Bleacher bums of yesteryear

This article was written by William G. Nicholson

This article was published in the 1973 Baseball Research Journal


Vocal in the extreme, the “bleacher bums” of yesteryear were knowledgeable and ardent, and they were found in every major league ballpark.

The baseball fans of the 1930s and 1940’s were a special breed, far removed from their counterparts of today. The “colorful” fans of recent years – the sign carriers, the inane and loud-mouthed drunks, the affluent junketeers who follow their teams on a road trip a year – are pale copies of their hardier predecessors. Vocal in the extreme, the “bleacher bums” of yesteryear were knowledgeable and ardent, and they were found in every major league ballpark. Virtually every city had at least one who stood out from the herd, from the gentle “Megaphone Lolly” Hopkins in Boston to the raucous “Horse Lady of St. Louis,” Mrs. Mary Ott, who tormented all National Leaguers who had the temerity to take the field against her beloved Cardinals.

Blessed with a scream that was piercing and bloodcurdling, Mrs. Ott was the scourge of umpires and opposing ballplayers in Sportsman’s Park. For more than 25 years she put subtle nuances in her neigh which forcefully, often dramatically, communicated triumph or tragedy, exultation or excoriation.

The “Horse Lady” once confided to a sportswriter, “I like scientific rooting, something that helps the home boys win and makes the other guys sore. I figure if I really work on ‘em, I can knock a lot of them pitchers out of the box in three innings.” Her vocal chords lubricated with countless bottles of beer, she particularly enjoyed making afternoons hideous for the Dodgers.

But Dodger fans, many of whom the Mets have inherited, had justifiably earned the reputation of being collectively the most knowledgeable and frenetic in the league. Encouraged by a bedraggled group of musicians who passed through the stands, Brooklyn fans had turned the cozy bandbox that was Ebbets Field into something that resembled a huge, outdoor psychopathic ward.

The Dodgers had two outstanding fans, one extremely vocal, the other relatively quiet, actually quite benign. Miss Hilda Chester, known to her numerous admirers as “Howling Hilda,” was a calm, middle-aged woman who sold newspapers in downtown Brooklyn. But when she arrived at the ballpark with a cowbell, a remarkable transformation would occur. By constantly ringing her bell and bellowing, Miss Chester became “Howling Hilda.”

For years Jack Pierce showed his devotion to the Dodgers in a less prosaic, more ritualistic manner than did “Howling Hilda.” Pierce firmly believed that “Cookie” Lavagetto, the journeyman third baseman the Dodgers had acquired from the Pirates in 1937, was the greatest ballplayer who had ever appeared on a diamond. The performance of Pierce was an incredible one, and it even continued when the redoubtable “Cookie” had enlisted in the Air Force after the 1941 season.

Pierce, a prosperous Brooklyn restauranteer, would arrive almost daily at Ebbets with two large boxes of balloons, a hydrogen tank, a banner, a bottle of Scotch, and tickets for ten box seats just behind the visitors’ dugout. His expense for an afternoon of rooting – between $40 and $50 daily – was not an insignificant sum during the years of the Depression and World War II. After bracing himself with a few drinks, Pierce would get down to business. First he would spread a large blue and gray banner with the word “Cookie” on top of the dugout. Then he would furiously inflate his “Cookie” balloons, screaming out his hero’s name continually and capping his tribute by bursting the balloon. For a change of pace, especially after his idol had departed for the wars, Jack Pierce would let out an occasional bleat and pop a “Ducky” balloon for Joe Medwick, the veteran outfielder who had come to Brooklyn from the Cardinals in 1940.

Somewhat to the northeast of Flatbush during the same period, Mrs. Lolly Hopkins made regular trips from her Providence home to Boston where she supported the local teams at Braves Field and Fenway Park. Infinitely more genteel than her Brooklyn and St. Louis counterparts, Mrs. Hopkins had earned her nickname of “Megaphone Lolly” by using a megaphone to disseminate her vast knowledge of the game to fans, players, umpires, and official scorers.

Mrs. Hopkins cheered good plays on both sides and did not like booing – “I am a positive fan,” she once boasted. In one 1945 game when the Tigers’ Hal Newhouser came to the plate during a pitchers’ duel with Jim Wilson of the Red sox, spontaneous applause from a youthful Sox supporter earned him a “Good for you, young man.” “Megaphone Lolly” enjoyed carrying on conversations with individual players, and the Braves and Red Sox managements rewarded her support with season passes.

Cincinnati had its own elderly supporter in Harry Thobe, a bricklayer from Oxford, Ohio. Seventy-one years old in 1942, Thobe would dance a solemn jig in the ballpark for hours without interruption. He wore a white suit with red stripes down the trousers, one red and one white shoe, and a straw hat with a red band, while he delicately carried a red and white parasol.

Old Harry earned national fame in 1939 when his beloved Reds won their first pennant in twenty years. He jigged, walked and imaginary tightrope, circled the bases at a trot, and managed a slide into home plate. Mugging unmercifully, the old fellow danced his jig and flashed his twelve gold teeth for photographers two hours before each World Series game that fall.

Philadelphia has long been noted for fans who indiscriminately heap calumny on their own and visiting players, more often than not on the former. But the abusive artistry of the Kessler brothers, “Bull” and Eddie, in old Shibe Park has never been equaled. They had awe-inspiring voices and did not hesitate to use them while they sat on opposite sides of the diamond and conducted a private conversation.

Unpredictably, the Kessler boys had an aversion to Jimmy Dykes, the Athletics’ third baseman, that defied all reason. They would rattle the usually unflappable Dykes to such a point that old Connie Mack tried to bribe them with season passes. When that failed, he took them to court in an attempt to silence them. Finally, Mack sold Jimmy to the White Sox who found the denizens of Comiskey Park somewhat more accommodating than the Kesslers.

Patsy O’Tooles’s technique in Detroit was not spectacular, but it was steady and had earned him the dubious honor of annoying an American President at an athletic event. His rallying cry, usually delivered from the roof of the Tigers’ dugout was, “Boy, oh boy, oh boy, oh boy! Keep cool wit’ O’Toole!” The incredible repetition, coupled with one standard insult and compliment, did not endear him to his fellow spectators. Patsy would bellow, “Jimmy Foxx, you’re a bum! Babe Ruth, you’re a bum!!” or “Charlie Gehringer, you’re a great guy! ‘Doc’ Cramer, you’re a great guy! Boy, oh boy, oh boy! Keep cool wit’ O’Toole!”

During the third game of the 1933 World Series between the Giants and Senators, patsy somehow found himself in Washington, seated a few rows behind President Franklin Roosevelt. After two or three O’Toole Blasts, Roosevelt, obviously shaken, turned to a Secret Service man. Within minutes the agent was at Patsy’s side. “I’m sure you’d like to do the President a favor,” he said. “He’d like you to move to the other side of the field, and Mr. Griffith has already made the arrangements.”

Not long after his encounter with the President, O’Toole’s 25 years of bellowing for the Tigers necessitated a throat operation. His incredible roar became just a memory. But when he had his voice, Patsy O’Toole was the champion of all of baseball’s leather-lunged fans who deserve a niche in any history of the colorful national pastime.

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