Friday, August 28, 2015

Five Moments in Baseball Culture

Going into the bottom half of the eighth inning of the seventh game of the 1946 World Series, the St. Louis Cardinals were tied at three runs with the visiting Boston Red Sox. The first batter for the Cardinals was Enos Slaughter, who hit a single. This was followed by a pair of outs, and it looked like the game would be decided in its final inning - but the clean-up hitter, Harry Walker, hit a single. Slaughter, who had led off from first base substantially, rounded second and continued on to third. Then, knowing the game was down to the wire and the entire World Series was on the line, he kept going, narrowly sliding safely into home plate just before Boston's catcher had a chance to tag him out. Slaughter's "Mad Dash," as it has come to be known, would prove to be the winning run. There's now a cast bronze sculpture of Slaughter sliding into home in the North Carolina Baseball Museum, and he's been inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY.

Folklorists often look at the origins and development of games, and the customs of precisely how they are played, but in a world where the most important sports are those where the participants are vastly outnumbered by the spectators, the most important folklore spreads outside the field of play. Anthropologists who study ritual have likened sports fandom to religion so many times the observation is regarded as a cliche, and it's certainly true that the attachment to a single team and the powerful emotional bond a fan feels with the rest of the crowd, the players on the field, and the team colors can border on the mystical. When a film opens with Susan Sarandon's voice saying that "I believe in the Church of Baseball," the non-fan can take it as a wry moment at the start of what's going to be a comedy, while the die-hard sports fan will nod knowingly, and follow along with the entire monologue. And like any religion, baseball has its stories, its customs, and its expectations.
There's nothing in the rules of the game that requires, or even implies, that fans will stand up and stretch between the halves of the seventh inning. It's a custom, however, one firmly ingrained in the culture of the sport. Fans would be shocked if the stretch were skipped, or even if it didn't include the right music (even if many have no idea the song has verses). There are other ways to fill the time between other half-innings, and many teams have their own particular customs about specific inning breaks. Spectators might expect t-shirts launched into the stands, fans sumo wrestling on the field, a team mascot losing a race around the base path to a small child, and the sound of snack vendors shouting about their inventory throughout the game.

In June of 1979, fans filled the Padres stadium to watch the return of Ted Giannoulas - the performer whose antics as the KGB-FM radio station's chicken mascot had begun to inspire sports teams across the country to hire mascots of their own and had helped invent the modern style of performance we expect from them. Giannoulas and KGB-FM had parted ways, and his replacement wasn't regarded as being nearly so entertaining. He created his own chicken costume to perform his act independently, and on this occasion he emerged from a giant paper-mache egg while the PA system played "Also Sprach Zarathustra." The game in question was one the Padres hadn't expected would draw very well, so their staff happily agreed to Giannoulas' request that his compensation for the performance would be based on the number of fans in attendance. The Famous Chicken hatched before what proved to be a sellout crowd, and for one night the man inside the egg was the highest-paid athlete in America.

Every sport has its superstitions, but baseball has more than most. Fans get caught up in them, with their own private rituals without which they can't be as confident of their team's chances - their particular shirt they must wear on game day, their private handshake they do with the team mascot, that one song they get up and dance to, the seat they must occupy, the friends who have to watch with them. The players have their own, such as not shaving or abstaining from sex or wearing just the right underwear, and these can be so psychologically powerful that I've seen a team's performance suffer due to the closure of a specific fast-food restaurant. Office staff, knowing what effect a rainout has on the team's bottom line, refuse to say the "r-word" on a day when the clouds are menacing. At bottom, everyone feels some ownership of the results, and works hard to accomplish everything that is in their power - and then does whatever they can to imagine some degree of control over everything else. Then there are the habits that seem to inevitably go along with being a ballplayer - chewing either tobacco or sunflower seeds, for instance, or growing so used to wearing that particular style of cap you're almost never without one - and come to define the image of the game.
Dock Ellis woke up late one morning and promptly took a substantial dose of LSD. It was 1970, and he was keen on the substance, and he'd forgotten it was his day in the rotation. When he realized, he caught a plane to San Diego, where he was due to throw, and reported to the stadium, still under the influence. Nobody particularly noticed anything strange about his sometimes wild pitches, because they were part of what Ellis was known for, but by the seventh inning, with his Pirates up 1-0, Ellis realized he had a no-hitter going. (Other players had spotted it sooner, but one of the classic baseball superstitions is you don't mention a no-hitter to the pitcher while it's underway.) Although Ellis's even-wilder-than-normal pitching let eight batters walk, the no-hitter persisted through the final two innings, and the Pirates won the game 2-0.

