It wasn't easy being a sports fan in the good old days. For one thing, the grandstands had a habit of collapsing, taking several hundred or so spectators with them on each occasion.
One of the more memorable collapses took place in 1890 while 25,000 persons were watching the Yale-Princeton football game at Brooklyn's Eastern Park. In order to accommodate such a large crowd, an additional grandstand had been brought from Philadelphia, and it was this section that "fell with a crashing, roaring noise a little after twelve o'clock, precipitating nearly two thousand persons in a confused and terrified mass to the ground, under and upon the splintered ruins of the stand," at least according to The New York Times.
Despite the number of persons involved, there were only two fatalities, and most of the hardy fans "disdained surgical attention, and tied handkerchiefs around their wounded limbs and sought new perches on the ruins of the fallen stands from which to view the great contest."
In the ensuing brouhaha, the Eastern Park manager blamed the fans for the accident. "The trouble was that the people would not keep still," he said. "It was cold, I suppose, and the people got up on their feet and began dancing like a lot of wild Indians." The newspapers blamed management ("Those who had it in charge seemed anxious only to make money and cared not a whit how the public fared"); the police ("The Brooklyn police...stood around like so many dummies"); and the Philadelphia construction firm ("There was not a piece of wood about the structure deserving the name of timber").
Just a year before, a similar accident had occurred out West, at Guthrie, Indian Territory (now the state of Oklahoma), where 1,000 persons gathered to watch the Fourth of July races had fallen to the ground with the defective grandstand. "Much indignation was expressed against the architect," said the newspapers in a marvelous piece of understatement.
Another such collapse occurred in Chicago during the 1902 Wisconsin-Michigan football game. Thirty-two were injured as the grandstand there gave way "with a crash that could be heard for blocks." Fortunately, no injury befell the building inspectors who had pronounced the grandstand safe and were standing close to it when it descended about their ears.
That same year, Glasgow's Ibrox Park grandstand had collapsed, killing five and injuring 125. More than 70,000 were present to watch an International football match between England and Scotland. When some of the fans pushed their way onto the field, squads of policemen drove them back into the stands, with the result that there was too much weight at the top of the wooden structure. A section of 12 tiers measuring 100 by 30 feet gave way, sending spectators to the ground 60 feet below. "The injured were piled in heaps, wedged in with broken wood," the paper reported, adding, "The rest of the crowd watched the game, a draw, without noticing."
A similar accident took place in Philadelphia on Aug. 8, 1903, during a National League baseball game between the Phillies and Boston. The grandstand had been constructed with a wooden walkway at the top of the left-field section. Only three feet wide, it overlooked 15th Street, which became the scene of a scuffle between a pair of drunks just as Boston came to bat in its half of the fourth inning. Attracted by the disturbance, more and more fans began leaning over the railing, until finally a 200-foot section of it fell into 15th Street. "For an entire block," a newspaper reported, "men were lying...some as far out as the car tracks." The wounded were rushed to St. Joseph's Hospital in a huge wrecking car of the Philadelphia Transit Company. Subsequent investigation of the stands showed that the wooden railing supports were rotten.
Before the turn of the century, when spectator sports really caught on, grandstand construction was often shoddy and of a decidedly temporary nature. Nevertheless, it must be pointed out that the oldtime sports fan often brought danger on himself, for he was a dedicated freeloader who would clamber virtually anywhere to see an event without paying for it. Sometimes this led him to disaster, as it did in 1887, when a group of 35 London sports fans boarded a hay-laden barge in order to get a better view of the Thames River regatta. When the ropes holding the tarpaulin covering the hay suddenly parted, all but one of the spectators fell into the river. The water at that point was only three feet deep, but there happened to be eight feet of mud directly underneath and 17 persons were drowned.
Eight years later an estimated 600 people jammed their way onto a three-span iron bridge 40 feet above the St. Joseph River at Bristol, Ind. to watch the Fourth of July regatta. As the boats approached the bridge during the final race, the eager crowd began cheering and stomping its feet. At the height of the excitement, the bridge tumbled into the river, carrying its 600 occupants with it. Thirty-eight of them died.
Even more horrendous was the accident that occurred on Nov. 29, 1900 in San Francisco. The event was a football game between Stanford and California, which attracted about 20,000 paying spectators and 200 freeloaders. The freeloaders' roost was the sheet-iron roof of the Pacific Glass Works factory, which overlooked the playing field.
No one knows how 200 people managed to work their way onto the roof in broad daylight. The manager claimed he had tried to prevent the spectators from gathering there and had even called police. Whether or not, 20 minutes after the game started the roof caved in, sending 100 or more men and boys downward "upon the red-hot furnaces and glass vats below. All were horribly burned.... The fires on the furnaces had been started for the first time...and the vats were full of liquid glass.... Some were killed instantly and others were slowly roasted to death."
It hardly seems necessary to add that today's sports fan enjoys a comparatively easy lot. All he faces are traffic jams, hideous renditions of The Star-Spangled Banner, escalators that do not escalate, admission prices that do, and the ever-present threat of the $2 beer.