June 21, 1985, will be long remembered at Veterans Stadium in
Philadelphia as The Night of the Living Moths. The Phillies were
leading the Pirates 1-0 in the fifth inning when the moths began
arriving, filling the air around the light towers.
By the seventh inning, millions, perhaps billions, of the
fluttering insects were in the stadium. ''It couldn't have been
worse,'' recalls then Phillies catcher Ozzie Virgil. ''You'd go up to
hit, and they were in your eyes and ears and mouth.'' To Phillies
outfielder Von Hayes, the ballpark suddenly looked like one of those
water-filled paperweights that you shake to make ''snow'' fall. ''It
was just like playing in a furry blizzard,'' he said. ''From the
outfield you couldn't see home plate.''
The game went extra innings. In the bottom of the 15th, Pirates
third baseman Bill Madlock was in the process of fielding a routine
grounder when he inhaled a moth, gagged and threw wild to first for
an error. The Pirates were able to survive that moth in the ointment,
but finally, in the bottom of the 16th, Juan Samuel won the game for
the Phils with a one-out double down the rightfield line. No bugs
Though eerie occasions like The Night of the Living Moths are
unusual, they are by no means unprecedented. As everyone knows, God
created the baseball season and the bug season to run pretty much
concurrently. Thus baseball lore is every bit as richly populated
with insect anecdotes as ballparks are populated with insects. Last
summer, after hearing about Moth Night in Philadelphia, I decided
that the time had come to pursue some solid facts about bugs and
One primary source of research was the players themselves. Be
forewarned that when ballplayers talk bugs you will get very little
science and a lot of tall tales. For example, Yankee reliever Dave
Righetti says that he once saw | a grasshopper in Kansas City trying
to make off with the resin bag. Former big league infielder Duane
Kuiper said of the cockroaches in the locker rooms at Atlanta's
Fulton County Stadium: ''I walked in and there was one wearing my
uniform.'' And Phillies manager John Felske declared, ''I've seen
swarms of mosquitoes so big and thick over the outfield that balls
that started off as tape-measure home runs fell straight down and
landed at the centerfielder's feet.''
Of course, few baseball people are trained entomologists, so some
of these claims may be exaggerated. Most players remember catching
fireflies as youngsters, but serious collectors of insects don't seem
to make it past American Legion ball. ''I think if any big league
ballplayer collected bugs as a kid, he wouldn't admit it now,'' says
former big league first baseman Jason Thompson.
But if baseball attracts few students of entomology, it does
attract a number of researchers of the mad scientist sort --
particularly in bullpens. ''We conduct many scientific experiments on
insects,'' says Kansas City Royals relief ace Dan Quisenberry. ''Like
the saliva test. Tobacco juice does strange things to bugs.'' When
their interest in science wanes, relief pitchers sometimes use
insects for target practice. ''We kill a lot of time,'' says
Quisenberry. ''And a lot of bugs.''
There are numerous stories about players who bit insects before
insects could bite them. In Cincinnati, bullpen denizens
affectionately remember relief pitcher Pedro Borbon, who often bit
the heads off live grasshoppers to win bets as high as $25. Another
Reds pitcher, Brad (the Animal) Lesley, is said to have gone Borbon
one better: He bit the heads off live grasshoppers for nothing.
Andy Etchebarren, the Milwaukee Brewer coach, claims that former
Oriole pitcher Dick Hall once bit the head off a locust in the
Baltimore bullpen. ''He went blind for three innings,'' Etchebarren
says. Atlanta Braves advance scout Bobby Wine says that John Boozer,
his teammate in Philadelphia, would eat ''virtually any insect'' and
was also partial to worms.
One of the more bizarre -- but original -- ways of dealing with
insects was thought up by former Braves pitcher Bob Walk, who now
pitches for Hawaii in the Pacific Coast League. Walk would catch
several moths and put them in his mouth. He would then stroll up to
someone and open his mouth as if to sing. Instead of music, moths
A few players admit -- though always off the record -- that they
have used bugs as an alibi for bad play, and others have found
insects useful for drawing attention away from some misdeed. The best
story about the latter involves pitching great Gaylord Perry, who won
314 big league games with a suspiciously slippery breaking pitch. A
few years ago in Arlington Stadium in Texas, a batter fouled off a
Perry pitch. The ball struck a press box window, leaving a greasy
smear on the glass. Told about this later, Perry grinned slyly and
said, ''It must have hit a bug on the way up.''
