JOURNAL OF SPORT AND SOCIAL ISSUES
1998. Vol. 22 #1
GROUPIES AND AMERICAN BASEBALL
By George Gmelch and Patricia San Antonio
Widespread public awareness of "groupies"--women who seek relationships with male celebrities--in American professional baseball dates to the 1970s, particularly to the release of popular films such as Bull Durham and the publication of several insider accounts of the lives of ballplayers. This article, based on interviews with groupies and with major and minor league ballplayers, first examines the motivations of the women who pursue such relationships with ballplayers and the strategies they use to get attention. It then turns to the players' attitudes toward groupies and their relationships with them. The groupie phenomenon plays out on a small stage the larger gender roles played by women and men in American society, with desirability for women defined largely in terms of physical attractiveness and for men defined largely in terms of achieved skills as measured by money and fame.
The title of a 1992 Newsweek feature about women groupies and professional ballplayers was "He Hits, She Runs, He Scores: After Hours, Baseball Is Still One Wild, Wild World." Every spring training, there are new accounts in the popular press about groupies and the trouble that some players get themselves into by consorting with them. The phenomenon of baseball groupies first crept into the American public consciousness through popular films in the 1970s, particularly Bull Durham and The Natural . What exactly is a groupie? Who are these women, and what are they looking for in their pursuit of professional baseball players? What does the baseball world make of them? These are the central questions addressed in this article.
The word groupie first appeared in the rock music scene in the 1960s. In the early years of rock, all young female fans were described as groupies even though there was a difference between young, ardent fans who had no contact with the band members except in fantasy and the groupies who developed sexual relationships with rock band members. Sometimes groupies of the latter type became celebrities in their own right. In 1969, Rolling Stone devoted an entire issue to stories of famous groupies of rock ("Groupies," 1969). In I'm With the Band, Pamela Des Barres described her lifestyle as a rock groupie in California in the 1960s and early 1970s and how groupies themselves became celebrities with identifiable personal styles and known relationships with particular bands or performers (Des Barres, 1987). Rock groupies were ranked according to their appearance and success in gaining access or maintaining relationships with the most popular or exclusive performers (Des Barres, 1987). Des Barres painted an upbeat view of groupies as integrally involved in the California social and music scene during this time. Even so, it is clear that the groupies were stigmatized and that they were cynically exploited by performers who accepted their adoration as their due. Problems with drug abuse, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and mental illness were as much a part of the groupie scene as were thrilling encounters with revered rock stars (Des Barres, 1987).
By the early 1970s, according to the Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, the term groupie had been extended to include any fan or devotee of an activity (Barnhart, 1988). By the 1980s, the term was gaining currency in baseball, having replaced the earlier "Annie" and "Shirley." Groupies, however, were not a new phenomenon in baseball. They had been around the margins of professional baseball for at least a generation but without much public notice, largely because until the 1970s sportswriters, as a rule, did not write about the off-field antics of the players and teams they covered and with whom they traveled.(n1) For example, Babe Ruth's "stomachache heard around the world," widely reported in the press as being due to overeating (hot dogs), may have been venereal disease. Ruth was known to ballplayers and sportswriters alike to be promiscuous (Creamer, 1974, p. 289). Groupies "hustled" players, and players "bedded" them, but little was said or written about it.
That began to change with the publication of Jim Bouton's best-seller Ball Four, in which he revealed the "wenching" and bawdy behavior of his New York Yankee teammates (Bouton, 1971). Bouton's description of casual promiscuity and the voyeurism associated with the sexual activity of well known Yankee players was especially shocking to many readers. The previous "insider accounts" of the life and subculture of professional ballplayers, such as Jim Brosnan's The Long Season (Brosnan, 1960), made no mention of the players' sexual liaisons with "Annies," as they were then known.
It was not until the release of the popular film Bull Durham, written by former baseball player Ron Shelton, that the existence of groupies in baseball became widely known. In Shelton's film, groupie Annie Savoy is a sympathetic character who loves baseball and whose liaison with a young pitcher enhances his career. Bull Durham's second groupie, Millie, is closer to the popular conception of groupies today in her uncontrolled sexuality and her sleeping with multiple players. We also got a glimpse of groupies of a different type in Barry Levinson's 1984 film, The Natural. In this adaptation of the Bernard Malamud book, the sinister Memoparis brings down the hugely talented ballplayer Roy Hobbs. However, Roy is saved from disaster and wins the big game for his team after coming under the influence of the virtuous and innocent Iris Lemon, the antithesis of the grasping Memoparis.
