Fenway at 100
The remarkable rebirth of the oldest ballpark in Major League Baseball, and how fire and life safety considerations helped pave the way for Fenway’s second act
NFPA Journal®, July/August 2012
By Steven A. Adelman
When I attended college and law school in Boston in the 1980s and 90s, Fenway Park was a beautiful dump. The field was quirky and intimate, just like it appeared on TV, but what I remember most vividly was how green everything was. In his book At Fenway, Dan Shaughnessy, a sportswriter for The Boston Globe, poetically wrote that the green "makes the Red Sox tuxedo-white uniforms stand out. It is the backdrop that puts everything into focus."
Recent incidents of fans falling from stadium seats have made rail heights an issue for facilities around the country. They also raise a fundamental question: Is meeting code the same as providing reasonable safety measures?
Transformed by Flame
How the fires of 1926 and 1934 shaped the modern Fenway.
TEN YEARS OF FENWAY TLC
- Nearly 400 seats are added for Opening Day. + The Yawkey Way Concourse adds 25,000 square feet (2,323 square meters), doubling the concourse area on the first base side and creating more space in the Gate A concourse.
- 269 seats and a standing-room area are added atop the fabled “Green Monster” left field wall.
- 87 home plate seats and 133 more dugout seats are added. + The Big Concourse adds another 25,000 square feet beneath the centerfield bleachers and right field grandstand. The width of the concourse doubles from 30 to 60 feet (9 to 18 meters), and usable space is tripled between Gates B and C.
- 192 seats and space for 250 standing-room patrons are added to the right field roof deck. New amenities include an elevator to the grandstand area and the Big Concourse.
- Additional space, along with concessions and restrooms, are added to the Third Base Concourse.
- The First Base Deck is added, in part to decongest the narrow walkway atop the grandstand seats on the first base side. Additional concession stands are installed to further reduce lines.
- The glassed-in seating area known as the .406 Club is eliminated and divided into two open-air seating areas. The upper level, known as the State Street Pavilion, is remodeled down the first base and third base lines, expanding from four rows of seating to nine. New concourses, concessions, and restrooms are added.
- A new staircase is added to relieve congestion inside Gate D.
- The Third Base Deck is constructed behind the grandstand seats, adding space, restrooms, and concessions.
- 800 new State Street Pavilion seats plus standing room space are added down the first and third base lines.
- 412 new “family-friendly" seats are added in left field.
- An emergency voice/alarm communications (EVAC) network servicing Fenway and surrounding buildings is installed. In anticipation of the updated 2010 requirements regarding zoned audio for selective paging in NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, the network includes integrated voice messaging and selective paging throughout the ballpark complex.
- The original 1912 lower seating bowl is upgraded: dugout, field box, and loge seats are replaced, and the original wooden grandstand seats are refurbished and reinstalled.
- About 560 new seats are added along the right field roof, along with new restrooms, concessions, and additional dedicated standing room space with drink rails.
- The concrete in the lower 1934 left field seating bowl is repaired and waterproofed.
- Additional space is created by replacing the concession stand behind home plate at the top of the Grandstand with a new concession area.
- Improvements are made to the lower third base concourse, including a new stairway for improved Gate A ingress and egress.
- The final year of the 10-year improvement plan features the addition of three new high-definition video display systems that replace older existing systems.
- A new Gate D ticket booth is added, providing fans with will-call window access at all five gates of the ballpark.
- Improvements are made to the concourse between Gates C and D.
The actual fan experience was somewhat less romantic. The seats were made for smaller people accustomed to sitting practically on top of their neighbors, and for reasons none of us kids understood, they often faced directions other than home plate. The concourses were narrow, dark, and poorly ventilated, exacerbating my youthful sense of disorientation and paranoia. Signs inside Fenway mimicked Boston signage in general, whose inscrutability suggested that people who needed directions didn’t really belong there. The restrooms set remarkably low standards for hygiene and aesthetics. Even so, I came to love Fenway and the Red Sox, no small feat for a kid from the New York suburbs who’d grown up a Yankees fan. I eventually settled in Arizona, where my law practice focuses on safety and security in entertainment venues across North America, but I continued to root for the Red Sox.
As time went on, though, I found myself regarding the ballpark much differently than I had as a student. I routinely used NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, in my work, and I couldn’t help but catalogue the seemingly non-compliant features of Fenway: the potentially dangerous occupant loads, the unwieldy spaces for egress or access by emergency personnel, the dearth of signage and emergency information that was compounded by poor sightlines inside the building. I wondered if Fenway was a life safety disaster waiting to happen.
