The Doctor Is in the Park

Kristine Heykants

If a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it fall, will it still be in a position to ask for $10 million a year? Not likely, yet despite all the talk in recent years about escalating salaries and the various economic indignities professional baseball has inflicted on its fans (including, most recently, the announcement that baseball's pooh-bahs intend to double World Series ticket prices this year), there is still precious little in the way of proper attention paid to those same fans and their importance to the game and its history.

There have been legions of legendary fans down through the years, from the unruly "bleacher bum" contingents in parks around the major leagues to colorful individuals such as Ebbets Field regulars Jack Pierce, a crazed Cookie Lavagetto devotee who would prime himself with scotch, purchase 10 seats, and surround himself with helium balloons; and Hilda Chester, whose signature was a pair of cowbells and incessant full-throated chatter. Yet the fact remains that there aren't any fans in the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, and the paying customer is woefully underrepresented in the game's extensive literature.

Which is a shame, because every franchise in the big leagues has certainly produced plenty of colorful and worthy candidates for fan immortality. And there is probably no fan alive who is more deserving of Hall of Fame status than current Twins season-ticket holder Seth Hawkins, a.k.a. "Dr. Fan," the 56-year-old retired college professor, "nationally recognized expert" on President James A. Garfield, former commissioner of intercollegiate chess, and owner/curator/resident of the Julian H. Sleeper House, a museum of Victorian decorative arts in St. Paul's Summit/Crocus Hill neighborhood. Even the briefest glimpse at Hawkins's sprawling curriculum vitae provides a jaw-dropping chronicle of baseball history in the last half of the 20th century.

Consider that Hawkins has been present for every 3,000th hit recorded in the major leagues since 1959 (there have been 13), from Henry Aaron's milestone in 1970 to Paul Molitor's entry to the select club in Kansas City in 1996. He also witnessed Aaron's record-breaking 715th home run and Pete Rose's 4,000th hit, as well as numbers 4,191 and 4,192, the hits that tied and broke Ty Cobb's all-time career mark. He was on hand for Phil Niekro's and Don Sutton's 300th victories, and when both Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton blew past Walter Johnson's career strike out record of 3,508. And in what Hawkins calls "the most important pure accident" of his heavily orchestrated and elaborately planned quest to witness baseball history, he was in the stands when Mike Schmidt hit his 500th career home run.

Then there are the ballparks. To date, Hawkins has seen regular-season games in all 58 ballparks used for major-league play since 1950, including such far-flung locales as Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City (where the Brooklyn Dodgers played seven games in 1956 and '57), Cashman Field in Las Vegas, Aloha Stadium in Honolulu, and the Estadio de Beisbol in Monterrey, Mexico. He was in attendance for the last New York Giants game at the Polo Grounds, the first-ever game at Camden Yards in Baltimore, and the first night game played at Wrigley Field. Naturally, he has already jetted off to games at the new stadiums in Phoenix and Tampa Bay this season.

"At some level it's not even about me anymore," Hawkins says. "There no longer seems to be a choice involved; when these events materialize I simply have to go. At this point there's this snowball that keeps rolling."

The Dr. Fan odyssey had its genesis in a New York boyhood in the 1950s. Hawkins grew up in Jamaica Queens, Long Island, the son of a railroad man and a mother who was an ardent baseball fan. As a child he regularly attended games at all three New York ballparks, and admits that he was never a partisan of any particular team (a staunch neutrality he maintains to this day), although he says that he was always partial to the Polo Grounds. "The Giants' management always saved a few rows behind home plate for general-admission tickets," Hawkins remembers. "If you ran like hell when the gates opened you could get a seat right behind home plate for $1.25." Hawkins was there in right field at the Polo Grounds when Willie Mays made his immortal catch of Vic Wertz's long drive to center in the 1954 World Series. While that event almost certainly fostered the boy's growing obsession with baseball history and his desire to bear witness, it was actually a trip he took with his mother two years earlier that planted the first seeds.

