I walk through the turnstile on Yawkey Way, and a woman hands me a piece of cloth, about 15 by 18 inches. It’s red with a large blue circle in the center. “B strong” it says, the “B” capitalized in the unmistakable and proprietary font of the Boston Red Sox.
“What’s this for?” I mutter to no one in particular. It’s Game One of the American League Championship Series, Red Sox versus Detroit, and it looks to be a cool night. Perhaps it’s to help keep me warm? A little small, I think. A seat cushion? Probably not; it’s too thin to be much good. Maybe a souvenir washcloth then — hardball memories and scrubbed face all-in-one? But the cloth looks fragile, the logo ready to start peeling upon any rough use.
Mystified, I take my seat. In the middle of the first inning, the answer to the puzzle is revealed. A few fans, one corner of the cloth gripped in their hands, are twirling it around. Oh no, I realize. It’s the Terrible Towel.
The Terrible Towel is the 1975 invention of Myron Cope, a radio broadcaster for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Originally intended as a gimmick to promote the station, the black and gold towels caught on with fans. Watch a Steelers home game now and the stadium is one eye-popping churn of textiles. The idea — now known more generically as rally towels — quickly spread to other NFL teams and eventually to other spectator sports. The Detroit Tigers are one of those teams. At home games during the playoffs fans vigorously waved their white towels, the unfortunate symbolism of a white flag of surrender apparently lost on them. No matter. Fans most everywhere seem to love them. They are, I guess, an ersatz way of expressing their individuality, kind of like comedian Steve Martin’s old routine about the nonconformist’s Oath. “I promise to be different!” he calls, and the audience repeats it back. “I promise to be unique!” and again the audience repeats it back.
Boston fans have, for the most part, seemed immune to this pressure to conform. It’s part of the city’s charm, part of what makes us unique. Other venues, perhaps not thinking their product appealing enough, are pumping up the sound and lights to try to get the crowd into the action. There are the insistent signs (“Make some noise!”), the goofy sideshows (“The Kiss Cam!”), the highly amped music that accompanies every moment, as if the game just can’t be played without a soundtrack.
Fenway is hardly sin-free in this regard. There’s “Sweet Caroline,” of course, and the wave, but at least the latter is self-generated — usually by a few inebriated souls in the bleachers — and not something forced upon us. Then too the music is definitely more present than ever before; does every Red Sox player really need a theme song? But at least we don’t have anything as bizarre as Atlanta’s Tomahawk Chop, with its thousands of fans moving their arms in unison all the while uttering something that sounds like the death throes of a cow. Instead, for the most part, Boston fans sit and watch, standing at climatic moments, making impromptu cheers (the far-from-clever “Let’s go Red Sox” being the most popular), clapping and shouting as the moment seems fit.
Trying to foist a rally towel on us is an insult. Leave aside the fact that, designed for the quintessentially American sport, they’re made in China. Leave aside too the expropriation of “Boston Strong” — a Marathon bombing exhortation of resilience and hope. But what’s the message when the team hands out rally towels? Does the team somehow think we’re not doing enough?
To the credit of the fans, most refuse to comply. Throughout the game perhaps a few hundred wave their towels. The rest of us tuck them away or just toss them to the floor, letting them lie with the scattered peanut shells and overturned beer. It’s not that we don’t understand their purpose; we’re not stupid. But we’re not going to let ourselves get pushed around. After 101 years of cheering on the team at Fenway Park, we don’t need to become some Pittsburgh knockoff.
Tom Keane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.