The Fantasy World of Baseball

"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."
More

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.

"Meet me outside after the game, you—!" he eventually yells. Then he exits during the seventh inning, unwilling or too old to stretch his acquaintanceship. Back he comes the next day, evincing his Fan's True Love. The harder he's hit, the harder he falls.

The Inner Fan projects the Ideal Ballplayer and begs every fumbling, fallible major leaguer to emulate that image.

Consider Dirty Louie.

The knowledgeable New York City baseball fan is the wisest of them all. He watches, he studies, he pursues the game like a philosopher seeking the truth. Disenchantment with any play or player can turn him into a crank. (Primitive baseball fans were called "cranks," whether they got wound up by baseball or not.)

Dirty Louie is a massive man, three hundred pounds of wisecracking fan. He would rather watch baseball than bathe. His creative and often funny critical comments would please his chosen audience—ballplayers who work at either New York stadium—if he had a cleaner delivery. (In the old Polo Grounds, Louie was once showered with packaged soap bars by a bullpen crew whose names were mud from then on, the way Louie told it.)

Rumor has it that Louie carries a large salami in pocket of his dirty gray overcoat, the better to spice his vitriol. In a grandiloquent voice he spews kosher comment on fumbles, foul balls, and other futile efforts of what he calls bush leaguers. Any major leaguer who is not dead or in baseball's Hall of Fame is a busher to Louie.

Dirty Louie has no close followers among other fans. He is a lonesome prophet, hailing a redeemer who will swing like Babe Ruth, throw like Christy Mathewson, and run like Ty Cobb.

The Inner Fan wants the game played as he thinks it should be played. He will create players in his own image—man making gods&nbsp -- to assure a good sport.

Consider Jack Barron.

In southern California the sun is hot and refreshments are often stimulants because water is scarce. On the dusty playground of his own imagination Jack Barron is revolutionizing baseball techniques. He has invented, so far, the Cosmic Swing and the Astro-Naut Pitch, two developments which will do for baseball what the White Queen did for logic. Barron has for years conducted a campaign for scientific progress, for an investigation of corporate ownership and slave labor in baseball, and for a place in the game for his son who, dutiful boy, believes in Daddy.

Many fans, experts with free advice, write to ballplayers during the season. They counsel pitchers, correct batting stances, offer tips on proper training and sermons on moral living. Jack Barron mimeographs pages of wisdom, reams of good counsel, and he has even published books to improve the game.

Barron would like to reorganize Organized Baseball, with the help of God, the Internal Revenue Service, and J. Edgar Hoover (who claims he's not interested). The moguls of O.B. tend to disregard True Fan Barron, who professes progress and illustrates his theme by teaching pros how to throw a ball and swing a bat.

"The Astro-Naut Pitch," says Coach Barron, "starts in the head. The pitcher thinks through his spinal cord down to his feet and up through his back. The spine is his axis and the back muscles have got to flip off the hip action. His gut is tight to his belt and flexed for ballast and free intake and deflation of air. When he makes a decision to unload, his back will flip out of the coil—like a pair of wrists off the hip action."

Most professionals can't see this pitch, though it literally seems fantastic.

The Cosmic Swing depends on a batter's ability to coil and uncoil gyroscopically into the backswing and out.

"Adjust your thinking so that the legs accept tension and rebound through the back. Pinch your buttocks and brace your hip off the backswing and allow your topside to idle circlewise for a good look. Your front foot will trigger a rinsing thrust from shoulder and back muscles and the shoulder blades. Your arms will rinse and orbit the bat like a cat's paw."

Duke Snider, a clean-living, home-loving, all-too approachable big-league star, agreed publicly to try Barron's swinging theories. The Los Angeles Dodgers, unamused, sold Snider to the Mets, a unique baseball club that has many far-out fans of its own in faraway New York.

The Inner Fan spurns fealty to one team. He grudgingly responds to the plea: "Support your hometown Tigers!"

Loyalty to the Team is more directly applicable to undergraduate and alumni audiences. Organized Baseball businessmen do better when they sell Baseball as an institution and Baseball Players as personalities.

One Houston business executive was delighted when the Texas metropolis first obtained a big-league franchise. He bought a box-seat ticket, "because I'm a baseball fan and I wanted to prove that Houston could support the Colts." He attended most of the home games in more or less silent approval of an unexciting, losing team. During the second season his fancy turned to more basic fulfillment.

"I kept my mouth shut for one whole year. But now I've got to let myself go. If I didn't have the Colts' third baseman to yell at I don't know what I'd do." He seldom missed a game that season either.

PEN-IN-HAND baseball fans frequently express their personal regard for the professionals who give them pleasure. Along with thousands of letters from adolescents who wish to exchange flattery for autographed mementos come such sympathetic analyses of fan-observing fans:

Only maladjusted people yell and holler at the ballplayers on the field. Usually they are insolent persons anyway, or intoxicated, drunk, stoned, or cracked. Personally I never plan to boo or yell at ballplayers. That is extremely rude!

Or the quizzical note:

Maybe ballplayers don't expect respect from fans. That couldn't be possible! (Could it?)

Most fan mail is favorable and not always favor-requesting. Occasionally a male fan offers to help the struggling young athlete and promises at the same time to attend future efforts of the player if he will just pay attention:

I was thinking for a long time if I should do this then I thought no harm can come. What I was trying to tell is by bending the first finger at the knuckle and holding the ball throwing it as a fastball you will get a good sinker and the slower you throw it the bigger the sinker. Tell everybody to do this and the next time you are pitching I will be there to see that you are using this pitch.

The out-and-out negative correspondents reveal by their handwriting evidence of disturbed minds. Big letters, rambling script, disconnected sentences full of nonsense. My own favorite closing paragraphs from a decade of fanmail collecting are these:

You were my favorite player last season. What's wrong with you this year. YOUR A BUM TIL YOU START WINNING!

(Signed) Your fan

And:

What's more you don't even know how to spell your own name!

(Signed) W. J. Bresnahan

It was inevitable, I suppose, that the fan's wish to be a ballplayer should find, as a correlation, an equal duty for the player to be the fan.

Times have changed, and the factors which created the world of the baseball fan may be losing significance. Self-reliance, the leitmotiv of the late-nineteenth-, early-twentieth-century American, is no longer the prime ethic of American culture. Now the emphasis is on standardization—of personal ambition, performance, and morality.

Baseball is unique among team sports in its glorification of the individual, his opportunity to excel being limited only by his willingness to cooperate in a lawfully delineated competition. As a spectacle, Baseball owes its popularity in great measure to the way it satisfies psychic needs. The spectator receives his wish fulfillment through identification with the player in action rather than through the action itself.

But the major-league ballplayer himself sometimes contributes to the desecration of his image as a special sort of folk hero. His public preoccupation with future security in the form of a valuable early-retirement pension makes him a mere transient idol. He prefers business contacts to the camaraderie of fans. Instead of endorsing Mother, the Flag, and Little Leaguers, he promotes merchandise on national television that makes him no more than equal to the average shaver, B.O. sufferer, or fungus-footed shoe clerk.

The world of baseball is fan-made. The fan's interest is sentimental in the sense that sentimentality is an emotion in excess of its cause. His interest is also coincidental, for baseball just happens to offer the best means to obtain a wishful end. The tensions of a changing world may reproduce new symptom formations. The neurotic compromise that the fan makes between his interest in Baseball and his inability to attain absolute pleasure from it could produce a regressive turn to other sports. Like football, that blood game.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Why Are Americans So Bad at Saving Money?

The US is particularly miserable at putting aside money for the future. Should we blame our paychecks or our psychology?


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Video

How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In