It's hot. Over the vast expanse of the ancient, soot-blackened arena the sun glares pitilessly, slowly but surely roasting the sweating humans in the cavernous gloom below as in an oven. Here and there, up the baking channels of the stadium ramps, small figures struggle hopelessly, blindly seeking the light above. One has already reached his goal. We see him here, transfixed before the distant spectacle he has come so far to view. But his ears hear not the muted shouts upon that far-off playing field; his eyes see not the graceful curve of ball in flight and runner reaching. His gaze is riveted for all eternity—i.e., nine innings—on his inevitable doom: a pole.
He has probably paid $2.50 to view that pole. Small comfort to him that this pole has been holding up this structure where he sits for nearly half a century, because he didn't really come to look at it at all. He came to see a ball game, and now he wonders why he isn't out where smarter people are who keep up with the times—out on the golf course, say, or trying to improve his rusty backhand on the local tennis court or maybe shooting bears and buffaloes with bow and arrow. In short, we have before us a specimen of homo spectator about to become homo participans—if he can ever get out of this broiling hole of hell alive—and hating the very thought of it.
And people ask: What's happening to the fan? Where is he?
Well, I have news. The fan is there, right where he's always been—still tooling around the antiquated ball park in the family sedan looking for a place to park; still emptying out his pockets to pay off that shark who steered him to a fender-denting hole outside the left-field wall, or giving his last eight bits to the usher, the one who's buying income property with the accumulated tax-free tips he gets for dusting off reserved seats. Could even be, in mid-game, he's still climbing the ramps because he didn't tip the usher and so got sent off in the wrong direction. But anyway, he's still around, the fan is, behind his pole or maybe standing in line outside the rest room, the one with only one door and just enough facilities to take care of a Cub Scout den. He's still around—but maybe not for long.
August 19, 1956
Or maybe he isn't around, at that. Maybe he finally listened when the little woman stamped her foot for the umpteenth time and said: "The ball park? That filthy hole? Not on your life! We're going down to Loew's High where they have Rossano Brazzi kissing Katharine Hepburn's hand in Technicolor on a Wide Screen with Stereophonic Sound, and where they have those big, comfortable loge seats with air-conditioning and hot popcorn and cold Coke if you feel like it." Maybe he thought of the splintery plank seats which he would get for his reserved-seat ticket, and the sweating effort of cheering himself hoarse for a pack of athletes who would make obscene gestures at him or take to the public prints to claim he didn't deserve their services even at 50 grand per year. So maybe he did turn to the little woman, thinking: it's just too much trouble to get there, it's too uncomfortable when I am there, they treat me like I'm not wanted anyway; and maybe he said: "Honey, you're right. Loew's it is. And Saturday, instead of going to the ball game, I'm gonna try and break 100."
Extreme? Well, possibly. But it's happening. Things are conspiring against homo spectator. He's being pulled and tugged at from all angles. He isn't an anachronism yet, but he's in danger of becoming one—a figure from the past, a backdrop for a TV athletic show, a potbellied object of finger-pointing by his family: "Daddy, Mr. Jones filled in at shortstop in Little League practice yesterday. How about you?" "Honey, Mrs. Smith told me that her husband was out on the golf course the other day when that big agency man from the West was here, and he shot an 80 or something and landed the account." The physical fitness people are after him, too; it's getting so a man can't spread himself at a ball park at all any more without thinking of what it's doing to his heart, his blood pressure and assorted organs he was heretofore totally unaware of as he sits and urges others on to sweat and toil in the name of sports and glory.
But the worst thing of all is that he's being let down by those whom he depends on most: the men who run the spectacles he wants to pay money to see. It isn't only baseball; it's boxing, too, and football and basketball and even tennis, which, come to think of it, is one of the worst offenders, with its matches staged in remote country clubs with concrete seats (if any) and the assumption that anybody who cares about the game has a chauffeured Cadillac at his disposal anyway. And the effect of it is telling. You can see it best in baseball, where the griping and second-guessing got so audible this year that Commissioner Ford Frick saw fit to clamp on a muzzle. Unwelcome as the thought may be to homo spectator, his ranks are thinning, and it's getting clearer all the time that if it's sport he wants, the thrill of combat and achievement, he's got to get out and, in the modern spirit, do it himself. It's almost easier to pitch a game these days than watch one.
Take Bob Cobb, the Hollywood restaurant magnate who is president, principal owner and general manager of the Hollywood Stars baseball team. As operating head of a franchise in a city of more than two million, it is his function to serve mainly as a supplier of baseball talent to a city of fewer than 750,000 (Pittsburgh) but, the fabric of baseball being what it is, he accepts this philosophically. In fact, he thinks it's nothing compared to the indignities organized baseball heaps on those it ought to know better than to mistreat—the customers.
