Saturday, September 15, 2007

When fans were players too.


From: "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, September 13, 2007:

I have written about sports for a long time now, and I am grateful for having been thus permitted to extend my adolescence into my dotage. Lately, however, I have begun to turn away from the fields of play to look at the individuals surrounding me in the stands. How do they come to root for a team, or a player? Why do some of them love football more than they do baseball? What psychic battles are they reenacting when in the throes of their ardor? September, when collegiate and professional football horn in on baseball, is a fine month to be asking such questions.

It now seems clear that, after some moments of despair, both the Mets and the Yankees will still be playing in October. Over baseball’s long season talent will out; only a novice or halfhearted fan will give up on his team because of a stumble from the gate or even a late August losing streak. After only one week of NFL play, however, Giant and Jet fans are ready to toss in their towels because their quarterbacks have been hurt and their multiple inadequacies exposed by superior opponents. This chicken-little response is not entirely without justice, for football’s season provides only one tenth as many games as that of baseball—and since 1993, only two teams that started the season with three straight losses have made it to the postseason. Going into this weekend led by Jared Lorenzen and Kellen Clemens, the Giants and Jets, respectively, have outstanding chances of hitting 0-2.

Those who love football love the air of crisis that attends each game. It is a cliche to say that football is like war, yet it is so. A lapse of attention for a play, let alone a game, can be fatal. Defeat is catastrophic.

Those who love baseball love its languorous flow, its slow build to a climax and its ever- present prospects for redemption—within a season begun badly or maybe, as 29 0f 30 clubs ultimately must admit, next year. Baseball is not like war—it is like life, filled with losses and disappointments that provide rich context to the occasional victory, making it all the more delicious. A baseball fan who cannot abide defeat is intolerable company; one who trades in his allegiance for a team with superior prospects is not a fan but a frontrunner ... if not a Quisling.

A soon to be released documentary film about the Boston baseball rooter, that most long suffering of all breeds except for the Cub fan, is instructive in the value defeat. With an October premiere, Rooters: The Birth of Red Sox Nation traces the story of the Red Sox and particularly their loyal fans from the times of pride (five World Series victories in five tries from 1903 to 1918) through the 86 years in the wilderness, an on up to Big Papi and Dice-K.

One might argue with reason that losing was what made the Red Sox and their fans (and the Cubs and theirs) special, as it once did for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Now that Boston has the 2004 championship under its belt and is marching toward the AL East flag for 2007, it may be seen as just another powerhouse team, with fans as demanding and narcissistic as those of the Yankees. Rooters (in which I act the part of The Drowsy Historian, having been filmed in the throes of a head cold) reflects the Red Sox in their true age of off-field heroics, when hope and acceptance triumphed over need.

When baseball was new, a club might be formed for spirited exercise and good fellowship on the playing field. But soon, as skilled players were brought in to play for the honor of the club, the displaced club members sought the pleasures of the sidelines and the retiring tent, where postgame libations united those who had played with those who had watched. Thus was born the fan, though his species was not be known by that name for another two or three decades. First, this very important person was known as an enthusiast, later a crank, a bug, or a rooter. By the 1890s there arose a “team” of rooters that for local and even national renown came to rival the nine on the field for publicity.

The Roxbury Rooters, as they were first known, started as supporters of the formidable Boston National League clubs of the 1890s, a decade in which they won championships four times. Several hundred strong, they spurred on their lads at the Walpole Street (South End) Grounds and traveled with the club to New York and Philadelphia. In a memorable road trip memorialized in one of baseball’s most celebrated photographs, the merry band of horn-tooting, banner-waving, beanpot-wearing inebriates accompanied the team to Baltimore for the pennant-deciding games of 1897. The most famous of the Rooters (the etymology of the name is from the bellowing of cows) was the outsize personality John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, then a Congressman but later famous as the Mayor of Boston and father of Rose Fitzgerald, mother of President John Kennedy.

That band of brothers soon came to be known as the Royal Rooters, and at their head for all the years they prospered was one Michael T. McGreevey, universally known as Nuf Ced, the star of the film and the universal Father of Fandom. His “Third Base” saloon (so named because for fans it was the last stop before home), became a haunt for players as well as fans, attaching the Red Sox to Boston in an enduring way. The distance between players and fans was not so great then as now—the early Red Sox were laborers, not unapproachable celebrities, and the fans were so close to the action in those days that they felt they were players, too.

The Royal Rooters certainly had an impact on the outcome in 1903, when their incessant singing of parody versions of the song “Tessie” unnerved the Pittsburgh Pirates, who had been favored to win this first “modern” World Series. “Tessie, why do I love you madly?” became “Honus, why do you hit so badly?” This mild insult would have had little sting but for the endless repetition. “It was that damn song,” Pittsburgh outfielder Tommy Leach noted ruefully in later years. “They started singing that ‘Tessie’ song, the Red Sox fans did ... sort of got on your nerves after a while.”

The Rooters were also a force in the Red Sox World Series wins of 1912, 1915, and 1916, though by the championship season of 1918 they were a shadow of their former selves. Then Prohibition drove the saloon into the embrace of the Boston Public Library, which transformed it into a branch division, the Roxbury Crossing Reading Room.

In a January 21, 1951 interview, Tom Kenney, a functionary at Fenway Park, recalled when he tended bar at the “thirst emporium”—an illogical if atmospheric phrasing of the day—when it was in its glory:

“It was located on Ruggles Street and Columbus Avenue, Roxbury, and it was almost impossible to go to either the Walpole Street (National League) or the Huntington Avenue Grounds (American League) without passing it going or coming. It was what the Army engineers might say “strategically located.’

“Nuf Ced got his tag from a short, terse statement he’d make whenever a customer from the midwest might become a little over-enthusiastic over Bill Bradley’s third-basing talents, as compared to Jimmy Collins, the idol of the Boston fans.... When the argument started to heat up, Mr. McGreevey would say, ‘Nuf Ced,’ which meant the argufiers would have to pipe down or be ejected. And he always had a big, strong bouncer on the payroll to see that peace prevailed; and the boys could continue their argument in the middle of Columbus Avenue, where the stout limbs of the law would take it from there.

“But usually it was nice and orderly. Most of the customers would take their scuttle of suds (glass of beer) and look at the pictures of the star ballplayers of that era or discuss what had taken place at the Walpole Street Grounds or the Huntington Avenue Grounds that afternoon.”

And a fella who bought a scuttle of suds might not have to content himself with looking at pictures of ballplayers, Kenney continued. “Jimmy Collins, Chick Stahl, Larry Gardner, Harry Hooper, Hal Janvrin, Babe Ruth, and Eddie McFarland always used to drop in to do a bit of fanning with Nuf Ced. Those were the good old days before anybody ever heard of the Volstead Act (Prohibition) and if anybody had mentioned it they would have thought it was a new act at Keith’s they hadn’t seen.”

Today we get no closer to our idols than talk radio or memorabilia shows but the illusion of intimacy, bred back when giants truly walked among us, endures. They are part of our lives, our extended families. They matter, maybe more than they should.

--John Thorn