Sports

Why Baseball Fans Stopped Rushing the Field

On Oct. 21, 1980, a beloved tradition was put to a stop.

A crowd of fans swarming a baseball stadium
Fans celebrate the New York Yankees victory over the Kansas City Royals in the fifth game of the American League Championship Series on Oct. 14, 1976, at Yankee Stadium in New York City. Diamond Images/Getty Images

Forty years ago last Wednesday, baseball changed. Most obviously for Philadelphia Phillies fans, baseball changed because, at last, after 97 long, ugly seasons, the Phils were finally World Series champions. But on a grander scale the game itself changed the moment Tug McGraw struck out Kansas City’s Willie Wilson at 11:29 p.m. EDT—we Phillies fans are not ones to skimp on the details when it comes to our scant moments of glory—to clinch both Game 6 and the series. At that moment, or to be more precise, immediately following that moment, something momentous in baseball history occurred: More than 65,000 delirious fans jumped up and down, hugged complete strangers, and sprayed beer into the ether—all while remaining in the stands.

Not wholly by choice, though. Until that point baseball had what was a decades-old tradition, inglorious as it may have been, of fans charging the field whenever the home club clinched either a pennant or World Series championship. Just four years earlier, Yankee Stadium instantaneously became rush hour at Penn Station when first baseman Chris Chambliss hit the pennant clincher into the right field bleachers, sending the Yanks off to meet the Reds in the 1976 World Series. Within seconds the field became a mass of bodies, as Chambliss struggled to make it around the bases before retreating to the relative safety of the Yankee locker room. (Don’t forget, sports writer Dick Young was waiting in there for him.) Forty-four years later, Chambliss still hasn’t touched home plate.

The following season, in the aftermath of the Yankees’ World Series–clinching Game 6 victory, Reggie Jackson did his best Franco Harris impression, barreling through the huddled masses of Yankee Stadium no longer yearning to breathe free. Jackson body-blocked one of the revelers straight into football season. Heck, even though the Pirates clinched their 1979 World Series championship in Baltimore, they were greeted by the several hundred fans who spilled over the Memorial Stadium fencing onto the field, looking to attach themselves—figuratively for most but literally for a few—to the triumphant team on the field. It was an odd tradition, but one that in a quirky way served to connect those in the stands with those on the field. Those players were playing for us, was the mindset, and when they won, we won too. Naturally, we should all celebrate together.

Until Oct. 21, 1980.

Channeling their inner Frank Rizzo—whose strong-arm mayoral reign of intimidation ended only months earlier—Philadelphia City Hall’s pooh-bahs decided there would not be a repeat of the bedlam that occurred in New York and elsewhere should the Phils prevail over the Royals in Game 6. So they positioned a platoon of mounted policemen, along with their K-9 corps, in the bowels of Veterans Stadium that evening. During the seventh inning, with the Phils winning 4–0, the K-9s were unleashed onto the field to a chorus of boos. “I thought I was in Venezuela when I saw the dogs,” Royals second baseman Frank White told a reporter after the game. “That’s the only place I’ve ever seen that.” At one point, umpire Bill Kunkel instructed the players that there would soon be policemen on the playing field during the game, and if the ball hit any of them it would be in play. Suddenly the World Series became surreal. “Who wants to run into a horse?” White asked. “It just doesn’t seem like a baseball game.”

The strong-arm tactics worked. After the final out, save for a few strays, the fans in attendance concluded that it wasn’t worth confronting the phalanx of German shepherds ringing the field. They remained in the stands—and baseball hasn’t been the same since.

Strange as it may seem today, for decades the idea of fans on the playing field was hardly an absurd one in baseball. Before it was refurbished in the mid-1970s, thousands of fans routinely exited Yankee Stadium after the last pitch via center field, with some lingering to hang out with the Babe in Monument Park before heading for their train. The Polo Grounds also allowed fans onto the field after games on their way to the exits. And in Philly, fans could exit Connie Mack Stadium via a gate in the right field wall. None of this was unusual, and it was but one way these home parks really felt like home. They may have been privately owned, but they felt like community spaces: Tickets were cheap, refreshments were pedestrian but reasonably priced, and the field itself wasn’t fetishized to the point of rendering it inaccessible to everyone not in uniform.

One by one, those parks were abandoned; in the case of Yankee Stadium, when it was refurbished and reopened in 1976, the center field exit was eliminated. In several cities, privately owned ballparks were replaced with publicly funded concrete bagels that were not only antiseptic and ugly but, more to the point, owned by cities that were charged with policing the behavior within them. They may have been “public” property, but because the cities became responsible for the upkeep, city administrators started to become more aggressive in protecting what they considered to be their property.

Ironically, the transition from private to public stadium ownership in the 1960s and ’70s resulted in the ticket-buying public being treated more and more frequently as if it were in somebody else’s home. You could pay to spend a few hours there, but you were expected to, if not necessarily behave, at least keep your grimy shoes off the carpet, just like when you were visiting Aunt Sally’s with the Scotchgard and the slipcovers. (At least Aunt Sally wasn’t upcharging you through the roof for beer.)

