Ballpark Fences: The Art of the Distance.

The prevailing wind at Buff Stadium came from right field. Check the flag for proof.

When baseball promoters started fencing in their ballparks in the late 19th century, it wasn’t so their players would have  home run distances to shoot for. They were just trying to make sure that any crank or fan who watched their product on the field had a purchased ticket for the privilege. As most of you know, baseballs did not travel all that hard and fast during the pre-cork center days. Incredibly faraway acreage also dominated most outfields, except in certain parks, but that was OK. Baseball venues traditionally have been built to fit the land available. It’s one of the great urban culture stories about why baseball is the game it is. Once you get past Cartwright’s ninety feet distances between the diamond of bases to cover for a score, almost all other space-length marks, including the distance of the pitching rubber to home plate, have remained in flux.

Unlike most other sports, unless you include golf, baseball is built around variants to time and space that are unheard of in, say, football. The length of games and the total size of the playing space is always at variance from game to game, day to day, and place to place.

When Buff Stadium opened on April 11, 1928 as the sparkling new model for minor league baseball park development, the place featured incredibly distant fences as the hitting challenge for power hitters. It was 344 feet down both lines and 430 feet to dead center, a much better place for line drive gap hitters than it was as a breeding tank for any of the new Ruth-copying sluggers. Remember, the Yankees had built the original Yankee Stadium only five years earlier in 1923 with Babe Ruth in mind. Their right field distance down the line was only 297 feet, some 47 feet nearer home plate than the closest right field distance at 1928’s Buff Stadium.

Buff' Stadium's right field distance in the 1950s had "shrunk" to 325 feet.

In addition to the distance, a couple of other factors worked against left-handed batters at Buff Stadium. One of these is clearly visible in the first feature photo of the old ballpark and that was the prevailing wind. The Gulf of Mexico breezes blew in from the south across the right field wall like a steady gale throughout the summer months. Sometimes they blew straight in to home plate. Most of the time they took a right field to left field course, as is clearly shown by the straight out position of the center field flag. With high fly balls to right, you could sometimes see the effects best from the first base stands. What began as a sure-sounding homer to right would suddenly hang in the air before changing course, depending on the exact wind direction, either further to center field as an easy fly out – or back toward the infield as a Candlestick Park like fly ball out. Some of those catches were interesting. Buff Stadium simply lacked the constant swirl of the bay winds. Thank God.

Sometimes the prevailing winds at Buff Stadium helped a few home runs to left, but, most of the time, they were more of a factor in blowing balls foul that were hit down the left field line.

The other factor that worked against home run hitting early at Buff Stadium was the fact the Buffs started playing night games there on July 22, 1930. The early lighting was OK for its time, but some of the players of that era complained that they couldn’t see the ball as well at night. How much of that complaint was truth and how much of it was players coming up with another excuse for bad hitting is lost in time. All I Know is that I played on some night fields that were far worse lighted than Buff Stadium ever was. Sad to say, but badly lighted night baseball neither significantly helped my pitching nor hurt my batting over what it was in the bright of day. Sometimes things just are what they are.

By 1938, Buff Stadium fence distances had crept even higher to 340 feet in center and 345 feet down the lines. After World War II, new President Allen Russell quietly adjusted things to the needs of power hitters like Jerry Witte and Larry Miggins. Right field in this photo is only 325 feet from home. The same distance to left was shortened to 330 feet. Center settled in to about 424 feet. They could have come in closer down the middle, but nobody wanted to lose the flagpole from the playing area in center field.

Buff Stadium had character. As the character of the game changed, the face of the old ballpark took a few beauty lifts with the changing times as well.

One ongoing problem in Houston existed as younger players worked their way up to Houston from New Iberia of the Evangeline League. This vignette is the best argument I’ve ever encountered about why big league clubs need to be very careful where their raw recruits are starting out.

The New Iberia Cardinals of the 1930s played their home games in a football stadium. Home plate was located somewhere near the 50-yard line, leaving the players to play on a field that was under 300 feet to center field and about 600 feet to left and right. The dimensions taught batters to hit straight away and influenced pitchers to hope batters would pull the ball. These traits then had to be corrected once the players reached Houston.

Red Munger and Howie Pollet both came to Houston from New Iberia. Red used to say that the manager there tried to steer them away from those local tendencies, but he also admitted that it wasn’t easy. “When you’re standing on that mound,” Red liked to say, “you never forgot that the wall in center was less than 300 feet away.”

I could go on all day. The art of the distance at various ballparks has many stories to tell. We will re-visit the topic here again sometime. Before then, I hope you will leave us with some of your own thoughts on the matter of outfield distances. That’s what the comment section below is all about. The more we dialogue, the more we will be able to carry a topic to other levels of consideration.

The sun is hining. Spring is coming. Have a great day too with this thought: Opening Day 2010 is less than three weeks away!

And not just “by the way,” – HAPPY ST. PATRICK’S DAY!

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6 Responses to “Ballpark Fences: The Art of the Distance.”

  1. David Munger Says:

    Happy ST. PATRICK”S DAY TO YOU, Bill.

  2. Anna Shepeard Says:

    Thanks again and Happy ST. Patrick’s Day to you too.
    Anna

  3. Gary Says:

    Good stuff! I was thinking of doing a Buff Stadium for Sherco baseball and this info will really help.

  4. Baseball readings for 3-26-2010 « Hot Corner Blues Says:

    […] Ballpark Fences: The Art of Distance […]

  5. Cliff Blau Says:

    “Once you get past Cartwright’s ninety feet distances between the diamond of bases…” The Knickerbocker rules, which Cartwright didn’t write (he wasn’t on the rules committee) specified a distance of 42 paces from home to second. Even if you accept a definition of 3 feet for a pace, which is questionable, that doesn’t work out to 90 feet between bases.

  6. Debra Soliz Says:

    i have 2 tickets from 1953 grand opening buffalos against shervport
    sports. please contact me .

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