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Chris Chambliss

May 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.

21 comments

  1. The Hank Aaron clip was on the baseball’s great moment-style highlight reel that the Cubs used to show between innings on the crappy little TV that hung from the rafters above my season ticket seats in the early 00s, and no matter how many times I saw the two guys rush into join Aaron’s trot, I still had trouble believing that it had happened.

    It’s hard to imagine being so incredibly self-centered–or at least unaware–as to think you deserve to horn in on that moment. How very strange it all was.


  2. The mob scene that will be forever etched into my brain is the one that didn’t happen: the 1986 Angels against the Red Sox at Anaheim Stadium, AL playoffs, 1986. My buddies and I were at my place here in SoCal, gathered around the tv set, adding generously to the living room beer can wall throughout the game, as the Angels finally were going to make it to the World Series.

    Meanwhile, the Anaheim Police took their place guarding the field from the frenzied thousands of Angels fan who were undoubtedly going to storm the field. My pals and I were ready to create our own mini mob scene as well, ready to knock the beer cans over in celebration.

    The Anaheim Police eventually retreated back into the depths of the Big A, and the beer can wall never fell.


  3. NYC Police actually escorted Chambliss back on the field several minutes later so he could touch home plate.

    When I was a little kid watching replays of the Aaron home run I actually thought that was his parents running the bases congratulating him.


  4. It’s kind of shocking to see how out of control the fans were back in the 70′s. It looks like some drunken drug crazed Lynard Skynard concert or something. And like you said this was basically the norm back then.

    What I always remember was the end of the 1979 Series when the Pirates won in Baltimore. Basically the fans rush the field and the Pirate players are literally fighting to get to the locker rooms.

    I still have an image of two fans trying to steal Steve Nicosia’s batting helmet and Nicosia literally beating one of the fans with his catcher’s mask. You can see the image in some of the world series photos of the day.

    If you scroll down you can see a picture of the incident.
    http://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_yKSo5xPjLpM/SwLtAEN3EWI/AAAAAAAAK-Y/8YswaLZAwgQ/s1600/we-are-family.jpg&imgrefurl=http://sullybaseball.blogspot.com/2009/11/do-you-know-what-was-awesome-about-game.html&usg=__OD6PkEELcf7Y8tm1J68CZBI-zgw=&h=378&w=505&sz=43&hl=en&start=13&um=1&itbs=1&tbnid=LjHMB78hOAtkHM:&tbnh=97&tbnw=130&prev=/images%3Fq%3D1979%2Bworld%2Bseries%2Bending%26um%3D1%26hl%3Den%26sa%3DN%26tbs%3Disch:1


  5. I generally think of the “Carboard Gods Era” as neatly paralleling the “Post-Watergate Era” 1974-1980. Although I still collected cards in 1981, something had changed in card collecting with Fleer and Donruss. Plus, ’81 was the year that Reagan came into office and card collecting started to be seen as a money investment instead of a simple hobby.

    There was a general feeling that things were completely Broken, Out-of-Control, Despondent, Narcissistic, Self-Indulgent, and Chaotic in that post-Watergate era, 1974-1980. So it’s understandable in retrospect how Reagan’s policies became so appealing to the American mainstream. They were neat little boxed solutions to complex problems.

    They were the wrong policies though, and a complete over-reaction that created a whole slew of new problems from the other direction.


  6. 1976 – 2 idiots attempt to set the American Flag on fire and Rick Monday saves the Flag


  7. But we’ve still got the freedom to storm fields and courts in college games! For some reason that’s still perfectly acceptable. I went to the U. of Nebraska at a pretty sweet time for the entire athletic program, and boy was it a great feeling to be on the sideline, knowing that you WILL be allowed to storm. I got to do it on the basketball court and the football field, though I didn’t go as far as aiding in tearing down the goalposts. After ESPN had told us how badly Colorado was gonna beat us, “we” brought one goal post to their little desk outside the stadium, and paraded the other down Lincoln’s main street. Fun stuff.

    I also loved watching the end of the NBA Finals, the way the court would fill entirely in an instant.


  8. I find this whole question of WTF happened between then and now regarding fans on the field to be really fascinating. As a Mets fan its curious to hear broadcaster Howie Rose (rightly, I believe) denounce the dickheads who interrupt games while at the same time delight in telling the story of how he stormed the field with the rest of the fans back in ’69.

