One hundred twenty-five years ago this month, a group of Boston baseball fans traveled to Baltimore armed with fish horns and police rattles to celebrate their beloved Beaneaters (later renamed the Braves), who played the Orioles in a series that decided the 1897 National League pennant. Boston won the series and the title, and those fans came to see themselves as a good luck charm. That weekend launched a traveling band of New England baseball fanatics known as the Royal Rooters — and the start of our modern expectations of the behavior of American sports fans.
For the next two decades, the Rooters traveled with the Braves and the Red Sox as they won six World Series and an additional pennant race. The Rooters were the first American sports fans to become nationally famous, thanks to rituals that included pregame parades with marching bands, stomping and dancing on dugouts, and relentless singing of their signature song, “Tessie.” The Rooters received newspaper coverage from Florida to Montana and were powerful enough to have a Red Sox employee fired after the 1912 season for neglecting to save their customary seats for Game 7 of the World Series. (A near riot ensued when the Rooters discovered their seats occupied.) In 1917, the American League gave them tickets to the Series as a “baseball institution of twenty years’ standing,” even though neither Boston team was playing.
Americans had paid to attend sporting events since at least the early 1800s, and for most of that time attendance carried a stain of disrepute because it was associated with drinking, gambling, and violence. Rabid supporters were called kranks or fanatics; the most famous fans during the 1800s were eccentric millionaires and actors who enjoyed being linked to such a marginalized form of entertainment.
Most Rooters fit neither category. They were young and middle-aged white men who pushed the boundaries of acceptable behavior with their heckling, wagering, and preening for photographers. They may not have been millionaires, but they had means. Traveling with Boston’s baseball teams required a significant income; the cost of the 1903 trip to Pittsburgh for the first World Series was $100, which was almost two months’ salary for the average American worker of the time. Many Rooters participated in multiple trips, including a California spring training excursion in 1911 and five additional World Series between 1912 and 1918.
Some in the media — especially outside Boston — found their behavior repugnant. The Sporting News called them “braying” and “clowning seekers.” But gradually, the press became more admiring. During the 1916 World Series, a reporter for the Boston Journal noted that the Rooters were “outgrowing the cruder joys of their earlier years” and even giving cheering lessons to Brooklyn Dodgers fans who were enjoying their first championship contest.
The Rooters faded away after Boston’s run of baseball championships ended in 1918, but their legacy has persisted. In 2004, the Dropkick Murphys and sportswriter Jeff Horrigan created an updated version of “Tessie” that plays after every game at Fenway Park. The song begins, “Tessie is the Royal Rooters rally cry.”
In 2008, Dropkicks’ singer Ken Casey opened McGreevy’s, a sports bar on Boylston Street intended to replicate the look and feel of Rooter Michael T. “Nuf Ced” McGreevy’s Third Base Saloon. (McGreevy reportedly got his nickname by pounding on the bar and bellowing “’Nuf Ced!” to end sports debates.) The New England Historical Society has described him as “the Grandfather of Red Sox Nation,” and Peter Nash, in his book “Boston’s Royal Rooters,” calls him “perhaps the most influential baseball fan of all time.”
Perhaps, but he was not the most famous during the group’s heyday. That distinction belonged to John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, the congressman and, later, mayor of Boston, who led the Rooters on tours of the US Capitol and made an unsuccessful attempt to buy the Red Sox.
According to newspapers of the day, 19th-century baseball executives promoted their game as a “safety valve,” a “harmless outlet for pent up emotions” that positioned the game as a solution to problems created by the tensions of industrialization and urban growth.
Recalling the Rooters as rowdies and rabble-rousers reinforces this notion. It helps to normalize the idea of sports fandom as an escape from everyday life and decorum. Scholars have generally explained such behavior as a modern version of the bread and circus, the ancient Roman tradition of elites delivering food and entertainment to the masses to distract from the burdens of daily life.
But the Rooters’ actual experience challenged this concept. They didn’t need baseball as an outlet to vent their frustrations. They cheered for Boston’s teams out of commitment to their community and as a way to gain support from their friends and neighbors. The reasons we root for our favorite teams are more complicated than safety valves or bread and circuses, and anyone trying to understand the motivations of modern sports fans would do well to start by looking at the Royal Rooters.
Paul Ringel is a professor of history at High Point University in North Carolina. He is working on a book about the Royal Rooters.