In Boston last week after a night game Dick Stuart was interviewed on television in front of the dugout. The game had been over for 10 minutes and the ball park was half dark, but as the Red Sox first baseman and the announcer talked on camera, remnants of the crowd waited and watched and made loud, raucous comments.
"Attaway to hustle, Stu, baby!" a fan roared on the far side of the field.
"Never mind what they say, Stuart," yelled another. "You're good."
A third shouted in a perfect Boston accent: "He's not a ballplayuh. He's a television staa."
The interview ended, the announcer wrapped up the telecast and Stuart started to walk off the field and down into the Boston clubhouse. As he did, a knot of people standing behind the dugout broke into mocking applause. Stuart glanced up at them and smiled.
"My hecklers," he said cheerfully. "Other ballplayers have loyal fans. I have loyal hecklers."
Dick Stuart is the most fun Boston has had since the last time Ted Williams spit. "He's taken this town by—well, some kind of storm," said Bill Crowley, the Red Sox publicity man. "No one is indifferent to him. The other day we had a fight in the stands over him. A guy ran down to the fence with one of those popcorn-box megaphones and began to yell things at Stuart. He really poured it on. Dick looked over at him and said, 'Why don't you come out here and say that?' I started to phone the chief usher to have him get the fan out of there when another fellow, a big guy in a blue shirt, grabbed the one with the megaphone and belted him. He wound up and hit him a couple of times. Stuart is out on the field going like this with his fist, as if to say, 'Attaboy, give it to him.'
"They boo Stuart and they cheer him, but they come out to see him. He sells a lot of tickets for us. He even has his own TV show. Every Sunday night right after the news. Stuart on Sports. It has the best rating of any TV sports show in Boston."
Stuart is in his first year with the Red Sox, and his swift capture of both the affection and antipathy of the crowds at Fenway Park is based on 1) his ability to hit home runs, and 2) his inability to field ground balls. Stuart is a classic home run hitter, a big swinger who strikes out a great deal (the other day he struck out for the 121st time, a new Boston club record) but who hits the ball a long way when he connects. The Red Sox obtained him from the Pittsburgh Pirates last winter in an off-season trade, and they got him expressly to hit home runs over the short left-field wall in Fenway Park. Stuart has come through handsomely. Last week, to the delight of Boston's fans, he was the American League's leading home run hitter, and 23 of his first 33 homers had been made in Fenway. Now, in Boston, when Stuart comes to the plate, there is a noisy stirring in the crowd and spontaneous applause.
Stuart's fielding has lived up to its advance billing, too. In each of his five seasons with Pittsburgh, Dick led the National League first basemen—or tied for the lead—in making errors. This year he is way out in front among American League first basemen; as of August 24 he had 20 errors—the second worst fielder had nine. For these blunders, he is booed with extraordinary vigor.
The inclination to boo him for his bad fielding is helped along by Stuart's appearance, which on the field is one of nonchalance bordering on indolence. He wears his cap rather forward on his head, so that the visor seems to function like a pair of sunglasses. He appears startled when a ground ball is hit in his direction. His general attitude gives the impression that the idea of sudden and obvious effort is distasteful.
Yet, paradoxically, his awful fielding is part of the charm he holds for Boston fans. This may trace back to Ted Williams, a Boston hero who wasn't much of a fielder either. Or it may be simply that Stuart's presence turns a routine ground ball into something exciting. After all, when a grounder is hit to other infielders, no one pays much attention. When one is hit toward Stuart the crowd sits up. If he handles it cleanly—which he often does—the crowd cheers. The crowd cheers when he catches a pop fly. One day it cheered when he fielded an errant piece of paper that was blowing across the infield. If he does bobble the ball the crowd boos, but if it is not a particularly damaging error the boos sound almost pleased, as though this was what the people had come to see, part of the show that is Dick Stuart. Even the nickname the players have given him and which the fans have picked up—Old Stonefingers—has a note of affection in it.
The booing doesn't seem to bother Stuart. "I have a controversial name," he said the other day. "Anything I say or do seems to attract attention. I don't mind. People know me, whether they like me or dislike me. That's probably why my TV show has been successful."
The television program created another of the controversies that bubble up so naturally around Stuart. A newcomer to the Red Sox, he was signed for the show before he had played so much as a single game for the club. This led to considerable needling from the other players and a word of caution from Red Sox Manager Johnny Pesky. "Dick," said Pesky, "are you sure you know what you're doing?" Stuart replied with pleasing candor, "No, John. I don't think I do."
But he went ahead with it, and after a shaky start, caused principally by his lack of professional experience, the show caught on. A staff announcer now handles the rundown of baseball news, and Stuart's main duty is to interview special guests, usually ballplayers. He has a good voice and he photographs well, and his producers are trying to arrange an extension of the program through the winter.
Whether they do or not, Stuart seems to have become a permanent part of the Boston landscape. Red Sox attendance is up almost 300,000 this season; and, while much of the credit for that must go to players like Carl Yastrzemski and Dick Radatz and the surprisingly good run the Red Sox made the first half of the season, a large and vocal segment comes primarily to see Dick Stuart. Boston likes home run hitters, and it likes them controversial.