Commentary Magazine


Out at Shea

Ex-Football star Gerald Ford is said to think that Americans are sick of change and that they want to get back to the old virtues. He may be more right than he knows, if the popularity of professional and pick-up baseball is any sign.

This season, some major-league teams drew more spectators than ever. A new attendance record was set in Cincinnati, always a “good” baseball town as they say in the business. Since the Reds made a shambles of the Western Division of the National League, it is not a great wonder that their fans, frequently disappointed in the past, crowded into Riverfront Stadium. The Red Sox cashed in at Fenway Park on the way to winning the American League title, and so did the Phillies, Cardinals, and Pirates, who contended for first place in the National League East. What seems strange in these hard times is that teams like the Dodgers and the Mets, completely out of the running, succeeded in getting more than two million people to part with between two to six dollars apiece for the pleasure of watching the home team play, and lose almost as often as not.

True, things were not rosy everywhere. Some teams and franchises lost money. As has been routine with troubled franchises from the moment the Braves set a precedent by quitting Boston and going to Milwaukee twenty years ago, there will be talk this winter of moving teams to other cities, where, presumably, the fans will be more appreciative. The fact that both the Giants and the A’s are talking of moving proves that when it comes to baseball, it is more than a matter of Americans’ loving winners and despising losers—the Giants have been sad sacks lately, but across the Bay in Oakland, the A’s have been collecting World Championships, and exciting local indifference. Enthusiasm for baseball is not the same in every city. Considering the advanced age of the game and its old-fashioned qualities, it is remarkable that there is much enthusiasm at all.

By rights baseball should be dead, or, at best, a curiosity, a protected species like the bald eagle, subsidized by Congress, symbolizing the more innocent, rambunctious, attractive years of the Republic. Despite newfangled gimmicks and innovations—computerized scoreboards, multicolored doubleknit uniforms, the designated hitter, relentless organ music—it remains a slow, abstruse entertainment compared with football or basketball. Foreigners complain that they can’t understand it and that, anyway, nothing happens. Actually, even when a game seems to be idling along, something is always happening, but it is not possible to educate an adult into pleasures so arcane as watching a potbellied third-base coach flashing signs to a .206 hitter at the plate. Henry Kissinger said it before throwing out the ceremonial first ball at this year’s All Star game: “Baseball is the most intellectual game because most of the action goes on in your head.”

Baseball has claimed its share of intellectuals, but obviously it is a democratic rather than a mandarin passion. It could not have survived otherwise. On any Saturday or Sunday this summer, there were a couple of dozen hardball and softball games being played in Central Park in New York, and the players were ordinary citizens on their day off, with only a sprinkling of professors. These games attracted spectators, who shunned the soccer and touch football games in progress nearby. Despite Pele’s debut, soccer still looks foreign, a game for young UN bureaucrats and for new immigrants resisting Americanization. As for the touch football, it was somehow irrelevant, even unattractive, like a sour flashback to scenes in the Kennedy compound at Hyannis. The spectators gathered at the diamonds, and the mobile peanut and ice-cream vendors did their best business there, among the softball groupies lounging on the littered grass, and the old codgers, their pantlegs rolled up, kibitzing and warming their shins in the sun.

The weekend baseball players tended to go at it good-naturedly; the unpopular footballers looked grim. Baseball may be essentially slow and cerebral, but when played by amateurs who are dedicated to the thousand little gestures and rituals of the game, and who are knowledgeable about the rules and the jargon, it is still a recreation that is healthy precisely in the measure that it is hard to take too seriously. The tempo in these games was pleasantly languid, with sudden moments of furious action. The traditional infield chatter—“how you fire, Big Daddy”—went on constantly, and it made players and spectators alike smile and relax. In Manhattan, national center of paranoia, these games were like islands of sanity.

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At Shea Stadium, which the Yankees shared with the Mets this season while their hallowed home was being refurbished, the feeling in the air during games was usually friendly—something unusual for sporting events anywhere in the world. The U.S. has long been outclassed in the Ugly Crowd League, but lately it has begun catching up on the international competition. American crowds that used to be merely boisterous have become nasty and dangerous in the last ten years. There were also some incidents of fighting and bottle-throwing at Shea this summer. At most games, there was at least one vocal drunk within earshot. Yet the rioting was comparatively rare and small-scale, and the obscenities actually added to the nice democratic flavor, so long as they came as occasional comments and not in an endless stream.

On a cold, windy, overcast afternoon late in the season, in a game which meant little in the way of final standings to either club, the Mets played the Reds in front of 26,693 paying customers. It was a crowd that only half-filled Shea, but it looked and sounded substantial. The Mets scored first, stayed ahead until the sixth inning, gave away their lead on errors, rallied, and managed to hold on long enough for the game to end before the Reds could wake up. Throughout, the crowd was attentive and congenial. When the Mets were scoring, the shouting was loud and cheerful, and when they were fumbling, the groaning in the grandstand was somewhat theatrical—not really disturbed. It was a happy crowd that headed for the parking lot and the subway after the last out in the ninth, and the fact that the home team had won, though worth mentioning, was probably not the main reason. Nor did it seem to be the fact that a lot of alcohol had been consumed.