    What changed? I see a kind of “sealing off” of the product on the field that came not just as a result of the widening money gap but also of there being a kind of pervasive brand consciousness that has risen to protect that and make a baseball game more like a product than an actual event. I think that the fan who runs out on the field today is at some level trying make themselves a part that whole machine, whereas in 70s maybe the fans were more about getting themselves into a particular moment. I could be all wrong.


  9. The Chambliss homerun was the highlight of my nine year old life. Phil Rizzuto’s home run call was perfect. Unfortunately, the ABC/Cosell call is the one that people remember. The fans ran onto the field like lunatics. They did it again in 1977, when Reggie Jackson ran to the dugout by body-blocking some fan like a Mack truck hitting a Volkswagen Bug. I am sure the fan is still lying in the old Yankee Stadium. When they replay the final game of the 1977 Series on YES Network, you cna see the long-haired fans sitting on top of the fence in the ninth inning ready for their animalistic drive onto the field. Since every New Yorker saw footage of the Mets fans in 1969 running onto the field after they won the Series, I just sort of assumed at the time that this was the way fans behaved when their team won the pennant or World Series.


  10. Mbtn01,

    That’s an interesting take on the whole subject. I could definitely sense a gradual change in things around the mid 90′s. The field box area became more and more about corporate season ticket holders than fans walking up to the ticket counter. The prices went up and then there were things like padded seats, cup holders, and Waiter service which I still find vulgar. You actually need a Waiter to get a hot dog and a beer/soda???

    The luxury boxes came, the prices went up. Players made more money and were perceived like Rock Stars on a stage. Now in the modern parks, The Field Box section is cut off from the rest of the stadium which I find is extremely vulgar.

    20-30 years ago going to a baseball game was like going to a movie for double the price. Now it’s like going to a broadway show or something.


  11. Psychsound,

    I kind of remember in those day that the local t.v. stations, in the Yankees case WPIX in New York, would broadcast the playoffs at the same time as the Network. So Cosell/Jackson would do the games on ABC channel 7 in New York and Rizzuto/White would do the games at the same time on channel 11 WPIX.

    I don’t know when that changed, maybe around the early 80′s.


  12. Great post, A+.


  13. I know I should be bothered by those two kids running after Hank Aaron. I know I should. It was a premeditated act, not spontaneous. It was incredibly foolhardy; Aaron had received death threats, after all. It can easily be seen as selfish–two nobodies horning in on an amazing accomplishment.

    And yet . . .

    That clip of Hank Aaron breaking Babe Ruth’s record is my all-time favorite baseball moment, and those kids are part of the reason why. There is a momentary fear as they run onto the screen–is something bad about to happen? But immediately that goes away. These kids aren’t a threat. Look at those goofy smiles! They just want to say “good job” and “thanks.” It’s what we all want to say to superstar athletes. They mean so much to us, but we have no way of expressing it to them. And even if we could, they would just say (and they would be right) “that person you are talking about isn’t me. Its a persona, a creation of projection and fantasy. You don’t know me.” Aaron’s brush-off, his dismissal of those kids who are interfering with him, says all that and more.

    In short, that moment is a microcosm of all of baseball culture. The amazing accomplishment of a baseball god, and the overwhelming desire of mere mortals to bask in its reflection, to make it even larger. All thanks to those two high school kids.


  14. I share johnq11 and mbtno1′s definition of “vulgarity,” that’s for sure.

    The “regular fan” has been trivialized, marginalized and squeezed out- in favor of amenities geared to the wealthy, the corpororate client, the attendee who is forking over mega-bucks to sit in something called the “Excelsior Platinum Luxury Club Level” or some such, swarming with amenities and gilded extras… in fact, at least at the new stadiums here in NY, there actually seems to be a thinly veiled CONTEMPT for the modest, walk-up, run-of-the-mill “regular fan.”

    Add all that to the image of the athletes themselves as guarded, unapproachable multi-millionaires, sequestered behind tinted windows in Caddy Escalades and mansions in exclusive gated communities, and it’s no real shock that this contempt has begun to swing both ways…

    The sociologists can have some real fun dissecting the motive(s) of a crude inebriated spectator running amok on the field of play, say, nowadays vs. back in the ’70s. Is it now a desire to “take back” the game?
    Was it (back then) part of a sum deliniating a ‘Me’ decade form of colorful self-expression (see: streaking, etc.)

