The Tampa Bay Rays this year handed out cowbells to its fans, and by the end of the year the rooters from the visiting teams would hear a cacaphony of noise every time they tried to organize a cheer. The Rays fans don’t know it, but the cowbell idea came from Stu Sternberg, the Rays’ owner, who was a big fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Bums’ number one fan was a woman by the name of Hilda Chester, and she would bring a big, loud cowbell to the game, and you could hear her all through the ballpark. Here’s an excerpt from my book BUMS about Hilda and the fans of the Brooklyn Dodgers:
Under [Lee] MacPhail and [Leo] Durocher, the [Brooklyn] Dodgers finally became a team deserving of its loyal and worshipful fans, many of whom had been waiting since the early 1920s for the Dodgers to once again become competitive. Charley Ebbets had always thought first of the fans, but when he died in 1925, though the fans had stuck by their team through thin and thin, management hadn’t reciprocated. The players, however, recognized that the Brooklyn fans were special, and often they went out of their way to show their appreciation.
….There was an informal, nonprofessional quality to Ebbets Field and the Dodgers. It was very personal. The fans loved the players. The players loved the fans. All a player had to do was walk out onto the field, and the fans would begin waving at him and hollering to be waved back at, and they would throw down little vials of holy water and religious medals, and when a ballplayer had a birthday, there would always be one or two homemade cakes in the clubhouse for him.
In Ebbets Field there might be 5,000 fans in the park, but it would sound like ten times as many. Five fanatical fans that made up the Dodgers Symphony would play and dance on top of the dugout and walk through the stands playing their ragtime music, and when the umps came out before the game, they would play “Three Blind Mice,” until the year when the National League added a fourth umpire to the crew, lousing up their little joke. If an opposing pitcher was knocked out, the symphony would razz him by playing “The Worms Crawl In, The Worms Crawl Out,” and they would wait for an opposing batter who made [an] out to return to the dugout and sit down, and just as the player’s backside would touch the bench, the cymbal from the symphony would crash, and the Dodger fans would applaud and chuckle at the player’s embarrassment.
….Never had there been such involvement …. At Ebbets Field before each game, the fans would line up along the railing, and the players would walk along and shake hands with everybody and sign autographs and chat about that afternoon’s game. For many of the fans, the Dodgers became part of their family. And every once in a while, the Dodgers made a fan part of theirs.
IRVING RUDD: “I remember when I was a kid, I used to major in hooky. I would run off to the ballpark at the drop of a hat. And one day …. I was hanging around outside the ballpark, holding my scrapbook under my arm, when Al Lopez came out of the clubhouse. He was a kid catcher, about twenty years old, and he’s got with him a guy by the name of Hollis Thurston, who had been a good pitcher with the White Sox, and a guy by the name of Louis ‘Buck’ Newsom, who was Bobo later, Jake Flowers, and Clise [Dudley] …. Lopez says to me, ‘Hey, kid, how ’bout going to dinner with us?’ I said, ‘Gee, I have to ask my mother.’ He said, ‘Give her a call.’ Who had a phone in those days? …. I told him we didn’t have a phone. They asked me where I lived, and I told them, ‘Powell Street in Brownsville,’ and Lopez said, ‘We’ll drop you off on the way home. You ask your mother.’ And he added, ‘Wash your face, too, and put another pair of pants on.’ I was a sloppy kid in those days.
“So we got into the car … and they drove me to Brownsville.
“I went upstairs, and my mother came down to say hello. ‘Take care of my son,’ she says. They say, ‘Sure, Mom, don’t worry about it.’ And they took me to a Spanish restaurant near the St. George Hotel. Lopez knew about this joint. I had arroz con pollo. And after they fed me, they brought me back to the hotel, and we sat around until midnight bullshitting about baseball. And then they brought me home.
“It was so different then. I remember going up to Dazzy Vance, when he was leaving the ballpark. I said, ‘Hey, Daz, that pitch you threw in the ninth inning…’ He said, ‘Kid, let me tell you about it. Now, you got a guy like Hack Wilson playing against you…’ and as we walked, we talked about the game. And that’s the way it was then.”
….The Dodger fans were part of the show, part of the sights and sounds that made Ebbets Field so special. Some of those fans became almost as renowned as the players they came to watch. The other Dodger fans may not have known their names, but they could count on them being there and adding to the noise and craziness.
