One-eyed Freddy the Fan seems to attend every game at Yankee Stadium. He’s certainly there every time I am. No matter the weather, Freddy wears his team cap and satin team jacket. He carries a freshly executed cardboard sign, with some clever “Freddy Sez” line neatly composed in rounded, handwritten capital letters, commenting on the team’s current tribulations or triumphs. And he passes around his signature items, a dented frying pan with a flaking painted shamrock in the middle, and a spoon just the right size and heft for the fans to smack a few loud rings out of the good luck pan.
You may not know about Freddy the Fan unless you are a Yankee fan yourself. His real name is Fred Schuman. A native of the Bronx, he was born (as near as I can tell: I’ve chatted with Freddy, but mainly about baseball) in the early 1920s. According to his less-than-lavish personal Web site, www.freddysez.com (it is the twenty-first century, remember), he lost his right eye playing stickball on 178th Street when he was nine. His all-time favorite Yankee is Lou Gehrig. He has a regular route through the Stadium: first three innings in the upper deck (“because the fans are so enthusiastic up there”); middle innings in the loge; then finishing off with the suits downstairs. He used to make his signs at a seniors’ center on Gerard Avenue in the Bronx, though I’ve heard he’s recently moved to Manhattan. A lot about Freddy is mysterious. But he’s an important man.
The Yankees’ management does not embrace Freddy publicly, or put him on its Web site. Unlike John Adams, the famous fan in Cleveland who thunders away on a bass drum out in centerfield, Freddy never shows up on national television during games. The Yankees’ radio announcers have not, to my knowledge, once uttered his name. Yet Freddy gets his message across the airwaves as well as the Internet, as the monotone of spoon smacking pan, sometimes adagio, sometimes presto, soars above the crowd’s din. It must be a harsh, bizarre sound to uninformed viewers or listeners. The rest of us, Freddy’s fellowship, hear the clanks and know Freddy is at the game and making his rounds. In April, the banging is as glorious as the first robin’s chirps. For the rest of the season, it is a form of reassurance.
I recently read in the Boston Globe about an intense fan and baseball historian named Peter J. Nash who is trying to get a Baseball Fans’ Hall of Fame started in Cooperstown. Why this idea hasn’t yet occurred to the official lords of baseball may say a great deal about the lords’ priorities. As long as teams have played for money, there have been outstanding fans, whose extreme passion, loyalty, and eccentricity set them apart from the average devotee. They are as much a part of baseball lore as Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” routine, or Russ Hodges’s call of Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard ’round the world,” or any number of other things featured at the Hall of Fame. The main difference may be that unlike the players, managers, and owners enshrined in the Hall of Fame, Immortal Fans draw no salary for their fervor and ingenuity. They do what they do purely for love. It’s long past time for that love to be requited and honored. Permanently.
The new Fans’ wing might start with a solitary display, on a glass enclosed pedestal, of one of Hilda Chester’s famous brass cowbells. Chester remains, thanks partly to the mystique of the old Brooklyn Dodgers, the most legendary of the great baseball lovers. For thirty years, beginning in the 1920s, she attended nearly every game at Ebbets Field, surviving two heart attacks and decades of annual disappointment until the Dodgers finally won the World Series in 1955. When, two years later, the Dodgers broke all Brooklyn’s heart by decamping to Los Angeles, Hilda Chester—with her stringy gray hair, rowdy profanity, cowbell serenades, and unshakable preference for the bleachers (even after Dodgers manager Leo Durocher gave her a lifetime pass to the grandstand)—was nearly as much the face of the team as the cartoonist Willard Mullins’s famous gap-toothed Brooklyn bum.
The story (as told in Peter Golenbock’s oral history, Bums) goes that Durocher, during one of the team’s bad stretches, got fed up with an obnoxious, pestering, disgruntled fan and, armed with brass knuckles, punched him out. The fan sued. Hilda, who adored Leo, testified in court for the defense, perjured herself, and saved Durocher’s bacon.
“This man called me a cocksucker,” she lied, “and Leo came to my defense.”