Then everything changed. After surviving a brush with proposed demolition in the late 1990s, Fenway Park and the Red Sox were sold in 2001 to an ownership group committed to renovating and expanding the old building to reflect a more modern fan experience. Over the past decade, the team has spent an estimated $285 million on improvements to the stadium, including an update of the facility’s fire and life safety features. I attended a Red Sox game recently after a few years away, and I was struck by the transformation that had taken place. I walked into Fenway through an entrance that had not existed when I was in college; I climbed roomy, well-lit stairs I had never seen before; I followed clear, well-placed signs; and I took in the game from a reasonably comfortable seat that fit my middle-aged body. Even with all of the obvious changes, though, it still felt like Fenway: the vast expanses of green, the loud and passionate fans, all the great history. I not only felt safe, I felt like I was home.
At 100 years of age, Fenway is the nation’s oldest professional sports stadium currently in use and the smallest stadium in Major League Baseball (MLB). While not perfect, its recent improvements have made it remarkably compliant with NFPA codes regarding life safety, fire alarms, sprinkler systems, and emergency messaging. In a larger sense, Fenway’s modernization is a prism through which to view not just one important building’s rebirth, but also the growing importance of life safety in how people all across the country experience a day at the ballpark.
A ballpark is born
On April 20, 2012, Fenway Park celebrated its 100th birthday with a nostalgic embrace of its colorful history. The pregame festivities included more than 200 former Red Sox players, coaches, and managers who emerged from every corner of the field (to the score of the movie "The Natural") for a gathering that culminated on the Fenway infield as the capacity crowd delivered a standing ovation. The Sox lost the ensuing game to the Yankees, 6-2, but the pregame ceremony more than made up for it. It reminded me why I became a fan in the first place.
Among the trio of ceremonial pitchers that day was Caroline Kennedy, whose great-grandfather, John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, was mayor of Boston when he threw out the first ball to open the park on April 20, 1912. (The Red Sox’ opponents were the New York Highlanders — they would be renamed the Yankees the following year — and the hometown side came from behind to win, 7–6, in 11 innings on a walk-off hit by Tris Speaker.) The Red Sox had been around since 1901, when the team, then known as the Boston Americans — they were renamed in 1908 — had became a charter member of the new American League. They played their first 11 seasons at a rickety wooden ballpark known as the Huntington Avenue Grounds, which seated about 11,000 fans, until owner John Taylor decided it was time to upgrade. According to Glenn Stout in his book Fenway 1912, Taylor’s plan was to replicate the size and dimensions of the Huntington Avenue Grounds for his new 24,400-seat ballpark. The stadium was constructed in an area known as the Fenway, which was located just west of the still sparsely populated Back Bay neighborhood. Contrary to popular belief, the jumble of buildings that now hems in the park came after the Red Sox began playing there; when the stadium opened, the Fenway area consisted mostly of open space.
Fenway Park opened during a grim era for safety in public buildings. In 1903, the Iroquois Theater fire in Chicago left 602 people dead. In 1908, the Rhoades Opera House fire in Boyertown, Pennsylvania killed 170 people. The same year, 175 people, mostly children, died in a fire at Lakeview Grammar School in Collinwood, Ohio. A year before Fenway Park admitted its first patrons, 146 garment workers died from fire, smoke, or jumping to their deaths during the infamous Triangle Waist Co. fire in New York City. Stadiums were not immune to the destruction, writes Saul Wisnia in his book Fenway Park: The Centennial. "Fires had destroyed numerous wooden ballparks in the years just before and after the turn of the century, including the majestic, double-decked South End Grounds that was home to Boston’s National League club," Wisnia writes. "Fenway and Navin Field [in Detroit, which would later be named Tiger Stadium] were part of a new wave of steel and concrete parks built from 1909 to 1915, including Comiskey Park, Ebbets Field, and Wrigley Field. Each venue had its own distinctive appearance and character, and each was made to last."
Until that time, the prevailing ethos was to create buildings that could withstand fire, but little consideration was given to the safety of people inside those buildings if a fire actually broke out. In treatises such as Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives, reformers documented that in most urban buildings, life safety remained largely ignored. Typical was the comment of Joseph P. Asch, owner of the building in lower Manhattan that had housed the Triangle Waist Co., who famously claimed "My building is fireproof" — the day after his building was the scene of what remains the deadliest unintended industrial building fire in the nation’s history.