More recently, some players have described liaisons with groupies in their ghostwritten autobiographies (see, e.g., Hernandez & Bryan, 1994; Pepitone, 1975). In a different vein, the wives of players (Bouton & Marshall, 1983; Hargrove, 1989; Torrez, 1983) have written about the jealousy and strife that groupies create between players and their wives. They have portrayed groupies as dangerous to the stability of baseball families and as potential home wreckers. As noted earlier, groupies now appear in the sports pages as negative influences on players and their families. Three incidents widely covered in the press in the 1990s were the New York Mets' Daryl Boston having to pay $600,000 to a groupie to avoid her charging him with rape, the New York Yankees' Luis Polonia nearly going to prison over the charge of having sex with an underage girl, and Wade Boggs's adulterous affair with a woman who had accompanied him on Boston Red Sox road trips.
The result of all this attention, both in film and in newsprint, is that most Americans today have a conception of who groupies are and what they do. In a brief survey of college students (N = 136) on two campuses, we found that nearly all had a basic knowledge of the groupie phenomenon in professional sports.(n2) The most widely held belief was that groupies are women who, because of low self-esteem, choose to associate themselves with people they consider important or famous. But how accurate is the public conception of groupies? And what do ballplayers make of them?
The idea of investigating groupies in baseball emerged from reviewing several thousand pages of transcripts of interviews with major and minor league ballplayers that had been conducted by one of the authors in an ethnographic study of professional baseball.(n3) The transcripts contained numerous comments suggesting that groupies were an integral part of the baseball landscape. Yet, when asked directly about their association with groupies, players often were quick to distance themselves from the subject. The comments by players seemed to suggest that players dichotomized women into good and bad categories--good girls versus groupies, safe girls versus dangerous girls. Once the interview data had awakened our interest in groupies, we returned to ballparks to talk to groupies specifically and to observe them and their interactions with players. About 15 interviews were done with groupies; additional data about groupies were gathered in interviews with the wives and girlfriends of players. In this article, we also draw on the original interviews with players (N = 105).
WHO ARE THEY?
Players think of groupies as females who come to the ballpark not just to watch the game but also to attract their attention in hopes of hooking up with them. "A groupie," said a player for the Jamestown Expos, "is any girl who goes to the ballpark who is not there to watch the game." Some players defined groupies more narrowly as women who collect professional athletes. Who exactly are groupies? We found them to be female, mostly young (late teens to mid-20s), and single. All of the groupies who we observed were White, although players said that there are some Black groupies as well. We never saw or heard of Latino groupies. In the minor leagues, most of the groupies we interviewed, or whose backgrounds we got to know, were from working-class to lower middle-class backgrounds, most had not gone to college, and most worked in the service sector or in pink-collar clerical work. In general, only in the major leagues, where the players earn large salaries and enjoy some measure of fame, did we find groupies of higher social status, including some with careers--secretaries, travel agents, aspiring models and actresses--and even a few who were professionals, such as a lawyer and an accountant. The ages of the groupies more or less corresponded to the ages of the players whom they were pursuing; therefore, we found the youngest groupies in the low minors, where most players are between 18 and 21 years of age. By the time players reach the Double-A level, they are 3 or 4 years older and the groupies tend to be a little older as well.
