SI Vault
James Murray
August 20, 1956
Scorned by the athlete, scolded by the physical fitness fanatic, exploited by parking lot sharpies, ushers and hot dog vendors, his ultimate indignity is his betrayal by those who should love him most: the men who run spectator sports
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August 20, 1956

The Case For The Suffering Fan

Scorned by the athlete, scolded by the physical fitness fanatic, exploited by parking lot sharpies, ushers and hot dog vendors, his ultimate indignity is his betrayal by those who should love him most: the men who run spectator sports

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It's hot. Over the vast expanse of the ancient, soot-blackened arena the sun glares pitilessly, slowly but surely roasting the sweating humans in the cavernous gloom below as in an oven. Here and there, up the baking channels of the stadium ramps, small figures struggle hopelessly, blindly seeking the light above. One has already reached his goal. We see him here, transfixed before the distant spectacle he has come so far to view. But his ears hear not the muted shouts upon that far-off playing field; his eyes see not the graceful curve of ball in flight and runner reaching. His gaze is riveted for all eternity—i.e., nine innings—on his inevitable doom: a pole.

He has probably paid $2.50 to view that pole. Small comfort to him that this pole has been holding up this structure where he sits for nearly half a century, because he didn't really come to look at it at all. He came to see a ball game, and now he wonders why he isn't out where smarter people are who keep up with the times—out on the golf course, say, or trying to improve his rusty backhand on the local tennis court or maybe shooting bears and buffaloes with bow and arrow. In short, we have before us a specimen of homo spectator about to become homo participans—if he can ever get out of this broiling hole of hell alive—and hating the very thought of it.

And people ask: What's happening to the fan? Where is he?

Well, I have news. The fan is there, right where he's always been—still tooling around the antiquated ball park in the family sedan looking for a place to park; still emptying out his pockets to pay off that shark who steered him to a fender-denting hole outside the left-field wall, or giving his last eight bits to the usher, the one who's buying income property with the accumulated tax-free tips he gets for dusting off reserved seats. Could even be, in mid-game, he's still climbing the ramps because he didn't tip the usher and so got sent off in the wrong direction. But anyway, he's still around, the fan is, behind his pole or maybe standing in line outside the rest room, the one with only one door and just enough facilities to take care of a Cub Scout den. He's still around—but maybe not for long.

Or maybe he isn't around, at that. Maybe he finally listened when the little woman stamped her foot for the umpteenth time and said: "The ball park? That filthy hole? Not on your life! We're going down to Loew's High where they have Rossano Brazzi kissing Katharine Hepburn's hand in Technicolor on a Wide Screen with Stereophonic Sound, and where they have those big, comfortable loge seats with air-conditioning and hot popcorn and cold Coke if you feel like it." Maybe he thought of the splintery plank seats which he would get for his reserved-seat ticket, and the sweating effort of cheering himself hoarse for a pack of athletes who would make obscene gestures at him or take to the public prints to claim he didn't deserve their services even at 50 grand per year. So maybe he did turn to the little woman, thinking: it's just too much trouble to get there, it's too uncomfortable when I am there, they treat me like I'm not wanted anyway; and maybe he said: "Honey, you're right. Loew's it is. And Saturday, instead of going to the ball game, I'm gonna try and break 100."

Extreme? Well, possibly. But it's happening. Things are conspiring against homo spectator. He's being pulled and tugged at from all angles. He isn't an anachronism yet, but he's in danger of becoming one—a figure from the past, a backdrop for a TV athletic show, a potbellied object of finger-pointing by his family: "Daddy, Mr. Jones filled in at shortstop in Little League practice yesterday. How about you?" "Honey, Mrs. Smith told me that her husband was out on the golf course the other day when that big agency man from the West was here, and he shot an 80 or something and landed the account." The physical fitness people are after him, too; it's getting so a man can't spread himself at a ball park at all any more without thinking of what it's doing to his heart, his blood pressure and assorted organs he was heretofore totally unaware of as he sits and urges others on to sweat and toil in the name of sports and glory.

But the worst thing of all is that he's being let down by those whom he depends on most: the men who run the spectacles he wants to pay money to see. It isn't only baseball; it's boxing, too, and football and basketball and even tennis, which, come to think of it, is one of the worst offenders, with its matches staged in remote country clubs with concrete seats (if any) and the assumption that anybody who cares about the game has a chauffeured Cadillac at his disposal anyway. And the effect of it is telling. You can see it best in baseball, where the griping and second-guessing got so audible this year that Commissioner Ford Frick saw fit to clamp on a muzzle. Unwelcome as the thought may be to homo spectator, his ranks are thinning, and it's getting clearer all the time that if it's sport he wants, the thrill of combat and achievement, he's got to get out and, in the modern spirit, do it himself. It's almost easier to pitch a game these days than watch one.

Take Bob Cobb, the Hollywood restaurant magnate who is president, principal owner and general manager of the Hollywood Stars baseball team. As operating head of a franchise in a city of more than two million, it is his function to serve mainly as a supplier of baseball talent to a city of fewer than 750,000 ( Pittsburgh) but, the fabric of baseball being what it is, he accepts this philosophically. In fact, he thinks it's nothing compared to the indignities organized baseball heaps on those it ought to know better than to mistreat—the customers.

"Look at it this way," suggests President Cobb. "There isn't a ball park in the country, with one or two exceptions, that's less than 30 years old. Baseball men haven't done a damn thing to their parks for decades except paint them. Show me another industry that has stood still like that! Show me a hotel in a big city that was a major hotel 30 years ago and is still a major hotel. You won't find one unless it has been renovated from top to bottom. The Polo Grounds is that same old plant—a horse-and-buggy ball park. Sentiment? A lot of bosh! Would you drive a 1910 automobile to take your family on a long trip, sentiment or not?"

Cobb doesn't even spare himself.

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