But events like Triangle had begun to undermine that thinking. By the time Fenway opened, significant steps to support life safety as a worthwhile goal of codes and standards had already been taken. At NFPA’s annual meeting in May of 1912, a new document, "Suggestions for the Organization and Execution of Fire Drills in Factories, Schools, Department Stores and Theatres," was approved for adoption by members, marking NFPA’s entry into the realm of occupant and life safety. In 1913, the first NFPA Committee on Safety to Life was formed, which led to the development of NFPA’s original Building Exits Code in 1927, the precursor to the modern Life Safety Code. Even as the emergence of steel, masonry, and concrete signaled a new safety consciousness among owners of stadiums and other buildings, wood construction was still in abundance; Fenway used hundreds of thousands of pieces of lumber to support the concrete framing, as well as in the centerfield bleachers, right field pavilion, and outfield fences. While the team was away on a road trip in September 1912, team owners added 11,700 temporary wooden outfield seats in anticipation of the Red Sox playing in the "World’s Series," which they did, beating the New York Giants. Those "temporary" bleachers would remain in place until 1926, when they were destroyed by one of two catastrophic fires to hit Fenway in the span of eight years (see "Transformed by Flame," facing page).
In the 1930s, especially after the rebuilding effort undertaken following the fire of 1934, Fenway began to take on its modern profile. Its seating capacity was about 35,000, with grandstand seats made of solid oak, some of which remain in use to this day. A 37-foot-high (11.3-meter-high) left-field wall made of sheet metal replaced the original structure, a wooden fence that had been built atop an earthen embankment. A high-tech scoreboard was added that included lights to indicate the number of balls and strikes. The ballpark was painted "Dartmouth Green," which remains its signature color.
While the creation of best practices for safety in spectator sport venues took a backseat to improving workplace safety, stadium safety practices continued to develop, albeit more in response to local conditions or through the actions of enlightened owners than through provisions of safety codes. At Fenway, the field’s small dimensions allowed fans to sit particularly close to the action, resulting in occasional injuries. Before the 1936 season, the Red Sox added baseball’s first screen behind home plate to protect fans from foul balls. The team also added a 23-foot-high net above the left-field wall to protect pedestrians and property on Lansdowne Street, which ran immediately behind the wall, from well-struck balls flying out of the park.
Improvements continued over the years. In 1947, the team became the 14th of 16 major league teams to install lights. The first electronic scoreboard was installed in 1962, and a larger message board over the center field bleachers was added in 1976. The first elevator was installed in 1983 — albeit a full century after Elisha Otis invented the passenger elevator — which represented a small step towards becoming an accessible building in the era before the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, to which NFPA 101 substantially conformed in 1994. It also allowed ballpark management to consider the appropriate use of elevators in Fenway Park’s emergency plans, as required by the Life Safety Code.
A new emphasis on life safety
All of those changes pale in comparison to what has occurred at Fenway since 2002, however, when new ownership brought its own vision of a modern ballpark. If the occasional upgrade during most of Fenway’s first 90 years was like a Tim Wakefield knuckleball meandering towards the plate, then the speed and scope of renovations over the last 10 years more closely resembled a Pedro Martinez fastball exploding through the strike zone.
Before those improvements could begin, however, a larger matter had to be settled: whether Fenway Park should be preserved, or whether it should be torn down and replaced. The "beautiful dump" I encountered in my youth had already prompted numerous calls for its destruction. As far back as 1967 — the "Impossible Dream" year when the Red Sox rose from mediocrity only to lose to the St. Louis Cardinals in a dramatic seven-game World Series — then-owner Tom Yawkey complained to The Sporting News, "I feel [a new] stadium is necessary for Boston, this state, and all of New England." The problems were obvious: aside from its age and overall dinginess, Major League Baseball’s smallest ballpark sat on the smallest parcel of land and was choked on all sides by a city neighborhood that offered the stadium no apparent room to grow. New revenue sources such as luxury boxes seemed impossible; without them, modernizing the less expensive seating areas seemed out of the question. Far better, the thinking went, to simply bulldoze it and start from scratch.
