At first, they were merely capricious, fools clowning in the stands, spilling onto the playing field to gambol on the forbidden turf like rebellious children. There were streakers, naturally, and a woman who attempted to embrace Home Plate Umpire Larry McCoy, and teen-agers sprinting across the outfield. They created irritating delays in the game between the Cleveland Indians and the visiting Texas Rangers but, in the beginning, at least, they seemed manageable.
Some difficulty had been anticipated, for beer at Cleveland's Municipal Stadium on the night of June 4 was selling at 10� a cup, and of the 25,134 "Beer Night" celebrants, a few would obviously be attending the ball game in quest of a cheap high. The stadium security force was, therefore, beefed up from a normal 32 men to 48, just in case.
As the night wore on and the beer took hold, more than a few fans turned ugly. They dropped firecrackers near the Rangers' bullpen and suspended others on strings into the Ranger dugout. They tossed cherry bombs onto the field and poured beer on the Rangers as they returned to their bench. In the ninth inning, after the Indians, who had been trailing by two runs, had rallied dramatically to tie the score at 5-5, dozens of rowdy fans jumped onto the outfield, belligerent, spoiling for trouble.
One group surrounded Ranger Right-fielder Jeff Burroughs. Somebody snatched his cap, and as he sought to retrieve it he was hit and jostled by the crowd. Burroughs fought back as scores of sodden spectators joined the battle. It was then that Ranger Manager Billy Martin, never one to avoid a fight, led his players in a rescue charge. Some were carrying bats. Still, they were outnumbered and outgunned by the chair-throwing, bottle-swinging fans. The Indians, Manager Ken Aspromonte in the forefront, rushed out to assist the Rangers, a gesture not without irony since the two teams had fought each other in a typical baseball brawl only a week earlier. Order was never fully restored, so Nestor Chylak, the senior umpire, forfeited the game to Texas. Still, the fans continued to swarm, scrapping now among themselves, until security guards and hastily summoned city police forcibly quieted them.
Nine persons were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. Three Rangers, one Indian and Chylak himself were injured in the melee. "The fans were uncontrolled beasts," said Chylak, nursing a cut hand. "I've never seen anything like it except in a zoo."
"I've been in this game 25 years," said Billy Martin, "and I've never had an experience like this.... That was the closest I ever saw to someone getting killed in baseball.... People were acting like idiots. Was it the beer? I don't know."
The beer? More than 60,000 10-ounce cups were downed that night, clear indication that at least some of the tipplers were slightly crocked and that some of these could have been pugnacious drunks. Chylak called the rioters "punks," and it is true that the majority were young men. Just a bunch of drunken kids acting out their hostility, then? Possibly, but while the Cleveland riot was by all odds the worst and most dispiriting incident of the current sports year, it was not the only disturbing one.
There has been an alarming upsurge in fan violence in all sports these past months, to the point where unusual security measures are now taken for even the most benign events. Team owners and league commissioners, meanwhile, have been forced to take long soul-searching looks at what they have created. They must begin to wonder if it is even possible now, in an age of free expression and at a time when violent action and reaction are everyday facts of life, to assemble large numbers of people in one place, excite them, and expect them to behave themselves. The question seems wholly legitimate in light of some sorry recent occurrences.
Late last month in Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium, Bob Watson, the Houston Astros' outfielder, lay stunned at the base of the left-field fence. The lenses of his sunglasses had shattered when he crashed into the fence in futile pursuit of a ball hit by the Reds' Merv Rettenmund, and he was bleeding from facial wounds inflicted by the broken glass.
A group of spectators, perhaps 10 or more, at least some of them drunk, leaned over the railing above the fence, presumably concerned about the injured player's condition. Then, as Watson's teammates, who had run out to help him, backed off in astonishment, the fans began to rain beer down on him and to pelt him with ice cubes and crushed paper cups. There was an angry, profane exchange between the players and Watson's assailants, during which the players were improbably invited to scale the 12-foot-high fence and give battle.