What do groupies hope to attain in pursuing relationships with ballplayers? We found that their motives varied. Some were just looking for a good time without any hopes of developing serious long-term relationships. For them, the ballpark on a warm summer evening, especially in small minor league towns, offered a place to go and something different to do. Two such women who went to all the Welland Pirates' home games with free tickets provided by players echoed each other's sentiments: "Here at the ballpark you got something to watch while you have a few beers. It's better than going to a smoky, noisy bar and just drinking beer and trying to get picked up." They had casual relationships with two players, whom they met up with after each game. They, like other casual groupies we met, said they also enjoyed hearing the players talk about the team, the professional game of baseball, and their postgame analysis of each night's play. In short, their relationships with the players offered them inside information that was valued in some small-town circles. Some groupies said that they also enjoyed getting to know the players because they were from different parts--notably California, Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean--and that made them more interesting than local men whose backgrounds the girls knew all too well. Several women said that the different regions and subcultures from which the players came--their "exotic" backgrounds--made them more glamorous. In the words of one middle-aged woman, speaking as a former groupie, "It's like an adventure. These guys represent an adventure in a safe way because you know who they are and you can actually go find them if you need to. Unlike just meeting a guy in a bar, a player is not going to be a guy who is going to kill you or something. Players come slightly recommended; you know who they are. Then there is the bragging aspect--'Oh, I slept with so and so.'"
Part of the appeal of going out with ballplayers after the game was "partying"--getting something to eat in a cafe and then going back to the players' apartments to hang out. "It's the whole social scene," explained one young woman about her interest in ballplayers. For young women of modest means, it is an inexpensive night out as the girls get free tickets to the games and the players often buy the beer they consume afterward.
Sex often is part of the relationship. Not surprisingly, however, the women we interviewed were reluctant to talk about this aspect of their associations with players. Players were more willing to talk about the sex, but not their own involvements. When we asked players what groupies were looking for in pursuing ballplayers, many suggested that it was self-evident, that the women wanted to have physical relationships with men they thought of as being attractive physical specimens. Minor leaguer Darren Campbell, for example, describing the 30 or 40 young women who hung around the ballpark in South Bend, Indiana, in hopes of catching the attention of the White Sox players, said, "They are looking for the young stud. A lot of it has to do with us being professional athletes, and they know we are in great shape. You've got to be in shape to do what we do. They are going for a guy who has a nice body, a good looking guy, guys who have some money in their pockets too."
Birmingham Barons broadcaster Curt Bloom, who has spent 8 years on the road with minor league teams, observed, "Groupies go after players because they are in great shape, they're good looking, and they have a chance to make good money. They get prestige and think they look like queens walking around with a guy who is built like an ox."
Major league and Triple-A players also talked about money as a motivation. In the words of one veteran player, "Some of the guys at this level are making some pretty good money right now, especially guys who have been in the big leagues. [The girls] think, why be with some guy from the neighborhood when I can be with a guy who gets his picture in the paper [and] who you read about every day? They know that the players go from city to city, that they don'thave their wives or girlfriends with them, and that a lot of them miss the sexual activity. So, it might be just a little easier for them to get in."
An Oakland A's player, talking about some groupies who pursued major league stars, said, "I think they're interested in the money that we're making. With lawsuits, all they need to do is to claim that something happened and they can walk away with a big chunk of money."
For a young groupie in a small town, hooking up with a ballplayer, so long as it is not done publicly, affords the opportunity of having sex without risk to her local reputation. Most players do not know anyone in the community and almost always leave town at the end of the season. One of the authors knew a groupie in Drummondville, Quebec, for whom part of the appeal of dating ballplayers was the opportunity to act out her sexual fantasies in unusual or strange places.(n4) The same behavior done with local men would have been too risky to her reputation.
For groupies, there always is the hope that the players they get to know will someday make it to the major leagues, if they are not already there, and become "famous." As one woman usher said about the groupies at the Jamestown Expos ballpark, "They're just looking for a brush with something famous, something exciting--some hope that maybe in 5 years when they see one of these players on television, they can say that they knew him." One 23-year-old groupie said that "having" a pro ballplayer would be something nice to look back on and to tell her kids about. Generally, groupies did not understand that the chances of the players they met in the low minors making it to the big leagues were slim.(n5)
Clearly, some groupies--although it is difficult to say what proportion hope for permanent relationships and the fame and fortune that goes with them if their men make it to the major leagues. Most of the women to whom we spoke, however, seemed fairly realistic when assessing the chances of any local girl marrying a ballplayer. They were aware that most players had girlfriends or wives at home and that they were not likely to leave them. Nonetheless, this did not deter them from continuing with relationships that they found exciting and fun and gave them something to do in small towns. Again, there always was the dream--the outside chance--that such relationships just might turn into more permanent ones.
