The history of unusual bleachers in baseball stadiums

The upper deck bleachers at Tiger Stadium are quickly filling with fans during the 1968 World Series.

When it comes to ballpark construction, major league teams have a little bit of mad scientist in them. A few weeks ago, site curator Dan Holmes suggested the possibility of doing an article about unusual bleacher configurations in major league history. I liked the idea, and when I began thinking about odd bleacher constructions, a bizarre experiment by the late Charlie Finley immediately came to mind. That experiment, along with the unusual double decked bleachers at the old Tiger Stadium, represent two of the most creative efforts in constructing an outfield boundary. In one case, the creativity didn’t last, but in the other, it became a lasting symbol of a beloved ballpark.

During the 1960s, Finley owned the Kansas City Athletics, a perennial doormat in the American League. One day in 1963, Finley was conversing with A’s manager Eddie Lopat, a onetime standout pitcher with the New York Yankees, about the latter franchise’s success. Lopat told Finley that one of the factors working in favor of the pinstripers was the outfield dimensions at Yankee Stadium. With its short porch in right field, where the distance down the line ran only 296 feet, the Yankees tended to sign and nurture left-handed power hitters capable of pulling the ball. Historically, the Yankees tended to win a majority of their home games in the 1950s and early sixties, in part because of their talent, but to a smaller extent because of the way they tailored the team to fit the ballpark.

Municipal Stadium in Kansas City briefly had an odd-shaped bleacher section down the line that mimicked the distances at Yankee Stadium.

The talk with Lopat convinced Finley to try something similar in Kansas City. So prior to the 1964 season, Finley announced changes to the right field dimensions at Municipal Stadium in Kansas City. At the time, Municipal Stadium had no outfield seating, but only a sheep pasture in right field, so adjusting the fences became a relatively easy endeavor. Finley put up a temporary fence in right field, moving the foul pole in from 338 to 325 feet and then inverting the wall to a point 296 feet from home plate. (That was the same distance down the right field line at Yankee Stadium.) The measurement near the foul line not only read 296 feet, but the remainder of the fence—to the left of the inversion—duplicated the curvature of the wall at Yankee Stadium. Finley created the inversion to maneuver his way around the rule, first installed in 1958, that stipulated outfield dimensions must be at least 325 feet down the left field and right field lines.

Finley decided to take his innovation two steps further. First, he emblazoned the words “KC Pennant Porch” right onto the wall itself, highlighting them in large letters that could easily be read by everyone inside of the ballpark. Second, he inserted a temporary set of bleachers behind the fence, tucked right into the corner and occupying space that previously would have been in the field of play. In so doing, Finley increased the capacity of Municipal Stadium by about 100 seats, and simultaneously blocked off the old wall, which remained in place, from the view of most fans.

In terms of improving Kansas City’s chances of winning, the fence change seemed dubious; the A’s simply didn’t have the left-handed power featured by the Yankees in their heyday. But in terms of public relations, Finley’s maneuver smacked of brilliance. It brought a whirlwind of attention to the A’s, created a few premium seats in the bleachers (which normally represent the worst seating at the ballpark), and gave Municipal Stadium a surreal look unlike any other team in the major leagues.

Unfortunately, American League President Joe Cronin and Commissioner Ford C. Frick did not see eye-to-eye with Finley. After the A’s used the new fence and altered dimensions in two preseason exhibition games against the St. Louis Cardinals, Cronin and Frick determined that the changes were not legal, even though Finley had tried to slide by with the 325-foot foul pole measurement and the inverted wall.

The ruling enraged Finley. Forced to tear down the temporary fence, Finley put up a new barrier, this one 325 feet from home plate, and called it the “One-Half Pennant Porch.” Retaining the new seating area, he instructed the grounds crew to draw a white line where the original Pennant Porch fence had run. He then told the public address announcer, on any fly ball hit deep into the corner, to make the following declaration: “That would have been a home run in Yankee Stadium.” After a few days of such proclamations, the A’s decided to abandon the practice because more opposition hitters were hitting “would be” home runs than the A’s themselves.

The upper deck bleachers and overhang at Tiger Stadium

Finley’s experiment with pennant porches and half-porches is probably the oddest example of a ballpark innovation involving outfield fences and bleacher sets. Far less strange, but far more lasting, is what the Tigers used to feature at their ballpark, which was originally known as Navin Field and later renamed Briggs Stadium before becoming Tiger Stadium. In the 1930s, the Tigers added the famed overhang to the ballpark, making it distinct from every other stadium.

Tiger Stadium’s upper deck bleachers hung over the right field warning track.

The original structure of the ballpark, which first opened in 1912, featured a standard set of bleachers and a pavilion in right field. In 1937, the Tigers decided to expand the structure. As part of the plan, which increased overall capacity from 30,000 to 52,000, the Tigers added a second deck to right field. The addition made Tiger Stadium the only park in the major leagues to have a double deck in the outfield.

Due to the confines of the city, there was a relatively small amount of space between the right field wall and the street located behind it. In order to maximize the number of added seats, the Tigers extended the second deck so that it actually hung over the fence, overlapping it by a full 10 feet. With the overhang now blocking light from shining onto the warning track, the Tigers added a series of spotlights underneath the overhang.

The installation of such an overhang created an odd scenario. Occasionally, on fly balls hit high and deep toward right field, the outfielder would camp himself under the ball, expecting to catch it on the warning track, only to see the ball “nabbed” by the overhanging deck. That extra ten feet made a difference. On occasion, a ball would hit the facing of the overhang, also resulting in a home run. Either way, instead of a long fly ball, the batter received the unexpected reward of a home run, creating an advantage for left-handed power hitters who tended to hit the ball with high trajectories.

While the hitters welcomed a feature that turned outs into home runs, some fans did not—but for a completely different reason. That’s because the overhang obstructed the view of some fans who had purchased tickets to sit in the original, or lower, right field deck. These became obstructed view seats, which the Tigers eventually chose to sell at a discounted price.

For fans watching on television, the overhang of the upper deck was not readily apparent. But from a side angle, the obtrusiveness of the overhang is apparent, making right field a unique challenge for everyone who has played there, from Pete Fox (the right fielder in the late 1930s) to the great Al Kaline to the more pedestrian Bobby Higginson.

It’s impossible to know how many home runs were added to the Tiger Stadium ledger because of the overhang, but it’s a certainty that at least some of the franchise’s left-handed power hitters benefited from the quirk. Players like Vic Wertz, Charlie Maxwell, Norm Cash, Jim Northrup, Jason Thompson, Steve Kemp, Lou Whitaker, Kirk Gibson, Darrell Evans, and the aforementioned Higginson are among the lefty sluggers who come to mind.

The overhang at Tiger Stadium remained until 1999, when the Tigers played their final game there in anticipation of moving to Comerica Park. Like any great ballpark, Tiger Stadium had its share of wonderfully unique features. There was the flagpole in center field. The friendly blue seats (originally green until they were painted in the 1970s). And, of course, the general charm of an old-time ballpark that made it seem like the 1920s all over again.

Of all those features, none were any better than that overhang, which made a few right fielders do double takes when fly balls suddenly became home runs.

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About Bruce Markusen

Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY. He is the author of seven books on baseball.