Thugs In The Game: The Real History Of Sports

By Michael Hudson
Updated: December 9, 2004

Ty Cobb

Roanoke Va.— Newspapers, magazines and TV screens have been filled with images of Ron Artest rampaging into the stands of an NBA megaplex in Detroit, swinging at fans. USA Today calls it the “player-fan brawl that shocked the nation.” It was, one fan tells the newspaper, “like the 9/11 of the NBA.” The Chicago Sun-Times calls it a sign of an “escalating crisis of violence in sports.”

It’s as if nothing like this has ever happened before. As if, suddenly, the once-glorious game is being trampled upon by a frightening wave of pretenders and barbarians.

In the mythology of American sports, there was a simpler time, a Golden Era, when ballplayers were humble and worked hard and played for the love of the game. Sports were unpolluted by greed, egos, cheating or violence.

The flip side of this is the idea that today’s athletes are different: arrogant, spoiled, lazy, overpaid, brutish. It’s a conviction built on historical amnesia — and on a nostalgia-tinged brand of unconscious racism, one that yearns for the “good-old-days” when the “Boys of Summer” and set-shot-shooting “Hoosiers” just happened to be almost lily white.

It’s an outlook that ignores these well-documented facts: Sports have always been violent. And they’ve always been populated by considerable numbers of players and fans who can’t behave themselves.

But today’s media pack doesn’t have time for context or history. Few journalists have stepped back from the hype and asked: Are these bad behaviors new? Were things really so gentle and innocent, once upon a time?

Are athletes more arrogant today than they were in the 1950s, when the Boston Red Sox’s icily masterful hitter, Ted Williams, spit at his hometown fans and gave them the finger? (Off-duty Boston cops were said to give boys apples to throw at Williams.)

Are players more out-of-control today than they were in 1957, when the New York Yankees engaged in three bench-clearing brawls in a single week? (That same season, after a Dodgers-Reds brawl, one of the gladiators told the press his plans for his main antagonist: “I’ll get him. I’ll whip his hide and his wife won’t know him when I get through.”)

Are today’s drug-imbibing players bigger users of intoxicants than the old-style boozers who once populated American sports? (Babe Ruth was once so “drunk out of his mind” at spring training that he ran into a palm tree in the outfield and knocked himself senseless.)

Are fans more unruly today than they were in Cleveland in 1974, when the Indians and Rangers had to unite and use their bats as weapons to fend off a crazed, knife-wielding Ten Cent Beer Night crowd? (Rangers manager Billy Martin said it was “the closest I ever saw to someone getting killed in baseball.”)

None of this is meant to defend Ron Artest or any other athletes — or fans — who get out of the control. They’re in the wrong. Violence and bad sportsmanship should be dealt with swifty, firmly and fairly.

But let’s not whitewash our history and act as if any of this is new. Go read books such as Richard Sheinin’s “Field of Screams: The Dark Underside of America’s National Pastime.” You’ll find that every era has had its share of brawls, greed, selfish superstars and crazy fans.

In the old days, nearly every NBA game was punctuated by a fight — just as in hockey, the owners thought fighting was a good draw for fans. Bench-clearing and grandstand-clearing brawls have been recorded throughout the years in the sports at all levels.

And players going into the stands after fans? Yeah, that happened, too, back in the day. Babe Ruth was in a batting slump in 1922 when he got thrown out at second trying to stretch a single into a double, then got thrown out of the game for tossing dirt in the umpire’s face. A heckler called The Babe “a big bum,” and Ruth went into the stands after him. The heckler scurried out of reach. Ruth got back up on the dugout and screamed: “Anyone who wants to fight, come down on the field! Ah, you’re all alike, you’re all yellow!”

Ruth failed to catch his heckler that muggy spring day. But a decade before, Ty Cobb, the man who’d preceded Ruth as the national pastime’s greatest star, had more luck.

Cobb vaulted the guardrail protecting the grandstand, stalked up 12 rows and began punching and kicking a heckler, tearing holes with his spikes and opening gashes around the man’s ears and face.

Other spectators pleaded with Cobb, yelling that the man – who’d lost eight fingers in an industrial accident – had no hands.

“I don’t care if he has no feet,” Cobb replied.