Fame & Fandom
A hall of fame for fans may well be a great notion, with attendant creative and commercial possibilities, for it reflects the thinking behind that institution on Cooperstown’s Main Street, the Baseball Hall of Fame. Dedicated in 1939, baseball’s shrine was not the nation’s first Hall of Fame, despite the nearly universal impression that it was: Its inspiration was the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, created on a New York University campus in 1901 to honor men and women who had achieved greatness in any of 16 categories. Yet in the media age ushered in by radio and the talkies, missionaries and explorers were no longer our idols. Athletes were, but they couldn’t enter the Hall of Fame unless they bought a ticket. While Hilda Chester’s cowbell, which assaulted tender ears and sensibilities at Ebbets Field, or Freddy Schuman’s frying pan, which has had a similar effect at Yankee Stadium in recent years, might make it into a Baseball Hall of Fame exhibit, neither Hilda nor Freddy would ever be inducted. They have been denied the 21st century’s inalienable right to immortality, just as athletes once were. If in the metastasizing spread of celebrity there are halls of fame for policemen (Miami Beach), businessmen (Chicago), and clowns (Delavan, Wisc.), why not a shrine for fans?
When baseball arose as a game for spectators as well as players in the late 1850s, originally the watchers were non-playing members of the opposing clubs, sometimes their lady companions, a motley passel of players from other clubs, and the inevitable gamblers and rowdies. As the game grew and professional leagues were formed, the civic attachment grew in intensity, to the point that by 1897, The New York Times stated that “local patriotism is at the bottom of the business which baseball has come to be.”
Baseball devotees came to be known as “cranks.” While this term may first have been applied to Charles J. Guiteau, in 1881 the crazed assassin of President Garfield, it immediately drifted over to those afflicted by baseball madness. Sometimes printed as “krank,” the word derives from the German for “sick” as well as the British dialect meaning of “cranky”: feeble-minded. By the dawn of the 20th century, “fan” – whether short for “fanatic” or synecdoche for the flapping tongues of self-proclaimed experts – continued in this vein, labeling grownups who were crazy about a children’s game as, well, nuts. (Devotees of statistics were “figure filberts.”)
Discounting the certifiably lunatic – Thomas J. Murphy, who in 1883 shot Providence outfielder Cliff Carroll; Ruth Ann Steinhagen, who shot Phillies first baseman Eddie Waitkus in 1949; Cleveland druggist Charley Lupica, who in ’49 perched atop a flagpole until the Indians repeated as pennant winners (they didn’t, and he came down) – some of the game’s most famous fans, the ones most likely to be inducted one day into the Baseball Fan Hall of Fame, have been the sweetly demented or obnoxiously loud, the relentless narcissist or the disquietingly perky wallflower. Lolly Hopkins of Boston used a megaphone to rally her charges in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s; Mary Ott of St. Louis in the ’40s didn’t need one. Neither, at the turn of the last century, did the leather-lunged Arthur “Hi-Hi” Dixwell of Boston or the booming Frank Wood of the Polo Grounds, immortalized in the Zane Grey story titled with his nickname, “Old Well-Well.” (See: http://goo.gl/yPlm4B.)
Actors Digby Bell and DeWolf Hopper (the latter famous for his 10,000 recitations of “Casey at the Bat”) and songwriter Harry Ruby ingratiated themselves with the players and even donned uniforms during pregame drills, but they were celebrities who became fans rather than fans who became celebrities. This is probably a useful distinction, enabling us to whiz by Mark Twain, Harpo Marx, Tallulah Bankhead, Jerry Seinfeld, Donald Sutherland, and Bill Murray. Ben Affleck has been such an egregious and ubiquitous Sox-sniffer that in September 2005, when artist Daniel Edwards exhibited an ironic “death mask” of Ted Williams’s cryogenically frozen and severed head at the First Street Gallery in New York, he titled the assemblage “The Ben Affleck 2004 World Series Collection presents The Ted Williams Memorial Display.”
The most affecting fan tale of late has been that of “Doris from Rego Park” (a working-class neighborhood in Queens), whose cough-wracked voice on WFAN inspired a fan base of its own. Doris Bauer loved the Mets in part because she had little else to root for. She struggled with neurofibromatosis and “social autism,” according to her brother Harold. Doris would set her alarm every morning for 1:00 a.m. to call into the sports-radio show and offer balanced, expert views of her beloved if frustrating team. As her brother told The New York Times, she never drove a car, dated, or married, living instead with her Holocaust-survivor parents until she succumbed to cancer in 2003 at 58.
