Notes from the Shadows of Cooperstown: September 5, 2008
It's September and We Got the Fever
Pennant Fever has been with us as long as pennants, I suppose, and there is no reason to doubt that the virus has mutated much over the last century or so.
The Fever infects fans who have been following their team for decades, as well as rookie rooters. Cases can be just as serious for those infected in August or September, as for those who have carried the bug since spring training. Why medical journals have ignored The Fever is a mystery.
One symptom is an insatiable appetite for scores. Not all scores, but scores with a bearing on the races. A mild fever will manifest itself by a pajama-clad scan of the sports page (before the other sections are touched), or suspiciously casual conversation at work. What did they do last night? Full-blown, the fever drives the afflicted to go out of their way not only for scores that will determine the playoff picture in October, but for scores from that other league: Might meet \'em in the Series, y\'know?
Pennant Fever, as it runs its course, either fades away (as the victim\'s team slides slowly out of it), or intensifies as the end of summer nears. In the latter case, as the fever peaks, the hunger for scores becomes increasingly urgent. Waiting for the morning paper or news at work is impossible. Insomnia can be a problem when the crucial scores are three time zones away.
Some astute historians credit The Fever with inspiring the technology that resulted in the invention of the telegraph, telephone, radio, TV, and the space program (satellite communications). Waiting for homing pigeons to bring home the scores was maddening for Morse, and Bell was known to suffer fits of agony waiting for dots and dashes to be decoded. Edison, of course, was possessed with a vision of night baseball. None of these (and other) geniuses ever paid public homage to The Fever, but their journals all make its role clear.
Pennant Fever can be highly contagious, infecting whole cities. Ordinary citizens who previously could not tell a baseball from a golf ball, find themselves reciting tonight\'s starting lineup, and the records of the opposing pitchers. This secular form of glossolalia (speaking in strange tongues) is well-documented, with the best examples seen annually in taxi drivers, waitresses and cashiers.
The most dangerous symptom of The Fever is delirium, which can lead to a wide variety of irrational behaviors. At the ballparks, painted people arrive regularly, while others are possessed to bring wildly-worded banners, brooms, outlandish headgear, large styrofoam objects, and often "charms" suggested by broadcasters. This mass hysteria can spread via television. The Center for Disease Control has been searching in vain for an antidote for fans who imagine their arms have become tomahawks, and find themselves unable to speak in anything but a moan.
Jobs have been lost due to this peculiar insanity, marriages broken, productive lives disrupted. Fortunately, the late-stage madness is normally confined to only a few cities each year, affecting a limited number of industries, and sparing the national economy.
To the unaffected, The Fever seems superficial, no more serious than an ingrown toenail. But this is hardly the case. The pains of losses down the stretch, especially when coupled with victories by the team nearest in the standings, are quite real and sometimes debilitating. In most Fever victims, the pains are sharp and wincing, most comparable to hunger pangs or bee stings. In extreme cases, the pains can cause loss of interest in food, sex, and TV sitcoms.
The "Magic Number," mesmerizing the afflicted and often appearing prominently in their dreams, functions as a kind of thermometer for The Fever. When the Number at last vanishes, leaving Fever victims with sweaty palms and a shortness of breath, The Fever has broken. Survivors are either cured, or euphoric. The cured will do best to rest at least six months, if they are to fully recuperate before another season begins. The Fever remains present in the bloodstream, like malaria, and may recur in future summers without any warning signs.
For the euphoric, The Fever has simply been a prelude to Octoberitis, another virus in the same family, and a disease only slightly less consuming. Octoberitis often passes briefly, as we saw last fall in Boston, New York, Los Angeles and Denver; the virus may have some affinity for larger metropolitan areas.
Octoberitis, as its name suggests, will run its course by Halloween. Its symptoms are very similar to The Fever, but can be much more intense, although less suspenseful. The pain of defeats for those with Octoberitis is somewhat softened by the euphoria which is the residue of The Fever. This good feeling practically immunizes Fever victims against the more virulent and vicious strains of Octoberitis, which are strong enough to drive the unprotected to suicidal tendencies and self-destructive actions.
In the days before expansion, those wishing to avoid The Fever (or return bouts) often fled the northeast, moving to Arizona or Florida, often under the guise of retirement. Some Fever victims complain for years about the loss of interest in anything except the pennant races, or the absence of any memories unrelated to baseball, while they were in The Fever\'s grip. A lingering heartache can be misdiagnosed as heartburn. But most Fever victims recall their illness with a distinct pleasure. The experience is commonly remembered as, in the words of one of the songs inspired by The Fever, "a lovely way to burn."
TWO DOUBLEHEADERS IN TWO MONTHS
As a Pirate fan back in the late fifties and early sixties, my family attended quite a few doubleheaders at Forbes Field. We sometimes packed sandwiches and ate in between games, and I think we took a thermos bottle or two along, too. (Thermos bottles were big, everyone had one, they were carried to work or school, along with your brown bag or lunchbox.) The doubleheader was baseball\'s "two-fer" attraction, often capping a weekend series begun on Thursday or Friday night, and continued Saturday afternoon. In 1959, for example, the Pirates scheduled three DHs in May, two in June, two in July, and two in August. They were scheduled against all of the other seven NL teams except the Braves and Giants, who drew big crowds without the bonus games. I loved doubleheaders, even if we didn\'t stay for the whole nightcap.
A glance at the Dickson BB Dictionary reminds me that the baseball double-dip had a parallel in the theaters, where two films were sometimes shown back-to-back, double features. Of course, both ball games and movies were shorter then, on the average, so it wasn\'t as much sitting as it would be today.
As we all know, the doubleheader today is a rarity, and "DH" now stands mostly for Designated Hitter. If a DH is played, it is usually the result of an earlier rainout.
But I can report that this summer, I attended two DHs in a row, although about three weeks apart. First, the DH in Jamestown (see NOTES #455), and then, on Sunday, August 31, another DH, this time in Syracuse, the Chiefs (a Toronto farm) taking on Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (of Yankee lineage). I guess both twin-packs rate an asterisk, though; I gave a talk during the action in Jamestown, and sold/signed books in Syracuse.
This was the third year in a row that the Chiefs have set up a table for me, and let me chat about Burying the Black Sox with fans (I had A Baseball Family Album along this time, too, but poetry cannot compete with scandal). In 2006, it was just me, and I sold out (all 14 hardcovers I had along) before the first pitch. Last year, several other authors (all SABR members) joined me. This time, the SABR Authors numbered seven: myself, Gabriel Schechter (see above), Scott Fiesthumel, Tim Wiles, Jeff Katz, Rob Edelman, and Bruce Markusen. Denny McLain (see NOTES #453) was a no-show. The weather was perfect, and for those who stayed thru the nightcap, there were fireworks.
I mention this mostly to encourage other SABR Authors (or any baseball authors, I guess) to give this a try at your local ballpark, or any park within driving range. It\'s a chance to let more fans know about SABR (we all had brochures to hand out), to get out with the crowd, and to talk with other authors, in the best setting imaginable -- watching a ball game. Or two.