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Surfing the Amber Waves

The currently ubiquitous practice by ballclubs of blaring rock music between (and sometimes during) innings of professional games, which has alienated many of the older fans the owners do not believe they need, first occurred over 40 years ago. I think I was there at first blare. As you might have expected, it began as yet another Charles O. Finley innovation.

In 1963 Finley clad his Kansas City Athletics in green, white, and gold. Although ridiculed by the panjandrums of baseball, the new duds stimulated a 20% increase in attendance, although the team's record did not improve. When the season ended Finley masterminded further measures to kindle fan interest. Hereafter, he declared, the team would emphasize the big bang. He ordered the fences moved in at Municipal Stadium and traded for sluggers Jim Gentile and Rocky Colavito.

To rouse Athletics fans to a fever pitch, Finley launched an aggressive promotional campaign. Carefully nurtured power phenom Ken Harrelson, we were told, had been burning up the Coast League and was ready for the big time. New center fielder Nellie Mathews, for whom Finley surrendered prize prospect Fred Norman to the Cubs, was sure to set the junior circuit on fire. The pitching? Certainly the team's Latin-flavored staff, anchored by the fiery quartet of Orlando PenaJose SantiagoDiego Segui, and Aurelio Monteagudo, would have no communication problems with cerebral receiver Charlie Lau. But if they faltered, the Athletics boasted a formidable fireman brigade in veteran Tom Sturdivant and shine-balling specialist John Wyatt.

It had taken a hefty chunk of cash to persuade Detroit to part with Sturdivant the previous summer. Athletics manager Ed Lopat, afraid of burning Wyatt out, had begged Finley to acquire his old Yankee teammate. Fresh were his memories of Sturdivant dousing Brooklyn Dodger hopes in the pivotal 4th game to knot up the 1956 World Series and set the stage for Don Larsen's history-making perfecto. And as Lopat predicted, Sturdivant pitched effectively for Kansas City after joining the club in the heat of late July.

The 1964 Athletics opened the season with three games on the road, then settled in for a long homestand. I followed their exploits with mounting interest. After they outscored the Tigers 19-9 in winning two out of three, I could restrain no longer my desire to watch this powerhouse in action. On Friday night, May 1, 1964, I left my classmates to cavort around maypoles out in Tonganoxie while I hitchhiked into the big city to see the Athletics battle the Minnesota Twins.

How my eager heart leaped when Colavito and Dick Green knocked a pair of Camilo Pascual's best curves out of the park! However, the Twins produced an answer in the 6th, Earl Battey poking a grand slam over the same shortened left field fence. But a circuit clout by Lau tied it, and after 7 tense innings the teams were deadlocked at 4.

The Kansas City Athletics were never known for sucking it up in the late innings. Starter Moe Drabowsky had tired visibly, and now manager Lopat was trudging out to the mound. A wave of unease began to ripple through the stands. Scarcely had it materialized, however, when a bold and utterly unexpected sound exploded from the stadium's loudspeakers, overwhelming the pessimistic murmuring in the box seats, the grandstand, the bleachers!

In those days, you must understand, rock music was, like baseball cards, for kids only. I was astounded to hear what I, a callow teenager, could readily identify as “Surfin’ Bird,” a recent hit tune recorded by a group of young musicians calling themselves, with complete descriptive accuracy, The Trashmen. A national newsmagazine had labeled “Surfin’ Bird” “the worst rock and roll record ever made.” I'd heard it a thousand times on my cheap portable transistor, but never at a major league ballpark. Surely, I thought, some wiseacre has tuned in and turned up the radio's Friday night Top 40 countdown!

But that wasn't it at all. Some unknown junior exec in the front office (surely at the behest of Charles O. himself) had made a deliberate decision to broadcast this raucous teen anthem to the four corners of Municipal Stadium in a brash effort to restore our shaken confidence. And it was working!

I quickly realized that what I was hearing was not the exact song the Trashmen had recorded. It had been altered, transformed, in some obscure local studio, to a hip anthem in praise of pitcher Tom Sturdivant, who was at this moment striding toward the center of the diamond.

Accompanied by amplified and fuzz-distorted guitar, bass, and drums, the chanted lyrics, as I recall them, were these:

Now now now everybody's heard about the Sturd
Sturd, Sturd, Sturd, the Sturd is the word
Everybody knows that the Sturd is the word
Now don't you know about the Sturd?
Well, everybody's talking about the Sturd!
Sturd, Sturd, Sturd, Sturd, Sturd, Sturd (ad infinitum ad nauseum)

By the time the Sturd finished his warmup tosses to Charlie Lau, this eardrum-shattering hymn had incited the 6,047 spectators in the park to a near-rabid enthusiasm. Every voice, it seemed, was bellowing the simple refrain. Old and young had united in their support for the Sturd, the valiant warrior who was arriving, at last, to save the day. In the visitors' dugout the Twins huddled, slack-jawed, goggle-eyed at the spectacle. But I noticed, with grim foreboding, the same expressions on the face of the Athletics. Certainly the music had fired up the fans. But had it had a chilling effect on the team, which was utterly unaccustomed to a hopeful display of any kind?

I beheld Minnesota's Bob Allison standing at the plate. He appeared too dazed to swing the bat. All Sturdivant had to do, all anybody including me or my little sister would have had to do, was throw three baseballs down the middle of the plate, and Allison was finished. But the Sturd couldn't locate the plate, Allison walked, and the next guy walked, and when Sturdivant finally figured out where to throw the ball, Earl Battey slammed it solidly over shortstop Wayne Causey's head. Five runs eventually scored. Bye-bye ballgame.

Kansas City lost 105 games in 1964 and finished last. The club attracted fewer fans than ever. Lopat got fired. Harrelson hit .194 and was returned to the Coast League. Mathews played center field all year so he could lead the junior circuit in strikeouts and outfield errors. The team increased its home run output from 95 to 166, but Kansas City pitchers yielded a record 220 four-baggers.

Oh, yes, and Finley released Tom Sturdivant just a few days after the May Day debacle I saw. The best thing you could say about Sturdivant's three appearances for the Athletics was that nobody hit a home run off him. Still the Sturd landed on his feet, in a manner of speaking. He was signed by the New York Mets and got to pitch often. But the 1964 Mets distinguished themselves only by losing more games than the 1964 Athletics, and thus twice-tainted, Sturdivant found himself out of the big leagues forever.

I now believe that if you own a ballclub and you feel you must serenade the fans between innings, you ought to hire a guy who makes his living demonstrating electric organs at shopping malls playing “Tea for Two.” If you want to get daring, swing it with a light samba beat.

When in Nuku’alofa, stay at the International Dateline Hotel.

March 2000