When the Peanut Was Banned From Baseball

By Gaylon H. White

The following article initially was published in The National Pastime, issue Number 16. The National Pastime is a publication of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR).

Peanuts are as much a part of baseball as the seventh-inning stretch. They were around long before the San Diego Chicken. They preceded domed stadiums, artificial turf, body-hugging uniforms and multimillion-dollar contracts. But for one day in 1950, the peanut was banned from baseball.

The place: San Francisco. The culprit: Paul Fagan, fastidious millionaire owner of the San Francisco Seals baseball team of the Pacific Coast League.

Fagan was, in many ways, an early-day George Steinbrenner, always embroiled in controversy. At a time when there were only 16 major-league teams and none west of St. Louis, he agitated for the triple-A PCL to become the third major league. Most appalling to baseball men, he criticized baseball's reserve clause that tied players to one team until they were traded or released, calling it "illegal" and "un-American".

Seals Manager Lefty O'Doul tried to silence Fagan but to no avail. Fagan was determined not only to change the game but to clean it up.

One of Fagan's first clean-up projects was Joe Brovia, a crusty, hard-hitting outfielder idolized by San Francisco's large Italian community. Joe cussed with gusto, chewed and spit tobacco mightily, and defied baseball's dress code by wearing his pants down to his shoe tops.

Fagan ordered Joe to tuck in the bottom of his pants the regulation six inches below the knee; Joe refused. Fagan insisted that Joe stop spitting tobacco juice; Joe refused. He provided all of the Seals players with handkerchiefs to combat the runny noses caused by the chilly night air; Joe predictably snapped, "To hell with you!" and continued to use his sleeves. So much for Joe. After one stormy season, he was banished to Portland in the spring of 1949.

With Joe not around to cause trouble, Fagan instituted new housecleaning rules. No more lucky sweatshirts or socks. Only the prescribed uniform. He had electric razors installed in the clubhouse for daily shaving, although most of the players had never seen electric razors. He even put in a barber chair for semi-monthly haircuts and a washing machine for the players to wash their personal belongings.

The fans noticed that it was easier to read the numbers on the players' uniforms but, otherwise, watching the Seals lose was still the same. Fagan threatened to change that with his idea to ban the peanut.

During a telephone conversation with C.L. (Brick) Laws, owner of the archrival Oakland Oaks, Fagan casually mentioned he was going to ban husked peanuts and sell salted peanuts instead.

The official announcement followed on February 16, 1950.

"We lose five cents on every bag of peanuts sold in the ballpark," Fagan complained. "That's $20,000 a year. It costs us 7 1/2 cents to pick up the husks and our profit on a dime bag is just 2 1/2 cents. The goober has to go."

That did it. San Francisco went nuts.

A druggist groaned, "To me, baseball without peanuts would be like mush without salt." A beer vendor proclaimed, "I would as soon wrestle a tiger as take peanuts away from the baseball fans." An office girl sniffed, "Just like a man to think of something as nutty as that."

Irate callers jammed the stadium switchboard, threatening to boycott Seals games. Other fans revolted by making plans to bring their own peanuts and scatter the shells. Radio newscasts lamented the depressing state of affairs. Newspapers up and down the West Coast editorially rushed to the peanut's defense. "To many deep, dyed-in-the-wool fans," the Los Angeles Herald Express commented, "it was just like ripping the heart out of baseball itself. The privilege of buying, shelling and eating peanuts at the ball game is just too sacred."

Fagan received support from hucksters who saw themselves reaping a harvest by selling peanuts outside the park. One of them even offered to supply the club with an electronic gadget guaranteed to detect concealed peanuts.

The only backing Fagan's fellow owners gave him was the back of their hands. "I'd be lost at a ball game without a bag of peanuts," Oakland's Laws declared. "I'd as soon see a game without ball players as without peanuts. Why, the peanut is even part of baseball's theme song -- 'Take Me Out To The Ball Game.' You know how it goes...'Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jacks...I don't care if I ever get back.' What's Fagan going to do about that? Change the lyrics? Fat chance!"

Within 24 hours, the uproar caused Fagan to concede defeat. "I give up," he said. "Mr. Peanut wins. It's the first time in my life I've been beaten and it had to be by a peanut."

Fagan then made the grand gesture he hoped would make peace with the world. "I know when I'm wrong," he said. "The fans want peanuts and they'll get them. On opening day, I'm going to have 18,000 bags of peanuts passed out free among the fans."

Fagan had to eat his words again. Some statistic-minded soul estimated Fagan's gift of 18,000 bags would result in 10 million peanut shell fragments. The boss of the local janitors union cried, "Foul!" and announced that the clean-up crew wanted a pay hike of 15 cents an hour. "It's worth more than we've been getting to clean up popcorn in the movies," the union leader said.

No sooner did Fagan make another reversal than the president of the National Peanut Council -- a fellow appropriately named for the occasion, William Seals -- called on Fagan to confess that his one day war against the peanut was "just another publicity stunt to stimulate opening day business at Seals Stadium."

Fagan pleaded innocent to the charge. And those closest to this one-man white tornado also denied that it was a publicity stunt.

Manager O'Doul explained: "He had more crazy ideas per day than a dog has fleas. And I hope that doesn't libel a dog."

A San Francisco sportswriter observed: "Fagan may have been puckish but not that puckish. What Fagan objected to was the peanut shells blowing in the San Francisco wind."

In retrospect, Fagan would've had an easier time banning the wind instead of the peanut.