Occasionally bugs have been the cause of games being won or lost.
Braves assistant director of player development Bobby Dews remembers
such a contest in Savannah, Ga., in the Southern League. With two
outs in the ninth, the bases loaded and the game tied, a lefthanded
pitcher named Al Pratt saw a mosquito land on the tip of his nose
just as he stopped in his stretch. Jerking his hand to brush the
mosquito away, Pratt was called for a balk, which let in the
Obviously bugs can be a hellaciously pervasive factor in ball
games -- more so, sometimes, than wind, sun, temperature or rain.
Thus ballparks often have a variety of equipment and devices around
designed to keep the bugs at bay: electric bug-zappers in the
bullpens, insecticide sprayers in the groundskeepers' shed, No-Pest
Strips dangling above hot dogs in the concession stands, bottles and
cans of insect repellent in the dugouts. An enduring insect-repelling
image is that of pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm on the mound in Chicago's
Comiskey Park some years ago, pausing between pitches to fight off
swarms of gnats and mosquitoes with a can of bug spray.
Over the years a number of ingenious solutions to the
bugs-in-baseball problem have been devised. One afternoon last
September, a Minneapolis inventor came to the Metrodome locker room
to see Twins trainer Dick Martin. The inventor was carrying a
mysterious box. He opened it and unwrapped two pairs of what he
called ''bug glasses.''
''They were like cheap drugstore sunglasses,'' says Martin. ''But
in place of glass lenses they had wire mesh. Like a screen door.''
The inventor put on a pair and grinned. Martin lost his composure and
began laughing so hard he almost fell to the floor. The inventor
turned out to be sincere, so Martin apologized and agreed to take the
glasses on a trial basis.
As fate would have it, several nights later the Twins were playing
in Toronto when huge clouds of gnats suddenly descended on the
field. Twins players began clamoring for the bug glasses. Martin
recalls, ''Two pairs weren't enough. I needed nine.''
Unfortunately, the screening proved too dark and the Twins were
afraid to wear them in the field. ''I think if the material was a lot
finer, they might work,'' Martin says. But the window of opportunity
had closed; the inventor didn't come back, and the bug glasses are
still on the shelf.
In the annals of ballpark bug stories, the events of Aug. 6, 1972,
loom large. On that night in Midland, Texas, a game between the
Midland Cubs and the Amarillo Giants of the Texas League was called
on account of grasshoppers. Ted Battles, sports editor of the Midland
Reporter-Telegram, was in the press box when it happened. ''You'd
have to have been there to believe it,'' he said. ''The sun had just
set. Suddenly the grasshoppers came in ahead of a cold front. When
they hit the stadium, it sounded like an amusement park funhouse.
Women and children were screaming. Men were swatting with their arms.
The players were swinging bats at the grasshoppers.''
The Aug. 7, 1972, Reporter-Telegram carried a front page headline:
GRASSHOPPERS: MILLIONS FLY IN AHEAD OF BLUSTERY FRONT. The sports
page had a screamer too: SWARMING GRASSHOPPERS ROUT CUBS, GIANTS,
The game story revealed that Pete LaCock had been at bat when the
game was called. A former first baseman for the Royals and Cubs,
LaCock remembers it all vividly. ''You could hear the ball hitting
grasshoppers as the pitch came in,'' he says. ''There were marks from
dead grasshoppers all over the ball. If you hit a pop foul,
grasshoppers would fall out of the sky.'' Nothing like it has ever
been recorded before or since.
Each ballpark has a distinctive bug profile, dictated by climate,
architecture and other variables. Whether open to the air or domed,
plastic- turfed or grassed, each stadium supports an ecology not
precisely like any other.