"Look at it this way," suggests President Cobb. "There isn't a ball park in the country, with one or two exceptions, that's less than 30 years old. Baseball men haven't done a damn thing to their parks for decades except paint them. Show me another industry that has stood still like that! Show me a hotel in a big city that was a major hotel 30 years ago and is still a major hotel. You won't find one unless it has been renovated from top to bottom. The Polo Grounds is that same old plant—a horse-and-buggy ball park. Sentiment? A lot of bosh! Would you drive a 1910 automobile to take your family on a long trip, sentiment or not?"
Cobb doesn't even spare himself.
"Take that ball park of ours out there [Gilmore Field in the heart of Hollywood]. It's dirty. It's apt to be damp at night. You have to wipe the dew off to sit down. We don't do it for you unless you're a box seat holder and are prepared to tip. We have the finest concession foodstuffs in baseball. But what do you get? Still just a hot dog and a paper cup of beer that will spill on your clothes."
It isn't as though it was only Gil-more Field or Ebbets Field or the aforementioned Polo Grounds. The fans' dissatisfaction with what they get when they've plunked their money down and paid off the parking lot shark and the small boy who wants to watch the car and the guy who beats them into buying a program and the usher who tells them where to go and the usher who dusts off the seat when they finally get to it—well, their dissatisfaction with the whole works is country-wide.
"Memorial Stadium," says a Baltimore victim, "has poles that must be the granddaddies of all poles—round, thick and made of concrete. The Oriole management has marked about a thousand seats as 'obstructed,' which they certainly are, and there's about another thousand pole seats for which they don't sell tickets at all. Parking is free," adds this fellow, "but patrons heed well the shouts of 'Don't forget your parker!' and toss quarters to semiofficial persons who do nothing more than say 'Put it in there, Mac' There's a sickening feeling that a quarter saved might be a flat tire earned."
In solid Cincinnati the inquirer after possible improvements gets short shrift from the Redlegs' general manager, Gabe Paul. "Sure, the seats are hard," Mr. Paul told a recent interviewer. "A baseball crowd doesn't mind hard seats much, anyway. Every time something happens they all jump up. Besides, they've always got the seventh-inning stretch."
In Pittsburgh the pigeons, left roost-less when the Wabash Railroad Terminal was torn down years ago, have taken squatter's rights to the girders of Forbes Field. The management, complain the fans, seems glad to have them there. At that, their control might well be the envy of the Pirates' pitchers. The general admission fans report they haven't missed the strike zone in years. Forbes Field is a museum anyway. It opened June 30, 1909, nearly half a century ago.
In Philadelphia nearly everybody reads the bulletins about how street urchins let the air out of the tires of baseball fans' cars unless they are tipped a buck in advance not to. So nearly nobody goes to a ball game unless there's a big crowd, assuring adequate policing of the Connie Mack Stadium area. Said one reporter recently: "There is a large number of raucous, uncouth characters who filter into Mack Stadium. Several times there have been riots, driving away potential customers." It would seem that if the city won't do it the management ought to provide more police to protect its customers.
In Boston, Fenway Park may well be, as it boasts, the tidiest of major league ball parks, but its reserved seat sections encroach upon the unreserved areas in so unpredictable a fashion that only the unknowing fan will venture past the turnstile without a reserved seat. The stadium is ridiculously small (capacity 35,000), considering that Boston is the lone citadel of big-time baseball for all of New England (pop. 9,300,000). A single-decker, it gives an inferiority complex to the proper Bostonians, pained at the country-fair aspect of their stadium in comparison to triple-deck mastodons like the Yankees' park. Ticket sellers grumpily refuse to scour through their stacks to seat customers in preferred locations—which is about par for the course for ticket sellers anywhere.
In fact, in Milwaukee one fan stated categorically, "I hate ticket sellers as a class, and that goes for opera, concert, basketball, baseball or pingpong. Without me this guy ain't even got a job. But he treats me like dirt. He is offended if I ask for a certain seat, as if I should feel lucky to get any old seat. He acts like he'd just as soon I went away and didn't bother him. I think the ticket seller should be hired with care, given some training in sales psychology and should be checked regularly by ringers who report on his technique and politeness."
And this specimen of homo spectator added: "After all, the great game of baseball, I figure, is like top-drawer vaudeville. It's dispensable."
