THE ORIGINS OF THE BEST FANS IN BASEBALL
> I’m of the belief that St. Louis is the best baseball city in the world. It is home to three pro sports franchises, though none of them are nearly as popular as the Cardinals. A higher percentage of St. Louisans watch baseball than any other city, and within the context of their market, their team’s attendance vastly out-performs all others.
Unfortunately, many Cardinal fans have misinterpret “best baseball environment” to mean “best baseball fans.” What was once a nice little blue ribbon bestowed upon the city and its fans in a somewhat cliched fashion by media members has now morphed into arrogance run amok. It quite clearly reached its peak in this year’s playoffs, when the Cardinals’ victory over the sentimental favorite Pittsburgh Pirates in the first round prompted Drew Magary of Deadspin to write a satirical piece prodding the stereotypical Cardinal fan. The brushback by Cardinal fans was monumental, and it was clear that they had finally bought into what they had been told for so many years: They were the best fans, and they would see to it that no one would oppose the idea.
How did we get here? The notion of any fanbase having the Best Fans In Baseball is utterly ridiculous in the first place, so how did it become such a huge tenant of Cardinal fandom?
The first reference I could find to the existence of a superior fanbase for a sports team was from September of 1946. Conveniently it was baseball-related and conveniently it involved the Cardinals. The Red Sox had just lost a seven-game World Series to the Cardinals, and the New York Times ran an article about Boston fans which reads just like a modern day Bernie Miklasz column. Writer Harold Kaese described Red Sox fans in eerily familiar terms, calling them “intelligent” and “knowing,” praised attendance figures and quoted “players” as saying, “The best fans in the world are right here in Boston. They applaud visiting players more than any other fans in the league.” Thus the concept and parameters for Best Fans In Baseball were established.
The concept persisted somewhat as the years passed, permeating into different sports. But our oral history of the Best Fans In Baseball would be incomplete if we didn’t discover the origins of the term.
The first time it appeared in print was, naturally after a Cardinals game. Expos rightfielder Warren Cromartie hit a walk-off homerun off Bruce Sutter on June 8, 1982. Cromartie was booed earlier in the game by the Montreal crowd, but told the Southeast Missourian after the game, “They’ve been booing because they know I should be doing better. I still think they’re the Best Fans In Baseball.”
And thus the beast had a name. But again, Cromartie wasn’t talking about Cardinal fans here. In fact, the title was unofficially passed around quite a bit soon after. Ken Singleton drew cheers in Baltimore-Washington International Airport when he called Orioles fans the best fans in baseball in 1983. Royals manager Dick Howser called Kansas City’s the best in baseball in 1985 and GM Frank Cashen called Mets fans the best in 1986.
But the wheel finally stopped on Cardinals fans in 1987. While describing the incredible noise inside the Metrodome during the World Series against the Minnesota Twins, manager Whitey Herzog said, “I’ve got to be honest about it—that place was about five times louder than our place, and we’ve got the best fans in baseball.” The phrase came to be used from time to time in the Post-Dispatch in subsequent years, and by the early nineties had become popular lexicon in St. Louis. They had cornered the market early, and before long were the established and official Best Fans In Baseball.
But, as it always does, power corrupted the Cardinal fans. After being patted on the back for so long by the local and national media, managers and players come and gone and during every ESPN game they got, they eventually bought into the idea. No longer was it a nice, self-assuring little title for a relatively small metropolitan area to take solace in. Now it was a right; an ethos that needed to be defended. And then it was under assault in the form of backlash by people who had had enough of the aggrandizing.
And before you know it, “Best Fans In Baseball” was nothing but a running joke that Cardinal fans were never in on.