The Game without a Clock

With baseball season upon us, we asked a writer and once young vendor at Fenway to tell us what it was like being the envy of his friends selling beer and stale popcorn in the '70s.

The first Major League game I went to was in June 1968 for my friend Rick’s 11th birthday. We watched the Red Sox face the Yankees at Fenway Park, and though we didn’t know it, it was Mickey Mantle’s last summer. We’d become fans the year before—the season of the Impossible Dream—when the Sox took first place in the American League, when Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Lonborg, Rico Petrocelli, Tony C. and George Scott made baseball fans out of all of New England. The lowly Sox earned their first ticket to the World Series since 1946.

There were day games on weekdays back then, even in the World Series. At my elementary school, the headmaster typed a small notice and put it on the bulletin board: anyone who reads this can watch the World Series. Word of the note spread quickly throughout the school. Black and white TVs were brought into the classrooms.

But baseball always brings me back to 1975, when I was 17 and had what I thought was the best job in the world—walking the concrete aisles of Fenway Park as a vendor selling stale popcorn and Narragansett beer.

That was when the music in the park was still from an organ. The organist played classic tunes like “Star Spangled Banner” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” But he also played “Never on Sunday” and “Ruby Tuesday,” which you could hardly tell apart on an organ pumped through antiquated speakers. Not that it mattered. It still sounded and felt like baseball.

Vendors arrived early, before the park opened to the public. We were fed white bread sandwiches with a slice of processed meat and mustard packets and they were always much less appetizing (with the exception of the popcorn) than the food or drink we were assigned to sell that day. We’d try and dirty other vendors’ shoes by stomping on mustard packets. A jet stream of yellow would travel 20 feet if you did it right. Hitting white sneakers was the best target. The sandwiches were only ever half-eaten.

The concessionaire, Harry M. Stevens Inc., gave us about $50 in bills and change and little colored plastic chits, which represented one tray of product. After we sold a tray of Cokes, a case of beer, or a container of hot dogs, we handed over a chit in the stockroom to be resupplied. There was no hourly wage, only 11 percent commission. The better you were, the higher priced product they let you sell. I remember popcorn and Coke were 35 cents, ice cream was 50 cents, hot dogs were 75 cents and beers were $1.50. If you were selling popcorn or Coke and made $20 in a game, you had a very good day.

I started the season selling popcorn and ended the season hawking beers. In fact, I broke the record for most Cokes ever sold by a vendor at a Red Sox game—1,500 in a double header. As far as I know, it still stands. I like to think it does.

I felt like I had a season ticket. I grew to understand the rhythms of the game. It became innate. There was a time to hustle and a time to watch. I learned when to lock eye contact with a prospective customer and when to turn around for a play on the field.

Vendors cashed out in the 7th inning. I had to put all my cash bills in the same way—ranked from highest denomination to lowest, portrait up, Federal Reserve Bank seal facing out—so the aging men (at least they seemed that way then) could count the wads undistracted. From that total, we had to pay back the $50 and the value of the chits we’d been given. Then we were free to leave, or go into the stands and find a seat, or sit on a step in an aisle and watch the rest of the game. I always stayed. That was when I first appreciated that baseball was not a slave to a clock. Seventh inning and my team was trailing? No problem. All we needed was another hit. And another. And another. There were a lot of come-from-behind wins that year.

There was no cable TV back then and the local station didn’t broadcast every game. There were often only two ways to take in a game—by radio or by being there. And, due to the latter, I was the envy of my friends. They wanted to know everything about every game. When I talked baseball, people listened. I reveled in the attention and went to one of the greatest World Series ever played, the 1975 series that went seven games against the Cincinnati Reds. And just like the Impossible Dream team from ’67, the Red Sox lost this one in the end.

In the 1980s, I lived in Pittsburgh and became enamored of the Pirates and the National League, which was, in the words of my friend Don, “the senior circuit.” He reminded me the American League was a Johnny-come-lately. The two leagues—they were completely different baseball experiences. I never fell for Three Rivers Stadium like I did Fenway. It was a massive concrete donut built for football and nearly identical to other multipurpose stadia built in the late 1960s and early 1970s; the grass was fake and the outfield was symmetrical. Fenway, on the other hand, was an unshapely cathedral, created for its baseball destiny.

When I go to Fenway now, I still feel moved, but I want to turn back the clock on the game that doesn’t use one. Not so far back to the time when all men wore hats to baseball stadiums, but back far enough to when day games were more common, especially in the World Series. To when doubleheaders still existed. To when the entertainment wasn’t the mascot or the wave. To when the music wasn’t top 40 hits or oldies blaring from 21st century speakers. But back to when the game was the entertainment and it could, in the words of Bart Giamatti, make you hope in the spring and break your heart in the fall.