This spring, comedian Will Ferrell made news by taking the field for 10 different teams during Spring Training in Arizona. He played all 10 positions (yes, counting designated hitter) in five different games, all in the same day.
Four Major Leaguers have pulled off the feat of playing all nine positions in the same game. Bert Campaneris was the first in 1965. Cesar Tovar did it in 1968, and two players (Scott Sheldon and Shane Halter) played all nine in separate games in the 2000 season.
But this was different. This was the first time that a celebrity, an outsider, was allowed onto the field to accomplish the feat. And of course, it was all in the name of charity…and publicity. Ferrell performed the “stunt” as part of an HBO special simply titled “Ferrell Takes The Field” set to air later this year.
Prior to the event, as well as in the days afterwards, the stunt took heat from several media members and even former players that said it undermined the integrity of the game.
One of the most outspoken was John Madden, yes THAT John Madden, the legendary football coach and commentator. According to CBS Sports, Madden was quoted as saying:
“I hate it,” Madden said. “That’s a lack of respect, that’s a lack of respect for the game, I think, and a respect for what players have to do to get where they are. There’s no easy way, and there’s no ‘jump’ and all of that stuff. I’ve never believed in that type of stuff.”
Since Madden seems to think that anyone in the baseball world cares about his opinion, let me give you mine. In my opinion, this is EXACTLY the type of thing that Major League Baseball needs to see more of. For a game that has been getting older and older, losing youth at an alarming rate in this country, it’s nice to see things like this. And it doesn’t come without precedence.
In 1962, California Angels owner Gene Autry led his team through downtown Palm Springs, riding bicycles, on their way to their Spring Training facility.
In 1931, as the New York Yankees were heading home to start the season, they stopped in Chattanooga, Tennessee for an exhibition game against their Double-A farm club. In that game, 17-year old left-hander Jackie Mitchell took the mound and struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in consecutive at-bats. Mitchell was a young woman. Some say it was staged, that Ruth and Gehrig struck out on purpose. Though many stories say otherwise.
In 2005, Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci took the field for the Toronto Blue Jays during a spring intrasquad game. He spent five days in camp with the Blue Jays as part of a story on the “inner happenings” of the baseball world.
In 2002, Kevin Costner took the field for the San Bernardino Stampede, then, the Single-A affiliate of the Seattle Mariners. The spring game, against the Mariners saw Costner start for the Stampede at shortstop. He went 0-for-3 in the game, but took the mound in the 9th. That’s when Mariners manager Lou Piniella put himself in as a pinch-hitter against Costner. The first pitch almost hit Piniella, who ended up taking a four-pitch walk.
Of course, the argument for staging these stunts during spring is that the games don’t “count” towards anything. And while that may be true, the arguments against the stunts can be valid, though I still don’t agree.
Players who are trying their hardest to get noticed, move up a level in the farm system, or even make the big league club get at-bats taken away from them by celebrities, former players or full on “regular people”.
But again, it’s just plain nonsense. Stunts like these create exposure for the game. Give it a certain appeal for younger generations. This recent example with Will Ferrell was executed brilliantly. With Twitter, Instagram and several other social media outlets promoting the event with the #FerrellTakesTheField.
Players got into the fun, tweeting out stories and pics of their time with Ferrell to all of their followers, which helps the younger generations feel even more connected to the action. Ferrell himself knew how to make the best of it, buying hot dogs for a section of fans at one game, interacting in the crowd at others. Giving fans an experience they’ll likely never forget.
These are just a few of the examples. And not all of the instances have been during Spring Training.
Bill Veeck was probably the most famous example of a showman in the game’s history. Veeck signed Larry Doby to his Cleveland Indians in 1947, making him the first black ballplayer in the American League.
This was by no means a publicity stunt, as Veeck had been outspoken for integration of the game for years prior to Jackie Robinson‘s signing with the Dodgers.
But his progressive mindset and understanding of what was good for the game led to some of his other “antics”.
One of those, being his signing of Eddie Gaedel to his St. Louis Browns in 1951. On August 19, the Browns were playing a doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers.
Gaedel, a 3′ 7″ tall man, weighing only 65 pounds, pinch-hit in the second game, wearing a Browns jersey with the number 1/8. He was walked on four straight pitches before trotting down to first base, stopping twice to bow to the crowd. He was pulled for a pinch-runner and was given a standing ovation as he left the field.
In 1976, as the owner of the Chicago White Sox, Veeck signed Minnie Minoso and gave him eight at-bats in order to give him the distinction of playing across four decades (which he later made five in 1980).
Besides the Eddie Gaedel stunt, Veeck is also best known for the ill-fated Disco Demolition night at Comiskey Park in 1979. On July 12th, Veeck promised to blow up a crate filled with disco records between the games of a doubleheader against the Tigers. The explosion damaged the field and thousands of fans stormed the field as people flung records from the stands. It is regarded to this day as the most extreme promotion– and one of the most disastrous – in sports history.
But yet, it’s hard to argue that Veeck’s actions over the course of his career did more harm than good. He was the first to shoot fireworks after the home team hit a home run. The first to use “exploding effects” on a scoreboard. He was the first to put the last name on the back of players’ jerseys. And he was the one to convince Harry Caray to start singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” to the crowd during the 7th inning stretch, in 1976.
As much as I love Veeck, he is not the point. The point is that this latest stunt is not without historic precedent. That in this generation of instant gratification, and living in the moment, baseball needs to continue to come up with new innovations and ideas to attract a younger audience.
And while people like Madden may disagree, people in baseball need to continue to bring in these young fans and continue to find ways to keep them. Because without these “stunts” and people like Bill Veeck, who care not only about the history of the game, but of it’s future, baseball could be rendered irrelevant in a few decades.