Of course, baseball's three domed sta- diums -- Houston's
Astrodome, Minne- sota's Metrodome and Seattle's Kingdome --
generally have few problems related to insects. The Kingdome's
facility director, Ron Cline, said, ''To be honest, we have some
problems with rodents -- we get rats from the docks -- but insects, I
don't notice a problem comparable to other stadiums'.'' The Metrodome
in Minneapolis also has pretty much succeeded in banishing bugs. The
stadium's roof is supported by 20 electric fans that produce a
positive roof- raising air pressure of three to six pounds per
square foot inside the entire Dome. This causes a stiff outbound
breeze to blow whenever an outside door or window is opened. ''I'm
sure it's virtually impossible for a mosquito or fly to get into the
Metrodome,'' said John O'Reilly of Plunkett Exterminators, the Dome's
official exterminator. ''They can't go against the wind.''
It occurred to me that an interesting contrast in ballparks and
their insect life might best be found in a comparison of one park
that has real grass with one carpeted with ersatz turf. Quite
arbitrarily I selected Comiskey Park in Chicago for the natural
grass environment and Royals Stadium in Kansas City for the
artificial. I invited local entomologists to explore the life and
times of the bugs at each site.
For the Comiskey Park expedition, I enlisted as my guide one of
the country's leading urban entomologists, Dr. Gary Bennett of Purdue
University. The twilight sky was overcast when we stepped onto the
field during batting practice before a game between the White Sox and
the Texas Rangers. At the short, padded wall behind home plate, where
Dr. Bennett gently kicked a loose pad, a cloud of fungus, gnats and
midges flew out. They were followed immediately by a sludge-loving
yellow-and-black syrphid fly.
Bennett looked up quickly. ''Hello! There goes a mosquito hawk!''
he said, as a big, gangly bug drifted above us and flew off toward
the outfield. In the grass behind the batting cage, Bennett flushed
up some bugs with his foot and said, ''Uh-oh, they've got
planthoppers!'' He brushed his foot over the grass again. Sproing! A
grasshopper. He moved his foot a third time. A cloud of gnats rose up
toward us. ''Boy, have they got a lot of turf pests!'' he chortled.
The visiting team's dugout yielded a striped cucumber beetle.
''What's he doing here?'' Bennett asked. ''He should be feasting on a
When the tour was over, the professor was ecstatic in his
assessment of Comiskey Park. ''It's an entomologist's paradise,'' he
Royals Stadium was not that at all. I went there one summer
afternoon with two entomologists from Kansas State University, Judy
Bertholf and Bill Ramoska. They came equipped with a minimum of gear
-- guidebooks, jars, tweezers, a camera, a flashlight. The ersatz
playing surface -- a petroleum product -- seemed about as welcoming
to a bug as a glass of turpentine to a wine connoisseur. While it is
true that moths and carpet beetles chewed up part of the Tartan Turf
rug at Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Sta- dium after it opened in 1970,
laboratory improvements supposedly have since made the carpet
insectproof. Nothing was to be seen on the field at Royals Stadium,
so we went into the stands and the tunnels. Again, nothing.
Bertholf was shaking her head. Was she indicating that Royals Stadium
was devoid of bugs?
''Oh, no, it's got bugs,'' she said comfortingly.
Sure enough, in a cool, dark tunnel behind the Royals' dugout,
Bertholf spotted a large, flat, oval bug cowering against a concrete
wall. Moving with the grace of a shortstop, she pounced on the
specimen. ''This is the German cockroach,'' she said in calm,
''O.K.,'' I said, ''but what about the flying insects that visit
Royals Stadium at night? Where are they?''
''Outside,'' she said.
It turns out there is a valley just south of the Truman Sports
Complex, where the Little Blue River winds eastward through a dense
growth of trees. We parked in a lowland meadow lush with wildflowers
and tall grasses, and went into the trees. We couldn't even see the
stadium light towers through the foliage, but I could picture in my
mind the scene at night -- the woods dark and silent, and above the
treetops an intensely bright blue-white corona that lured clouds of
moths to the stadium. Why, I asked, do moths love lights so much?
The fatal attraction of moths to night lights, Ramoska said, is
not fully understood by scientists. There are, however, some
attractive theories. ''I suspect it's some primitive aggregation
phenomenon, a way for a moth to meet a mate. They'll fly right into a
flame. Tens of thousands probably die in the lights during every
We came to a series of small puddles and muddy depressions. ''This
is where your stadium mosquitoes breed,'' Ramoska said.
''And they fly to the stadium because the lights are on?'' I asked.
