Throwback Thursday: Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium And The Era Of Multipurpose Mistakes

Opened in 1970, Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium was the "ultimate" multipurpose sports complex—a building that epitomized an unlamented architectural era of soulless, artificial turf-covered concrete monstrosities.

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Jul 2 2015, 2:57pm

Photo by Darryl Norenberg-USA TODAY Sports

(Editor's note: Each week VICE Sports will take a look back at an important sports event from this week in sports history. We are calling this regular feature Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.)

Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium opened its doors 45 years ago this Saturday. From 1970 through 1999, it hosted both the Cincinnati Reds and Bengals, as well as dozens of University of Cincinnati football games. By the time it was imploded in 2002, Riverfront had hosted five National League pennant winners and two World Series champion Reds squads and two AFC champion Bengals teams.

None of that means the building should be missed.

Read More: Remembering Eugene, Oregon's Civic Stadium

Riverfront stadium was a "multi-purpose stadium"—perhaps the multi-purpose stadium—which means it was built to handle professional baseball, football and any other sports Cincinnati wanted to support in the future. And make no mistake: modular, Ikea-like, jack-of-all-trades stadiums were once the future of American sports, at least during a 1965-1975 building boom that saw multiple cities attempt to save money by putting baseball and football within the same concrete walls.

Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Shea Stadium in New York, Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, the Oakland Coliseum, the Kingdome in Seattle, Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta, Busch Stadium in St. Louis and Robert F. Kennedy Stadium in Washington D.C. all followed the same kind of "cookie-cutter" design. Other than County Stadium, all used that other futuristic sports innovation: Astroturf.

In combination with the dome craze—the success of the Astrodome in 1964 kicked off the turf explosion—fake grass became so common in baseball that over one third of Major League Baseball games were played on it between 1977 and 1995. Riverfront's design was particularly innovative. It was the first stadium to include dirt sliding pits around each base, something that has become standard in every turf baseball field built since. The building also included tracks that allowed the left field seats to swing in and become field level sideline seats for football games, allowing for better sight lines.

Montreal Gazette sportswriter Ted Blackman gave a rave review of Riverfront after a visit in August 1970, just over a month after it opened. "Already visitors are calling it the ultimate in stadia," Blackman wrote. "I'd have to rate the Cincinnati Riverfront Stadium as the most eye-pleasing and practical in existence."

Eye-pleasing? Not so much. The chemical green of the Astroturf (lest we forget, Monsanto's original name for the stuff was "chemgrass") combined with the drab concrete skeleton didn't give fans much to look at. Once Baltimore's Camden Yards ushered in the modern era of charming, idiosyncratic, throwback-looking baseball parks in 1989, multi-purpose stadiums like Riverfont swiftly lost their luster. "Take your pick of terms," Bowling Green Daily News writer Jason Frankes wrote in 1996, "boring, outdated, etc... only in Cincinnati is there a complete vacuum of atmosphere."

Among the multi-purpose monstrosities of the 1960s and 1970s, only the Oakland Coliseum and Qualcomm Stadium remain in use by a major sports team, although both the Raiders and the Chargers are looking for new stadiums. The Athletics are also trying as hard as they can to escape that sewage-infested nightmare. The rest of these buildings have been replaced by retro parks and fields like Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park and Paul Brown Stadium. Neither building has produced memories on the level of The Big Red Machine in the 1970s or 1988's Freezer Bowl AFC Championship game between the Bengals and the Chargers, but the aesthetic improvements—like real grass for a baseball game!—are significant.

"Come for the concussions! Stay for the rug burn!" --Photo by RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

Multi-purpose stadiums like Riverfront were ugly, devoid of warmth and a strong sense of place. They were rational, utilitarian buildings housing irrationally exuberant pastimes. In retrospect, that was never a good fit. Still, were they at least, in Blackman's words, practical? Perhaps. Question is, for whom? Riverfront wasn't practical for fans, who swiftly turned against it and the rest of the soulless constructs that were the multi-purpose stadia once the teams isside stopped winning. And it wasn't practical for the players, whose joints and skin were constantly tearing up on the turf. "Good riddance," Andre Dawson told the Los Angeles Times in 2013 as the Blue Jays announced they would rip the turf out of Rogers Centre and plant grass. Dawson played 11 seasons at Montreal's Olympic Stadium and suffered multiple knee injuries throughout his career. "I just wish it would have been gone a long time ago."

Viewed charitably, Riverfront and its ilk can be seen as cost-cutting measures, introduced just as domed stadium prices were pushing past $100 million. (Riverfront cost just $46 million). With stadium costs now soaring into the billions, and with taxpayers regularly on the hook hundreds of millions of dollars, it's easy to appreciate the 1960s and 1970s desire to get more bang for our stadium bucks. That said, there's a fine line between efficient and cheap, and the money saved on multi-purpose stadiums left us with uninspiring structures and painful playing surfaces that had to be replaced just three decades after they were erected. Like Dawson said, good riddance.

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