THE public, even the private, lives of major-league ballplayers are an open book. Writers dissect the players, biographers idolatrize them, psychologists study them. They are cheered for winning, booed for losing; they are loved or hated in equal, and equally irrational, measure; they are objects of devotion, amusement, pity, scorn.
What, on the other hand, is a fan? Which one of them in his seat in the stand cheers, and why? Who boos? What, after all, is he doing up there, playing his game?
Charles Comiskey, a legendary baseball figure, first called clubhouse visitors "fanatics," and Ty Cobb called fans "bugs," a scurrilous slang synonym for "zealot" or "enthusiast." Cobb occasionally rushed into the grandstands to stamp his opinion on the face of the customer who criticized his play. Fans, thus subdued, lose some of their original character.
In the word world "extravagant fancy" pinch-hits for "fantastic." A fantastic mental image is a substitute fantasy. Those persons who derive pleasure and pain, frustration and gratification, from vicarious participation in professional sports live, for such moments, in a world of their own. In pursuit of an unattainable happiness they create a fantasy world.
The professional baseball fan is an American cultural phenomenon. His fund of quotable statistics, his trove of memorable traditions, his collections of valueless mementos comprise a mine of guilt-edged insecurity. Although he can neither do nor teach, he regards himself as a player-coach.
The average baseball fan, according to surveys of one professional club, attends two or three games per season. His infrequent actual attendance does not preclude a wholehearted daily interest. Fostered by the promotional genius of Organized Baseball, interest in the game between May and October each year becomes a preoccupation with most Americans. Radio, television, newspapers and magazines, barroom and living-room conversations feed the fan's obsession with the intimate experiences of five hundred major-league athletes. No other sport exerts so much influence with so much trivia on persons who have so little personal involvement in the whole affair.
To the fierce, ardent, leather-lunged, professional fan, Baseball is life itself, a motive for breathing, the yeast that helps his spirit, as well as his gorge, rise.
FANS are made, not born. Interest in baseball starts in childhood and reaches its peak in puberty. Acquaintance with rules of play is a definite perquisite but not a prerequisite for being a fan. Everyone can talk about baseball, the fan assumes, because he ought to know something about the game.
The fan, whether or not he identifies the players and thus vicariously participates in the game, is free to take pleasure in losing most of his inhibitions—to shout, wave his arms, jump up and down. He may criticize umpires, players, and even the hot-dog vendors without incurring responsibility for his emotional outburst. "Much of the discharge of energy and the sense of participation in baseball," says Social Research, which has made a psychological study of the game, "is gained vocally."
Baseball as a ritual has no deep and mystical meaning. It depends upon personalities to maintain the fanatic fervor of the fancy. Fans want the player to be not what he inherently is but what they think he ought to be. Even the moderately indifferent fan, according to Social Research, thinks that "the players owe it to their public to set good examples." Ballplayers, as representatives of all baseball virtues, are considered to be healthy and vigorous humans, virile and skillful men, friendly and approachable fellows. They deserve idolatrization, and whether they like it or not, they sometimes get it.
Ardent baseball fans come in two emotional sizes. The preternaturally optimistic fan assumes that any big-league ballplayer is a good, true, clean-living, home-loving American boy. The negative fan, subconsciously concerned that baseball is just a game, feels that major leaguers must be essentially immature adolescents, juvenile delinquents in social responsibility, and therefore proper objects of scornful criticism.
The Fan Club, a half-noteworthy institution, attests to the idealization practiced by active, positive fans. A major-league fan club is frequently formulated in the passionate thoughts of preteenage girls. Any ballplayer who has had two headline notices in a metropolitan newspaper can expect one request from a chubby-cheeked girl to start a fan club in his name. The zealous enthusiasm with which this jean-clad vestal virgin pursues her personal idolatrization depends upon the player's reaction, which may run the gamut from indifference to embarrassment. It is a rare young athlete who sits comfortably on a pedestal.
In Wichita, Kansas, an organization calling itself the National Baseball Fan's Club suggests that the "distinguished individuals" who are members of the N.B.F.C. "play a conspicuous and active part in Baseball." Activity apparently includes the wearing of emblems, the reading of rules and statistics, and the paying of five dollars for the privilege. The N.B.F.C. is two years old, and its commercial success would seem to be limited. The abstract baseball would not appear to have the appeal of the flesh-and-bone baseball player.
The most unusual, and without a doubt jolliest, fan club of baseball history is devoted to an extinct organization, a team with no live ballplayers. The St. Louis Brown's Fan Club was created on the day the team disbanded.
Bill Veeck, the man who put the team out of business, once said: "I found out the Brown fans were a myth. You heard about 'em, but you never saw 'em." As owner of the Browns, Veeck had searched river bottom and wheatland in and around St. Louis for customer-fans. Unfortunately for him they were in Chicago, where they paid the White Sox a nominal fee for bleacher tickets. There they cheered for the Browns, who epitomized the all-American underdog.
"They needed us," says Bill Leonard, a charter member of the S.L.B.F.C. and a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. "They didn't have anything else."
On the last weekend of the 1953 baseball season the S.L.B.F.C. traveled to St. Louis to see the final games played by the Browns.
"They lost," wrote Leonard. "We were unsurprised and undaunted."
Today the S.L.B.F.C. carries on its motto: "To perpetuate the proud name of the St. Louis Browns, file progress reports on the reincarnation of the Browns, drink toasts in nut-brown ale, and maintain jolly times."
As fans, they're out of this world.
THE simplicity of motivation in the Inner Fan distinguishes him from the millions. His single-minded desire to seek absolute identification with the player demonstrates high purpose if not poverty of imagination. His inability to establish communication with the player causes elemental frustration. He quickly, naturally, assumes grandstand leadership of the jowly, unathletic loudmouths who cluster in bunches—sour gripes, yelling and cursing at men working.
Consider Off-side Smitty.
To the National League ballplayers who work the northeast corner of Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia, the voice of the average fan belongs to man named Smith. Philadelphia bleacherites are a raucous breed, sensitive to player performances, their critical appreciation sounded from the bottom of their hearts.
The bass bawl of Off-side Smitty is particularly penetrating. An ex-soccer player who apparently could not control his enthusiasm in that sport either, Off-side Smitty has the face of a losing pugilist, an encyclopedic memory for player names and performances, and an attendance record of awesome breadth. Off-side never misses a game.
Smitty's persistence has the quality of desperate affability. His nagging, sometimes profane, judgments beg for an explanation, consideration, understanding.
"How can you be such a bum, you bum!" he yells, saying to himself simultaneously, "How can you disappoint me who loves you and wants you to be good!"
Smitty occasionally gets a response from the player, a malicious rebound from a pride-thick hide that reacts only to Smitty's needle. Gracelessly, Smitty smarts under player-voiced needling. A tormentor tormented, he wilts in a cross fire of personal insults.