opening in 1924 and holding 5,500, and a second came in 1927). One of the oldest indoor arenas still going is Waterloo, Iowa's Hippodrome- opened in 1919. The actual Hobey Baker Arena opened for Princeton hockey in January, 1923.

More incredibly, one of the most famous golf courses, Pebble Beach Golf Links, opened in February 1919, meaning it was designed and built DURING the pandemic. But not much happened in the racing world.The Indy Motor Speedway, originally built in 1909, had 80,000 people at the first 500 in 1911, but those were spread out amongst a 2-and-a-half mile track, not 100 yards of a football stadium, and that capacity was relatively unchanged until after World War II.

Conservatively I'd say at least 100 stadiums were built in those five years from 1919-1924. Lots of them don't exist any more, but at least a quarter of them do. Five years after a major pandemic, more people were crowded together watching sports than ever before in America and hardly thought anything about it.

Simply, you'll be back, really soon. And so will everybody else.

photos courtesy: Library of Congress Bain Collection, LOC Prints and Photo Collection

Rose Bowl official opening, Jan. 1, 1923, USC vs Penn State

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