Does baseball need its own First Amendment?

Karen Eidem wearing the T-shirt that offended Miller Park security . . .

Karen Eidem wearing the T-shirt that offended Miller Park security . . .

Let’s see. A harmless Milwaukee Brewers fan disgusted over Ryan Braun shows up at Miller Park last Wednesday. She shows her contempt for Braun’s duplicitous behaviour by wearing a T-shirt replica of Braun’s uniform jersey—with “F” and “D” replacing “B” and “N” in Braun’s name above the familiar number 8. And Miller Park security offers a choice between turning the shirt inside-out or leaving the ballpark.

Apparently, baseball still has a problem with the First Amendment. Meaning that it probably needs one of its own, and has for long enough. It’s not that censorship is necessarily endemic at the ballpark, it’s just that it happens often enough, and under foolish enough circumstances, that maybe baseball should issue a kind of bill of rights.

For fans, particularly. Not just allowing them to have their say (so long as it isn’t vulgar or involves throwing projectiles onto the field) but allowing them to know certain information—like, say, how much an umpire might be fined for misconduct, which isn’t revealed to the sports press even though a player’s fine is a lead item in many places. Or, allowing players, managers, and coaches to criticise umps, baseball government, whatever, and even vice versa, without recrimination or reprimand.

We’re not talking about the kind of thing that once blasted out of the mouth of Cliff Mapes, a Yankee outfielder, on a close play at the plate going against his team. “How much did you have on this game, you sonofabitch?” Mapes is said to have barked. He was forced to apologise rather humiliatingly, but appropriately. Criticise a call, yes. Challenge the ump’s honesty, you’d better have evidence.

Challenge the umps, period, even without going quite so far as Mapes, and sometimes even a fan can get the thumb. It happened in Ebbets Field, once upon a time, when a close call against the Dodgers was answered with ballpark organist Gladys Gooding playing a round of “Three Blind Mice.” Gooding was asked to leave the park for the rest of the game, so the legend goes. The once-infamous Dodger Sym-Phony Band, eight fans whose musical ability could be described best as amateurish, had done similar stuff to umps on close calls, but we suppose they could be seen and thus didn’t constitute that terrifying a threat to the arbiters’ dignity.

Mapes wasn’t dealing with a compromised ump and shot his mouth off in the heat of the moment but certainly out of line. Young Karen Eidem at Miller Park was expressing nothing but outrage over a player on her home team turning out to have been self-involved, own-skin-saving liar when his involvement in actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances proved to be substantiated to a reasonable enough degree.

Once upon a time, a half century plus one year ago to be exact, George Weiss, the president of the embryonic New York Mets, gazed upon the banner wielders in what was left of the prehistoric Polo Grounds, where the Mets played awaiting Shea Stadium. He was not amused. Banners weren’t exactly a Met fan’s invention, of course. But the original New Breed, as the press called the crazily attached and expressive Original Mets fans refined them into a fine art of what is produced under the influence of St. Vitus Dance and laughing gas. (They were mostly younger fans, the Mets being countercultural before, for better or worse, the counterculture itself was cool.)

A good crowd of the New Breed gets to chat with Gil Hodges, former Dodger hero whose knees would keep him from much of the comedy of the 1962 Mets . . .

A good crowd of the New Breed gets to chat with Gil Hodges, former Dodger hero whose knees would keep him from much of the comedy of the 1962 Mets . . .

Their lettered bedsheets, T-shirts, placards, you name it, went from the sublime to the ridiculous. (“Break up the Mets!” read one, after the Mets won their first game—following a life-opening nine-game losing streak.)  Weiss did his level best to shoo them from the Polo Grounds, and all the New Breed did in response was come back for more. Perhaps on the principle of if you can’t beat them, join them, Weiss did just that. He let them have their way, and the first known official Banner day parade in major league history.

On that day, even the 1962 Mets players (if that’s not using the term too loosely) and coaching staff got in on the gag, too: at the end of the banner parade around the circumference of the playing field, the whole roster brought out single placards spelling TO THE METS’ FANS-WE LOVE YOU TOO. Manager Casey Stengel waddled out to the end of the line wielding an exclamation point.