….The most famous of the Dodger fans — perhaps the most famous in baseball history, was named Hilda Chester, a plump, pink-faced woman with a mop of stringy gray hair. Hilda began her thirty-year love affair with the Dodgers in the 1920s. She had been a softball star as a kid, or so she said, and she once told a reporter that her dream was to play in the big leagues or start up a softball league for women. Thwarted as an athlete, she turned to rooting. As a teenager she would stand outside the offices of the Brooklyn Chronicle every day, waiting to hear the Dodger score. After a while she became known to the sportswriters, who sometimes gave her passes to the games. In her twenties Hilda worked as a peanut sacker for the Stevens Brothers … who owned most of the concession stands across the country …. [I]n her capacity as peanut sacker she was able to work and attend the Dodger games. By the 1930s she was attending games regularly, screaming lustily, one of hundreds of Ebbets Field regulars.
Shortly after suffering a heart attack, she began her rise to fame. Her physician forbade her from yelling, and when she was sufficiently recovered, she returned to Ebbets Field with a frying pan and an iron ladle. Banging away on the frying pan from her seat in the bleachers, she made so much noise that everyone, including the players, noticed her. It was the Dodger players in the late 1930s who presented Hilda Chester with the first of her now-famous brass cowbells.
In 1941 Hilda suffered a second heart attack, and when she entered the hospital this time, she was an important enough personality that Durocher and several of the players went to visit her. As a result Durocher became Hilda’s special hero, and by the mid-1940s she was almost the team mascot. Sometimes during short road trips, Hilda even went with the team….
During the games Hilda lived in the bleacher seats with her bell. Durocher had given her a lifetime pass to the grandstand, but she preferred sitting in the bleachers with the entourage of fellow rowdies. With her fish peddler voice, she’d say, “You know me. Hilda wit da bell. Ain’t it trillin’? Home wuz never like dis, mac.” When disturbed her favorite line was, “Eacha heart out, ya bum?”
One night in Philadelphia, where she had faithfully followed the Dodgers a local fan began criticizing Dixie Walker, calling him a has-been. “You’re all through!” the Philly fan shouted.
“Oh yeah?” Hilda yelled at him, pointing to Walker in right field. “Look where he is, and look where you are.”
Hilda had a voice that could be heard all over the park. It stood out above all the other voices, and the players could hear her raspy call followed by the clanging of her cowbell all through a game. At least once Hilda even was involved in a game’s outcome.
PETE REISER: “I remember one time, it was either in ’41 or ’42, we were in the seventh inning of a game. I was going to take my position in center field, and I hear that voice: ‘Hey, Reiser!’ It was Hilda, There could be 30,000 people there yelling at once, but Hilda was the one you’d hear. I look up, and she’s dropping something onto the grass. ‘Give this note to Leo,’ she yells. So I pick it up and put it in my pocket. At the end of the inning I start heading in.
“Now [Larry] MacPhail used to sit in a box right next to the dugout, and for some reason he waved to me as I came in, and I said, ‘Hi, Larry,’ as I went into the dugout. I gave Hilda’s note to Leo and sat down. Next thing I know he’s getting somebody hot in the bullpen; I think it was Casey. Meanwhile, Wyatt’s pitching a hell of a ballgame for us. In the next inning, the first guy hits the ball pretty good and goes out. The next guy gets a base hit. Here comes Leo. He takes Wyatt out and brings in Casey. Casey gets rocked a few times, and we just did win the game, just did win it.
“….[A]fter [the]game … he goes into his office and slams the door without a word. We’re all sitting there waiting for him to come out. Finally the door opens and out he comes. He points to me.
“‘Don’t you ever give me another note from MacPhail as long as you play for me.’
“I said, ‘I didn’t give you any note from MacPhail.’
“‘Don’t tell me!’ he yells. ‘You handed me a note in the seventh inning.’
“‘That was from Hilda,’ I said.
“‘From Hilda?” he screams. I thought he was going to turn purple. ‘You mean to say that wasn’t from MacPhail?’
“I hadn’t even looked at the note, just handed it to him. Leo had heard me say something to MacPhail when I came in and figured the note was from Larry. It seems what the note said was: ‘Get Casey hot. Wyatt’s losing it.’ So what you had was somebody named Hilda Chester sitting in the centerfield bleachers changing pitchers for you.”