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Original Issue


Ugly incidents caused by rowdy fans are multiplying, and the reasons go far beyond the sale of cheap beer in the grandstand

At first, they were merely capricious, fools clowning in the stands, spilling onto the playing field to gambol on the forbidden turf like rebellious children. There were streakers, naturally, and a woman who attempted to embrace Home Plate Umpire Larry McCoy, and teen-agers sprinting across the outfield. They created irritating delays in the game between the Cleveland Indians and the visiting Texas Rangers but, in the beginning, at least, they seemed manageable.

Some difficulty had been anticipated, for beer at Cleveland's Municipal Stadium on the night of June 4 was selling at 10¢ a cup, and of the 25,134 "Beer Night" celebrants, a few would obviously be attending the ball game in quest of a cheap high. The stadium security force was, therefore, beefed up from a normal 32 men to 48, just in case.

As the night wore on and the beer took hold, more than a few fans turned ugly. They dropped firecrackers near the Rangers' bullpen and suspended others on strings into the Ranger dugout. They tossed cherry bombs onto the field and poured beer on the Rangers as they returned to their bench. In the ninth inning, after the Indians, who had been trailing by two runs, had rallied dramatically to tie the score at 5-5, dozens of rowdy fans jumped onto the outfield, belligerent, spoiling for trouble.

One group surrounded Ranger Right-fielder Jeff Burroughs. Somebody snatched his cap, and as he sought to retrieve it he was hit and jostled by the crowd. Burroughs fought back as scores of sodden spectators joined the battle. It was then that Ranger Manager Billy Martin, never one to avoid a fight, led his players in a rescue charge. Some were carrying bats. Still, they were outnumbered and outgunned by the chair-throwing, bottle-swinging fans. The Indians, Manager Ken Aspromonte in the forefront, rushed out to assist the Rangers, a gesture not without irony since the two teams had fought each other in a typical baseball brawl only a week earlier. Order was never fully restored, so Nestor Chylak, the senior umpire, forfeited the game to Texas. Still, the fans continued to swarm, scrapping now among themselves, until security guards and hastily summoned city police forcibly quieted them.

Nine persons were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. Three Rangers, one Indian and Chylak himself were injured in the melee. "The fans were uncontrolled beasts," said Chylak, nursing a cut hand. "I've never seen anything like it except in a zoo."

"I've been in this game 25 years," said Billy Martin, "and I've never had an experience like this.... That was the closest I ever saw to someone getting killed in baseball.... People were acting like idiots. Was it the beer? I don't know."

The beer? More than 60,000 10-ounce cups were downed that night, clear indication that at least some of the tipplers were slightly crocked and that some of these could have been pugnacious drunks. Chylak called the rioters "punks," and it is true that the majority were young men. Just a bunch of drunken kids acting out their hostility, then? Possibly, but while the Cleveland riot was by all odds the worst and most dispiriting incident of the current sports year, it was not the only disturbing one.

There has been an alarming upsurge in fan violence in all sports these past months, to the point where unusual security measures are now taken for even the most benign events. Team owners and league commissioners, meanwhile, have been forced to take long soul-searching looks at what they have created. They must begin to wonder if it is even possible now, in an age of free expression and at a time when violent action and reaction are everyday facts of life, to assemble large numbers of people in one place, excite them, and expect them to behave themselves. The question seems wholly legitimate in light of some sorry recent occurrences.

Late last month in Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium, Bob Watson, the Houston Astros' outfielder, lay stunned at the base of the left-field fence. The lenses of his sunglasses had shattered when he crashed into the fence in futile pursuit of a ball hit by the Reds' Merv Rettenmund, and he was bleeding from facial wounds inflicted by the broken glass.

A group of spectators, perhaps 10 or more, at least some of them drunk, leaned over the railing above the fence, presumably concerned about the injured player's condition. Then, as Watson's teammates, who had run out to help him, backed off in astonishment, the fans began to rain beer down on him and to pelt him with ice cubes and crushed paper cups. There was an angry, profane exchange between the players and Watson's assailants, during which the players were improbably invited to scale the 12-foot-high fence and give battle.

