Sports Nut

Baseball and the Bird

The national pastime’s legacy of obscenity.

After vanquishing the Oakland A’s on a called third strike last week, Red Sox pitcher Derek Lowe spun toward the opposing dugout, dropped his hands to his waist, and indulged in a celebratory groin chop. “I did the same crazy things I always do when I win,” Lowe later explained, as he was being bathed in champagne. But several members of the losing side weren’t so dismissive. “I saw it. It was completely classless,” said A’s first baseman Scott Hatteberg. “He’s going to get paid back for that,” promised shortstop Miguel Tejada.

While the A’s may have been outraged, they shouldn’t have been surprised. The obscene gesture—the crotch chop, and the crotch grab, and the extended middle finger—is as a much a part of baseball as, well, spitting and scratching. Digital articulation can be found, Zelig-style, at almost every important time, place, and event in baseball history. In fact, just two games prior to Lowe’s outburst, the Sox watched teammate Byung-Hyun Kim flip off the Fenway faithful after getting booed during pre-game introductions.

Hall of Fame pitcher Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn, a 19th-century ironman who won a record 59 games in 1884, is reputed to be one of the ancestors of baseball bird-flipping. (Though in this photo, it’s hard to tell exactly what he’s doing.) As photography widened the finger’s reach, so did television bring it to the masses. In 1953, Dodgers pitcher Russ Meyer was caught making obscene gestures on television, leading to a three-day suspension and Commissioner Ford Frick’s opposition to close-ups in the dugout.

When baseball’s color line was shattered, the finger was there. Jackie Robinson may be famous for turning the other cheek, but other black players weren’t always stoic when faced with fan abuse. In the early 1950s, Danville first baseman Bill White—a future president of the National League and one of the first African-Americans to play in the Carolina League—flipped off a vicious group of hecklers in Burlington, N.C. After the game, White’s teammates had to brandish bats on the walk to the team bus.

A St. Louis groin grab changed the course of baseball history. If shortstop Garry Templeton hadn’t crotched off to fans in 1981, Cardinals owner Gussie Busch probably wouldn’t have demanded the testy shortstop be shipped away. A trade that winter swapped Templeton for Ozzie Smith; the Wizard of Oz immediately began building his Hall of Fame résumé, leading the Cardinals to the 1982 World Series title. For Smith’s old team, the San Diego Padres, obscene gestures are a crucial part of franchise lore. Despite two World Series appearances, are there any more indelible Padres memories than Roseanne’s crotch grab, following her lustily booed rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and general manager Chub Feeney’s ouster for shooting the bird at a pair of rooters on Fan Appreciation Day? And luckily for the Royals, this year’s playoff run wiped away reminiscences of the organization’s finger-borne moment in the spotlight. When that shirtless father and son attacked first-base coach Tom Gamboa last year, the father contended that Gamboa started it by flipping them off.

Of course, not all gestures are created equal. An obscenity can connote anything from perceived sexual dominion, to disgust, to hedonism. (Expos second baseman Jose Vidro apologized when a devil-may-care, two-handed, two-fingered salute he gave on the bus was caught on tape earlier this year.) The bird can even indicate admiration. Earlier this year, Barry Bonds told ESPN the Magazine that he loves hitting against John Smoltz because he’s the only pitcher who’s willing to mouth off to him. How does the home-run king salute the closer’s brio? By surreptitiously flipping him off from the dugout. (As Billy Martin could attest, there’s nothing more puckish than a covert bird).

Why is baseball in particular so blessed with a legacy of digital obscenity? Among team sports, baseball gives fans the most opportunities to filter indignation onto a specific player. Because each athlete stands in the field, in a discrete spot, for minutes at a time, it’s easy for vitriolic fans to localize their anger—and for some of baseball’s most notoriously hotheaded players to absorb it.

Ted Williams never acknowledged the home fans with a tip of his cap during his playing career. But he did once greet them, after being booed for a poor fielding performance in a doubleheader, by performing what he later called “insulting gestures.” Albert Belle performed a one-armed salute for fans who threw coins at him when the former Indian returned to Jacobs Field as a member of the White Sox; he later greeted an unappreciative Orioles home crowd with crotch grabs and bird flips. Among his many noteworthy feats of provocation, John Rocker flipped off Shea Stadium. And Carl Everett, who always does his own thing, has focused his ire on authority figures: He has both flipped off an umpire and directed a post-home-run crotch grab at elderly pitcher Jamie Moyer.

Pro football has produced some excellent practitioners of the art of obscene gesturing—linebacker Bryan Cox springs to mind—but in recent years, the NFL has limited aggression with mandatory penalties and fines. In baseball, where there are no codified penalties for gesturing, severity of punishment correlates with whom you’re pointing at. The Padres’ Phil Nevin simply apologized for flipping off a heckler, while Pudge Rodriguez was suspended for a game for showing his finger to an umpire. Jose Paniagua faced the most serious consequences: When the White Sox reliever shot the bird at home-plate ump Mark Carlson on Sept. 9, the team promptly released him.

Of course, Nevin and Rodriguez are former All Stars, while at the time of his exile Paniagua had an ERA of 108.00. In baseball, it seems the indiscretions of the middle finger are tolerated only when the other four are pulling their weight.