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Back in Nero's day, the Roman sports fan was a pretty uncomplaining character. All he asked of a Saturday afternoon at the Colosseum was a pride of good, hungry lions, a handful of scrawny Christians and a good seat. He had little doubt about the way the thing would turn out. Barring some occasional Androcles to stage a fluke, the lions always won and the Christians always lost.
The modern American baseball fan is somewhat harder to please. He is, in fact, approximately as fickle, as fussy and as fastidious as a gourmet with a gastric ulcer. He is a perennial champion of the underdog, provided the dog stays under, and he loves a winner, just as long as the winner doesn't win too much. An exacting perfectionist and a sentimental slob at one and the same time, he is utterly intolerant of bumbling incompetence and acidly derisive of skilled self-confidence. In his highest evolutionary form, in fact, he is not a fan at all, but an antifan.
For several seasons now—or has it been several centuries?—the most enthusiastic antifans, and hence the most ardent baseball lovers, in the U.S. have found their inspiration in the apparent and infuriating invincibility of the New York Yankees. Because the Yankees possessed all those qualities the Yankee hater most admired in the national game, the Yankee hater had to hate them. After all they left him nothing to hope for. Their invincibility was not a mere partisan wish but an ugly fact, as inevitable as the 90 feet that separate the bases on an official diamond, and as much a part of baseball. Whatever was right or wrong with baseball could be blamed somehow on the fact that the Yankees were too damn powerful. In their 20th century Bronx amphitheater, these perennial league leaders strode as arrogantly and indefeasibly as Nero's lions, and all the other teams in either league were at best poor Christians, armored with hope and faith but doomed to martyrdom.
We have no exact way of knowing from this point in history just how the fans lined up in the Rome of Nero's day. We think it is fairly safe to say they were probably pro-Christian for the most part, with the lion fans restricted to a few surly experts with a connoisseur's eye for artistic dismemberment. The lions, we feel, got the applause; the Christians got the cheers. They did, that is, until they began winning. There is solid historical evidence to show that the whole balance of ancient sentiment began falling apart pretty badly once the Christians forsook their underdog role. Is some such epochal change, we now ask ourselves, facing U.S. baseball?
The New York Yankees of 1959, as the lead article in this magazine explains in some detail, are certainly acting very little like lions.
The fact is they more closely resemble treed alley cats.
Beaten and bruised by even such habitual basement dwellers as the Washington Senators and the Detroit Tigers, the team that was never once headed in last year's pennant race now bobbles along in seventh place, losing game after game. Attendance was bad at ball parks all over the U.S. (with the exception of the exceptional West Coast) in 1958 because—said the Yankee haters—the Yanks were too good. This year attendance is down even further (by 383,359) in the National League, but it is up in both the American League as a whole and in the Yankees' own stadium. The fans are plainly flocking to the scent of blood, but whose blood, we wonder, do they want to see flow. Where do the antifans stand now? Are Mr. Stengel's boys still lions to be jeered at and crowed over as they lurk in a corner of temporary defeat awaiting the moment to pounce again and strike terror into the hearts of all of us? Or are they now Christian martyrs doomed to certain defeat and hence worthy of our cheers?
Yankee hater! Yankee pitier! Quo vadis?
Voice of the Bells