Greater love hath no fan. If the Hall of Fame’s archivists could salvage Babe Ruth’s locker, surely they can track down one of Hilda’s bells.
Just past the Chester display, the Fans’ wing’s visitors might enter a large room cluttered with showcases and wall displays. A large exhibit would be devoted to the Royal Rooters, originally a band of Roxbury Irishmen that later came to include Brahmin socialites, and that from the late 1890s until the end of World War I cheered on, first, the Boston Nationals and, after 1901, the Red Sox. The display could include the sheet music for the song “Tessie,” whose lyrics the Rooters often twisted around to slander opposing teams.
Elsewhere in the room, there might be megaphones from St. Louis and beer cups from Chicago. The floor could be littered with hot dog wrappers and peanut shells (resupplied daily) that crunch underfoot. The True Life Deranged Fan display might have the .22 rifle (or an exact replica of the rifle) with which an obsessed young Cubs supporter, Ruth Ann Steinhagen, shot her idol, first baseman Eddie Waitkus, in his hotel room after the Cubs traded him to the Phillies in 1949. (“I’m sorry that Eddie had to suffer so . . . ,” Steinhagen said before being judged legally insane. “I had to relieve the tension I have been under the past two weeks.”) Waitkus recovered and hit .284 in 1950, helping the Phillies to win the pennant. He then achieved literary immortality as the model for Roy Hobbs in Bernard Malamud’s The Natural.
There might be a small library of books written by or about baseball fans. Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel would be there next to Malamud’s classic. If possible, the Hall’s librarian (working pro bono) will track down the manuscript of Zane Grey’s story “Old Well-Well,” for display (again, if possible) with some memento of the real-life “Old Well-Well,” a leather-lunged New York Giants fan named Frank Wood. Near the books would be two grandstand seats salvaged from the Polo Grounds. Interested readers may use them. But empty, the seats would form the Unfortunate Fans exhibit—dedicated not to those generations of Red Sox and White Sox and Cubs fans who never saw their teams win the Series, but to the great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and his daughter, now well known among the literati as the editor and author Elisabeth Sifton. On October 3, 1951, Niebuhr took his girl to see the last game of the three-game, pennant-deciding playoff between the Giants and the Dodgers. They left after the eighth inning, with the Dodgers comfortably ahead, 4 to 1. So they missed by minutes seeing Bobby Thomson’s legendary “shot heard ’round the world”—possibly the most dramatic moment in baseball history.
In one corner of the room might be the sawed-off top of the flagpole that a Cleveland rooter climbed after the Indians won the 1948 Series, vowing not to come down until they repeated the win. (They didn’t, and he did.) On a wall would hang the drum played by the Dodgers’ Symphoney Band to mock knocked-out visiting pitchers trudging off to the showers. Beneath it would be a stuffed goat, a stand-in to symbolize the still-living curse William “Billy Goat” Sianis placed on the Chicago Cubs when the management ordered Sianis and his goat (whom he had placed in the box seat adjoining his) ejected from Wrigley Field during the fourth game of the 1945 World Series—the last Series, to this date, played in Wrigley. From the ceiling would hang dozens of bedsheet banners, with pride of place given to the first one ever to proclaim, “Lets Go Mets!” And, of course, there would be room set aside, one day—but no day soon— for Freddy “the Fan” Schuman’s signs and spoon and frying pan.
As it happens, Freddy may be headed to the Hall of Fame even if the Fans’ Wing never gets built. An unofficial Yankee fan Web site reported a couple of years ago that, after receiving some inquiries, the Hall agreed to feature Freddy’s wares among its cases of sliding pads and tattered ancient baseball cards.
If the story is true, millions of Yankee haters will blanch at Freddy the Fan’s being singled out to the exclusion of their own teams’ boosters. They will have a point; Yankee haters always have a point. But to complain will be a missed opportunity. Fred Schuman deserves immortality, but so do the dozens of others who came before him and the ones who will come after him. He might prove the lever to upend an injustice that has lasted too long.