The pressure to modernize intensified in the early 1990s with the opening of Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, which represented the leading edge of a wave of new retro-style urban ballparks that featured modern comforts and conveniences within the compact footprint of old-school, baseball-only stadiums. Conditioned to the discomfort and inconvenience of Fenway, I was not prepared for the pleasure of baseball in these new-generation stadiums. When my wife, a Baltimore native, first took me to Camden Yards, I marveled at its wide concourses, grown-up-sized seats — which, unlike Fenway’s, all faced towards home plate — and the bright orderliness of Eutaw Street, which had been converted to a vibrant pedestrian walkway between the outfield fence and a beautifully restored old warehouse building behind it. Compared to Camden Yards and the retro ballparks that opened over the next several years, Fenway felt outdated to me, and much of the Red Sox organization apparently felt the same. As John Harrington, the team’s CEO, told The Boston Globe in 1996, "We don’t really want to leave Fenway Park. The spirits that are there are great. The problem is this 83-year-old stadium has become obsolete." A "Save Fenway" movement became more vocal, intensifying the bickering and indecision. The organization was in a state of turmoil when the Red Sox were put up for sale in 2001, and one of the overriding questions concerned the new owners’ plan for Fenway Park. It didn’t take long to find out. The sale of the club, for nearly $700 million, was approved and finalized by MLB in early 2002, and the new owners were adamant that their desire was to save Fenway.
One of the members of the new ownership group was Larry Lucchino, the Sox’ new president and CEO, who had orchestrated the creation of Camden Yards in a similar role with the Baltimore Orioles a decade earlier. One of Lucchino’s first moves with the Red Sox was to hire Janet Marie Smith, the architect with whom he’d worked on Camden Yards, to devise an overall plan to upgrade Fenway. Lucchino had pushed Smith and her team to study older ballparks like Fenway in their creation of Camden Yards, and now he asked them to turn the mirror around. "It was wonderful to have spent all this time studying the older ballparks, learning from them, in creating something like Camden Yards," said Smith in a Fenway promotional video, "and then, in our next life, to go back and apply those same principles to saving Fenway."
As part of a 10-year plan of off-season improvements, Smith’s designers identified a number of conditions that needed improvement at Fenway, including two areas of particular interest to life safety professionals: improving crowd circulation, and updating the ballpark’s fire and life safety technology. If any of Fenway Park’s pre-2002 designers considered the building’s occupant load — such as the Life Safety Code’s limit on the number of fixed seats plus any standing-room-only allotments at one person per 7 square feet (0.6 square meters) — it was not apparent, especially in the crush of humanity exiting the ballpark following a game. Given that the first consideration when preparing an NFPA 101 life safety evaluation is the "nature of the events and the participants and attendees," the fact that Red Sox fans generally stay through the last pitch would seem to be an important issue.
The first dramatic change for most fans entering Fenway Park came in September 2002 with the creation of the Yawkey Way Concourse.
Yawkey Way is the street outside Fenway’s main gate, which had always been hopelessly (if fragrantly) congested with fans, sausage-and-pepper carts, and guys hawking programs and peanuts. Just as Smith had incorporated Eutaw Street into the ticketed area of Baltimore’s Camden Yards, Yawkey Way became a 25,000-square-foot (2,323-square-meter) pedestrian concourse with portable turnstiles at either end. This expansion outside the stadium walls allowed the Red Sox to remove a maze of turnstiles inside the building that had resulted in long lines of fans waiting in cramped spaces to show their tickets. From the perspective of fan experience, the street scene on Yawkey Way is still as colorful as ever, if a bit less crowded, but it is now much easier to enter and exit from that side of the ballpark.
From a life safety perspective, the Yawkey Way Concourse was the first major step towards compliance with the Life Safety Code’s means of egress requirements, which it addressed in two important respects. First, pushing Fenway’s main entrance away from its cramped interior to both ends of an entire street removed the human bottleneck created by turnstiles: "188.8.131.52.9 No turnstiles or other devices that restrict the movement of persons shall be installed in any assembly occupancy in such a manner as to interfere with required means of egress facilities." Additionally, the new concourse brought Fenway closer to meeting the Life Safety Code’s capacity of means of egress requirements, especially regarding main entrance width: "184.108.40.206.1 The main entrance/exit shall be of a width that accommodates one-half of the total occupant load and shall be at the level of exit discharge or shall connect to a stairway or ramp leading to a street." In this sense, balancing the requirements for new and existing construction lets designers try to meet the requirements for new construction, with the understanding that meeting the rules for existing construction still offers, in most cases, a significant life safety improvement.
