Talking baseball with Fred Stein

Fred Stein may not be a household name, but to some of us he’s a nugget of national treasure.

More than 30 years ago, I bought a book via mail order. I can’t remember exactly how I found it; I suspect it was probably one of those little ads in the back pages of The Sporting News. Anyway, the book was called Under Coogan’s Bluff: A Fan’s Recollection of the New York Giants Under Terry and Ott.

It turned out to be a superb little volume (just 145 pages), self-published, but completely professional in writing style and thorough, detailed and historically accurate content. The author had succeeded in getting Baseball Hall of Fame historian Ken Smith to write the forward, and the back cover touts came from first-rate baseball authors, including Joseph Durso and Peter Golenbock. There was nothing amateurish about this work: I devoured it, and have kept it prominently on my shelf among my favorites ever since. Indeed, you may have noticed me quoting it from time to time in various THT pieces.

But the fact that it was self-published was very evident in the fact that it arrived in the mail with the title page autographed: “To Steve Treder—With Best Wishes, Fred Stein.”

Well, a couple of years ago one of my THT articles focused on Mel Ott. This one didn’t include any quotes from Under Coogan’s Bluff, but nonetheless it came to the attention of none other than Fred Stein, who sent me an e-mail telling me he’d enjoyed it. From that e-mail developed a bit of a correspondence, and last summer at the national SABR convention in Washington D.C., I finally had the privilege and delight of meeting Fred in person.

When we talked, Fred told me he would be eager to collaborate on any sort of writing project that suited me. I was up for that, but despite the admonishment he gave me at the time (“Now, don’t delay too long; I’m 85, you know!”), I allowed one thing and another to get in the way of it.

But I’ve finally gotten my act together. Let’s talk baseball with Fred.


ST: How old were you when you became a baseball fan?

FS: My first awareness of major league baseball occurred during the 1933 World Series between the New York Giants and the Washington Senators. At that time, all World Series games were broadcast on radio, unlike the Giants’ regular season games, which were not broadcast until 1939 because of an agreement between the three New York teams.

And so I listened to my first major league game on Oct. 7, 1933. Mel Ott’s 10th-inning home run won the deciding game for the Giants, and in my nine-year-old mind he became my special hero.

An uncle took me to my first big league game in the spring of 1934, to celebrate my 10th birthday. We saw the Yankees play the Red Sox, with the main attraction Babe Ruth playing in what would be his final season with the Yanks. I remember little about that ballpark visit except the tremendous size of Yankee Stadium. My only recollection of Ruth was his carrying out his well-known superstition of touching second base as he trotted to and from his outfield position.

ST: Can you recall the first game you watched at the Polo Grounds?

FS: It was in 1935, I believe in June. My father and I drove to the ballpark and parked on the “Speedway,” (now the Harlem River Drive), a parkway overlooking the western side of the stadium. It would be virtually impossible today to park on a street just one block from a major league ballpark, but there were fewer fans and cars 75 years ago.

I became more excited as we neared the stadium, and walked down the steep path to the turnstiles. Roger Angell in The Summer Game captured a feeling I can relate to in approaching the Polo Grounds. He wrote, “The steepness of the ramp descending (to the ballpark) toward the upper-stand gates, pushed your toes into your shoe tips.” We bought grandstand seats for $1.10 apiece, entered the Polo Grounds, and walked to our seats in the upper deck behind third base.

ST: Was there anything particular about the weather/crowd/stadium/game that especially stood out to you?

FS: I was struck by the unusual layout of the ballpark, completely unlike the more conventional Yankee Stadium configuration. The Polo Grounds had short, high fences down each foul line, a mere 257 feet down the right field line and 279 to left. In contrast, center field terminated a distant 483 feet to the base of the clubhouse wall. The center field bleachers, about 460 feet from the plate, were separated by about 25 feet of open space with flights of stairs leading to the separated player clubhouses. Viewing this most unusual stadium was one of my most memorable recollections of the entire day.

I was entranced by the sight of the players. I had read about them in the newspaper, but I‘d never seen them in person before. My father and I identified them by their uniform numbers (this was long before names were sewn on the back of the uniforms). I had seen photos of Ott, Carl Hubbell and Bill Terry, and I had some familiarity with their career achievements.

But the other Giants had been mere names to me. After seeing them on the field, I read all I could about the other regulars: infielders Mark Koenig, Dick Bartell and Travis Jackson, outfielders Joe Moore and Hank Leiber, catcher Gus Mancuso and pitchers Hal Schumacher, Freddie Fitzsimmons, Clydell Castleman and Roy Parmelee. I knew very little about these players that day, but seeing them further stimulated my interest in reading about them in the daily sports sections, Baseball Magazine, and later, The Sporting News.

I was fascinated by the batting practice and fielding drills preceding the game. I don’t remember the drills I‘d seen at the Yankees game the year before. But in the Polo Grounds I have a fairly clear memory of Bill Terry’s dexterity and grace at first base, and I couldn’t take my eyes off the stocky Ott as he finished his practice fly-catching stint with bullet-like throws to home plate and third base. The lineup announcements came out of distant loudspeakers near the center field clubhouse, and the game began.

ST: Who were the Giants playing? Did they win?

FS: I believe the Giants defeated the Boston Braves. My only recollection of the game itself is a treasured memory as Ott homered. I was ecstatic, as Mel typically pulled a drive deep into the upper stands in right field.

