Let's Go to the Audiotape: Jean Shepherd on Signs at Shea

If you've read anything over at my own blog, you know that I am a huge fan of Jean Shepherd. I was going to say "borderline obsessed with," but I crossed that borderline a long time ago.

Shepherd is best known these days as the man behind A Christmas Story; he wrote the screenplay and narrated the movie. However, that film was largely based on his radio show on New York's WOR. His show was somewhere in the Venn intersection of storytelling, philosophical discussion, social commentary, satire, and self-indulgent goofiness. He would slowly wind his way through a few news items or things he saw on the streets of New York, eventually find himself weaving a tale of his youth, and somehow tie it all together just as time ran out.

And he did it all without using anything remotely resembling a script. There's never been anything like his show, before or since. A whole generation of New Yorkers grew up listening to him with transistor radios tucked under their pillows. (The main reason I got into him is because both my parents were fans.) He had a huge cultish following, which included such diverse luminaries as Lenny Bruce, Jack Kerouac, Stanley Kubrick, and Harry Shearer.

Shep was a huge baseball fan, and grew up on the south side of Chicago rooting for one hapless White Sox team after another. His time on the radio coincided with the birth and rise of the Mets, and he devoted several shows during the 1969 season to their improbable World Series title run.

With the recent announcement of the return of Banner Day, I gave another listen to a show Shepherd did in 1972 on the kinds of signs you would see at Shea Stadium. From the very beginning of the franchise, Mets fans expressed themselves with homemade signage. (See Roger Angell's 1962 New Yorker essay "The 'Go!' Shouters" for a description of primordial Met fan folkways at the Polo Grounds.) Shep, who had attended Mets games going all the way back to their awful inaugural year, noticed a shift in the kinds of signs, and the attitudes expressed thereon, once the team achieved success. In this program, he shares some of those bygone expressions of fan enthusiasm, frustration, and sardonic humor. He also quizzes his audience on trivia related to the truly comedic imitations of professional baseball that the Mets used to perform.

"This isn't really a show on baseball," he advises the listener. "It's a show on the decline and fall of a whole structure."

Normally, I don't like to take excerpts from Shep's shows, as they're best experienced as a eclectic, meandering whole. But, in this case, I thought the AA readership would much more enjoy hearing the "meat" of this show about Shea Stadium than the opening, during which Shep riffs on news items and does a singalong to a novelty tune called "The Bear Missed the Train."

I hope you enjoy this unique look at how Mets fans gave voice to their opinions in the days before sports talk radio. If you enjoy this, there are a bunch of other Met-themed shows in Shepherd's canon, some of which can be heard via a podcast called The Brass Figlagee, which has literally hundreds of his shows handy for your perusal.

Excelsior! (You fathead.)

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