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How could you have explained the scene to a foreigner watching his first baseball game or to a Rip Van Winkle who had been away from the park for 20 years? The Mets' Tom Seaver was facing singles hitter Tommy Hutton in a Sunday afternoon game at Philadelphia before the largest crowd in Pennsylvania baseball history, 57,267—including 34,000 kids clutching shiny new giveaway bats. Suddenly Hutton hit a home run. Now, that act alone, not to mention all those bat-waving children, would have been hard enough to explain, but consider what followed:
Out in center field an animated figure named Philadelphia Phil swung a bat and sent an electronic ball crashing against a replica of the Liberty Bell. The Bell's crack lit up as the ball caromed off toward Philadelphia Phillis, who fielded it on her backside, fell forward and set off a cannon, which belched smoke and exploded a flurry of cartoons and messages on the huge right-field scoreboard. As the stadium echoed with enough noise to disrupt the leafy quiet miles away on the Main Line, a Colonial flag unfurled in center field and a bilious green fountain began to dance to the tune of The Stars and Stripes Forever. The place had hardly calmed down when, one out later, Ron Stone drove a triple to right field. Now the big board flashed in nightmarish letters: PHANTASTIC! UNBELIEVAGABLE!
Old Philadelphia fans who remember Chuck Klein hitting homers in relative peace and sanity must be unnerved by the newfangled demonstrations and frenetic computerized scoreboard at Veterans Stadium, just as they must ponder baseball's snug pajama uniforms, red and blue clawlike gloves and billiard-table infields. In Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Houston, Arlington (Texas), Oakland, San Francisco and Los Angeles new stadiums or scoreboard systems are breeding a generation of fans that will forever demand a cavalry charge with every rally, bulb-lit likenesses of each player coming to bat and an electronic WE WUZ ROBBED when a visiting player makes a tough catch.
"You can call it gimmickry if you want, but I think it's all very important for baseball," says Bill Giles, Philadelphia's vice-president for business operations, the red-haired genie behind the Vets Stadium board and the man who a few years ago staged a Fourth of July every night at the Astrodome. "In Houston 40% of those who wrote in for tickets would request seats in sight of the scoreboard. In Philadelphia at least 25% demand the same thing."
In certain quarters, where baseball tradition dies hard, ball parks still rely on human hands to keep scoreboards running. In 1937 the Cubs installed a center-field board in anticipation of a pennant which was won the following year; the workings have remained largely unaltered since. Inside the 75-foot-long tomb three men creep around like so many Quasimodo, flipping dials and pushing levers, while 500 feet away in the press box a fourth colleague controls the board's only electronic features, those that note balls, strikes and outs. "It's hotter than the dickens inside," says Roy (Cotton) Bogren, who spent 20 summers in there before becoming the Cubs' chief groundkeeper.
Wrigley's Stone Age board can't say OOPS or ignite fireworks, but it does boast of two gimmicks many of the Aquarian parks can't match: it has a clock to tell the time of day, and it gives complete inning-by-inning scores of other games. Philadelphia's multimillion-dollar twin boards—one in left, one in right—devote so much time and space to illuminating the game at hand and flashing commercials (three sponsors are financing the board in return for between-innings advertising) that other scores appear only now and then.
Fenway Park in Boston gets by with the same manually operated left-field board Owner Tom Yawkey built in 1934. Two college students work it, posting Red Sox and other scores while a man in the press box punches balls, strikes and outs. "We can't flash statistical messages like the new parks," says a Boston publicist. "But those new boards aren't perfect, either. At Kansas City they don't have enough space for all the scores, so when all the clubs are playing, one game has to be left out."
Bill Veeck is generally credited with introducing the modern-day personality-plus scoreboard—at Chicago in 1960—-but at least two witnesses claim to have seen its precursor. As a boy Bill Giles accompanied his father Warren, then a big-league executive and later president of the National League, on trips into the bushes. In Columbia, S.C. he remembers seeing a toy goose waddling along the top of the board and dropping an egg in the appropriate slot when the visiting team failed to score. Vern Morgan, a coach with the Minnesota Twins, remembers a similar act at Augusta, Ga. in 1949.
In 1960 Veeck hatched a $300,000 scoreboard in Comiskey Park that exploded with fireworks for 23 seconds—a time limit imposed by the league—whenever a White Sox player hit a home run. Visiting players reacted variously to Veeck's plaything. Jimmy Pier-sail, playing center field for Cleveland, caught a game-ending fly by Ted Kluszewski and then fired the ball at the board. Veeck, watching from the press box, shouted: "Get that guy off the field." Said Piersall later, "They shouldn't let that thing go off in the middle of a game. It can make a guy fidgety and nervous." At a night game in 1960 the Yankees countered with a fireworks show of their own, Casey Stengel, Yogi Berra and others dancing around the dugout with lit sparklers after home runs by Clete Boyer and Mickey Mantle.
In 1962 the modern message-board era was ushered in at Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine. Manufactured by Fair-Play Scoreboards of Des Moines, the two 75-foot-long boards were the first to be fully automated and controlled from the press box. No Quasimodos needed. Dodger fans lapped up the streams of statistical data and sports quizzes flashed up on the board and rallied to the cavalry call and 30-foot letters commanding CHARGE.