Sound Bites: Noise at Big-League Ballparks

This article was written by Darryl Brock

This article was published in The National Pastime (Volume 26, 2006)

.357 Magnum fired at arm’s length slams your eardrums with 168 decibels of volume. Rumbling car subwoofers can pump out as much as I76 dB. A police siren logs in around 140 dB, a rocker’s wailing guitar at 120 dB. Of course, it mat­ters how far you are from the source, but even at a distance, any of the above can easily swamp normal human conversation, which occurs at roughly 7o dB.

What about noise in big league ballparks? Increasingly unable to talk to somebody even in an adjacent seat without leaning close and yelling, I decided to check for myself. Armed with a sound­ pressure meter purchased at Radio Shack, I took measurements from my field-level seat during an afternoon A‘s game at McAfee Coliseum, where the high outfield enclosure of football seats and glass­ fronted boxes (known with scant affection locally as “Mount Davis,” after the Raiders owner responsible for the structural abomination) traps sound with a resulting resonance that seems greater than across the Bay at the Giants’ ball yard — although things are hardly quiet there — or at Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark and other parks I’ve visited lately.

Though the late-summer weather was gorgeous and the A’s were locked in a pennant race, the crowd was relatively modest-some 25,000, mostly placid souls. Ambient crowd measurements “at rest” ranged between 68-78 dB. A brass-lunged heckler six rows behind me registered 79-82 dB. Cheering during ral­lies reached the high-middle 80s and spiked up over 90 on a Nick Swisher home run.

What issued from the powerful ballpark speakers was another story: player introductions, 79-81 dB; PA announcer promotions, 81-85dB; prerecorded baseball highlights and up-tempo music, 87-91 dB; Dot Racing, 92 dB. Keep in mind these are averag­es. When I set the dial at “max” to measure volume peaks, the results pushed 100.

All of which confirmed my suspicions: everything coming from the speakers reached field-level seats at well over conversational level. When you consider that each increase of six decibels represents a doubling of volume, it becomes plain that most of the amplified noise is maintained at levels well above even the loudest of crowd sounds.

Not only does this tend to drown out conversa­tion, it definitely produces stress. ”At 90 decibels and above is where human damage begins,” says bio­-acoustic expert Dr. Bernie Krause, who has witnessed the incursions of human noise into shrinking natural soundscapes around the globe. “Glucocorticoid enzyme levels shoot up at those levels, and the heart rate speeds,” Krause says. “It’s a deliberate concentration of acoustic energy to promote the illusion of action.”

Ironically, this “action,” along with the excitement (i.e., stress) it produces, occurs in ball games pre­cisely when there is no action. And conversely, since the speakers still have to be silenced while the game is actually being played, moments of real baseball action occur in relative quiet-or at least not yet sup­plemented with manufactured noise. It seems that the game’s ambience is ever more in the hands of disc jockeys and marketers. Therefore, the times when you most want to track events on the field are the only times you can easily talk and be heard.

“Noise is power.” Bernie Krause is fond of wryly repeating this statement by James Watt, former Interior Secretary. As Krause elaborates the assump­tions behind it, I see his point. That guy with the 808s blasting in his car is asserting his kingship over the jungle — including your audio space. Why do we raise our voice in arguments? To dominate, of course, to impose our notion of how things should be. Which is exactly what enormous speakers do in ballparks. Yes, they may provide information. Yes, they may enhance a game’s drama. But above all they dominate.

“What happens is that somebody installs a system or uses new techniques to get certain effects,” says Jack Freytag, an acoustic engineer whose San Francisco firm has shaped soundscapes from the Hollywood Bowl to small restaurants (where noise levels can produce quicker turnover at tables, or promote intimacy by blocking neighboring conversations), “and the next year they want to do even greater things. The trouble is, at some point they go over the top.” Freytag concludes: “Louder isn’t always better.”

In years gone by, I would occasionally bring rough pages and writing notes out to the Coliseum hours before the first pitch, spreading out comfortably in the bleachers and taking in the sounds of the place coming to life: the cracking impacts of BP, the thud of balls against the fence, the players’ laughter and wise­ cracks, the vendors’ cries, the kids’ shouts.

Some 45 minutes before game time, the scoreboard screen would come to life. “Hello there, everybody,” a dulcet voice would say. “This is Mel Allen bring­ing you This Week in Baseball.” Highlights followed, narrated at reasonable volume, especially when com­pared with today’s amplified frenzy.

Why does adrenaline have to be pumping every minute now? Sometimes the results are beyond ludi­crous. A few years ago, I was at an A-league game in Charleston, West Virginia: Alley Cats vs. the visiting River Dogs. A thunderstorm sent the teams rushing off the field. The delay continued so long that most fans left. Hours passed. At half past midnight, driving past the ballpark with my family, I realized that the game was still in progress. I got out and went up to the gate. Bottom of the eighth. Fewer than ten people in the stands. And still the sound system was send­ing out peal after peal of “DAAAAAAY-OHs,” drum rolls, bugle calls, exhortations to “charge!” and so on. The effect was eerie. A haunted ballpark, amped up for nobody.

In 1934, when the Chicago Cubs installed Wrigley Field’s first public address system (presumably mega­phones were employed till then), Ruth Reynolds reported in the New York Daily News that Cub man­ager Charlie Grimm strongly opposed the new system, fearing that “music records” would be played on it, as in some other ballparks.”Grimm contends that miscellaneous records would clash with the rhythm of baseball procedure,” Reynolds wrote,”and that records would not be selected to meet the tempo of the varying movements in practice workouts.”

I think Jolly Cholly Grimm’s worries were dead-on. Can’t the game itself be enough?

A resounding no comes from Mike Veeck, baseball executive and promoter non pareil, who has written, “So-called baseball purists always say, ‘The game is enough to bring fans out to the park. It doesn’t need embellishing.’ Well, those people never owned a ball club. If you catered only to the purists, 75% of your seats would remain empty. When people come to the ballpark, we should celebrate the three hours that we have them.”

Okay, point taken; maybe so.

Let’s all celebrate, if we must, while games unfold before us.

But couldn’t we turn down the relentless white noise? Please?

DARRYL BROCK is the author of the historical novels If I Never Get Back, Havana Heat, and Two in the Field. He lives and writes in Berkeley, California.