Fame & Fandom

From the Ideas section of The Boston Globe, October 2, 2005:

I had driven to Cooperstown a hundred times before. Always the Hall of Fame had been the principal if not sole reason for the trip, despite the picturesque charm of Baseball’s Historyland. Yet my most recent visit, on the second Sunday in September, was, as Yogi Berra might have described it, the same but different: This time the destination was the Baseball Fan Hall of Fame, a work in progress to which I had been invited by its creator and sole proprietor, Peter J. Nash.

“Remember the old Mobil station?” he replied to my request for directions. “You know, the one just before the light as you come in on Chestnut? That’s it.”

Cooperstown features only the one traffic light, so there was no missing the Baseball Fan Hall of Fame even though its gas-station heritage had been obliterated and its future as a pantheon was indiscernible.

Nash stood outside to greet me. I recalled him as the fellow who a decade ago had given me a tour of Cooperstown’s then new, now bedraggled wax museum. Although he and I had corresponded occasionally since, about baseball worthies of distant times, only recently did I learn that he had once been known in the music industry as Sinister Prime Minister Pete Nice, lead singer of the white hip-hop act 3rd Bass.

Now Nash is author of the forthcoming “Boston’s Royal Rooters” (Arcadia), a pictorial history of baseball fanship in Beantown. He is also the impresario of an amazing duplication of Michael T. McGreevey’s 3rd Base, a turn-of-the-century Boston saloon located at the corner of Ruggles and Tremont in Roxbury, so called because it was “the last stop before home.” Entering Nash’s former gas station, you proceed to a room festooned with reproductions of baseball photographs and regalia from McGreevey’s saloon, placed precisely in their original positions.

McGreevey – recalled today as “Nuf Ced,” a nickname deriving from his customary declaration of certitude – led Boston’s fanatical “Royal Rooters” through some 20 years of organized partisanship for Boston’s baseball teams, beginning in 1897 as a contingent from Roxbury dedicated to the Nationals. When the American League came to town in 1901, the Royal Rooters transferred their affections and hortatory chants to the Red Sox. (Rooter ranks were overwhelmingly Irish, but cut a wide swath across the economic and social classes: John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald and Isabella Stewart Gardner both were comfortable wearing Royal Rooter fetishes.) The Rooters’ incessant singing of “Tessie,” reworded to cast aspersions on the talents, manliness, and parentage of their opponents, so rattled the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1903 World Series that they fell to the underdog Red Sox.

The Rooters were also a force in the Red Sox World Series wins of 1912, ’15, and ’16, though by the championship season of 1918 they were gone. Then Prohibition drove the saloon into the embrace of the Boston Public Library, which transformed it into a branch division while accepting the donation of Nuf Ced’s hundreds of baseball photographs, including the one that enabled Nash’s precise replication of 3rd Base. These images remain one of the glories of the BPL’s print department.

Nash’s hip-hop bankroll has permitted him to indulge in a bit of eccentric whimsy, much as the English gentleman Horace Walpole built Strawberry Hill as a Gothic castle to inspire him in the writing of a spooky novel, The Castle of Otranto, published in 1764. But Nash is more than merely an antiquarian fan and dotty interior decorator.

Nash has a big idea – annual inductions of celebrated baseball fans, rooters, enthusiasts, cranks, and bugs from Walt Whitman (“The game of ball is glorious,” he wrote in 1846) and Hilda Chester (who declared her presence at Ebbets Field through the 1930s and ’40s with a sign proclaiming “Hilda is here”) to Boston’s own Lib Dooley (4,000 nearly consecutive home games at Fenway from 1944 to 1998) and Chicago’s poor Steve Bartman (scapegoat par excellence at Wrigley Field ever since interfering with a foul fly in Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series). Heroes or goats, fans are players too, and Nash seeks to give them their due.

. . .

A hall of fame for fans may well be a great notion, with attendant creative and commercial possibilities, for it refl ects the thinking behind that institution around the corner on Cooperstown’s Main Street, the Baseball Hall of Fame. Dedicated in 1939, baseball’s shrine was not the nation’s first Hall of Fame, despite the nearly universal impression that it was: Its inspiration was the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, created on a New York University campus in 1901 to honor men and women who had achieved greatness in any of 16 categories. Yet in the media age ushered in by radio and the talkies, missionaries and explorers were no longer our idols. Athletes were, but they couldn’t enter the Hall of Fame unless they bought a ticket. While Hilda Chester’s cowbell, which assaulted tender ears and sensibilities at Ebbets Field, or Freddy Sanchez’s frying pan, which has had a similar effect at Yankee Stadium in recent years, might make it into a Baseball Hall of Fame exhibit, neither Hilda nor Freddy would ever be inducted. They have been denied the 21st century’s inalienable right to immortality, just as athletes once were. If in the metastasizing spread of celebrity there are halls of fame for policemen (Miami Beach), businessmen (Chicago), and clowns (Delavan, Wisc.), why not a shrine for fans?

