Chris ChamblissMay 6, 2010
Discussion of the recent tasering of a seventeen-year-old who ran on the field at a Phillies game has included mention of such past infringements of the spectator-athlete divide as the career-derailing stabbing of Monica Seles and the nauseating father-and-son beating of a Kansas City Royals first base coach, these examples being used as hard-to-refute “what ifs” to justify the tasering. But I found myself venturing farther back in my mind, beyond those two attacks, to my favorite world, the 1970s, when a different relationship between fans and the professional playing field prevailed.
Namely, I thought about Chris Chambliss. I’ve seen the video many times of him swatting a pennant-winning home run in 1976, but when I watched it again, I was once more stunned by it. One thing I don’t remember noticing before: the second the ball reaches the stands, a panel in the right field wall swings open and an already frenzied-looking pack of policeman spills out. It’s already too late. The next shot shows the flood of humanity pouring onto the infield, and the next shot after that shows Chambliss being tackled down to the ground in the middle of a trampling mob after rounding second base. The clip I watched (linked to above) ends before Chambliss makes his way to home plate, and considering the roiling electrified mass he has to get through, the logical assumption would be that he never made it but was instead torn limb from limb by the throng, who took pieces of the sacrificial hero home as souvenirs.
Incredibly enough, this moment was not exactly an anomaly at the time, though I think it was the most striking example of fans instantly seizing control of the field. A couple other smaller but notable and telling fan incursions of the decade included the serial benign game-interrupting done by giant-chested Morganna the Kissing Bandit, and the moment in 1974 when two young yahoos bounded onto the field to pat poor Hank Aaron on the back as he rounded third during his record-setting 715th home run trot (Aaron had been getting an avalanche of racist hate mail and death threats as he approached Babe Ruth’s record, so having two white guys rushing out of the stands at him could not have been a pleasant experience).
As the sun set on the 1970s, the fans’ claim on the field, to be exercised during moments of mania and exultation, seemed to wane. The last hurrah, in the summer of 1979, was a climax of sorts of this feeling, Disco Demolition Night. If the young, stoned mob expressed anything that night beyond the extent to which disco sucked, it was this: This field is ours.
The next year, the field was no longer ours. Ronald Reagan was elected, signaling the end of the chaotic populism of the 1970s and the beginning of a decade in which the economic distance between the haves and the have-nots in America would increase exponentially. Just a couple weeks before Reagan was elected, the last moments of the first World Series of the 1980s occurred with police in riot gear lining the field: One false move and you’ll be beaten with a nightstick or mauled by attack-trained German shepherds. When the Phillies recorded the final out, the field stayed clear of paying customers.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s bad to want to try to discourage people from charging the field. When the Phillies won that 1980 title, everybody stayed in their seats, safe, cheering and crying with joy. What could be wrong with that? But on purely symbolic terms, it seems telling that when the wide-open decade of my youth ended, the boundaries between my personal versions of heaven and earth increased.
One final thought: Watching the seventeen-year-old Phillies fan gambol around with his towel, eluding security, brought to mind another on-field eluder from bygone years, Tanner Boyle. The 1977 film The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training seemed to sense that the field, the symbolic center of American life, was closing off to all us regular irregulars. The time to play is over, so leave the field to the real professionals. Only Tanner stays out on the field, in defiance of this order, and he is able to elude taserless authorities long enough for a chant to rise up from all the rest of us (Let them play! Let them play!). I remember chanting right along in the theater as a nine-year-old. As I got swept up in the moment, I felt like I had never been closer to a major league field. When the authorities bowed to the unshakeable will of the people and the Bears were allowed to retake the field, I cheered with every other kid in the theater. We felt like we were all running onto that field.
Some book news: Fellow former Baseball Toasterite Bob Timmerman has an interview with me at LA Observed; Patricia at Dinged Corners offers a take on the book from a passionate card collector’s perspective; and Dick Friedman has a short but sweet review of Cardboard Gods in the latest issue of Sports Illustrated.
Also, a May 13 New York City reading has been added to the “book tour events” page.