In 2003, a new area dubbed the Big Concourse was introduced, another 25,000-square-foot (2,323-square-meter) area that was located beneath the centerfield bleachers and right-field grandstand. Walls were removed between Fenway Park and two abutting buildings, and the concourse, which had been 35 feet (11 meters) wide, was expanded to 65 feet (20 meters) by tearing out old storage rooms and restrooms. The club also installed restrooms in a neighboring building that had been annexed to the stadium. By dramatically expanding pedestrian areas under the outfield seats, the Big Concourse permitted movement through access and egress routes "without undue hindrance" by fans, crowd management, security, and emergency medical personnel, complying with Life Safety Code provisions 220.127.116.11.2 and 18.104.22.168.3.
In August 2003, NFPA issued Tentative Interim Amendments (TIAs) to bolster its requirements for fire sprinklers, crowd management, and main entrance/exit capacity in nightclubs and similar small venues. This was largely in response to a February 20, 2003 fire that killed 100 people at The Station nightclub, located about an hour south of Fenway in West Warwick, Rhode Island. Although the changes were directed specifically at nightclub-type venues, the TIAs for NFPA 101 and NFPA 5000®, Building Construction & Safety Code®, underscored the need for all building owners to ensure that patrons could safely exit a venue, even if as many as two-thirds of them try to leave the same way they entered.
In compliance with Life Safety Code Chapter 13 regarding existing assembly occupancies, as well as the spirit of the 2003 TIAs, the Red Sox continued to improve access, ingress, and egress at Fenway. In 2006, access near Gate D was improved when the team added a new staircase over the players’ parking lot. The next season, a staircase was added from the concourse near Gate A to the top of the grandstand behind third base, as well as a new elevator in left field that served all levels of the ballpark. In 2010, staircases were added behind home plate and from the Gate A concourse to the Lower Third Base concourse. Even seat replacement was done with an eye towards improving ingress and egress. In 2010, the original wooden seats in the left-field grandstand were refurbished and fitted with self-rising mechanisms, making it easier for fans to enter and exit each row.
As the 10-year renovation plan proceeded, it became increasingly important to create a fully integrated fire alarm system. Not only had the Red Sox created a kind of "greater Fenway Park" by moving operations into adjacent buildings, but the walls separating Fenway from some of its neighbors had been removed or altered to create more space, as with the Big Concourse project. The Red Sox needed a single system for fire safety and crowd management to protect Fenway Park’s increasingly complex network of buildings and operations.
The club began this integration process before the 2009 season with the installation of an emergency voice/alarm communications (EVAC) network servicing the ballpark and surrounding buildings. In anticipation of the updated 2010 requirements regarding zoned audio for selective paging in NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, Fenway’s new network included integrated voice messaging and selective paging throughout the ballpark complex. Consistent with the provisions of NFPA 72, the EVAC system permits authorized users from the Red Sox or the Boston Fire Department to select from hundreds of pre-recorded messages and send them from a command center to any of the connected buildings or tenants. It even allows authorized users to deliver real-time announcements throughout the ballpark, including the playing field. (The players need information, too. During the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, for example, the San Francisco Giants and Oakland A’s, who were on the field being introduced before Game 3 of the World Series at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, had no idea if they were in danger when the stadium shook and the power went out.)
If the Boston Fire Department ever has to address the ballpark all at once, they would also have enormous new video screens at their disposal. Electronic scoreboards have exponentially improved in size, visibility, and functionality since the first ones were installed at Fenway in 1962. In 2011, three large high-definition video screens were installed, each of which can convey information "as if you were watching on your [TV] at home," according to Jerry Cifarelli, CEO of ANC Sports Enterprises, which installed the screens. The main centerfield screen is 38 feet tall by 100 feet wide (12 meters by 30 meters). There is also a new 17-by-100-foot (5-by-30-meter) left-centerfield screen and a relatively modest 16-by-30-foot (5-by-9-meter) right-field video screen.
The Life Safety Code underscores that building technology and crowd management must be coordinated to ensure occupant safety: "22.214.171.124 Life safety evaluations shall include assessments of both building systems and management features upon which reliance is placed for the safety of facility occupants, and such assessments shall consider scenarios appropriate to the facility." In his 1971 treatise, Pedestrian Planning and Design, John J. Fruin described the key role that information plays in directing a crowd during an emergency.