Weiss’s former club finally surrendered and let the Yankees’ own banner makers have their say, perhaps trying to figure out how the lowly Mets could possibly have become more popular than the proud, storied Yankees. (Admittedly, Stengel’s personal popularity had a lot to do with it. But the Mets’ fans, as well as the Mets themselves seeming human compared to the imperial Yankees, probably equaled the other half.)

Steinbrenner had a sense of humour about himself, even over sports cartoonists' caricatures---but he wasn't always amused when Yankee fans took potshots at him.

Steinbrenner had a sense of humour about himself, even over sports cartoonists’ caricatures—but he wasn’t always amused when Yankee fans took potshots at him.

Much later, George Steinbrenner often as not tried heavy-handedly to censor the banner creatures who came to populate Yankee Stadium over the years since the crosstown Mets opened the doors. The most notorious probably happened during one 1980s Banner Day parade. Bad enough a majority of the banner people hoisting one or another anti-Boss message. The worst was the parade winner, a fan dressed as a Benedictine monk holding a sign hanging from a tall cross: “Forgive him, Father, for he knows not what he does.”

He accepted both his prize and a ho-heave from the House That Ruthless Rebuilt. It took heavy protests plus the American Civil Liberties Union to thwart Steinbrenner’s version of the Alien and Sedition Act.

Maybe the saddest instance of ballpark censorship happened at the expense of perhaps the most famous fan in Shea Stadium’s history. Karl Ehrhardt, whose colourfully lettered signs and their usually clever sayings were as much a part of Shea’s atmosphere as the jets whistling in and out of nearby LaGuardia Airport, had been a fixture since the park opened in 1964. But circa 1980, Ehrhardt ran afoul of a Mets management entrenched in mediocrity and seeming disinterested in rebuilding the club just yet.

That management, operating in between the death of beloved original owner Joan Payson and the advent of Fred Wilpon, took umbrage to Ehrhardt’s more pointed critiques of Met play. (A classic involved shortstop Frank Taveras misplaying a slow grounder that could have been barehanded by a squirrel: “LOOK MA! NO HANDS!”) Ehrhardt responded by packing up his famous signs and disappearing into New York’s not so good gray night. He was never seen again at Shea until the Wilpons invited him back for the park’s 40th anniversary; he died in 2008.

Ehrhardt said goodbye when the moribund Mets' management objected to his tweaks in 1979-81 . . .

Ehrhardt said goodbye when the moribund Mets’ management objected to his tweaks in 1979-81 . . .

The Eidem censorship story went viral enough that the Brewers, backpedaling in further embarrassment following the Braun hoopla, issued her a formal apology and tickets for a future game. But if there’s been one constant in the age of actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances, it’s been fans using the power of the banner to let their feelings be known, whether educated or barely literate alike.

Even if it’s against their own team. San Francisco may have had a rep for standing by their man no matter what, but there were those Giant fans who didn’t go along with the mob while Barry Bonds was still with the team. “BARROID!” was the most polite, probably (and it was de rigeur around the National League parks); crude drawings of Bonds swinging a hypodermic needle were probably the most, ahem, pointed.

Message to baseball owners and their staffers: It’s just as dumb an idea to censor your fans as it is your players, managers, umpires, whomever. (And we’re not talking about things like Braun currently being under a baseball government-imposed gag order because the investigation that bagged him is still ongoing.) Actually, censoring fans is probably a little more dumb. They pays their money, they takes their choice. The price of a ticket includes, within reason, the right to boo, hiss, or hold up protest signage.

We’re not talking about people like the jackasses who throw things at opposing players, or even at one of their own when a bad play happens. We’re not talking about the beasts who show up at ballparks with vulgarities on placards, if not their bare chests. We’re not talking about the brain-damaged who run onto the playing field now and then.

We’re talking about ordinary fans behaving pleasantly otherwise who just so happen to wield non-vulgar protest banners or turn souvenir jerseys into non-vulgar protest statements. Like it or not, when a player gets bagged over actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances, some of his team’s fans are going to let him have it, good and hard.

Jim Bouton---A commissioner tried to censor him; an opposing team burned his book.

Jim Bouton—A commissioner tried to censor him; an opposing team burned his book.