Anyone who plays any game or sport knows these moments ensure that no two games will be alike, and when something extraordinary happens the memories stand out as one-of-a-kind moments. For others, it's the night's business to make sure each game is memorable, and the entertainment aside from the sport itself is as much a part of the customs of baseball as anything else. Many teams have theme nights, and certain themes have become standards - Star Wars Night, for example, can be found at teams around the country, as can dog-friendly "Bark in the Park" nights. Others are unique, such as the Lowell Spinners' all-out celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the invention of bubble wrap, or the Carolina Mudcats' "Carlos Danger Mustache Night." The Washington Nationals caught their fans' attention with a series of bobblehead giveaways for their four Racing Presidents; on each of the first three nights, the featured president won the race by a great margin. On the fourth night, fans who had noticed the pattern turned out hoping to see Teddy Roosevelt get his first win since the team had introduced the nightly races nearly two seasons prior. He lost again.

Teams have brought in outside performers (including a now 61-year-old Ted Giannoulas, who still performs as the Famous Chicken at ballparks around the country). They've had their grounds crews dance their way around the base path as they drag it, they've replaced the famous "kiss cam" with other clever camera promotions for the audience to take part in or used shills to spice up the on-camera antics. Staff have had dance-offs on the field during rain delays to keep the fans engaged, taken on their own team's players in hot-dog-eating contests, and more. Some of the best of these moments can be found at some of the smallest teams. I once had the opportunity to speak to several people involved with promotions at the Martinsville Mustangs (average attendance that season: 1,539) and heard every one of them acknowledge just how cheesy a lot of their on-field entertainment was. They embraced it without a trace of irony, and the fans were clearly right there with them on that point. (And that hot-dog example is from my own Wilson Tobs, who play in the same league before slightly smaller crowds.) Baseball lives in these little moments, at little parks or big ones.

A month after the Famous Chicken emerged from his egg, the Chicago White Sox were hosting the Detroit Tigers and had cooked up a timely and popular theme for the game: Disco Demolition Night. For a July 12 doubleheader, fans were encouraged to bring a disco record to destroy and get $1 admission, with all the records to be destroyed between the night's two games. The promotion capitalized on popular resentment of the genre by rock-and-roll fans, and was sponsored by a local rock radio station. After even standing-room-only tickets had sold out, fans continued to sneak their way in with their records, many of which were thrown onto the field rather than being collected by White Sox staff. Attendance for the night is estimated at about 50,000 people, 6,000 more than the stadium's capacity. Between the two games, the records were gathered up on the field and exploded; while the detonation was successful in destroying the records, it also did so much damage as to render the field unplayable, forcing the White Sox to forfeit the second game. It's been called the greatest failure in sports promotions, but thirty-four years later it's still well-remembered.

It's these experiences, even more than anything else, that can stick in the mind and which define the game for many casual spectators. Folksinger John McCutcheon once had the chance to sing at the Baseball Hall of Fame, and for the occasion he wrote a song about all the people who make baseball what it is - "every lifetime minor-leaguer," those who play pickup games as children, and "every fan who truly does believe, this might be the year." The last verse tells all these people, "this is your Hall." It's certainly true that baseball culture is far larger than just its top-level leagues; it accounts for half the professional sports teams in the United States, it remains one of the most popular youth sports (although it has been eclipsed by soccer on that front), and draws more spectators than any other live sport. It's a popular subject for sports movies, and its key terms have worked their way into our everyday language as figurative expressions. The US presence in the Caribbean after the Spanish-American War spread the game to the islands, from which many professional players now come; our involvement in Japan after the second World War spread the game to Japan, which still loves it. If spectator sports are a religion, then in America, baseball is its largest denomination by far.

The game is also often defined by nostalgia. There's a sense among many baseball fans of seeing something timeless; where other sports very much live in the moment, baseball culture rejects the idea of a single present. When a local-interest magazine covers the small-town baseball experience, for example, it comes as no surprise to see content that talks about over a century of baseball history and brings it all into the games being played in the present. Yet it isn't any genuine ancient history that animates baseball's sense of timelessness - it's the fans' lifetimes of memories in which they look back and perceive the game as having always been a particularly perfect version of what it has become. Ultimately, that's perhaps the biggest piece of folklore - the notion that baseball can have been nearly the same ever since its invention, de novo, by Abner Doubleday (who didn't actually have anything to do with it) right down to the present. Fans get lost in the experience, and at times the culture of the game creates fans who, in rooting for their team, are ultimately rooting more than anything for the sport itself.

During the 1932 World Series, the Chicago Cubs' reserve players were taunting Babe Ruth during his at-bats. Ruth responded by word and by gesture, enjoying the moment. During the third game, Ruth stepped up to bat in the fifth inning, and in response to whatever the home team's players had said, he pointed his bat at center field. (Some eyewitnesses say he gestured at the pitcher, which would have looked nearly the same and indicated the same direction.) The pitch came, and he hit a perfect homerun directly over the pitcher's head and into the center field stands. The most popular wire service, in an era when those were a growing part of the media, sent out a story about the game which appeared across the country in which this was interpreted as Babe Ruth calling his shot. It's a nearly impossible feat, but if there's ever been a batter who could pull it off, he's the one. Asked by an interviewer whether it was true, Ruth is reported to have smiled and said, "It was in the papers, wasn't it?" After all, you don't get in the way of a legend that perfect - not when, for many people, baseball is so much more than just a game.

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