It was a wonderfully exciting day, with so much to see and absorb. Seeing the Polo Grounds and the Giants was a truly unforgettable experience for a wide-eyed 11-year-old. Best of all, Ott, my favorite, had come through for me as he would do so often in the years to come.

ST: How did the typical baseball fan in the 1930s follow the teams/games? Was it mostly via the newspaper, or the radio, or were they both about equal?

FS: Today’s fans have so much more to contemplate in following baseball than fans of the past. Baseball buffs in the 1930s followed the game during the season by attending games, listening to radio broadcasts (not available in the New York area in the ‘30s) and reading daily newspaper sports pages and sport periodicals like the weekly Sporting News or the monthly Baseball Magazine. During the offseason, fans became preoccupied with player trades and rumors of trades, and there were occasional stories of player signings or holdouts. Then came the welcome days of late February, and spring training.

By contrast, today’s fans have available daily coverage of baseball happenings throughout the entire year. Each game is covered in detail in multiple editions of a daily newspaper and described and dissected on radio and television, especially on ESPN. Fans can watch each pitch on TV if they are able. Offseason news is largely concerned with financial aspects of the game, and player misdeeds or physical rehabilitation.

The immediacy of today’s game details compared to delayed news of the 1930s was illustrated by a game in 1935. Giants right-hander Hal Schumacher pitched an apparent no-hitter against the Phillies, and the fans left the Polo Grounds excited by his feat. It was not until the next morning’s newspaper arrived that fans learned that what appeared to be a wide throw by Giants’ shortstop Dick Bartell had been ruled a hit, and that Schumacher had pitched a one-hitter. Today the correct official scorer’s ruling is usually available immediately.

ST: In your observation, were most fans in that era more knowledgeable, or less knowledgeable, about the game and its players than modern fans?

FS: Baseball fans of today are probably just as passionate about, and supportive of, the game as fans were then. But there are no quantitative research data to indicate, for example, whether a given baseball fan today attends more, or fewer, major league games than a comparable fan of the 1930s. The devoted fans I knew as a youngster at the Polo Grounds attended perhaps an average of about 15 games a season. Some also went to a few minor league games, especially in Newark (the Bears) and for a few years in Jersey City (the Giants).

I now live in Fairfax County, Va., and a number of my acquaintances also attend more games in the adjacent Prince William County’s minor league ballpark than at the major league Nationals park in Washington. Interestingly, some fans are turned off by the cost and inconvenience of attending a Nationals game, preferring a more relaxed, easily accessible minor league game. Fan interest in college baseball appears largely limited to the fan’s alma mater teams.

Fans are generally more knowledgeable today because of the authoritative radio and television coverage now available, especially insights provided by former major leaguers. The influence of SABR members and their analytical methodology and expanded interest in all phases of the game have been very significant and indicative of the fans’ increased knowledge.

ST: Did fans in those days behave in generally the same manner as modern fans, or are there ways in which there are significant differences?

FS: It’s difficult to detect any significant changes in fan behavior or impact on games since the 1930s. In the earlier period, the ballparks were smaller and most fans sat closer to the players. Pop bottles thrown from the stands were a frequent occurrence in the ‘30s, but one rarely seen today. This may be an indication of some improvement in fan behavior.

Of course, current fans sitting in seats just off the playing field have affected games importantly—for example, young Yankees fan Jeffrey Maier deflecting a Derek Jeter fly ball into the stands for an important homer in 1996, or Cubs fan Steve Bartman interfering with a key catch by left fielder Moises Alou in 2003. These aren’t necessarily examples of intentionally bad fan behavior but, regardless, they have affected games significantly.

References & Resources
Fred Stein was born in New York City on April 21, 1924. He served in the Army from 1943-46, as an infantryman in the European Theatre. In 1949 he earned a bachelors degree in dairy technology from Penn State, and received a masters at Ohio State in dairy and food marketing in 1953.

He spent most of his career working for the federal government, in milk marketing from 1952-66, and in water pollution control from 1966-79. He then worked as a pollution consultant from 1980-85.

Fred has been a member of the Society for American Baseball Research since 1975. In addition to numerous articles in SABR publications, he’s the author of the following books:

Under Coogan’s Bluff: A Fan’s Recollection of the Giants Under Terry and Ott (self-published, 1978)

Giants Diary: A Century of Giants Baseball in New York and San Francisco (co-authored with Nick Peters; North Atlantic Books, 1987)

Mel Ott: The Little Giant of Baseball (McFarland, 1999)

And the Skipper Bats Cleanup: A History of the Baseball Player-Manager (McFarland, 2002)

A History of the Baseball Fan (McFarland, 2005)

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Comments

  1. Northern Rebel said...

    WOW!

    This man is a national treasure! I hope he regularly contributes his memories, for diehard baseball lovers.

  2. Warren Corbett said...

    If you’re driving around the DC area and see a license plate reading “MELOTT,” say hello to Fred.

    He has been consistently helpful to whippersnappers like me when we are researching the NY Giants. I recall the jaw-dropping moment when he told me about watching Carl Hubbell pitch. A gentleman through and through.

  3. Joe Pilla said...

    As the current demolition of the original Yankee Stadium (You know, the one next to the new Yankee Ballpark-in-a-Shopping-Mall) all too poignantly proves, one should not count too much on the Lords of Baseball protecting the heritage of the game entrusted to them.
    This makes the memories and eloquence of longtime baseball fans like Mr. Stein all the more precious. We have so few direct human links to the days when major league baseball was played entirely in the sunshine. He IS a treasure, and I encourage you to continue these great chats.

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