Baseball censorship has its own troublesome past involving players, owners, and even a commissioner. It’s bad enough that, once upon a time, the Chicago White Sox tried forcing relief pitcher Jim Brosnan to sign a contract that included a clause barring him from publishing articles or books without the club seeing and approving (and, presumably, editing) the articles first. The author of The Long Season and Pennant Race, arguably the first from-the-inside diary exposes of the baseball life, Brosnan retired rather than let the White Sox put words into his mouth or take them out.

Commissioner Bowie Kuhn once went even further. He tried actively, and ham-handedly, to quash Jim Bouton’s from-the-deeper-inside Ball Four . . . after having seen nothing more than short excerpts in Look magazine. He tried to strong-arm Bouton into signing a statement saying nothing in the book was true, we all make mistakes, and Bouton’s was in falling for the shady idea of the “real” culprit, his editor, former New York Post sportswriter Leonard Shecter. That was just about as grotesque as the day the Houston Astros, for whom Bouton was pitching when Ball Four was published, prepared to meet the San Diego Padres . . . and found a burned copy of Ball Four in a special binder on the dugout steps.

But you can’t even drop the mealymouthed side of “for the good of the game” down in favour of censoring fans in the stands, so long as they’re not being vulgar or physically violent about it. Censoring fans in the stands is enough to make baseball staffers look . . . well, like the guys who came up with the long-discredited and mostly dismantled McCain-Feingold Act.

One of those guys actually thought he could be the president of the United States. We should probably count our blessings that he didn’t ever seem to want to be a baseball owner.

2 thoughts on “Does baseball need its own First Amendment?

  1. Great article. Nothing wrong with the lady wearing the FRAUD shirt, since 95 percent or more Brewer fans agreed with her. Plus she was telling the truth, since Braun is nothing more than a fraud now to Brewer fans and his teammates, who he lied to. Why Bowie Kuhn thought he could be a book censor is beyond me.

    • I suspect it was because, in 1970, Ball Four was just an unheard-of thing; even Jim Brosnan in 1960 and 1962 (when The Long Season and Pennant Race were published) had only taken a reader just so far to the inside of the professional baseball life. Brosnan might have run some temperatures up the scale with his books but they didn’t go as far or as deep as Bouton did revealing the clubhouse and on-the-road life or things like contract negotiations. Also, Brosnan didn’t exactly play with a team full of superstars on the 1959-61 Reds (he had Stan Musial with the Cardinals to start The Long Season but Musial wasn’t exactly scandalous), other than Frank Robinson and maybe Vada Pinson, so it isn’t as though he’d stuck barbs in glittering images the way Bouton had regarding the 1962-67 Yankees.

      I suspect a lot of the real “scandal” about Ball Four, other than Bouton’s revelations about players’ sexual games, had to do with things like the first inside revelations about Mickey Mantle’s clay feet and drinking habits, Whitey Ford’s cheatings (Bouton described Ford’s ball doctorings in detail), and Ralph Houk’s duplicitous (and, as it happened, illegal) attempt to fine Bouton $100 per holdout day during one contract negotiation, when Houk was the Yankee general manager, not to mention how barely competent Joe Schulz was as a major league manager, how mealymouthed Sal Maglie (once a New York Giants and, of all things, Brooklyn Dodgers hero—don’t laugh, getting Maglie for a song during the first third of the 1956 season probably helped mean the last Brooklyn pennant) was as a major league pitching coach, how much of a martinet Frank Crosetti was as a major league coach who never quite got over having to leave the Yankees, and how often Johnny Sain had been given raw deals when he was a rather unconventional, individualistic, and effective pitching coach. There were good guys and bad guys in Bouton’s telling, far more so than any telling Jim Brosnan had given.

      That, I think, was the real issue with Ball Four in 1969-70.

