Some baseball fans were tickled by comedian Will Ferrell’s publicity stunt Thursday, which saw him taking the field to play his own form of ball for various teams at spring training. Others were appalled, calling it disrespectful, forgetting first that A. It’s just a game and B. The season hasn’t even started yet.
Just for the record, I know of a baseball-related publicity stunt that turned into something much more disrespectful.
It was the spring of 1979 and I was a reporter for the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette. Back then, the Journal-Gazette made no effort to hide its status as the Democratic paper in a two-newspaper town. The competing News-Sentinel was the grumpy GOP standard bearer, to the point of practically inventing Dan Quayle.
Anyway, Birch Bayh was the popular Democratic senator and he had been that forever. Nearly as popular was his wife, Marvella, who was an active player in public affairs and Democratic causes despite lingering illnesses and injuries stemming from an auto accident and a plane crash that injured Ted Kennedy.
Mrs. Bayh was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1971 and, after recovery, became a spokeswoman for the American Cancer Society. The cancer returned in 1978, and she died on April 24, 1979. She was only 46.
I was assigned to cover her funeral, though it was all the way across the state in Terre Haute. The service was in an old, large brick church on the edge of the Indiana State University campus. The press corps was large that day, at least a couple of dozen, with several TV cameras included. The church was packed. I sat in the balcony.
The eulogy was by Mrs. Bayh’s favorite preacher, Oral Roberts. My recollection was that he was about halfway into it when it happened.
From my perch, I saw that several of the reporters were leaving. One by one, the TV cameras filed out as well, quickly. There was quite a stir down below. Roberts was obviously perplexed.
As a longtime practitioner of pack journalism, I ventured outside to see what was up. One of the local reporters clued me in.
“It’s Larry Bird,” he said, excitedly.
“What about Larry Bird?” I asked.
I knew quite a bit about Larry Bird because he was one of the two biggest stars in college basketball that year. Just a month earlier, he had led the Indiana State Sycamores to a second-place finish in the NCAA championship, losing a close final game to a Michigan State team led by Magic Johnson.
“He’s playing baseball,” the local replied.
“Huh?” I replied, thinking he had said basketball.
“He’s playing baseball right now. You’d better get over there.”
Like the rest of the pack, I made my way a couple of blocks to the baseball field, where the story unfolded.
Bird, all 6-feet-8 of him, was playing first base that day for the Indiana State baseball team. He was a good baseball player, with two hits that day, but he wasn’t part of the team. It was a stunt to help build a crowd and some publicity for the Sycamore baseball squad.
There was no reason for me to stick around. The wire services would provide my paper with more than it needed to know about Bird’s baseball prowess. So I scooted back to the church.
Oral Roberts was just finishing his eulogy and sermon, a performance that surely topped Bird’s on that day. I was one of the first reporters to return to the church, and there were regular funeral-goers who wanted to know what was up. I told them. A couple were amused, at least a little, but most were upset, more upset than anybody got when Will Ferrell took the field Thursday.
Can’t say as I blame them.