And the bottom line, to the cities that were now footing the bills, was the bottom line. The city of New York had just paid $160 million to refurbish Yankee Stadium, so when Yankee fans stormed the field in ’76 and ’77, they were now trodding upon city property. Yes, Chambliss and Jackson could have been hurt by a drunken reveler. But for years, not much was done to stop fans from surging onto the field; witness the footage of Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field on-field mayhem after Bill Mazeroski’s World Series–ending home run in 1960.

None of that brought out the mounted police and the K-9s. It was when these cities had skin in the game that things started to change, suggesting that the motivating factor in the increasingly heavy-handed approach to crowd control was not human safety but, more likely, property concerns.

The specter of danger emanating from the presence of fans on the field was always there, but for years, not all that much was done about it. In the run-up to his record-breaking 715th home run in 1974, Hank Aaron received numerous racist death threats, but security at Atlanta’s (publicly owned) Fulton County Stadium was nevertheless lax enough to enable two fans to escort Aaron around the bases after he hit the big one off the Dodgers’ Al Downing. As the target for potential destruction that evening was Aaron and not the turf, however, perhaps city officials weren’t all that concerned. But after the last reveler had departed the Yankee Stadium playing field in ’76, it looked as if “a light snow had sprinkled the ground, which was covered with tens of thousands of shreds of paper,” according to the next morning’s New York Times. Chunks of the turf were missing; a bottle of Hiram Walker peach‐flavored brandy sat where home plate had once been. A bottle of blackberry brandy marked the spot where second base no longer was. A bottle of Dewar’s demarked third. This, to the cities responsible for the cleanup, could not stand.

Which brings us back to 1980, and Philadelphia’s city-owned Veterans Stadium. Bill Green had replaced Rizzo as mayor, but the city’s new police commissioner, Morton Solomon, was cut from the Rizzo mold. “Solomon was an all right guy when it came to using force,” one of the officers dispatched to the Vet that evening told the Philadelphia Inquirer years later. “He was all for the horses.” When the city’s managing director, W. Wilson Goode, relayed the strong-arm plan to Phillies executive Bill Giles, Giles pushed back. The memory of Bull Connor unleashing dogs on civil rights protestors in Birmingham, Alabama, just 17 years earlier immediately came to mind. Goode held firm. “The city owns this stadium,” Goode said, “and I’m going to protect it.”

It’s worth noting that on-field mayhem around the league didn’t come to a complete halt in 1980. For a few years, some fans still managed to make their way onto the diamond after big games, but heavy police presence increasingly became the norm, and soon the on-field communal celebrations became another relic of baseball’s past. In 1986, the city of New York conjured its best Frank Rizzo impression when it too unleashed mounted police up and down the perimeter of the Shea Stadium playing surface the moment the Mets dispatched the Red Sox in Game 7. Just as in Philly six years earlier, most Mets fans remained in the stands.

Granted, if you want to see fans on the field after big games you don’t have to look too hard even today. Field and court storming became, if anything, more pronounced in college football and, particularly, college basketball in the past quarter-century. This despite the fact that several major conferences have put in place regulations that result in significant fines levied against universities that fail to prevent crazed fans from rushing playing surfaces after a big win. Still, the storming continues, as some schools don’t do all that much to prevent it, perhaps figuring that the fines are simply the cost of doing business in big-time college athletics. And just as in baseball, it’s the bottom line that seems to dictate the response to field and court storming: Delirious fans on the court are good for a university’s business, allowing it to stand out among its hundreds of peers that prospective students might be considering. The fines, cost of resurfacing the floor, and cost of cleaning up a celebration’s detritus might be chalked up as mere marketing expenses. Here, again, human safety doesn’t appear to factor appreciably into the equation.

It might seem shortsighted to pine for the days when fans seemingly endangered the players and one another in their post-series mayhem, and maybe it is. (There have been, after all, some significant injuries at college games.) I’ll admit that for safety reasons, it’s probably best if fans stay off the field­—especially in an era like our own, when athletes are often not just seen as athletes but political symbols of one sort or another. But let’s not fool ourselves: The primary reason fans are now aggressively cordoned off baseball fields after a big series victory appears to be not so much the risk of injury so much as the plain fact that the real estate (now mostly once again in private hands) is just too damn valuable.

In an odd way, the loss of this tradition is another example of how fans today are increasingly severed from a game some love to the point of completely losing their minds for a moment and charging onto the field because, hey, it just seemed like the right thing to do at the time. Watching old footage of celebrations past is a reminder of just how much fun it all seemed. The joy, the spontaneity, the bedlam—it felt real.

Right now, even before we know who will hoist the 2020 World Series trophy, the post-series show is already being planned. It will be as it has been for the past several years: orchestrated down to the final second. There will be a stage erected on the infield but not before the mound is tamped down, covered and protected; the branded caps and T-shirts will be distributed. The commercial time has already been bought and paid for; it will go off without a hitch. And it will be as exciting and spontaneous as one would expect a Tubi Free Movies and TV Postgame Show to be. This being 2020, there won’t be many fans there. But MLB needn’t worry. The fans haven’t been a part of the celebration of baseball for decades.