Field Guide To the Bird

June 05, 2005

Reds closer Danny Graves was recently released after making an obscene hand gesture to a heckler in Cincinnati. A year after Phillies closer Billy Wagner was sidelined by an inflamed middle finger, Graves finds himself sidelined by an inflammatory middle finger--i.e., the finger--which the ancient Romans called digitis impudicus and modern Americans simply call the bird. As Graves put it, "I flipped a man off."

From the Middle Ages through the Digital Age, every age has raised its middle digits. The right middle finger of Galileo--detached and preserved--is on permanent display in the Museo di Storia della Scienza in Florence. It stands (quite literally) as an eternal rebuke to those who denounced the astronomer as a heretic and a quack.

Until Rasheed Wallace arranges to have his middle finger displayed, permanently and posthumously, in a perpetual bird, he's done the next best thing: The Pistons forward had his 2004 championship ring resized to fit his middle finger.

But then athletes have always flipped more birds than Harlan Sanders. The first photographic evidence of a human giving the finger is believed to be the 1886 team photo of the Boston Beaneaters, in which future Hall of Fame pitcher Charles (Old Hoss) Radbourn is at once watching, and discreetly flipping, the birdie.

It was a pose reprised by Billy Martin on a famous Topps baseball card. As the then Tigers manager leans on a bat, Martin's left middle finger extends downward, as if he's about to ask the photographer that ancient playground catechism, "Can you hear this? Shall I turn it up?" That card is from 1972, the Year of the Bird, when Dolphins running back Larry Csonka also flashed an inverted finger, this one on the cover of SI. That same year Canadian sportswriter Jim Coleman--overcome after Team Canada beat the Soviet Union in hockey's Summit Series--turned from the press box and flipped off Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev.

Indeed, a Field Guide to the Birds of North America would reveal a distinctive pecking order. Batters flip off umpires. (Milton Bradley gave ump Eric Cooper the finger after a called third strike in 2001.) Umpires flip off writers. (Hall of Fame ump Bill McGowan was suspended in 1952 for directing his digit toward scribes in St. Louis.) Writers flip off world leaders. (See Coleman versus Brezhnev.) And world leaders flip off just about everybody. (Footage of then Texas governor George W. Bush giving a TV camera the finger is widely available on the Internet.)

As the Trashmen sang, "Everybody's heard about the bird." French-Canadians flip l'oiseau. (Captain Guy Carbonneau was traded by the Canadiens after flipping off a newspaper photographer.) Koreans flip the seh. (Then Red Sox reliever Byung-Hyun Kim once gave the finger to fans at Fenway.) And Spaniards flip el pàjaro. (Sergio García flipped off U.S. Open hecklers at Bethpage Black when they began counting his regrips out loud.)

But it's America where the national bird is the bird. In a recent speech to the graduating class of the Columbia Business School, PepsiCo president and chief financial officer Indra Nooyi called America the "middle finger" of the global marketplace. Our twin passions for sports and obscene gestures intersect most profitably in the giant foam-rubber middle fingers waved by fans of wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin.

Sports' most famous bird flew in Houston, where a dozing Oilers fan roused himself and flipped off a Monday Night Football camera. But it's Philadelphia, cradle of the Constitution, that is the Athens of our Digital Age. As Giants defensive end Michael Strahan fondly noted, "It's the only place where you pull up on the bus and you've got the grandfather, the grandmother, the kids and the grandkids--everybody--flipping you off."

The middle finger doesn't just look like an exclamation point. It is one, the emphatic punctuation to a memorable moment. Bears quarterback Jim McMahon, after holding for a game-winning field goal attempt, flipped off the Packers' bench as the ball split the uprights. In his final, fatal race Dale Earnhardt flipped off Kurt Busch while passing him. It looked very much like your commute, except this bird flew at 180 miles an hour.

Ted Williams was once talking with Tony Gwynn when an overbearing fan asked to take Ted's picture. As Gwynn later told New York Post writer Kevin Kernan, "The guy with the camera says, 'Hey, Captain,' because Ted had his fishing cap on. He says, 'Hey, Captain, look in the camera.' And Ted flipped him the bird and the guy took the picture and I've got that picture. It's in my archives. Nobody will ever see it. But I have it."

If Williams was the quintessential American, then this is the frozen Ted that belongs in our national memory: not the actual Williams, frozen in Arizona, but the Williams frozen on film, his middle finger eternally upright alongside that of another genius, Galileo. They are two birds, like the phoenix, forever rising from beyond the grave.

• If you have a comment for Steve Rushin, send it to rushin@siletters.com.

Batters flip off umpires. Umpires flip off writers. Writers flip off world leaders. And world leaders flip off just about everybody.

COLOR PHOTOSIMON BRUTY

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)