"My mother had heard that the Boston Braves might be moving, and she had the foresight to recognize that there was some historic import involved in such a move," Hawkins says. "So, through my father's job on the railroad we were able to take a free train ride up to Boston. I was 10 years old at the time, and that proved to be the only chance I ever had to see a game at Braves Field." By the next season, the Braves had relocated to Milwaukee and Hawkins's lifelong quest to experience firsthand the widest possible range of baseball history was under way.  

After high school Hawkins stuck around New York to get his bachelor's degree from St. John's, and he eventually ended up with a Ph.D. in rhetoric and public address from Bowling Green. After stints with a couple of private colleges in the Northeast he landed in New Haven, teaching in the speech and communications department at Southern Connecticut University, where he stuck around for 35 years, offering classes in subjects ranging from sports broadcasting to international TV criticism. "Public-television junkies and Dr. Who fans packed my classrooms," he says. "The dumb athletes were warned to avoid my classes, as I would tolerate no excuses for late papers--when the clock runs out you can't score, I'd tell them, using an analogy I thought perhaps they'd understand. I must also say that I always treated the smart athletes with complete respect."

New Haven, it turned out, was a convenient launching pad for Dr. Fan excursions, allowing Hawkins relatively easy access to most of the teams on the East Coast. When Carl Yastrzemski was counting down to his 3,000th hit, the Red Sox were in the midst of a long home stand, and Hawkins took the train up to Boston every day as Yaz pressed for the elusive hit. "He was clearly rattled," Hawkins remembers, "and it took him the entire week. That was the most time-consuming of all the events, but thankfully there weren't any difficult logistics involved."

George Brett, in contrast, made things easy for Hawkins, going four-for-four with the 3,000th coming on his final hit of the game. Lou Brock got two hits a day for four days on his final assault of 3,000, but came up just short in the last game of a series at New York's Shea Stadium, forcing Hawkins to climb on a plane for St. Louis to witness the milestone. Eddie Murray and Dave Winfield each picked up their 3,000th hits in the Metrodome, allowing Hawkins to catch the express bus near his home in St. Paul for the half-hour ride to the Dome. "I thought Paul Molitor was going to save me some money as well," Hawkins says. But when Molitor's bid to notch his 3,000th in Minnesota fell just two shy, Hawkins dutifully boarded an all-night Greyhound bus for Kansas City and was on hand the next evening for the historic hit.

Obviously, lots of planning goes into Hawkins's baseball junkets, but the basic Dr. Fan modus operandi is really pretty simple. "I wait until the player gets within five hits and then I start making arrangements," Hawkins says. "I can't tell you how much I miss the old People's Express airlines. They were made for me. I could just go to the airport and get on a plane. It was particularly handy when I was chasing Pete Rose during the countdown to Cobb's record. I flew to Chicago, where he tied the record at Wrigley Field and then struck out against Lee Smith in the ninth, so I flew on to Cincinnati. I had originally planned on Cincinnati all along, but Rose got a little more efficient down the stretch, and I ended up in Chicago a couple days ahead of schedule."

It's certainly not easy being Dr. Fan, and it's certainly not cheap; yet Hawkins says that the only scare he's ever had, in terms of almost not getting into an event, was for the 1987 World Series in Minneapolis. "It was an event for me," Hawkins says, "because it featured the first indoor World Series games. Tickets were very hard to come by." He insists that the most money he's ever had to pay to secure tickets to a game was $400 for the first World Series in Toronto. "First World Series game in Canada," Hawkins says. "I couldn't miss that." Which begs the question: What does and does not constitute a can't-miss Dr. Fan event?

"Three thousand hits," Hawkins says. "That's mandatory. And 4,000 and 5,000, of course. I don't know what it is, but 3,000 hits has always had a fascination for me. New stadiums are mandatory. My rule now is that I need to get there in the first year the stadium is in operation. All the other things--the 500 home runs, 300 victories, the individual records--I'll generally do if they don't represent crazy hardship. Events like that can be very hard to predict, and difficult to plan."  