We encountered several cases of parents actually encouraging their daughters to pursue ballplayers. One family in an Ontario town in the New York-Penn League billeted a player each season in the hope that a relationship might develop between the player and their daughter, leading to marriage and a more affluent life for her. In fact, the girl eventually did marry a Hispanic player, but the union did not last. An usher for the Jacksonville Suns described a woman who pushed her 14-year-old daughter on Jacksonville players. She often got a fellow fan to take pictures of her daughter with players, hoping that one might take an interest in the girl.
Groupies usually go in pairs or threes, rather than alone, when they try to meet players. This may be because it is easier for them to mix with players who routinely go out together in groups, particularly if they are hoping to find women. Also, it may allow a woman to talk about a conquest with a companion, as Des Barres (1987) noted among rock groupies. Finally, being accompanied by a female companion affords the groupies some measure of safety. The only gathering of groupies larger than two or three that we observed were high school girls in the ballparks of the low minors who appeared to be mainly interested in flirting with players.
To attract attention, the women go, not surprisingly, to the places where the ballplayers are--notably the ballpark, followed by restaurants and bars and the apartment complexes in which they live. There they locate themselves where they are likely to be seen or cannot go unseen. At the ballpark, they sit near the dugout or bullpen. After the game, they wait outside the clubhouse or in the parking lot where the players will have to pass them. "They might yell your name, say 'hi' to you, or just come up and start talking to you," explained one player. Some approach players directly, asking for autographs and phone numbers, adding that they would not mind meeting the players later. Sometimes, during the game, a groupie sends a note to a player through a batboy or an usher. They may go to the hotel of the visiting team and wait in the lobby, call on the house phone, or go uninvited to a player's room and knock on the door. In the low minors, where the towns are not too far apart, groupies sometimes even follow the team on the road, taking rooms in the same hotels.
At the ballpark, because groupies are some distance from the players, they typically draw attention to themselves by exaggerating the characteristics that players find attractive. They enhance their seductiveness by wearing revealing clothes and "big hair." One minor leaguer said, "They wear the skimpiest shorts, the tightest pants, and the brightest shirts so that they can be picked out of the crowd. Their heads are always in the dugout. They are making eye contact with you and you with them. Before you know it, a player might make the sign saying, 'Give me your phone number.' She'll walk over and give a piece of paper to the batboy with her phone number on it."
At the bars or restaurants to which the players go after a game, groupies try to catch the players' attention. "They sit there and stare at you," explained one player. "They give you the eye and let you know they are interested--[an] 'I'm looking at you, now you are looking at me' kind of thing." To show interest, a groupie may smile, glance, primp, laugh, giggle, toss her head, flip her hair, and maybe even hike her skirt a bit, pat a buttock, and touch a knee. Some groupies are aggressive and bold in approaching players, whereas others are passive and soon give up if no players show any interest in them.
What do players think of groupies? The initial response to our queries usually was something like the following: "That one I couldn't tell you. To be perfectly honest with you, I don't know where they are and I don't hang out with them. I'm not trying to avoid the question; it's a scene I never really got involved with."
Such denials were especially common among major league players, who had more experience with reporters and were fearful that anything they might say about groupies might wind up in a newspaper with their names attached. But usually, reminders that we were anthropologists trying to understand general patterns of behavior, rather than their private lives, resulted in some major league players, and most minor league players, being willing to talk. These conversations usually stayed on a level of general patterns rather than the players revealing much about their own involvement. Of course, many players indeed had nothing to do with groupies.
Players who have not been in the professional ranks for very long often are enthralled with the attention and flattery they get from the "strange" and "sexy" women who pursue them. One player's description of his first season at South Bend said much about what players see when they enter professional baseball and why they believe that young women have an interest in them: "In South Bend, there are a lot of media, and people love the White Sox there. Every day on the front page of the sports section, you see 'South Bend White Sox this' or 'South Bend White Sox that.' You turn on the TV, and there is a commercial for the South Bend White Sox, there is a White Sox coach doing a car commercial, there are players on the billboard, and lots of promotional things like that. Because of all that, people come to a game [and] they recognize you. To them girls, you are one of those guys on the posters, and they want to meet you. When you walk out of the clubhouse, you see 20 or 30 standing out there just waiting for you to come talk to them . . . [and] looking for a young stud."