"This is a crazy world," commented Houston Manager Preston Gomez afterward in a monument of understatement. "I couldn't believe they felt nothing for an injured man lying on the ground."

That same afternoon in Cincinnati four persons were arrested for brawling, and only a week before, Umpire Satch Davidson had been struck in the small of the back by a full can of beer tossed from the grandstand.

The Reds' own Pete Rose, a superb athlete and a popular player even on the road before his fight with the Mets' Bud Harrelson in last year's National League playoff, is now a target of abuse not only in New York but in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco. A game last month in Los Angeles was delayed for several minutes when Rose was subjected to a shower of ice cubes, food, flashlight batteries and other assorted debris by the normally good-natured fans in the left-field pavilion. In New York last week, Mets' officials took pains to ensure that Rose's first appearance there since the playoffs would be without incident. Seats within throwing range of the outfield were not put on sale and 45 extra security guards circulated through the stands. Fortunately, Rose endured nothing more injurious than boos, banners and a few shouted insults, some in dubious taste, but all fair enough in the eyes of experienced athletes.

"They can boo me," Rose has said, "but I can't get it in my head that a ballplayer should have to stand there and have bottles, ice and batteries thrown at him. I don't think a ticket gives anybody the right to throw garbage at a player."

Even Henry Aaron, honored wherever he plays in this, his showcase season, has been subjected to abuse from grandstand delinquents. At a recent game in San Francisco a young spectator leaned into the Braves' dugout and hurled an orange, which struck Aaron on the side of the head.

In Boston a fan rolled a cherry bomb into the Minnesota dugout, the fragments causing slight injury to several players, including Pitcher Ray Corbin, who was hit perilously close to an eye.

In Arlington, Texas, Cleveland Catcher Dave Duncan was struck by a full can of beer and in Milwaukee, Detroit Outfielder Willie Horton was showered with beer as he stood in left field. Horton, who is one of an increasing number of players who wear batting helmets for protection on the field, was also hit with an orange in his home park, Tiger Stadium. Houston's Bob Gallagher summed up the players' growing concern when he said last week, "It seems like everybody in the outfield stands is either young kids or drunk old men. It's unbelievable what we put up with."

Baseball has no monopoly on outrageous fan behavior. Atlanta hockey Coach Bernie Geoffrion was hit on the arm by a full bottle of beer thrown at him from the first balcony of Chicago Stadium. Philadelphia Flyer Coach Fred Shero was barely missed by a liquor bottle thrown at him after the second playoff game with the Bruins in Boston. And in Houston, Minnesota Fighting Saints players were obliged to fight their way through a mob of truculent spectators to the visitors' dressing room.

The supposedly more sophisticated sports have also had their moments of disgraceful behavior. Fans at the U.S. Grand Prix auto race in Watkins Glen distinguished themselves by pitching both private cars and private citizens into a muddy pit along the race route enchantingly referred to as "The Bog." "The Bog wants the Porsche," the mostly young miscreants would howl before rolling an expensive foreign car into the ooze. Fans in the infield at Churchill Downs tossed bottles at passing horses in the race immediately following the Kentucky Derby. And World Team Tennis paid dearly for encouraging its spectators to violate the game's mores and express themselves vocally when seized by the mood. As it developed, the players' sensibilities were not entirely attuned to the verbal pyrotechnics considered routine in less-cultivated activities. Jimmy Connors, playing for the Baltimore Banners, climbed into the stands in search of one particularly abrasive spectator and Francoise Durr of the Denver Racquets angrily slammed a ball into the crowd, hitting a spectator on the head, after someone shattered her concentration during a serve by shouting, "Boo!"

These are only the more notable incidents. They do not include the routine fistfights, vandalism, profanity, theft and, for the moment at least, streaking, that seem so much a part of the contemporary sports scene. There are times, regrettably, when there is more action in the grandstand than on the field.