Beer is on sale at Shea, and there are police stationed permanently in the aisles around the visiting team’s dugout, risking injury from foul balls by keeping their backs to the field and their eyes on the crowd. During this game, the cops seemed unnecessary. Even when Pete Rose, the Reds’ perennial All Star, was at bat or on the basepaths, the mood remained nonviolent, although there were plenty of catcalls and Bronx cheers. Rose competes intensely, and he provokes crowds in the various cities around the National League, especially where he has been involved in rough plays. His aggressiveness is typical of one of the classic styles of play, perfected early on by Ty Cobb and adopted later by lesser figures such as Leo Durocher, Alvin Dark, and Don Hoak. When combined with a modicum of natural gifts or acquired skills, this all-out style has its place in a sport where aggression is mostly translated into finesse. Also, the fans like it. At Shea, some of the same fans who booed Rose just for stepping to the plate were capable of applauding him when he made a diving catch of a line-drive in the bottom of the sixth.

Right after this impossible catch, during the seventh-inning stretch, the sun came out and made the outfield grass (which is real at Shea, not plastic) gleam like a meadow in the country. For a couple of minutes, despite the jets that kept coming in directly overhead to land at La Guardia, and despite the anonymous up-to-date architecture of Shea, the scene, with the groundskeepers manicuring the infield and the fans stretching and scratching, gave off a powerful illusion of time arrested on a summer day when things were going better, and the future beckoned. Theoretically, a baseball game can go on forever, yet actually, anyone who thinks about it must admit that the time when baseball or any other sport could accurately be called the National Pastime, has passed. What many of the fans at the ball parks seem to be buying and getting, therefore, is a trace of nostalgic pleasure. This may apply as well to the young, who are not aware of it, as to the old, who have their memories. A stylized “’76” flag flew under the Stars and Stripes in center field at Shea and the other parks all season. An undesirable side-effect of the bicentennial ballyhoo is that it could obscure the real yearning Americans have for a usable, romanticized past. In its way, baseball is ideal, for it answers this need with infinite reenactments of a competitive drama which is far less exciting and hectic, far more soothing, than basketball or football.

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Intellectuals have noticed that football is a paradigm of war. As in war, violence is focused by drill and discipline, the point being to use it to destroy the enemy’s position on the field, hurt him physically and knock him out, shatter his morale. The individual protagonist, no matter how brilliant, remains faceless under his helmet and armor plating, a cog in a human machine. It is easy to see that the quarterback is the captain screaming orders, the linemen are the infantry, the head coach pacing the sidelines is the general in his bunker.

It is hard to say whether baseball or football is more suited to the American temperament. According to statistics published by the National Football League, eight teams lost money last season, three others made less than $100,000, and overall ticket sales dropped $6.6 million. The football players’ union disputes these figures, alleging that they are an excuse to cut salaries. While that may be true, one does get the impression that pro football is overgrown and overpromoted, and that the public’s appetite for it is not quite so keen as it was a few years ago.

The same NFL report that shows a falling off in attendance also reveals that television and radio revenues were up $15 million from 1973 (to $59 million), proving, if nothing else, that in the judgment of the media bosses and advertising experts, Americans are still interested in watching football in their living rooms. Indeed, it would be quixotic to expect football to shrivel up and blow away. It caters to an American taste for violence, and it too has its romantic traditions. But its spectacular age of growth, which coincided with the Vietnam war, seems to be over. Significantly, more and more pro football players are being recruited from otherwise undistinguished black colleges. At predominantly white and mixed colleges, though the “Big Men On Campus” are no longer radical politicians as in the 60′s, neither are they football stars once more, as in the 50′s and before. Collegiate footballers know that they are called animals, and against the grain of their chosen sport they cultivate a certain sensitivity, and long hair.

Among the pros, there are disaffected, articulate dropouts, such as Alex Karras and Dave Meggysey, who make it clear that they think football is stupid and vicious, whether it is played for money or for dear old Yale. Confessions and exposes by ex-baseball players, while often sardonic, never utterly condemn baseball either as a business or a sport—Jim Bouton, for example, wrote fairly fondly of the Yankees even while bringing his ex-teammates down several notches. The books by the football mavericks are bitter, angry, and sharp. They have served to let some air out of a sport whose presiding genius is still the late martinet and head coach of the Green Bay Packers. Vince Lombardi.

It would be tempting to picture football in decline and baseball resurgent. Could it be that in the aftermath of a bad war that brought out some of the nonviolent as well as the brutal instincts of Americans, football, a blood-sport, has had its day, or, at least, is highly suspect? But it would be as facile and premature to write it off as it would be mean and dim to begrudge the crowds at baseball games the distraction that they are buying themselves.

At the game at Shea, there were blacks and Latins and whites. If Labor Department figures can be believed, unemployment among the whites was about 10 per cent, and among the blacks and Latins, twice that or more. Without a doubt, many of these fans paid for their tickets out of unemployment checks. Those in the majority, who had jobs, also had things they wished, consciously or unconsciously, to forget for an hour or two. In democracies almost as much as in dictatorships, spectator sports are a popular painkiller. When the real news is shameful or ominous, the ordinary newspaper reader can be trusted to turn straight to the sports section. This was evident in public places throughout the past baseball season, which in a sense started in April with the evacuation of the U.S. embassy in Saigon and the front-page photos of Marines pushing Vietnamese off the last helicopters.

Baseball is relatively harmless as opiates go. For a few hours, the classes and ethnic groups are together in the grandstand, and integrated on the playing field (professional baseball is neither as black as football and basketball, nor as white as hockey). Pro baseball players play for keeps, of course, for money and pride, yet this does not overshadow the tolerant and humorous aspects of the game. The players have faces that can be seen and bodies that come in various shapes and sizes. Bruce Kison, pitcher for the Pirates, is skinny; Wilbur Wood and Mickey Lolich, pitchers for the White Sox and Tigers respectively, are fat. Kansas City infielder and base-stealer Freddie Patek is 5 feet, 6 inches, and Mets outfielder Dave Kingman is 6 feet, 7 inches. In baseball, it takes all kinds.

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