      I once read an article Pat Jordan (himself a former Braves pitcher who’d become an author, though not necessarily as from-the-inside as Brosnan and Bouton) wrote for Sports Illustrated about Bo Belinsky. (The article, “Once He Was an Angel,” was republished in different form in The Suitors of Spring.) According to Jordan, Belinsky said Leonard Shecter approached him about an insider’s diary “long before he sniffed out Jim Bouton.” I noted Belinsky’s phrasing: “sniffed out.” Belinsky was, apparently, unaware that Shecter and Bouton had been friendly since Bouton came up with the Yankees, and that it sometimes created trouble for Bouton when Shecter would quote him explicitly after certain games, such as whenever a fielder made errors that cost him games and Bouton might say, trying to be cute, “This team would be all right if we could find a left fielder.” Coming out in print, the sarcasm wasn’t always apparent, and Bouton’s teammates would miss the jocularity.

      Len Shecter was something of a legend in New York sports as perhaps the most Chipmunkish of the notorious Chipmunks, the late 1950s/early 1960s sportswriters who began looking for and writing about the men behind the players, even though they, too, didn’t go quite so far as Bouton eventually would with Shecter’s editing. Shecter, among other things, was the first writer to kick off the anti-legend of Marvelous Marv Throneberry, and he ended up writing a marvelous book about the 1962-63 Mets, Once Upon the Polo Grounds. Among other things, it was Shecter who revealed to the world an incident on a Yankee team flight, after they’d clinched the 1958 pennant, in which relief star Ryne Duren, obviously in his cups, was having a ball on the flight and poking cigars into assorted Yankee lips. When he came to Ralph Houk, then a coach, and poked a stogie into Houk’s puss, Houk answered him with a backhanded punch in the face which left Duren with a cut above his eye because Houk’s World Series ring caught him.

      Shecter originally didn’t want to disclose the details, but the New York Journal-American had just exposed George Weiss’s infamous siccing of private detectives on his players’ trails and the Post was demanding to know why Shecter hadn’t known of it. Shecter responded with “I’ve got something better” and gave the details of the Duren-Houk dustup. The story appeared with no by-line (it’s long since been believed sports editor Paul Sann wrote the bulk of it) and a lot of exaggeration. The embarrassment goaded the Yankees into calling off the usual pennant-clinching party. And, it also kicked off a sea change in sports writing, little by little.

      Shecter died at 47 of leukemia. Stan Isaacs of Newsday, one of the original Chipmunks (Jimmy Cannon hung the nickname on them), wrote this of him in 2008:

      We were a group of younger writers, more likely to be college-trained than the older writers, We saw ourselves as not very different from good cityside reporters, but with the good luck of having the freedom of the sports pages. We wanted to write and report honestly and well, free of clichés. We cared about our stories more than whether a team won or lost

      We rejected the approach of the fan-like-cliché-ridden sports reports of old. We didn’t see what Robert Lipsyte termed Sports World as Life-and-Death World. Some of the old timers were good writers, but were more like cheerleaders than reporters. In the main we felt we were bringing an adult perspective to sports.

      We were, I must confess, the chipmunks. Shecter, Larry Merchant, then of The Philadelphia News, and I had an irreverent view of sports. We and kindred spirits came to be known as the chipmunks–a derisive term coined by columnist Jimmy Cannon. He saw a younger reporter with a mild profusion of front teeth among a group interviewing Yankee Jim Bouton and said, “Look at them, look at them–chipmunks.”

      We took the term as a badge of honor, as did the “younger writers” mentioned by Schwarz. There were George Vecsey and Steve Jacobson of Newsday; Paul Zimmerman and Vic Ziegel of The Post; Stan Hochman and Jack McKinney of The Philadelphia News; Bud Collins of The Boston Globe; Roy McHugh and George Kiseda of The Pittsburgh Press; and John Crittenden of The Miami News.

      We regarded Shecter, who died too young at 47 in 1974, as the best of us. He is most remembered for encouraging and collaborating with Bouton on the entertaining book Ball Four which bared inside aspects of baseball, warts and all, by a player who was an outsider among his peers. It is an irony that the Times piece celebrated Shecter for an incident in which he felt he had not covered himself with glory.

      (The New York Times wrote of Shecter and the Duren-Houk incident on its 40th anniversary, in 2008.)

      A decade after Ball Four first appeared and became a best-seller, Jim Bouton wrote a postscript called “Ball Five,” in which he observed: If Mickey Mantle had written Ball Four, there would have been no controversy. A marginal relief pitcher on the Seattle Pilots had no business. That, too, might have been part of the controversy’s fuel mix.

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