The Revolution of the Scoreboard

Like the field of architecture itself, the roots of the now-ubiquitous stadium scoreboard reach all the way back to the days of ancient Greece and Rome.

But in the intervening 1,300-years, scoreboards have evolved from the pedestrian, manually-operated single-use tally boards that were often a nondescript afterthought, to gigantic and dazzling digital wonders that have become as integral a part of stadium design as retractable roofs and luxury suites.

Scoreboards were always part of the fan experience, a simple way to assuage sporting events attendees desire to keep score. Early scoreboards were basic in their operation. Men climbed ladders to change the score, quarter or inning by using chalk or hanging numbers. Most didn’t keep time or provide any extraneous information.

The advent of the modern-day scoreboard began in the 1890s with the unveiling of football scoreboards at Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania.  The boards were manually operated and helped fans in large stadiums at least know whether their team was winning or losing.

Built strictly for function with little regard for aesthetics — or the respective stadium’s design — the classic scoreboards were typically located where the most fans could see them. But that didn’t always mean that was the optimal spot.

A Long Island, NY professional women’s baseball team game in 1953. (Photo by Nathan/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Football scoreboards were often located in end zones making them difficult to see for fans sitting at the opposite end of the stadium. And scoreboards erected in baseball outfields worked great – unless your seat was in the outfield bleachers.

But scoreboards began their race to the future in earnest in 1908 when Chicago inventor, George A. Baird, created an electric baseball scoreboard that tracked balls, strikes and outs. The scoreboards weren’t a big hit with teams, however, because many baseball executives feared the new electric gizmos might reduce the sale of popular hand-held scorecards.

Instead newspapers stepped in. Using information sent to them by telegraph, board operators at newspapers would post scores and other game information on their electronic scoreboards and people would stand outside newspaper offices to get the latest updates. Clearly, there was a desire — if not an outright need — on the part of fans to know what was happening with their favorite team, whether they were at the stadiums or elsewhere.

Although manual scoreboards remained – and some are still in use today in venerable stadiums such as Wrigley Field in Chicago and Fenway Park in Boston – by the late 1930s, electronic scoreboards were becoming the norm.

And they were getting improvements, too, for example the ability to keep time and provide other useful information including down and distance for football, batting lineups with player numbers, and scores and pitchers from other games for baseball.

And over the years, the electronic wizardry of scoreboards improved with the implementation of incandescent lights in the 1940s followed by LED lights in the 1970s, meaning brighter, more colorful scoreboards. Along the way, some scoreboards — usually at Major League Baseball Stadiums — advanced beyond simply displaying game information to becoming entertainment boxes of their own.

In 1960, the Chicago White Sox unveiled an exploding scoreboard at Comiskey Park, which featured multi-colored pinwheels and blasted fireworks after every White Sox home run. Former White Sox manager Jimmy Dykes was not a fan of his team’s new contraption asking, only slightly rhetorically, “what’s baseball coming to?”

A floodlit baseball match in progress between the Boston Red Sox and home team the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York City, July 1959. (Photo by Louis Requena/Pictorial Parade/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Five years later Dykes would get an answer, although he probably didn’t like it. In 1965 the Houston Astrodome — nicknamed the eighth wonder of the world — opened with a 474-foot wide scoreboard that was then the largest anywhere in sports. It contained 50,000 lights and featured an animated display of cowboys, ricocheting bullets, flags, steers and fireworks after every Astros home run or win. And it was all set to a rendition of “The Eyes of Texas.”

Fifteen years later in 1980, the Los Angeles Dodgers hit a new plateau in scoreboard design with its 875-square foot video Mitsubishi Diamond Vision board at Dodger Stadium. It allowed operators to show replays using a VCR, the first video board of its kind.

But for all the flash of those modern-day scoreboards, the stadium themselves were still the primary draw. The scoreboards, most of them rectangular with a few notable exceptions, still primarily served as way to keep fans informed about the status of the game, with little — if any thought given to them as focal points of their respective stadiums’ design.

But that tried and true approach was about to change in a big way.