George Vecsey announced over the weekend that he is stepping down from writing his high-profile sports column in The New York Times, though he refused to use what he called “the r-word.” This gives me a chance to be more gracious to George than he ever was to me.
So, George, I want to wish you and your wife many additional years of happiness together, and I thank you for 30 years of sharing your views on sports and life. I know it often isn’t easy to put your opinions out there for the world to critique.
You may not know this, but George and I have a small history together. George used to write disparagingly of people he called “corporate shrimp-eaters.” These are the people who, according to George, were responsible for the conversion of professional sports into big-money operations, where players signed contracts for tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars, ticket prices for everyday fans soared, and shrimp-eaters watched it all from luxury boxes while dining on, well, shrimp.
If he were writing about those same people today, I suppose George would just call them “1 percenters.” But George was ahead of his time.
I took offense at George’s remarks. I have never, to my recollection, eaten a shrimp at a ball park, but it was pretty plain that he was talking about me. I am a Times reader. My wife and I have masters’ degrees in business (which we paid for ourselves), and we earn more than the average sportswriter. On the other hand, we don’t attend sporting events for free as part of our job; we pay for tickets, including the two years of season tickets our firm had for the New York Mets when they fielded good teams in 2000 and 2001. We freely shared those tickets with our entire staff. Their salaries at that time would have made them only occasional shrimp eaters.
I thought George’s tone was rude. I thought his insults were gratuitous, especially since a lot of Times readers, and the ones that are most valuable to the paper and its advertisers, are members of the high-income and highly educated group that George disparaged. I thought his portrayal of himself as an ordinary fan – if one who had free access to press boxes and locker rooms, training camps and playing fields, sports legends and sports moguls – was misguided. And I thought his analysis of the impact of big, entertainment-industry money on professional sports was patently and obviously wrong.
The 1960s was the last full decade in which baseball players were indentured to their teams for life under the infamous “reserve clause,” and their salaries reflected the dearth of their professional options. This was the antediluvian era upon which George liked to look back fondly. I was a youngster in the Bronx in those days, and I could get into the bleachers at Yankee Stadium for 75 cents, or buy a box seat for the enormous splurge of $4. Usually I settled for a reserved seat in the middle deck for $2.25.
If that was a golden age, not many people seemed to know it at the time. Even the great Yankees teams before 1965 seldom filled more than half of the 67,000 seats that the stadium then offered. When those players aged and the team dropped to the American League cellar in 1966, the team fired longtime broadcaster Red Barber (here, calling Roger Maris’ 61st home run in 1961 on WPIX-TV) for having the audacity to report on the air that a particular game attracted just over 400 paying customers. Note the empty seats in the bleachers in this rare clip from a televised 1967 game against the Boston Red Sox.
Fans were not collectively staying home to watch the games on the low-def, mostly black-and-white televisions of that era, either. Many games, particularly weekday road games and even weekday afternoon games (a rarity nowadays but more common then), were not even televised.
Big money has brought big success for professional sports. Athletes, despite a shameful wave of doping around the turn of the century, have never been better. Baseball attracts far more fans per game than it did in my youth, despite much higher ticket prices. Stadiums are vastly more comfortable and pleasant to visit. The National Football League just signed a hugely lucrative long-term television deal. Fans of all major pro sports can see virtually any game they want, of any team they want, of any major professional sport. They can watch on their computers, on their cable- or satellite-equipped televisions, and even on their mobile phones.
Instead of offering his views on sports for the fans, George chose, too often, to critique the fans themselves, and he did it in a condescending and ill-informed way. His farewell column notes with pride that the opinions expressed were his own. Or as George put it, “nobody told me what to think.” That’s as it should be. But newspapers, even columnists, have editors for a reason. Somebody should have told George that he should, at the least, think twice before insulting readers he had never met.
I tried, in my own way, to help George see the light. It was 2007, and I rented two Yankee Stadium luxury boxes for a company outing. I invited George to join us. We did not have shrimp on our menu, but I welcomed him to share a hot dog and meet the Palisades Hudson staff and their families, the shrimp-eaters whom George had mentioned at least a dozen times in his column.
George wrote back politely to let me know that he had other commitments that evening. I was sorry to hear that. We would have received George as graciously as we could, and would have enjoyed his company. He might have enjoyed ours, too. Life, after all, is a journey. For George Vecsey and his wife Marianne, I hope the remainder of the journey is long and rewarding, and replete with as many crustaceans as they may wish to consume.