Most of baseball's fans don't yet subscribe to that kind of treasonable talk. To them baseball is indispensable. And, to be sure, ticket sellers as a class have improved over the years. In the old days in New York the ticket seller was a carny type who figured his salary was beside the point and his real take-home pay was what he could cheat out of the customers via the short-change racket. But this fan is right: ticket sellers represent the face of the ball club to the customer. If it's a surly face, his reaction is negative. If it cheats him, a little of his love for baseball dies.
In Milwaukee the fans have a friend—fellow by the name of Russ Lynch, a sportswriter who wasn't satisfied just to get the Braves in his home town. He insisted their deportment be exemplary once they were there. When he found women with babes in arms standing for hours in the broiling sun to buy tickets at the stadium, he forced management to open more ticket windows and to distribute tickets to key downtown locations for ready purchase. The point is that Mr. Perini, the Braves' owner, should have thought of it first. The Milwaukee chapter of baseball's loyal fans took his club out of Poverty Row and made it the most envied franchise in baseball today.
In Cleveland the Municipal Stadium ramps are so steep that even young people are exhausted by the time they get to their seats in the upper stands. The aged customers won't try. Yet department stores have had escalators for 20 years or more. Why not baseball stadia? The Cleveland chapter would also like to know how come the choice tickets for choice doubleheaders (like the Yankee ones) wind up in the hands of the shady characters on Short Vincent Street? Are those the guys who support the baseball team?
"In Chicago's Comiskey Park," writes a friend from the home of the White Sox, "there isn't much you can do about the stockyard stench which has preceded you to the ball park. You've bought a box seat for $2.50. The Andy Frain ushers in their smart blue uniforms keep looking at your stub and pointing toward left field. Finally you've gone as far down the left field line as you can go; a smiling usher looks at your stub and says 'There!' and you discover you're sitting 11 rows back in box 97. You're 350 feet from home plate and you're playing the hitter even deeper than is Orestes Minoso, Sox left fielder. You will be wise not to put up a squawk. Remember, they can always exchange your ticket for a 'box seat' high in the upper tier back of first base, from which $2.50 vantage point you can't even see the right field corner.
"Finally," our friend concludes his melancholy threnody, "the game is ended. You fall in line for the one-hour march out of the park. Shuffling down the narrow aisle (narrow aisles make for more seating capacity) you wonder if you'll ever re-enter the free world. At long last you do, only to endure the ultimate indignity. That 12-year-old brat who offered to watch your car for 50¢—and was turned down—has taken his revenge; there is a long scratch running the full length of the car."
In view of all this, it's hardly surprising that baseball attendance has fallen off almost one-third in net paid over the past eight years. To be sure, there are other reasons, which the owners cannot control: the Dodgers-Yankee olio has been seen too much, for instance. But the cold facts are that the drop-off would be even more dizzying if it weren't for the plugging of big holes by Milwaukee and Baltimore.
Baseball is the worst offender but by no means the only one. If the reader ever contemplates laying out $50 or $100 for a "ringside" seat at a really big prizefight, let him bring along a pair of binoculars. That "ringside" seat—unless you're a big shot or a friend of the IBC—will be 20 to 50 rows back, and if the fight is in a ball park the seats will be level, not elevated. At the Marciano-Walcott fight in Chicago there were 12,500 "ringside" seats, more than half the capacity of Chicago Stadium.
In football there are stadia with seating capacities in the neighborhood of 100,000 all over the country. But fewer than a fifth of the seats are between the end zones. If it's a college game these seats are filled by the students, and no one will quarrel with that. But if it's a pro game these seats are filled by season ticket holders. Now, a fan does not expect to be sold season tickets in the end zone, but a little planning could save some fair-to-middling seats for the fan who likes the home team but can't take that big lump sum out of the family budget to get in on the season ticket sale. Failing that, pro football could take a tip from department stores which sell their merchandise on the installment plan. People can even fly now and pay later—but pro football apparently doesn't trust people.
It's always been a rule of thumb in the sports business that to attract the customers all that's needed is to field a winner. As far as the promoters are concerned, the fans are just a bunch of fair-weather friends and there isn't any reason why a promoter should go out of his way to make the temporary residency of those who pay admission into their arenas any more pleasant. But this is an attitude which is peculiar to the sports industry alone. The auto manufacturers put out a good product and go out of their way to make it pleasant for Mr. and Mrs. John Doe who want to buy it. And if they don't buy, the manufacturers don't sulk and call the Does a family of in-grates. They just redouble their efforts to please them.
The plain truth of the matter, to address a word directly to those responsible for the misery of The Man In The Upper Deck Seat, is you can't go potzing along in 1956 with ball parks built in 1891, as the Polo Grounds relic was, or even 1913, as Ebbets Field was. You can't and still expect to compete equally for the entertainment dollar.
