TAKE ME OUT OF THE BALL GAME

Throwing garbage, waving signs and spilling onto the field, a new gang of rowdies gets into the sports act—while players and officials wonder whatever became of good old peanuts and Crackerjack
April 26, 1970

Oh, it was a grand Opening Day in Chicago. Flags and bunting and the Cubs and the Phillies. As Infielder Glenn Beckert trotted toward the dugout after the final out, a young fan dropped out of the bleachers and tried to grab Beckert's cap. Or maybe his scalp. The youth's eyes were glazed, Becker recalls, as he clawed the infielder's face. Beckert shoved the boy aside and suddenly all hell was breaking loose around Wrigley Field—seven, maybe eight, swinging fist-fights on various parts of the field, all involving fans. The season was on.

A few days later Yankee Stadium staged its own sideshow. New York was leading by a couple of runs when Third Baseman Danny Cater threw away the ball with two outs and the bases loaded. As First Baseman John Ellis chased it, he found himself in competition with a youngster. Ellis won the race and threw the ball home in time to catch the potential winning run at the plate, but by this time the field was covered with fans who presumably thought the game was over. It took five minutes and a threatened forfeit to herd everyone back to the stands.

"It was awful," said Manager Ralph Houk. "I never saw anything like it."

This incident climaxed a long afternoon of audience participation at the Stadium during which fans hurled a barrage of garbage down upon the outfielders—apples, oranges, flashbulbs, beer cans and Dixie Cups.

"I can see it now," said Curt Blefary of the Yankees. "We clinch the pennant...65,000 people in the stands and 65,000 Dixie Cups coming right at me."

And hockey fans are very much in the act. In Minneapolis last week someone tossed a live duck onto the ice, this following an earlier deluge of beer, eggs and programs. In Detroit spectators matched the duck with a cooked octopus—while in New York it was oranges, eggs and apples, leftovers perhaps from Yankee Stadium.

Then there are the signs. Something about sport brings out the poet-artist in many spectators—but never have the messages painted on old bedsheets been so pungent. Famous four-letter words are suddenly being strung out boldly over the balconies for all to see. The wording is as explicit as it is unprintable here, and even television cameras, which used to lazily scan the audiences during breaks in the action, are now forced to avert their lenses. The night Boston won its playoff series with New York, there were 23 banners vilifying the Bruins' Derek Sanderson hanging from the balcony in Madison Square Garden, and some spectators chanted outrageous words that New York will be a long time living down. According to the banners, Sanderson was a pig, a derelict, a queer, a fairy, a hairy fairy and, worst of all, had bad breath. "I'm a gracious winner," Derek said after the series. "I will call the New York fans sick animals and leave it at that. They are worth only two words."

All these outbursts on the part of fans are not funny, of course. They are a matter of growing concern to athletes and officials. Steve Hamilton, the Yankee relief pitcher and player representative, has asked the front office to put a roof over the bullpen. "They told me they wouldn't do it," says Hamilton, "because the fans like to watch us warming up." But the fans also like to drop things on top of pitchers, like pool balls. "Somebody's going to get hurt," says Hamilton.

Some experts feel it is surprising that no one has been hurt already. This would certainly be true if one looked at sport against the backdrop of growing violence across the country, on street and campus. But it also is true that sport plays a special role in contemporary life, and if Americans have a soft spot in their hearts at all it seems to be for The Game. And while symbols of authority are toppling on all sides—teachers, parents, employers—an official's whistle can still stop the action, and rarely is he besieged by rebels who insist that they want to participate equally in his decisions.

But most everyone agrees the situation bears watching.

The New York Mets' front office and the Baseball Commissioner's office were appalled by the demonstration at Shea Stadium last autumn when the Mets won the Series. That wasn't team loyalty out there ripping up the sod and stealing home plate. That was vandalism. Imagine what those fans could do if they got angry.

Some serious fans could make a good case for calling New York the rowdiest sports town in the country. Certainly the Rangers, Yankees and "Goodby Allie" Sherman would agree. But Richie Allen, Wilt Chamberlain and Sonny Jurgensen would argue for Philadelphia. So might Red Auerbach, who used to be a target for cigars, some of them lighted, whenever he brought his Boston Celtics into Convention Hall. Around baseball, the word has long been: "When in Philadelphia, run for the dressing room as soon as the game is over."

Chicago has always been a tough pro football town—but as of last year it acquired a reputation for baseball rowdiness, thanks to a group known as the Bleacher Bums. The Bleacher Bums sit in left field and wear yellow helmets, blow bugles and shout down players. Occasionally they are said to drop drinks on people—such as Henry Aaron. However, the Bums insist that they have been maligned, that they are an orderly lot who are, in fact, incorporated. Which is why the Bleacher Bums are so upset with the events at Wrigley Field on Opening Day.

"The disturbance started out in right field." says Ron Grousl, a leading Bum. "Some kid fell or jumped on the field and right away a bunch of ushers started kicking him. That's what started all the fighting. It wasn't us Bums."

Whatever it was that started the skirmish, the Chicago management has taken steps to see that it doesn't happen again. John Holland, vice-president of the club, announced last week that a 42-inch mesh screen would be installed bordering the bleachers and that standing-room tickets no longer would be sold. A video system will scan trouble spots, beer will not be sold in the bleachers, penalties for fan invasion or throwing debris will be posted publicly.

Others in baseball immediately followed suit. Joe Brown of Pittsburgh ordered his police force doubled. Lindsey Nelson, voice of the Mets, appealed to fans to "show the way to others." From the commissioner's office came the plea to help stamp out the new fad before it becomes accepted behavior. It urged TV to keep the camera off fans who run onto the field and it has asked clubs to "kindly let us know what we can do to combat outbreaks."

Rowdyism is not, of course, a brand-new phenomenon in sport (ask Ted Williams about the left-field bleachers in Fenway Park, or any survivor about the right-field bleachers in the old Polo Grounds). The Bronx cheer and the razz-berry hold a fierce (if dubious) place in any listing of the Rights of Man. The problem is the extension of dissent to include armed attack—a problem sport shares with society. Sport has one advantage, however—a controllable venue from which, with some effort, violence can be excluded. Some effort is being made. More is needed.

PHOTOKeeping a wary eye on a gang of kids scrambling over the centerfield wall, Met Tommie Agee waits for action to resume at Pittsburgh's Field.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)