For What It’s Worth: Ballpark
By Joel Dresang
Right off the bat, I should disclose that I am not a big-league follower of America’s favorite pastime. I enjoy an occasional outing at the old ball game, but I am a casual fan of the Milwaukee Brewers.
I wouldn’t be off base to say that baseball has contributed mightily to common everyday expressions. For instance: Ballpark.
A ballpark is where baseball is played. Starting in the mid-19th century, before the sport was popular enough to warrant its own facilities, baseball squatted in public parks, amid private fields and even on polo grounds. Early ballparks took names that reflected such places.
Later, stadiums arose – borrowing the name of ancient Greco-Roman sports arenas. With a nod to nostalgia, the names of newer venues are switching from stadiums back to parks and fields. For example, Miller Park replaced Milwaukee County Stadium. In 2021, under new sponsorship, the home of the Brewers took the name American Family Field.
Outside of baseball, ballpark and in the ballpark have become common expressions meaning “kinda-sorta,” “close enough but not exactly.” They refer to an imprecise approximation.
For example: “The Brewers had attendance in the ballpark of 3 million fans in the 2018 season.” (The actual number was 2,850,875.)
An American physicist who worked on the atomic bomb is credited for the first recorded use of ballpark in such a manner. In the October 1954 journal “Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists,” Ralph E. Lapp warned of government secrecy and the “formidable mountain of atomic explosives” being stockpiled, which he said was equivalent to 1 billion tons of TNT.
“Assuming this estimate is ‘in the ball park,’ clearly there is valid reason for urging candor on the part of our government,” Lapp wrote.
A Milwaukee baseball contribution to American expressions is the term “Uecker seat.” It refers to an undesirable spectator spot – often with obstructed view. It comes from a 1984 beer commercial featuring Bob Uecker, Mr. Baseball, a Milwaukee native, Milwaukee Braves catcher and sportscaster with the Milwaukee Brewers since 1971.
It is remarkable that someone who worked in subatomic particles would gauge anything by a measurement as vast as a stadium. But that’s the point: A ballpark estimate allows a lot of latitude. American Family Field, for instance, covers 1.2 million square feet.
In addition, no two ballparks are the same. The infield diamonds are standard, but the surrounding ballparks come in all shapes and sizes.
Seating capacities range from 31,042 at Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Rays, to 56,000 at Dodger Stadium. (Miller Park has 41,900 seats, according to a comparison at ballparksofbaseball.com.)
And it’s not out of left field to mention dimensions of outfields and how much they can vary. For example, from home plate to the right field fence is 300 feet at Dodger Stadium, 325 feet at American Family Field and a league-leading 353 feet at Wrigley Field in Chicago.*
- 38 – permanent concession stands
- 66 – restrooms (split evenly between men’s and women’s)
- 330 – feet to the roof (closer to a batter than the center field wall)
- 16,500 – dump truck loads of excavation cleared for the park
- 4.6 million – baseballs needed to fill the park
- 62.5 million – bowling balls needed to weigh as much as the structure
So, between having a lot of ground to cover to begin with and the variability from one place to another, using “ballpark” to qualify a figure provides a wide fudge factor.
On the other hand, the word “stadium” happens to come from a fixed measure of 185 meters, or about 607 feet, used to mark off footraces in ancient Greece and Rome. The notion of a stadium as a sports arena grew from the seating areas built for spectators astride the early running tracks.
Joel Dresang is vice president-communications at Landaas & Company.
*Don’t play hard ball with me on the outfield dimensions. I’m not trying to throw a curve ball. The numbers are from ballparksofbaseball.com, although I saw some vary via other sources. Just consider them, literally and figuratively, ballpark figures.
(initially posted October 14, 2018; revised March 24, 2021)
Word-Origin Wednesday podcast: Baseball metaphors
A Look at Why No Two Ballparks are the Same, by Tal Barak, NPR
Why are major league baseball fields not standard in size? Forbes.com
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