You're not going to lose the diehard fans, to be sure. They're used to the hardships and long ago were trapped by the romance of baseball in spite of your stubborn efforts to break them up. But you haven't a prayer of capturing the younger generation. They're used to ruffled nurseries, followed in succession by bunk beds, lightweight bikes with gearshifts, fancy automobiles and, at length, air-conditioned offices and restaurants. As far as they're concerned, your places of business are just damp, draughty, cramped and cavernous old architectural monstrosities, peopled with hostile or indifferent sales personnel, insolent vendors and swell-headed performers who won't even sign autograph books. Even My Fair Lady couldn't draw them through an obstacle course like that. Your show, in short, is for addicts only.
Perhaps baseball men have swallowed too much of that sentimental pap that baseball is such a super-integral part of the American scene that it will be put on sustaining even if no one shows up except the players—subsidized like the farmers, say. If that's the case they would do well to look over into a more sensitive sports area—the horse race tracks. The entrepreneurs there know that they're rather shaky members of the community, and they go out of their way to be gracious and courteous to their guests as a result. Take a look around the newer race tracks: escalators, a multiplicity of restaurants and cocktail lounges (real hot chef's food, not hot-water frankfurters and soupy mustard), cushions on the seats, clean-up crews constantly at work, plenty of police for your protection and a setting as relaxing and beautiful as the center of Central Park on a summer afternoon. A baseball park ought to be at least a facsimile of same.
Mr. Cobb, he of the Hollywood Stars whom we quoted at the beginning of this piece, agrees. "What baseball should have everywhere," he insists, "is not another ramshackle stadium but a brand new baseball plant with brand new ideas and engineering. It should be one with power brakes and steering. What I mean is, it should have escalators and radiant heating, adjustable seats for box seat patrons. It should have a spacious restaurant with a dance floor. It should have parking for 12,000 to 15,000 autos, with 1,000 private spaces for season box holders.
"It should be beautifully landscaped with perennial flowers and manicured green grass. It should have a banquet room which will seat 4,000 people and which will have all the major sports banquets. It should be a little like Santa Anita race track—only more so. It should have a 90-foot-wide foyer divided by trees. Why, Forest Lawn is just a cemetery but it draws half a million people a year just because it's beautiful."
A word from the couch in conclusion, that couch which awaits homo spectator if he can't make the transition to homo participans and finds the pole behind which he is sitting has grown into a wall. For years the amateur psychologists used to lambaste us poor fans—we were taking out our aggressions in the grandstand, they said, and really weren't very nice people, full of repressed hostility, they said. Well, a prominent Beverly Hills psychiatrist to whom I talked says: "Not so. I would not agree it is unhealthy. It's a reasonable way to give vent to feelings or to have satisfied needs which if expressed in other ways might be harmful. One of the primary needs is to express aggressiveness. It is beneficial to society and to the individual to have this aggression expressed in spectating a sports event. Prisons are full of people who were not able to take out these aggressions in this way."
But he does sound a word of warning for sports promoters, owners and general managers. "Being at a contest of any kind," he says, "the spectator gets a vicarious participation in it. Thus he experiences feelings and personal meanings in these competitive or win-versus-lose situations. Anything which restricts his ability to lose himself in the contest he is watching will decrease both his enjoyment in it and the value he derives emotionally from being able to express aggressive feelings in a controlled and socially approved manner."
In other words, Mr. Sports Manager, if it costs too much money or too much trouble, if it makes your customers disgruntled or dismayed to watch your spectacle, if it disrupts their home life because their wives won't go to "that grimy old place," then you're in trouble. It will all tend to dilute your customer's concentration on or self-identification with the contest going on down on the field. There's no telling what this might mean. Somewhere along the line one of your fans might sock an umpire. One of them might sock you. But one thing is sure: when the dilution reaches the point where the distractions outweigh the concentration, then your customers won't be fans anymore. They'll be ex-fans. That's your problem.
ABOUT THIS ARTICLE
Statements such as those made here are not lightly undertaken. JAMES MURRAY, however, speaks with the authority and passion of a fan of many years' standing (SI, June 11). His opinions in this review have been bolstered by SPORTS ILLUSTRATED correspondents in key sports cities: RAY CAVE in Baltimore, EDDIE BEACHLER in Pittsburgh, JOE DORAN in Cincinnati, STUART BROWN in Philadelphia, JACK OLSEN in Chicago, EUGENE SEGAL in Cleveland, ROD VAN EVERY in Milwaukee and HAROLD KAESE in Boston. ROBERT OSBORN translated their passions in the drawings of what fans endure.