Justin Zackal explores the evolution in the behavior of baseball fans. . . some of it good, some of it bad, all of it driven by the market.
John Board was an usher at Crosley Field in Cincinnati from 1947-50 and after a 47-year hiatus he returned in 1997 to escorting Reds fans to their seats at Riverfront Stadium and then Great American Ball Park.
In 2010, Cliff Radel of the Cincinnati Enquirer asked Board to compare the difference in his clientele between stints.
“More women now,” Board said. “Used to be almost all men. Lots of people wearing Reds hats, jerseys, shirts. Used to be mostly men in coats and ties and dress hats. They were more polite. Now, when you have a problem, they can be a little crude.”
Not to usher words onto Board’s stadium-seat tongue, but he could’ve easily claimed that baseball fans aren’t as manly as they used to be.
Are his observations—1.) the presence of women, 2.) men dressing like boys, and 3.) boorish demeanor—mutually exclusive, or have they all emasculated the baseball fan?
PRESENCE OF WOMEN
Baseball games were never the church services that purists romanticize about, especially in the early years when baseball was an outlet for men’s three vices: gambling, drinking, and fighting.
After the 1919 World Series was revealed to be fixed, the sport began to clean itself up, propelled by Prohibition, Babe Ruth glamorizing the home run, and, not to be underestimated, radio. Even through the 1930s, owners feared that radio broadcasts of games would decrease attendance. Instead, radio increased it. The game mostly attended and understood by men was being explained to women who listened over the radio and began attending more games.
According to Gallup polls, 27 percent of women were fans/followers of baseball in 1937-38, compared to 53 percent of men. Those numbers increased to 30 and 57 percent, respectively, in 1952-53, but in 2001-02 women were up to 37 percent and men down to 49 percent.
Today, most sources site Major League Baseball as having the greatest gender balance amongst its fans, as high as 47 percent, compared to other U.S. professional sports leagues.
MEN DRESSING LIKE BOYS
Professional baseball is often described as grown men playing a boy’s game, so what does that make grown men dressing up like players?
The shift from men wearing a coat, tie and fedora around town to a t-shirt, jeans and ball cap is a generational trend not specific to sporting events, but fans do dress differently for sporting events than they would for other leisure activities.
Most men from the Greatest Generation or even the Baby Boom generation wouldn’t wear costumes to sporting events, especially jerseys with the last name of a player half their age across their backs.
“I would never wear a goddamn jersey that belongs to a grown man,” said the dad from Justin Halpern’s book, Sh*t My Dads Says. “That’s for children and the woman who is currently (dating) that man.”
The Dodgers’ former director of advertising and promotion, Danny Goodman, was a concessionaire by trade, but he saw a market for sports novelty apparel.
“Dodger fans don’t buy hats or jackets to protect themselves, but simply to be seen wearing them,” Goodman said in 1959.
Selling apparel at baseball games exploded after the 1959 World Series when Goodman sold over 160,000 straw hats during three sun-drenched games at the shadeless Los Angeles Coliseum. Identifying an opportunity for walking billboards, Dodger-themed apparel, such as hats, jerseys and jackets, quickly followed.
Hero-worshipping boys started wearing the jerseys to games and most of them didn’t grow out of the practice, mostly because watching baseball for many grown men makes them feel like boys again.
Wearing your team’s jersey has become a way to pledge allegiance to your team, a sign of solidarity. Players can switch jersey colors—which they often now do in free agency—and you’re still rooting for the same laundry. As Jerry Seinfeld once pointed out, sports fans are “standing and cheering and yelling for your clothes to beat the clothes from another city.”
Baseball fans buy up a lot of laundry. Major League Baseball leads all sports with $5 billion in annual retail sales, ahead of the Collegiate Licensing Company ($4.6 billion) and the NFL ($3.25 billion). And women—don’t forget them—spend some 80 percent of sports apparel dollars and control 60 percent of all money spent on men’s clothing.
The adversarial nature of competition on the field, because of laundry, blends into the grandstands, since fans are also divided by their colors. This is why you sometimes have to be vigilant when wearing a visiting teams’ jersey or hat in stadiums.
But there’s a history of fan violence that precedes the days of sports novelty apparel. There’s always been a mob mentality and aggressive behavior is accelerated by alcohol consumption. Remember, there was a time you could lug coolers of beer into stadiums (just buy a ticket for them).
To get back to the usher’s observation of baseball fans being more “crude” when “you have a problem,” it’s not just from alcohol. Men are now more likely to become entitled and provoked in the presence of their teams, children, women and even their wallets.
“Those who pay can have an inflated sense of self-worth,” said Earl Smith in USA Today, professor of sociology at Wake Forest and author of eight books, including Race, Sport and the American Dream. “Fans feel they have an entitlement. The ticket prices are high enough so they come to games with a chip on their shoulder.”
None of the three reasons listed above cause another, but there is a thread between each of the usher’s observations: they are results of capitalism. Baseball effectively marketed the game to women, it sold enough apparel to children that it’s now worn by most generations and both genders, and fans pay so much for the game they love that they’ve become “a little crude” about it.
Baseball audiences are, by definition, less manly simply based on gender percentages, and if men follow the game with a child’s heart then it’s OK to dress like it. But if baseball spectators are being defined by their boorish behavior, then they need to start being less fan and more man.
Photo: Mark J. Terrill-AP