Fruin defined information as the perception by patrons that causes people to take group action. He noted that people in a crowd rarely have a broad view of what is happening around them, so unless authoritative information is provided from a reliable source, patrons may act on the speculation of others nearby. At Fenway, by using the combined informational muscle of the EVAC system and the giant video screens, the Red Sox or city fire officials can now provide tailored information and instructions to the crowd in the event of a fire or other emergency, thereby overcoming the tendency of crowds to move aimlessly in the absence of information.
Fenway Park’s life safety upgrades have been made in the shadow of higher-profile projects at the stadium — particularly the addition of seats atop the left-field "Green Monster " wall (see "Monster Concern," page 56) — but it is difficult to argue that any changes have been more important than those that bring the ballpark into tighter compliance with documents like NFPA 72 or NFPA 101. "One of the great compliments we hear all the time is, ‘These changes seem as though they’ve been here forever,’" said Lucchino in a 2007 promotional video about Fenway Park’s renovations, and that seems right to me. The new openness, convenience, and safety features have done no harm to the essential character of the place.
When I moved away from Boston in late 1996, during the raging debate over Fenway’s future, I would have had a difficult time imagining many of these changes. I would not have believed that "intimate" could mean anything other than cramped. I doubted that "Friendly Fenway" could be more than a winking reference to being constantly jostled in the dark and crowded concourses. I believed the ballpark’s quirky field angles necessarily translated into a contorted fan experience, the kind that had become unacceptable in Boston’s other entertainment venues. I am pleased to say that I was wrong about all of this. Fenway Park is not perfect even now, but there are few places I would rather spend a languid summer evening. Or, even better, a triumphant late-October night.
Steven A. Adelman is an NFPA member and attorney in Scottsdale, Arizona, focusing on litigation and risk management involving sports and entertainment venues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Transformed by Flame
How the fires of 1926 and 1934 shaped the modern Fenway
A 1934 fire destroyed much of the outfield seating and spread to neighboring buildings. (Photo: Boston Public Library)
In 1912, the NEW Red Sox stadium in the Fenway, while comparatively safer than the old Huntington Avenue Grounds due to the greater use of steel and concrete, was still a fire hazard by modern standards. The “temporary" wooden bleacher seats added in left field for the 1912 post-season were a case in point: they remained in use for the next 14 years.
On May 7, 1926, three small fires broke out in those bleachers when trash and paper ignited beneath the wood-frame stands. The fire department did not respond to the fire — fans extinguished the flames themselves. After the game on May 8, however, fire broke out again in the same area. This time, the entire bleachers section was involved, and fire consumed the grandstand roof and surrounding properties. The fire department responded to this blaze, but it was too late to do any good; the stands were entirely destroyed. One can only imagine the deaths or injuries that might have occurred if this second fire had begun during the game rather than after the stadium had emptied.
In 1933, a change of ownership brought renewed life to Fenway Park. After the season, new owner Tom Yawkey added steel and concrete stands throughout the ballpark, which were supported by wooden forms during their construction phase. On January 5, 1934, a fire that began in the wooden supports burned for five hours, destroying the new seating areas in left field and center field, as well as most of five other buildings surrounding the ballpark. The next day, The Boston Globe reported that the “conflagration spread with amazing rapidity, sweeping across Lansdowne Street to gut completely two brick structures and seriously damage two others." Miraculously, there were no fatalities reported among the 700 construction workers on the job that day.
It was the depth of the Great Depression, and insurance covered only part of the property damage, but Yawkey was determined to have the stadium ready to go for the upcoming season. He spent about $1.25 million in Depression-era dollars, which included hiring additional workers, and finished the reconstruction of the damaged bleachers before Opening Day.
Recent incidents of fans falling from stadium seats have made rail heights an issue for facilities around the country. They also raise a fundamental question: Is meeting code the same as providing reasonable safety measures?
Fenway’s Green Monster. Recent fan falls at stadiums around the country are raising the question of what constitutes adequate heights for safety rails. (Photo: Corbis)
In June 2002, Janet Marie Smith, the architect who headed Fenway Park’s 10-year renovation project, first mentioned the possibility of putting seats above the left field wall, famously known as the “Green Monster." On Opening Day, 2003, the Green Monster Seats became a reality, as the Red Sox unveiled 269 new barstool-style seats in four rows atop the 37-foot-high (11.3-meter-high) wall. Although parts of the field disappear from view even with only a low barrier above the drink rail in front of each stool, the new seats are widely acclaimed as a fabulous addition to Fenway Park; there is simply nothing else like them in Major League Baseball. In light of events at other ballparks, though, perhaps that’s a good thing.
