Baseball season is once again at hand. It always seems that at least a couple games each year are made memorable by events of historic significance. Usually a great exhibition of pitching or hitting, an amazing catch or an odd-ball play will inscribe a game into infinity at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
I’ve been to Cooperstown a couple of times. I love the Hall of Fame. But I have yet to see anything there about the most memorable game I ever attended.
It’s been almost 10 years now since that July evening at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium. I was there for a game between the 1983-cellar-dwelling New York Mets and the equally inept Reds.
At that time, the San Diego Chicken was a famous bird on tour of major and minor league ballparks across the country. On that muggy evening on the banks of the Ohio River, I joined some 16,000 others in witnessing the first (and only) flight of the Cincinnati Chicken.
The chicken was just a flash in the pan for an inning or so, but it sure knew how to dress up a game.
It was somewhere in about the fifth frame. The Reds were ahead something like 6-1.
Suddenly, out of the clear blue field level seats came a rubber chicken. You read that right, folks, a rubber chicken!
It came flapping end-over-end from an unseen section. It swooped down on an unsuspecting patron of the game and bopped him from behind.
The crowd was flabbergasted. Shocked. This disturbance was a degrading chicken-hearted affront on our beloved national pastime. Surely, it was a precedent not to be repeated. And not to be repeated it was.
Until, though, the assaulted fan grasped the chicken around its scrawny rubber uppers, looked at it for a second with consternation and contempt, and then, in a plucky move, winged it over to another section along the third base side. The dumbfounded crowd, nervously watching and waiting the fan’s response, roared with approval.
The next fellow got it and whipped it down front toward the Mets dugout. Everyone started standing and waving, wanting to get his hands on the rubber chicken.
The next several fans flung the featherless wonder upward toward the mezzanine level. Again the crowd roared with excitement as fans grabbed at the chicken, plucking it out of mid-air with one-handed snags around the neck and legs.
People were going at the chicken in the worst kind of way. I’ve never seen such fowl behavior at a ball game. People were running around like … well … a you-know-what with its head cut off. Everybody from home plate out to left field was waving and calling for the next strong-armed chicken flinger to fling it his way.
Back and forth, up and down it went throughout the stands. The excitement continued to build. The chicken reached new heights; it made its way up to the yellow loge seats directly below the upper deck. Then some beer-bellied guy, who must have thought he was quarterback for the football Bengals, let loose a cockeyed throw out over the seats.
Everybody froze like a Perdue fryer in back of the Frigidaire. All eyes fixated on the chicken’s flight. Time moved in slow motion.
It was a tremendous chicken heave. No doubt about it. The chicken rolled and whirled. Pinwheeled and cartwheeled over and over in the air. Its little neck and legs just flapped and flopped. Fans reached up in vain to pull it in as the flung hung forever in the glare of the stadium lights. Until, at last, finally, alas, it came out of the sky and landed ground zero, smack dab in front of the Mets dugout on the … gasp …
FIELD OF PLAY!
Now all this time, it was quite clear that the perplexed Mets knew nothing about chicken cheering ( … or maybe they did) and tossed the fowl-run-afoul into the dugout.
The fans booed, and quickly grew incensed! It started, slow and low, at first, like rolling thunder or the Bomb. And built into a crescendo. The entire third-base crowd crowed, “We want the chicken! We want the chicken!”
What were the Mets to do? Here they were in a strange town far from the safety of their New York City streets. This was the town a nervous Paul McCartney had thrown up in while a kiddie riot occurred outside the Beatles hotel room nearly two decades earlier. This was the town where rock fans were trampled to death trying to get into a Who concert.
The Mets had to give the people what they wanted. So out flopped the chicken. And some more. And some more. “Wait a second,” the crowd collectively thought, “what gives with the chicken?”
While in the dugout, one of the Mets obviously had tried to fricassee the little feller and cut its rubber extremities off. Though we couldn’t see in to identify the perpetrator of this rotten deed, I always had a hunch that it was Rusty Staub, a New York player at the time. He was a gour-Met cook, don’tcha know. But no matter who did it, this act proved to be the chicken coupe de grace.
The chicken, in four parts, was tossed around a few more times. But it just wasn’t the same. The crestfallen fans sighed and went back to watching the dull ball game. One usher, sensing it was safe, then snatched the body part away from an innocent little boy who had picked it up from an aisle where it had landed.
The scoreboard even got into the act by announcing that a limited supply of chicken sandwiches were available at the concession stands.
Sadly, the Cincinnati Chicken was no more. It never made another appearance as far as I know.
A lot has changed since that Reds-Mets game a decade ago. Both teams went on to better seasons. Both won a World Series in the years that followed. This year, the reactionary Reds are even changing those ugly uniforms with the elastic waistbands (baseball’s fashion equivalent of the leisure suit) that they’ve worn for 20 years.
I’ve seen a lot ball games since then, but the Cincinnati Chicken remains high on my list of great baseball moments. Though no record of it was kept, the Cincinnati Chicken surely will be remembered dearly by the fans that Saturday night. The uneventful 7-3 game, on the other hand, is forgotten in all but the pencil-scrawled score books.
It’s a sad omission for baseball historians and fans who pay homage to the Game at the Hall of Fame. It would have been a feather in baseball’s cap to have saved even the red rubbery crest from atop the chicken’s hollow noggin.
Where else would’ve been as appropriate a final roosting place for the Cincinnati Chicken as Cooperstown?
Text and illustration by Richard G. Biever, senior editor of Electric Consumer and a long-time New York Mets fan from Southern Indiana (go figure).