When baseball arose as a game for spectators as well as players in the late 1850s, originally the watchers were non-playing members of the opposing clubs, sometimes their lady companions, a motley passel of players from other clubs, and the inevitable gamblers and rowdies. As the game grew and professional leagues were formed, the civic attachment grew in intensity, to the point that by 1897, The New York Times stated that “local patriotism is at the bottom of the business which baseball has come to be.”

Baseball devotees came to be known as “cranks.” While this term may fi rst have been applied to Charles J. Guiteau, in 1881 the crazed assassin of President Garfield, it immediately drifted over to those afflicted by baseball madness. Sometimes printed as “krank,” the word derives from the German for “sick” as well as the British dialect meaning of “cranky”: feeble-minded. By the dawn of the 20th century, “fan” – whether short for “fanatic” or synecdoche for the flapping tongues of self-proclaimed experts – continued in this vein, labeling grownups who were crazy about a children’s game as, well, nuts. (Devotees of statistics were “figure filberts.”)

Discounting the certifiably lunatic – Thomas J. Murphy, who in 1883 shot Providence outfielder Cliff Carroll; Ruth Ann Steinhagen, who shot Phillies first baseman Eddie Waitkus in 1949; Cleveland druggist Charley Lupica, who in ’49 perched atop a flagpole until the Indians repeated as pennant winners (they didn’t, and he came down) – some of the game’s most famous fans, the ones most likely to be inducted one day into the Baseball Fan Hall of Fame, have been the sweetly demented or obnoxiously loud, the relentless narcissist or the disquietingly perky wallflower. Lolly Hopkins of Boston used a megaphone to rally her charges in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s; Mary Ott of St. Louis in the ’40s didn’t need one. Neither, at the turn of the last century, did the leather-lunged Arthur “Hi-Hi” Dixwell of Boston or the booming Frank Wood of the Polo Grounds, immortalized in the Zane Grey story titled with his nickname, “Old Well-Well.”

Actors Digby Bell and DeWolf Hopper (famous for his 10,000 recitations of “Casey at the Bat”) and songwriter Harry Ruby ingratiated themselves with the players and even donned uniforms during pregame drills, but they were celebrities who became fans rather than fans who became celebrities. This is probably a useful distinction, enabling us to whiz by Mark Twain, Harpo Marx, Tallulah Bankhead, Jerry Seinfeld, Donald Sutherland, and Bill Murray. Ben Affleck has been such an egregious and ubiquitous Sox-sniffer that last month, when artist Daniel Edwards exhibited an ironic “death mask” of Ted Williams’s cryogenically frozen and severed head at the First Street Gallery in New York, he titled the assemblage “The Ben Affleck 2004 World Series Collection presents The Ted Williams Memorial Display.”

The most affecting fan tale of late has been that of “Doris from Rego Park” (a working-class neighborhood in Queens), whose cough-wracked voice on WFAN inspired a fan base of its own. Doris Bauer loved the Mets in part because she had little else to root for. She struggled with neurofibromatosis (in her case a disfiguring disease) and “social autism,” according to her brother Harold. Doris would set her alarm every morning for 1:00 a.m. to call into the sports-radio show and offer balanced, expert views of her beloved if frustrating team. As her brother told The New York Times, she never drove a car, dated, or married, living instead with her Holocaust-survivor parents until she succumbed to cancer in 2003 at 58.

For a century and a half, many people for whom “real life” was riddled with terror have derived comfort and satisfaction from the order, regularity, justice, and balance of baseball. Fans like Doris from Rego Park, gentle souls who found a home in baseball and a way to live in the world, deserve recognition, honor, maybe even a Hall of Fame.

Talk radio made a star of Doris; blogs and other self-published baseball writings have done the same for others, including Bill James, whose homegrown “Baseball Abstracts” of the 1970s led ultimately to commercial success and a significant position in the Boston front office.

Fanship has changed in other ways, too, from how we root to – more dangerously for the genus fan and perhaps baseball and the larger culture – why we root, Red Sox Nation notwithstanding. Fantasy baseball has been a particular scourge, fostering attachment to and investment in the performance of players who belong to no earthly franchise, only to a team of one’s own devise. Where fans once dreamed of being players, today they dream of being general managers or owners. How will Nash’s Baseball Fan Hall of Fame celebrate them?


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