    I’d seperate the frenzied group-exaltation of field-storming from the individualistic attention-seekers, although there is definitely some copy-cat group-think that spreads among the latter. And I’m shocked that this is somehow “news.”

    I recall attending an end-of-the-season game at Yankee Stadium in the early ’90s (before the unfortunate ‘dynsaty’ had risen); all week fans had been running on the field in the late innings – and as the ninth inning approached and rain fell, there was a general anticipation rising in the cheap seats… Would it happen?
    Sure as sin, it happened – a couple of yahoos spilled over and ran on the field. Was this a Political Act? (the Yanks were out of contention) A Fun Raucous Activity for a couple of Drunken Louts?
    Or something else???

    Watching the mayhem that ensued at the Chambliss game, as well as having grown up with films of the Mets clinching in ’69, (as well as the pennant and Series winning celebrations), I do feel a bit left out, somehow, with all of the riot-gear-clad cops, and horses and the like arrayed like a wall along the field these days at the merest whiff of celebration.

    Those were just such powerful spontaneous eruptions of joy. And those days are gone forever, I’m afraid. The “Wall” that seperates The Fan and The Game has never been higher.


  15. Funny how everyone savors the Hank Aaron 715 moment. No one but no one cares to think about the Barry Bonds 756 moment. We’re all just sorta waiting around for A-Rod or Pujols to break the record some day.


  16. I would certainly hope A-Rod would get the same “nobody cares” treatment. But I’m not banking on him breaking it anyway. Still a long way to go.


  17. Fans storming the field seem to be of two categories: those rushing the field to celebrate (usually in groups) and those trying to get attention (often solo) either for themselves or a cause. Disco Demolition Night assumed a category of its own: a riot having nothing to do with the game occurring on the field (in fact, the fans ran amok between two games of a doubleheader while there was zero action on the field, at least of the sporting variety). Of note: I think Reggie Jackson had the presence of mind to remove his eye glasses before barreling his way to the dugout after the Yankees game mentioned in the comments thread here. Clearly someone who had learned his lesson. Also, on a more personal note: I used to announce make-believe baseball games in the 1970s all the time. Fans storming the field was a necessary part of the routine. A different era indeed.


  18. Ramblin Pete,

    Those are excellent points.

    I think what baseball has done since the mid-90′s is incredibly short-sighted. They’ve basically alienated a huge group of men/boys who are under the age of 35. And really this has been a trend in baseball since the early 80′s. What connection to these people have with the game of baseball?

    I think I brought it up before but I never see kids with baseball gloves having a catch or kids playing stick-ball or wiffle-ball. These used to be ubiquitous signs of spring/summer. I’ve seen way more kids with lacrosse sticks/balls over the last 10-15 years than kids with baseball gloves.

    Do kids/teens/young adults even watch or listen to games on radio/t.v. anymore?


  19. johnq11 — and, even worse, Major League Baseball has made it harder for kids to enjoy the excitement of playoff-caliber baseball by scheduling games later in the evening to accommodate TV networks. Short-sighted indeed.


  20. davidjdeal,

    That’s another good example you bring up. Basically major league baseball has become a television product. And like any television product, the goal is to maximize ratings so you can increase your advertisement dollar. Major league baseball will increase their t.v. money but they’ve been alienating their young fan base for years.

    I was watching the Mets’ game today and just thinking about how stadiums have changed since the SkyDome was opened in 1989. That was the real switch to these “Theme-Park” style ballparks were the game exists almost as a backdrop to the various concessions that fill the ballpark.

    I have very mixed feelings about these new parks. On the one hand their beautiful facilities but on the other there is a certain crassness about these places. Don’t get me wrong, I would much rather watch a game at PNC or Citizen’s Bank Park than Veteran’s or 3 rivers but I think something was lost along the way.

    Take the Mets’ new Citi Field, do they really have to line the entire outfield wall with advertisements?? And do they really have to name the right field section “The Pepsi Porch”? 20 years ago putting outfield advertisements on your walls was considered “minor league”, now it’s the norm.

    I’ve often thought that part of the reason the Mets have that huge 16 foot wall in left field is to increase space for their advertising.


  21. found some footage of steve nicosia beating the crap out of that fan, as discussed above… crazy stuff.
    happens around 0:30



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