Players vs. Fans

Last week’s melee at Wrigley Field, touched off by fans stealing Chad Kreuter’s hat, triggered the usual bout of hand-wringing over out-of-control fans and players who crossed the line by attacking them. (Next on FOX: “When Backup Catchers Attack!”) What is wasn’t, was something new. While it has never been a common occurrence, players have been going into the stands to settle scores with the fans for as long as the game has been played before paying crowds.
Just a few examples:

Perhaps the most infamous incident occurred in a game at the Polo Grounds in NY, when Ty Cobb beat the stuffings out of a handicapped heckler (he had no arms). The heckler reportedly accused Cobb of being part black, which to a white guy raised in the backwoods of Georgia at the turn of the century was automatic fighting words. When the unfairness of the assault was pointed out to Cobb afterwards, he reportedly snarled, “I don’t care if he has no toes.”
Now, you can’t excuse Cobb, who had John Rocker’s brain, Mike Tyson’s temper and Latrell Sprewell’s capacity for remorse. But this fan had to be a classic New York heckler: he’s loud, he’s sitting in the front row, he taunts a big, strong, fast, and famously hot-tempered and aggressive athlete into a certain fight, apparently with no regard to the fact that he had absolutely no means of defending himself.
Bill James, in the Historical Baseball Abstract (the one book I’d take to a desert island with me), tells the story of how, in the early 1940s, the Giants were being plagued by a series of hat thefts. Giants catcher Ernie Lombardi, renowned as the slowest man ever to play the game, responded by chasing a young fan several rows into the seats and shocking everyone by hauling him down from behind and handing him over to security.
One run-in I can recall: a game in the late 1970s when a fan poured beer over the Mets’ combative catcher, John Stearns, as he went into the dugout. Stearns retaliated by picking up the dugout water cooler and dumping it over the fan’s head.
Sox fans, of course, should particularly remember a frightening moment during the 1986 pennant drive. The Red Sox were at Yankee Stadium, where there had been a number of nasty incidents that summer; Wally Joyner had had a knife thrown at him. There was a collision in left field, and while Jim Rice was prone on the ground, some brain surgeon decided that it would be a good idea to run on the field and steal Rice’s hat. Now, personally, I don’t like to pick a fight with a man who can break a baseball bat on a check swing, but maybe that’s just me.
Anyway, Rice didn’t take this very well, and he went charging full speed into the field level seats by third base, followed by John MacNamara, Roger Clemens and (if I remember this correctly) Don Baylor. I can only imagine the horror of Red Sox management at watching the team’s manager, best pitcher, and one of their two best hitters wading into a belligerent crowd
at Yankee Stadium in pursuit of a hat that can’t have been worth more than about 5 bucks.
To this day, I’m not sure how they got out of there in one piece. And that, if nothing else, is what baseball can count on to keep the players on the field.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “I know why they were throwing that stuff at me. What I don’t understand is why they brought it to the park in the first place.” –
Joe Medwick, after being pelted with rotten fruit, boxes and spare auto parts during the Cardinals’ 11-0 rout of Detroit at Tiger Stadium in Game 7 of the 1934 World Series.
TRIVIA QUESTION: Ted Williams holds the career on-base percentage record (.482), making him the game’s toughest out; Babe Ruth is second. Who’s
ANSWER TO LAST WEEK’S QUESTION: In 1990, Eddie Murray hit .330, leading the majors in batting (over AL batting champ George Brett at .329) but lost the NL batting title to Willie McGee, who had already qualified for the title (hitting .335) when he was traded from the Cardinals to the A’s. McGee hit just .274 with the A’s, thus lowering his overall average for the year to .324.