Signs Of The Times

added 2/12/2010 by Bob Hulsey

Sign. Sign. Everywhere a sign.
Blockin' out the scenery, breakin' my mind.
"Do this, don't do that."
Can't you read the sign?

"Signs" - Five Man Electrical Band, 1971.

If you look, at this picture of the Astrodome from 1965:

And this picture of the Astrodome from 1998:

...one of the differences you will spot is the number of signs lining the outfield fence. Bring up the issue of signs at the ol' ballpark and most fans groan at the thought, especially the "purists".

Many of the ballparks in the first half of the 20th Century had signs on the outfield fences and walls. This was particularly so once parks no longer roped off the outfield dimensions where people stood or sat in one of those newfangled automobiles and watched the game much like an early forerunner of the drive-in movie.

But the signs stopped becoming fashionable in major league parks somewhere around the Great Depression and, through the 1980s, it was rare - but not impossible - to find signs out beyond the playing field. While the scoreboard was usually fair game for signage, the ballpark itself did not look like a giant outlet mall.

Check that 1965 photo again and you will see twin lighted signs for Gulf Oil high above the outfield stands, soon to be replaced by signs for Texaco and then Coca Cola until Bud Adams made them tear out the old scoreboard for more seats in 1988. Room was still left for video screens that combined game statistics with advertising.

Many of the new ballparks have tried to find a retro feel by bringing back more signage in a thinly-veiled way to get more revenue - and, let's face it, revenue is the true story here. As salaries have climbed into the millions, owners look for any way to make the balance sheet work and, part of that, is convincing Corporate America to buy ads that inevitably find their way into camera shots and news photos of the game action.

Today, nearly everything has a price, including the name of the ballpark. So Minute Maid Park features a train that carries what appears to be giant oranges - a not-so-subtle reminder for you to buy some orange juice, specifically Minute Maid orange juice.

I'll give Drayton McLane some credit. Minute Maid Park has shown some restraint. While advertising litters the ballpark, it doesn't take much imagination to see where it could be worse. Of course, I've yet to meet anyone who approves of the "Fowl Poles" and some also object to the Citgo sign, not because the sign itself offends but the company has ties to Venezuela which has been sharply critical of America under Hugo Chavez.

I, like most, simply accept the increased advertising as signs of the times. At least baseball isn't NASCAR where the drivers have patches and stickers for this advertiser and that pockmarking their business attire like so many tattoos. But it may come soon. Anyone who watched the Caribbean Series on the MLB Network surely noticed the advertising on the uniforms and batting helmets. That change will take some getting used to.

But, in this MySpaceFacebookTwitterEverybodyNoticeMeMeMe culture that has sprung up, I have no doubt that advertising will find its way into more and more things.

And it may not go unchallenged either. Back in 1988, Astros broadcasters were required to toast every home run with a pitch to get a Budweiser as the hitter rounded the bases. Glenn Davis, the only slugger we had at the time, protested that he did not want the sales pitch after his homers since it violated his Christian values. I don't recall if the Astros acquiesced but the Bud blurb was still continuing as late as 1991.

Even this was outdone by former Braves owner Ted Turner who, back in the early 70s before it became SuperStation TBS, showed Braves games locally on UHF station channel 17, which he also owned. Turner signed pitcher Andy Messersmith to one of the first big free agent contracts then gave him the number 17. Then Turner told him he had a new nickname - "Channel". So, Messersmith took the hill in his home debut with "Channel 17" on the back of his jersey which lasted for one day until Commissioner Bowie Kuhn ordered the Braves to put Andy's real name on the back of his jersey instead.

Love it or hate it (and, judging by the Super Bowl, there are plenty in both camps), advertising in all sorts of forms will continue to increase and not even the recession is apt to slow it down. About the only thing that will hold it back are public outcries of poor taste, pilsner or otherwise.

Who knows? Maybe a certain Houston station will pay the Astros to bring Chad Fox out of retirement if they'll give him number 26...