A while back I saw a news piece on some sort of “laughter festival” being held in Oslo or Helsinki or some other such city. This event entailed gathering 100,000 or so people in a city square with the express purpose of having them all laugh out loud together. It looked like innocent fun but I couldn’t help but thinking how contrived it all was. To get thousands of people laughing spontaneously – now that would be something.
It was then that a story told to me by Gilby Frake entered my mind regarding that very thing. Gilby was my mentor at the New York Loyal Citizen. He predated my entry into sportswriting by more than fifteen years. The story I recall dates from the earliest period of his employment toward the end of the aughts, when he was a mere pup covering the famous New York Giants of John McGraw.
To digress a moment (but with a mind toward the end), I ask you this question: Where are the famous fans of today? I speak not of celebrities who like to be seen watching ball games but of regular fans, who, through the excesses of their rooting, are celebrities in their own right. Do they no longer exist, or do they not register on the television, the place where most of us view our sporting? What we seem to have in their place are fans who cling to two clichés: the body painters, and the tandem wherein one partner holds up a large ‘D’ and the other holds up a length of picket fence.
Which gets me back to the Polo Grounds of the late aughts, and a fan known as the Original Giggly Pete. Pete was one of those celebrity fans I alluded to earlier, the kind of fellow who could go anywhere in Manhattan and be known by one and all. He was a little wisp of a man except for his chest, which was deep, like that of a greyhound dog. He wore a bowler hat, on the top of which he had cut a flap. On especially hot days he would pour cold water down the flap, soaking his scalp. No one knew what Pete did for a living, but he always seemed to have enough money and free time to attend each and every game at the old Polo Grounds.
As for his name, it too is something of a mystery. Or at least two-thirds of a mystery. For instance, Pete may or may not have been his real name. This was not an age when one was asked to produce a driver’s license every ten seconds as we do now, so you were free to tell people your name was any damn thing you please and nobody was the wiser. As for the ‘Original’ part, that too is an enigma since, as far as Gilby knew, nobody else ever tried to claim they were called Giggly Pete. The one thing about his name that was verifiable and undeniable was that he did in fact giggle.
Giggly Pete’s stated raison d’etre was to get people sitting around him at the Polo Grounds to giggle too. He sat in the same broken seat during every game and, around about the sixth inning, would begin his routine of high-pitched chuckling. The sound was infectious to be sure, and usually many in his section would throw in and laugh right along with him. And then it would end for that day. The next game he would do it all over again, smiling when ten or twenty rooters joined in with him, or moping for an inning or two when they didn’t.
We can only imagine what was the ultimate dream of a man like Giggly Pete, but what transpired one day in a game against the Pirates in 1908 or ’09 (Gilby was never specific on the year) had to be something close to it. On that day it all jelled for the little man.
The Bucs, with the great Honus Wagner in the train, were beating the living daylights out of the G’ints. Blowouts in the deadball era were like sustained torture for the losing fan, as it took many more participants and much more activity to score twelve runs. Back then it would take at least 18 and sometimes more like 20 or 21 batsmen, an agonizing prospect for the on-looker rooting for the losing nine.
So the New York faithful were quite restless as they watched the Pirates cobble together run after run. Gloom was in the air that day when Giggly Pete went into his usual sixth-inning routine. As Gilby told me later, “He was in fine form that day, breathing from the diaphragm and projecting his cackle with force. We heard it in the press box much louder than usual. In a moment a few in his section picked up on it and began laughing. Then a couple of sections around him joined in. It didn’t abate like usual, but instead got louder. People were genuinely laughing, and elbowing each other as if they’d just heard a topper of a joke.
“The laughter spread like a slow-moving wildfire and Giggly Pete, seeing this, got out of his seat and began moving through the grandstand, his face glowing with wonder as he continued with his giggling,” Gilby recalled, chuckling at the memory. He did not recall the attendance at that game but guessed there were probably eight to ten thousand in the stands. Within minutes, every last one of them was laughing uproariously. And it did not dissipate as you might think, with those who had started earlier falling off earlier.
“No,” told Gilby, “it just kept getting louder. I found myself giggling at the sight of this and soon so were all the boys in the press box. Then I broke out in a full laugh and before I knew it we were all pounding each other on the back and slapping the table and generally falling this way and that. I wiped the tears from my eyes long enough to notice that the infection had carried over to the field of play. The batter had stepped away from the plate and was supporting himself with his bat while his whole body heaved in convulsions of hilarity. The catcher had fallen over sideways and was curled up on the ground in a laughing fit while the pitcher was doubled over, holding his stomach as if to keep his guts from falling out. As for the rest, they were similarly indisposed, as were the umpires.
“This went on and on as grown men gave in to the moment and laughed like idiots with tears streaming down their faces. Dour-faced sports who probably hadn’t had a good laugh since kindergarten were seen with their arms around each other, swaying in the aisles, racked with good humor. In the midst of it all was Giggly Pete, his eyes burning with pride. He spun around, trying to take it all in…. The sound, Scribbly! That wonderful sound! I’ve never heard the like of it again and don’t expect to.”
Finally things settled down and the game resumed. Every few minutes or so somebody would get the giggles and it would start up again, never rising to its original peak but delaying play so that the final running time of the game was more akin to a modern tilt than to something from that period. Gilby filed his story, along with the poem reprinted below, which ran under the headline, “Pittsburgs Win in Laugher.” Gilby claims this was the first ever appearance of that term, still in use today to describe a blowout.
Giggly Pete continued going to the Polo Grounds for several more years and then, one Opening Day, was simply not there. His famous broken seat was repaired, to be filled by a nondescript baseball patron; the nameless, faceless sort who would never wear a silly hat or start ten thousand people laughing just because he could.
The Original Giggly
by Gilburton Frake
(1908 or 1909)
Laughter moves like
Like words encoded: dot and dash
All will fall like so much wheat
Who wields the sickle? Giggly Pete
Trace it back from
whence it came
And there’s its source – always same
The whittled nutter on busted seat
The toast of Coogan’s: Giggly Pete
His eyes aflame with
His ribcage shaked for all its worth
A laugh machine performs its feat
Good sirs and sisters: Giggly Pete
When we place zeroes
on the board
And foes in strength have runners scored
Who makes merry in defeat?
“Yours sincerely, Giggly Pete!”
So bust a gut and join
Harmonize to that howling din
All now laughing: job complete
Sign this picture, Giggly Pete.