Academic journal article Journal of Social History

"The Most Popular Unpopular Man in Baseball": Baseball Fans and Ty Cobb in the Early 20th Century

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

"The Most Popular Unpopular Man in Baseball": Baseball Fans and Ty Cobb in the Early 20th Century

Article excerpt

With two weeks remaining in the 1915 season, the second place Detroit Tigers arrived in Boston for a crucial four game series against the first place Red Sox. Though the Red Sox led by only a single game, Boston fans were wild with excitement, hoping that their team would take the series and thus build an insurmountable lead heading into the final games of the season. The stadium was packed and overflowing for the first game as Boston fans came to cheer for their Red Sox and boo the hated Tigers. And boo they did, directing much of their verbiage at Ty Cobb, the Tigers' star outfielder and the league's best player. Throughout the contest, fans razzed Cobb, hoping to disrupt his concentration, if not break his nerve completely. They should have known better. A popular target of scorn during his decade in baseball, Cobb was used to the fans' wrath and often boasted that a loud and hostile crowd motivated him to play better. True to form in this contest, Cobb drove in the first run and scored the second as the Tigers won easily, 6 to 1. It was vintage Cobb. He even displayed his infamous temper, defiantly throwing his bat at a Boston reliever in the 8th inning after the pitcher hurled two balls near his head. Fans were furious. After the game, several hundred swarmed onto the field and surrounded Cobb as he walked from the outfield to the clubhouse. Those who could get close enough shouldered and taunted him. Others contented themselves by shouting obscenities and throwing wads of paper into the mass of humanity that encircled him. They dispersed only after police arrived to escort Cobb to the clubhouse. Throughout the tumult, Cobb walked steadily on, occasionally returning shoves with a stiff shoulder of his own. Cobb had experienced this sort of thing before. This was just another day at the ballpark for him. (1)

Writing about the Great Depression, the late Lawrence Levine observed that cultural historians could learn a great deal about the sensibilities of the American people during this era by examining comedic movies to explain "why they laughed at what they did." Laughter, as Levine suggests, did not reflect audience passivity but engagement and agency. According to Levine, filmgoers imposed meanings that were often at variance with what the filmmakers may have intended. Ultimately, audiences helped shape Depression-era culture, no less than the so-called producers themselves. Indeed, Levine suggests that much of the popular culture of the Great Depression emerged from the give-and-take relationship of producers and audiences. (2)

Historically, American sports fans have not demonstrated much of a tendency to laugh, but they have done a great deal of cheering and booing. And when they have, their actions may have been just as pregnant with meaning as the guffaws of movie-goers. Clifford Geertz's observation that people often reveal the most about themselves when consumed by some popular obsession seems especially apropos for early 20th century American baseball fans who demonstrated their devotion to the game by loud, raucous, and spontaneous overtures. And thanks to an attentive media--first sportswriters and later radio and television commentators--we know what sorts of behaviors inspired fans to respond as they did. Yet historians have rarely and only haphazardly examined the cultural and social contexts behind fan reactions to events on the field. Most commonly when historians have recorded fan behavior, they have done so only to illustrate the relative popularity of a specific player, team, or sporting event or to suggest the diverse meanings that fans absorbed from watching the game. (3) Lost in such presentations is the dynamic interplay that occurred between players and fans and the ways in which fans tried to use their collective enthusiasm to affect outcomes and shape the emerging spectator culture. Even those who have employed Clifford Geertz's use of "deep play" to explain the popularity of certain sports have paid little attention to fans' behavior at these sporting events, though this was a central part of Geertz's famous study of Balinese cock fighting. …

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