Sunday, March 20, 2011

Fans on the Field

World Series, 1903
Huntington Ave Park, Boston, 1904

Ohio Football League Championship, 1906
Brookside Park, Cleveland, 1914
Stagg Field, Chicago, 1915. Chicago History Museum.
One of the things that impresses me most when I look at images of early sporting events is just how close the audience was to the field of play. While this is still generally true for amateur and college games, in professional sports, the grounds of play have become sacred; audiences cannot enter the space during game time without risking censure, arrest, or a heavy fine. In fact, when fans are allowed to cross the boundaries of the field, that act is always ritualized and marked as special; it's okay when a home team wins a championship, for example, or when one has paid a fee for a specially-guided tour.

But it wasn't always so. Look at these images. Before stadiums and bleachers organized the flow of sports crowds into designated areas, audiences tended to congregate as close as possible to the players. Especially in baseball, the audience helped to shape the field's broader outlines; in some games, fans were actually on what we could today consider the frame of the field. In all, fans' bodies, voices, and dynamic responses must have been a far more integral part of the game.

Yale Football Game, 1879
In football, around the turn of the century, it was decided that something had to be done about the crowds. As Walter Camp explained in his 1894 book, American Football, audiences were starting to create problems for the news kinds of highly-ruled play that had developed. In other words, they needed to be separated from the game:
To-day the teams which meet to decide the championship are brought up to the execution of at least twenty-five different plays, each of which is called for by a certain distinct signal of its own. The first signals given were “word signals;” that is, a word or a sentence called out so that the entire team might hear it and understand whether a kick or a run was to be made. Then, when signals became more general, “sign signals” (that is, some motion of the hand or arm to indicate the play) were brought in and became for a time more popular than the word signals, particularly upon fields where the audience pressed close upon the lines, and their enthusiastic cheering at times interfered with hearing word signals. Of late years numerical combinations have become most popular, and as the crowd is kept at such a distance from the side lines as to make it possible for teams to hear those signals, they have proven highly satisfactory… (120-121)
Compare these two images of the first Rose Bowl in 1902 and then the first game in the new Rose Bowl stadium in 1923:

The audience is bigger, obviously, but what's notable, I think, is the extent to which they have been moved, away from the field, up on grandstands, and behind barriers. I wonder what the relationship of this removal is to the late 19th century "disciplining of spectatorship" in theater and music, where audiences were asked to silently behold--or, at least, not interfere with--the unfolding of a work onstage? Or is this all simply progress--audiencing made more convenient, the field made visible to all, the game allowed to be played as a pure contest between teams?  

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