It is conceivable that a fan reaching for a well-hit ball—or posing for a photograph, or lunging for a windblown baseball cap—from the first row of Green Monster stools could topple over the low rail and fall to almost certain injury or death. The Green Monster section is replete with signs that read, “Warning: For Your Safety Please Do Not Reach Over Wall." As ESPN’s Steve Berthiaume wrote on ESPN.com, “That sign is everywhere up there, and for good reason. Watching fans 37 feet high repeatedly lean over the wall with cell phone cameras is like watching someone back up a bit too close to the edge of the Grand Canyon; one slip and you’re laid out on the warning track." The issue isn’t necessarily about fans acting irresponsibly; it’s about the fact that modern fans use these venues differently than did the people for whom the railing height requirements were devised more than 80 years ago.
Last July, a 39-year-old man was sitting with his son in the first row of the outfield bleachers at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Texas. At the end of an inning, Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton tossed a ball up towards the boy. To catch it, the boy’s father, who was six feet three inches tall, extended his arms and leaned over the 33-inch-high (83.8-centimeter-high) rail at the bottom of the grandstand. He lost his balance and fell 20 feet (6 meters) to the ground. He died from head injuries that night.
He wasn’t the first fan to fall at Rangers Ballpark. On April 11, 1994, the ballpark’s first Opening Day, a woman fell backwards over a 30-inch (76.2-centimeter) railing while posing for a picture, plunging 35 feet (11 meters) and landing on an empty row of seats, breaking a number of bones and six of her teeth. Shortly thereafter, the team raised the railings in that section to 46 inches (116.8 centimeters), but left other railings unchanged. In 2010, a 25-year-old man toppled over a 30-inch railing at the ballpark while trying to catch a foul ball. He fell 30 feet (9 meters) and sustained multiple injuries that included a fractured skull.
There are similar stories at other parks. In April 2010, the Chicago Cubs were taking batting practice before a game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. A fan reached over a 30-inch outfield railing to catch a ball and fell 15 feet (4.5 meters) to the field below, suffering fatal injuries. In April 2009, a man attending a game at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Missouri, fell 18 feet (5 meters) and landed on a woman below; both fans were injured. Two months later, another fan at Busch Stadium was injured when he toppled over a front-row railing in the fourth deck, falling about 12 feet (3.6 meters) into empty seats. As in the incident in Milwaukee, according to published reports, both of those railings were 30 inches high.
In all of these instances, the railings complied with NFPA 101, Life Safety Code. For new assembly occupancies, the minimum “sightline-constrained" railing height is 26 inches (66 centimeters) (126.96.36.199.1); at the foot of aisles, the minimum safe railing height, according to the code, is 36 inches (91.5 centimeters) above the floor (188.8.131.52.2.2). Following the Rangers Ballpark incident, the team tried to recalibrate fan safety with the ballpark experience, including designing 42-inch (106.7-centimeter) railings that would block relatively little of most fans’ view. Other parts of the ballpark now have railings as high as 46 inches.
Do these incidents prove that it is reasonably foreseeable for a fan to fall over a railing? Or do the millions of fans who uneventfully attend baseball games every year prove that railings are safe as is? And if falling fans are a reasonably foreseeable problem that should be addressed, what should be done?
Legally, the relevant issues are whether falling from the stands is a “reasonably foreseeable" occurrence, and if so, what can reasonably be done to minimize the risk of harm. Beginning in 1936, the Red Sox determined that, at least for fans sitting behind home plate, an unobstructed view of the action could be compromised by a screen to improve crowd safety. Perhaps modern-day clubs, working with their architects and human factors engineers, can take a similar approach to balancing sightline compromises with increased rail heights in the interest of fan safety.
As a lawyer, I would not presume to say what a sufficient railing height or configuration is for any particular location; I defer to the experts who, armed with current safety documents, including the Life Safety Code, vet every major league ballpark, including Fenway and its Green Monster seats. But following a fan’s tragic fall, a lawyer somewhere is going to ask whether a venue that complies with a railing height standard that originated in NFPA’s own 1929 Building Exits Code has really done enough, given the way 21st-century-sized humans behave at the ballpark. In other words, meeting code, while an excellent start, is not necessarily the same as providing reasonable safety measures.