Many of these players see in groupies sexual relationships without attachments. In the words of one third-year player, "Yes, they are everywhere. With the snap of a finger, you can get laid. They come with professional baseball. You've seen the big ones like the groupies that Wade Boggs and Steve Garvey had around. There are tons of girls that want to be with you--college girls, high school girls, and even some older women. When I played in the Cape Cod League, there were even some older divorced women who had players living with them just so they could get sexual pleasure from them."
Veteran players, more of whom are married, better understand the risks. They note that groupies may have communicable diseases from STDs to HIV, they may get pregnant and demand child support, and worse. As one Atlanta Braves coach explained, expressing the view of many players, "A married guy might go out and mess around and have a one-night stand with this girl. Then the next night, the girl is knocking at the guy's door saying she is going to go to the newspaper or to the police if he doesn't give her x amount of money Or, he gets a phone call from the police saying that they have a girl down there at the station saying that he raped her and they have a warrant for his arrest. As soon as you go to the police station, the press is there; you are a big league ballplayer, and you've got a family and kids back home. Then the girl gets on the phone and says that if you don't want to come to the police station, you can send her some money and take care of everything out of court. She walks away with x amount of money, like with the Daryl Boston incident. The girl ends up walking away with $600,000 for what--for getting laid. She had just as much fun as he did that night, and she is getting $600,000 and he gets taken to the cleaners. She walks away with the money, and you just get screwed over."
Also making veteran players more cautious have been recent incidents in which scam artists have posed as groupies. Most organizations now arrange for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to lecture players during spring training about the scams. One scam described to players by the FBI involves a girl posing as a groupie who picks up a ballplayer and goes back to his room. She suggests that he tie her down and do whatever he wants to her; then she gets to tie him down. But as soon as he is tied, the groupie's co-conspirator walks into the room and takes photographs of the player and groupie in positions in which no one ever would want to be seen. In a similar scam, the player's drink is drugged. When he passes out, his wallet and watch are gone and he discovers that compromising pictures have been taken by the woman and her co-conspirator.
Consorting with groupies too frequently, said some players, may damage one's reputation and career by incurring the disapproval of the coaching staff. Players who sleep around excessively may be looked down on by their straightlaced teammates as well. In the words of one player, "There were some guys that were my friends that I lost all respect for. I saw things that you just wouldn't believe. I remember when we played in Orlando, there was this one girl that was waiting for the whole team, and about 12 players took advantage of her. She was a waitress in the hotel where we all ate. I think she entertained every team that came to town. That's going too far."
It is the married player who is most at risk of losing the respect of his teammates. "I've seen married guys with other girls in different cities.... You are around each other all the time, and in the locker-room talk you hear, 'This guy did this many girls and this other guy was with that girl last night' and someone will say what he did to her. That ain't right."
Rod Beaton, who travels with teams while covering the National League for USA Today, observed that on most ball clubs, the players who chase women tend to gravitate toward one another: "They bond very closely. It is unfortunate, but chasing women is probably the most solidified bond in the whole clubhouse chemistry." Men perform for other men when they chase women together. Both Sanday (1990) and Nelson (1994) described such bonding rituals for fraternities and athletes on American campuses.
All organizations prohibit their players from bringing women to their hotel rooms; in the minor leagues, where ball clubs exert the greatest control over the players' off-field behavior, the fine for this offense usually is the largest levied against players (typically $50 to $100). In an earlier era, Casey Stengel is said to have focused not on the immorality of married players consorting with groupies but rather that it took away from the players' rest: "Being with a woman all night never hurt no professional baseball player. It is staying up all night looking for a woman that does him in."
It should be noted that many players avoid groupies simply out of faithfulness to girlfriends or spouses or over concern that they might distract them from baseball and hurt their performance. In the words of minor leaguer Robert Eenhorn, "I'm 90 concentrated on making it [to the big leagues] that all that stuff goes by me. If you go out there and want to see it, it's [women are] available. But I don't want to think about it. I have no problems with it; it's worldwide. Wherever you have people who are good at what they do, you have others who want to be a part of it. And the more money you have, the more people are going to come to you and want to be a part of it. But it's not for me."
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