The Fair-Play company has since built boards for the Astrodome, Busch Memorial Stadium in St. Louis and the Rangers' Arlington Stadium—million-dollar creations that dwarf the firm's first efforts almost four decades ago.
Dallas Center, Iowa, 1934: a pure Rockwellian setting. Small farm town deep in Iowa corn country, big frame houses with wide lawns in front, hot rivalry with the neighboring community, Adel. One winter night Dallas Center was locked in a close, rousing basketball game with Adel. Dallas Center's two-story brick school building, still in use, had the standard gymnasium floor with a balcony on three sides and a stage with collapsible basket on the fourth. If a scoreboard system existed, it was two kids in letter sweaters standing on ladders flipping a series of number cards.
Elmer E. Foster, founder of Fair-Play but then superintendent of schools and a high school physics teacher at Dallas Center, was in the crowd. "The game was very close. I'll never forget those people standing up and shouting," the 78-year-old Foster, kindly and still sharp, recalled recently. "Everybody was yelling, 'How much time? How much time?' Well, the game ended in a frenzy. Adel won I think. Now, I knew something about mechanics, and I thought to myself it was about time somebody figured out a better way to keep the score and time. So the next day I went to the electrician and asked him to help me build a timing clock. He said he was too busy but told me to see Jensen, the jeweler.
"This was right in the middle of the Depression, and I paid Jensen 35� an hour to help me. We made a big clock with a second hand that you could stop or start from the scorer's table, and when t hit eight minutes, the end of the quarter, a horn would go off. I took out a patent, and when we first started selling them, our slogan was, 'They Toot Their Own Horn.' Well, I didn't get home that night till two in the morning and my wife just started crying. She knew right away I had a plan to start building clocks and boards, and she said, 'You'll lose what little money you've got.' "
Jeanne Foster finally gave in. With his sons Jack and Robert, who are Fair-Play executives today, and a few of his skilled physics students, Foster set up shop in his garage and basement, building what amounted to the first automatic timers and scoreboards in American sport. By 1938 the demand had spread from the Midwest across the country, and Foster moved his family and business 25 miles east to Des Moines. Even before the move Fair-Play had already refined the original model to include home and visitor scores—cloth tapes numbered up to 69 that peeked out of slots on either side of the clock and were controlled from the : corer's table. Foster called it the Model A, and it was a durable machine. Somewhere out in the Midlands, the company believes, a few Model As are still tooting their own horns.
In the late 1940s Fair-Play, dominating the market, improved on the original sweep-second hand clock with a digital, flashing timer, and fans everywhere began tolling off the seconds: FIVE, FOUR, THREE—a chant that is still music to the eldest Foster's ears. Today the company's 60,000-square-foot factory, constantly honking with the sound of starting horns, turns out standard basketball, baseball, football, wrestling, swimming and hockey boards plus the erupting baseball showpieces. From the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis to the Rose Bowl at Pasadena to gymnasiums in Germany (where the boards are labeled Heim and Gast instead of home and visitor), Fair-Play has more than 50,000 scoreboards in operation. In recent years several big corporations, noting Fair-Play's successes at Los Angeles and Houston, have entered the market with even more sophisticated equipment. Conrac built the Oakland and new Candlestick Park boards; Stewart-Warner did the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh models.
Jack Foster, Fair-Play's chief of engineering, credits Judge Roy Hofheinz with launching the sideshow era and pulling the fans into the act. "We built the Astrodome board," said Jack, "but the Judge did a lot of the planning. He took Veeck's fireworks and put them into electric lights. He took O'Malley's CHARGE and turned it into a special show, with guns, music and lights. Houston still has the biggest, most exciting show. It's impossible to top in an outdoor stadium. Indoor lights make it more effective."
Giles was at Houston when the Astrodome opened in 1965 and was delegated by Hofheinz to refine the score-board's dramatic potential. He immediately took off after such natural enemies as umpires and Leo Durocher, who became a sudden friend of the Astros last week when he was hired to replace Manager Harry Walker. "Leo said a lot of negative things about the Astrodome, so every time he brought the Cubs to town, I'd kid him on the board," says Giles. "Once we got a rally rolling, caught up with the Cubs and finally beat them, and we flashed THIS IS THE CHICAGO FIRE, LEO.
"He used to send Whitey Lockman to the mound to talk to pitchers, and we'd put up A MESSAGE FROM LEO WHO? But the time he really got mad—and I guess I don't blame him—was a game when Dick Ellsworth was pitching for Chicago, and we got three or four runs and knocked him out. We ran a film of a pitcher drowning in the shower. Leo claimed he took Ellsworth out because he had a sore back. Right away he got on the phone and called me in the press box, and told me where to stick the scoreboard. Later I said publicly that the board and Durocher were very similar—both loud, both expensive, both very good for baseball, and I meant it."
Baseball's newest board is a Fair-Play product that towers nearly 12 stories above the flatlands of Arlington between Dallas and Fort Worth. Freak weather, an inexperienced operating staff and a hurried installation job have bugged the 200-foot-long board, which is emblazoned with a map of Texas. "I don't know what's wrong with the guy who runs that thing," said a young usher in a Western costume before a Rangers-Twins game earlier this season. "He's either Bob Short's son or else he's drunk. He's always pushing the wrong buttons."