''Not necessarily. Flying insects are attracted to different
things,'' he said. ''For gnats, it's heat. For moths, it's light. For
mosquitoes, it's respiration.''
''The female mosquito needs a blood meal to produce eggs,'' said
Bertholf, ''so it homes in on the CO 2 breath.''
''And smell,'' Ramoska broke in. ''Ballplayers, when they
perspire, give off a chemical called adenosine triphosphate, or
ATP. Mosquitoes zero in on it. That's why some people get bitten more
than others. Hyper people -- people with a fast metabolism -- give
off more ATP than most of us, and therefore they draw more
So the ballplayers cause squadrons of mosquitoes to fly toward
Royals Stadium every time there is a game? Not quite. Ramoska said
most mosquitoes are poor fliers, and they escape their breeding
grounds only when they are carried away on a brisk wind. ''The
average mosquito dies within a hundred yards of where it is born,''
I polled some ballplayers to find out which ballpark got their
vote as the buggiest of them all. Some National Leaguers thought Jack
Murphy Stadium in San Diego was hot stuff in the moth department, and
others gave a solid vote to Atlanta for giant cockroaches. Some
American Leaguers favored the Texas Rangers' Arlington Stadium, and a
few nostalgic votes were cast for Minnesota's old Metropolitan
Stadium. ''The mosquitoes there were unbelievable,'' said Atlanta
Braves outfielder Billy Sample. ''A few of them could have passed for
But as the votes were counted, one place kept echoing through the
mosquito netting again and again. Kansas City's groundskeeper, George
Toma, said, ''The worst for bugs? That has to be Cleveland. They've
got those Canadian bomber mosquitoes that come in off Lake Erie.''
''Cleveland! Oh, the spiders you find in Cleveland!'' yelped White
Sox catcher Ron Hassey, a former Indian. Yankee second baseman Willie
Randolph said, ''Cleveland leads the league in spiders.''
When the votes were counted, Cleveland Stadium was by far the
popular choice as the buggiest ballpark in the majors. ''It must be
an ideal habitat,'' mused Ohio State University entomologist William
F. Lyons when informed of these results. ''Since spiders feed on
other insects, they are a good measure of overall insect activity.
You're getting a lot of aquatic insects up there from Lake Erie that
you won't find at most other major league ballparks, so the spiders
are absolutely thriving.''
And so I went to Cleveland, and as I stood in the parking lot in
an afternoon drizzle and stared up at the proud relic that is
Cleveland Stadium I thought, ''This is the Acropolis of Insects.''
A little history: The Cleveland baseball club of the Gaslight Era,
1889-1899, was called the Cleveland Spiders. The current Indians
media guide carefully explains that the Spiders got their name
because the 1889 team, which had a 20-134 record, had an unusual
number of tall, skinny players. A likely story.
More recently, the Cleveland team actually had an insect for a
mascot, the Baseball Bug, circa 1980-82. ''That might have been the
worst mascot in baseball history,'' says Royals announcer Fred White.
The Baseball Bug had a globe-shaped red body, wore a blue vest and
resembled no insect I had seen in my travels.
So much for history. I stepped out of the Indians' dugout and
walked to the visitors' bullpen, down the rightfield foul line. My
eyes were drawn first to the peeling paint on the bullpen bench and
then to the shadows behind the bench. They were thick with cobwebs,
yet nothing moved in those shadows.
I sat down, disappointed. I looked up. And there it was,
silhouetted against the sky: a monstrous web, hanging beneath the
bullpen roof. A live large- bodied spider was vibrating at its
center. Something moved just beyond my vision. I looked. Another
spider was spinning a separate web. My eyes caught more movements.
Yes, more spiders, more cobwebbing. The webs were full of dead bugs.
August 17, 1986
Good god! How long had visiting pitchers been forced to wait under
that macabre lace?
The arachnids were also out in force in the press box. Spiders
dangled from the fluorescent lights, they scampered on the walls,
they spun webs under the press table. But bugaphobes can take comfort
in knowing that with the revitalized Indians drawing bigger crowds,
the situation may now have improved slightly over last season, when
Brewers coach Larry Haney was able to offer this explanation of why
Cleveland led the league in bugs: ''There's no one in the stands to
kill them.'' END