For a century and a half, many people for whom “real life” was riddled with terror have derived comfort and satisfaction from the order, regularity, justice, and balance of baseball. Fans like Doris from Rego Park, gentle souls who found a home in baseball and a way to live in the world, deserve recognition, honor, maybe even a Hall of Fame. Talk radio made a star of Doris; blogs and other self-published baseball writings have done the same for others.
Fanship has changed in other ways, too, from how we root to – more dangerously for the genus fan and perhaps baseball and the larger culture – why we root, Red Sox Nation notwithstanding. Fantasy baseball has fostered attachment to and investment in the performance of players who belong to no earthly franchise, only to a team of one’s own devise. Where fans once dreamed of being players, today they dream of being general managers or owners.
The order below is faintheartedly alphabetical; rank ’em as ye will.
FANS OF FAME
Steve Bartman: his reach for a foul ball exceeded his grasp; it might have been caught by the Cubs left fielder.
Doris Bauer: the raspy-voiced “Doris from Rego Park” came to have a fan base all her own as a caller to WFAN.
Hilda Chester: with her shrill voice and cow bell, Hilda was Noise Incarnate; her favorite phrase was “Eatcha heart out, ya bum.”
Lib Dooley: daughter of Jack Dooley, who himself saw thousands of Boston games, she was a fixture at Fenway from 1944 to 2000.
Wild Bill Hagy: a Baltimore area cab driver who contorted his body to spell out “O-R-I-O-L-E-S,” notably atop the dugout in the1979 World Series
Barry Halper: he began collecting memorabilia as a boy in Newark in the 1940s, eventually amassing a collection nearly the equal of Cooperstown’s.
Nuf Ced McGreevey: a no-nonsense saloonkeeper whose love of the Red Sox is captured in a priceless collection at the Boston Public Library.
Dr. James Penniman: he tried to convince Connie Mack to adopt designated hitters for pitcher and catcher, and a game of four outs and seven innings..
Sam Siannis: the man behind the “Billy Goat Curse” bedeviling the Cubs, originating when he and his pet goat were barred from their box seats in the 1945 World Series.
Frank B. Wood: “Well, Well, Well,” he would boom whenever something went amiss at the Polo Grounds around 1900; became the protagonist of a Zane Grey story.
FIVE NEAR MISSES: Seymour R. Church, Arthur “Hi-Hi”Dixwell, Charles “Victory” Faust, Lolly Hopkins, Ernest Thayer
THE FAMED WHO WERE FANS
Louis Armstrong: Satchmo loved the game so much that he sponsored his own ball team, “Armstrong’s Secret 9,” in New Orleans in 1931.
DeWolf Hopper: the first to recite “Casey at the Bat,” in August 1888, he went on to record it on wax and in a motion picture.
Marianne Moore: Dodgers fan and, oh yes, poet (“Hometown Piece for Messrs. Alston and Reese”), she somehow became a Yankees fan in 1958.
Stephen King: a Red Sox fan before he was famous and after, he put Tom Gordon into one of his books and with Stewart O’Nan wrote a paean to the 2004 season
Bill Murray: owned a few minor-league baseball teams; as for SNL’s Chico Escuela, beisbol been very, very good for him.
Richard Nixon: many presidents liked the game, from Wilson to Eisenhower to Reagan, but none knew the game as he did.
Harry Ruby: most fanatic of show-biz fans, the songwriter was allowed to play in four official minor-league games with Hollywood and L.A.
John L. Sullivan: the Great John L. was a competent ball-tosser who did not embarrass himself pitching in benefit games with pro clubs.
Mark Twain: Rumored to be the financial backer of the 1887 Hartford team; wrote baseball scene into A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
Walt Whitman: briefly covered the game for the Brooklyn Eagle, mentioned it in Leaves of Grass, and in 1888 declared, “Base ball is our game, the American game.”
FIVE NEAR MISSES: Kevin Costner, Bing Crosby, Billy Crystal, William Frawley, Penny Marshall