For a time Hawkins was troubled by bad dreams that Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs would end up getting their 3,000th hits on the same day, but that's no longer even a remote possibility, and times are good for Dr. Fan. He makes the bus trip down to the Dome for most Twins games, hosts a "Great Speeches" series at the University Club on the second Tuesday of every month, and figures that sometime in September he'll be getting on a plane headed for some National League city, looking to add the single-season home run record to his personal scrapbook.

"It doesn't bother me in the least that I might have to run up my frequent-flier miles again," Hawkins says. "I haven't worn down the numbers on my credit card yet, and I'm prepared for complications. When someone gets to 58, I'm sure I'll once again be running for the departure gate."

St. Paul, however, is his home base, which is a story in itself. Although Hawkins's peripatetic career brought him to Minnesota on Dr. Fan excursions from time to time (games at old Met stadium and the 1987 and 1991 World Series), it wasn't until his retirement as a professor at Southern Connecticut University in 1993 that he relocated here, for a reason that had nothing to do with baseball.

"St. Paul had the largest preserved Victorian district in the country," he says. "I had been collecting Victorian decorative-arts furnishings for many years, and the Julian Sleeper house was on the market so I bought it and moved here. It was the perfect fit. I've basically been living in the 1880s for much of my adult life, so why not take it as far as I can? Right after the Civil War, America became a very prosperous country, the economy was booming, professional baseball was just getting started, and there were so many interesting things going on in art and architecture. It all fits."

Hawkins's house is a meticulously preserved museum (it is literally a museum, open by appointment) of Victoriana, complete with an astonishing collection of original East Lake furniture, a carved slate fireplace, stuffed owls ("I have a dozen that used to be alive," Hawkins says), Bradbury & Bradbury wallpaper, and a sprawling shrine to James A. Garfield. "Garfield was the subject of a quick and easy Ph.D. thesis," Hawkins allows, "and one thing led to another. He was also one of the great honest presidents in our history." Among the Garfield memorabilia there is one item that seems to give Hawkins particular satisfaction: the business card of Garfield's assassin. Charles J. Guiteau, the card reads, Attorney. "Guiteau was the only white-collar person ever to assassinate a president," Hawkins informs a visitor.

Given Hawkins's lifelong relationship with baseball and his unique connection with its history, there is little in the way of baseball memorabilia in evidence in the house. Most of Hawkins's real keepsakes--his scorebooks, with each historic ticket stub pasted in the pages--are kept in storage, but in one upstairs room there are a few characteristic mementos: a pair of Toronto Blue Jays feather dusters, an engraving of the old Boston Red Stockings, a ball autographed by the one-armed outfielder Pete Gray. "A lot of people who see that ask the obvious question," Hawkins says. "How did he hold it to sign it? The answer is, between his legs." Hawkins also calls attention to a framed cigar label featuring a portrait of someone named Harry Pulliam. "Pulliam was the only league president ever to commit suicide," Hawkins says. "He got badgered by the owners, so he snuffed himself."

These days, with toadies installed in the commissioner's and the league presidents' offices, the owners have moved from mere badgering into blackmail, with the result that there are now entire franchises on suicide watch. What keeps baseball alive despite its greed and avarice are the memories and fascination it continues to evoke for a dwindling but still sizable segment of the population--people, more or (mostly) less, like Dr. Fan. At most any Twins home game, he will be in his customary seat behind home plate at the Metrodome, sitting alone hunched over his scorebook with headphones clamped on his ears. He's an attentive fan, but hardly demonstrative; no one would suspect his obsessive need to give witness to the grand moments of our national pastime. Restless fans are more likely to draw his ire than an umpire's call.

"People certainly wouldn't find it interesting to go to a game with me," he admits. "I like to go alone, to keep score, to keep pitch counts, to listen on the radio. People might look at me and wonder, 'Is he enjoying himself?' And my response to that is, 'Not likely in the sense that you might understand it, but, yes, very much.'"

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