For all of this, Americans are still a long way from the hysterical behavior of soccer fans in other parts of the world. So far, we have not experienced a riot comparable to the one which took place a decade ago during a match in Lima, Peru, where 293 fans were killed and 500 injured. But by our own standards, we seem to be growing increasingly unruly.

Not that organized sport in this country has ever contributed significantly to public civility. The baseball fan at the beginning of the century—free of the possibly inhibiting influence of women spectators and close enough to the playing field in those tiny ball parks to take immediate action against erring players or umpires—was, by all accounts, an abysmal churl.

"Fans sometimes fought the players," reported David Quentin Voigt in Volume II of his American Baseball. "And their most lethal missiles were pop bottles."

But the ball parks grew larger and the players, seen from a greater distance, grew smaller, less familiar, less vulnerable. From afar, they looked like heroes, and for at least 30 years or more there was a general trend toward spectator conformity. The ball diamond was a sanctuary not to be broken into by Philistines. Then, too, there was no television to tantalize the show-offs.

There were incidents, of course. The Cardinals' Ducky Medwick had to be removed from the field by order of Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis to restore order to the seventh game of the 1934 World Series in Detroit. Medwick had charged into Tiger Third Baseman Marv Owen in a close play at third, and when he returned to his position in the outfield the fans showered him with garbage. But for the most part, ballplayers were regarded with respect, even awe, and if the fans were not always orderly, they were at least cheerful. That can scarcely be said of the mob in Cleveland.

One of the more disturbing aspects of the recent assaults has been the apparent hostility the fan directs at friend and foe alike. Controversial players are no safer from abuse at home than they are on the road. To the athlete this is puzzling, frightening.

"If you hear what is hollered at us here and elsewhere," said the Reds' Johnny Bench in Cincinnati, "you would think they don't believe anybody is anything. It's dehumanizing."

"The old fan yelled, 'Kill the umpire!' " says Dr. Arnold Beisser, a Los Angeles psychiatrist who is a student of fan behavior. "The new fan tries to do it."

The recent nastiness is variously blamed on increased drinking in stadiums, on young persons accustomed to venting their emotions publicly and without restraint and to a general breakdown in manners throughout the country. But there has been beer in the ball parks for years and the owners themselves have long courted the young crowd. Can it simply be the national mood?

"That some incidents seem more outrageous and sometimes criminal now is probably little more than a reflection of the times," says Dick Beardsley, a longtime sports reporter now with the Atlanta Journal. "Anti-Establishment feelings have run strong in recent years, not so much in the number of people who feel them as in the expression their feelings take. Pranks have become less innocent. Now if you're going to exhibit displeasure, it seems fashionable to do so in a manner more shocking than in the past. It is no longer enough to run onto the field and try to shake hands with a player or to sit in your seat and be satisfied with a simple boo."

There is also the suggestion of something perhaps more ominous—an alienation of affections between fan and athlete. The modern fan does not take his rebuffs lightly. The athlete who pushes past an autograph-seeker is creating, to some degree, an enemy. The player who callously jumps leagues in quest of even richer rewards, can only disillusion the fan who might naively consider him beholden to the old hometown. And when a baseball player announces, as Chicago's Dick Allen has, that the game for him is merely a job, the fan begins to question whether his own loyalty has not been misplaced.

In his defense, the athlete-businessman is merely portraying himself as just another working stiff with the same problems, the same aspirations, the same capacity for greed as the next fellow. But it is just possible that though the athlete now sees himself, in his interminable financial haggling with the owners, as anti-Establishment, the fan sees him, with his huge salary, as only another member of the Establishment.

"Sports and the rest of society," says Dr. Beisser, "are mirrors of one another. The sports fan reflects society's dissatisfactions—a disillusionment, for example, with materialism."

And what, in the name of Mammon, is more rampant in sports today than materialism?

It is a dilemma, one that threatens the basis of spectator sports. The ball park was once a place to escape the pressures and violence of life outside. Now, it seems, there is no escape.