Zack Hample and the Fine Art of Ballhawking
“I’ve snagged exactly 90 balls at this stadium over the years. So, I’m hoping to get at least 10 today and reach triple digits. At some point in my life I’d love to get 100 balls at every stadium and if I do it today, this will be the 14th stadium at which I’ve gotten 100 balls. Now, the biggest challenge that I’m facing, will probably be the size of the crowd. It is a Friday, there are going to be post-game fire-works. So, lots of people, lots of competition. But I still like my chances. I’m going to be getting inside the stadium extra-early with help from some of my friends who are season’s ticket holders. And, there are a bunch of different good spots to catch baseballs once I do get in. Hoping to scoop up some grounders early on, down the left field line. Maybe catch some home runs and get some toss-ups out in the bleachers and the pavilion areas later on during batting practice. And maybe even make my way over to foul territory at some point and work things from there.” So explains Hample in the introduction to his video on his visit to Dodger stadium in June 2016.
The stadium is not only a space in which spectators can watch a game of competitive sport: it is also a space in which fans themselves can become players. The practice of Ballhawking or snagging, is an expressive act of fandom which relies on an intricate knowledge of internal stadium design, individual baseball players, and baseball culture in general. Ballhawks (those who ‘hawk’ balls) need to have good baseball skills too. They need to judge the flight of the ball and to position themselves accordingly. Hawking also involves competition against other hawkers, as well as an ability to trick or escape the attention of security guards and other means of surveillance. The aim of hawking is to take possession of the baseballs that come into the seated areas of the stadium.
The emergence and practice of hawking is facilitated by a number of factors within the game of baseball. The balls used in baseball are relatively cheap: coming in at under $10 a ball, if purchased in bulk, as MLB teams do. In the game of baseball itself, the most efficient way to help one’s team win (for the batting team) is to hit a homerun: ie. a ball that flies into the bleachers, beyond the wall of the field. Once a ball is hit into the grandstand, all the runners on the bases are ‘safe’ and can make their way ‘home’. The fielding team is rendered temporarily useless. As the ball sails into the crowd most fans throughout the stadium erupt in an orgiastic celebration – as when a footballer scores a goal (Galeano 2013). For most fans seeing the ball fly into the stands is the end of the ‘play’. But for those fans that are located near to where the ball is going to land, and particularly those fans that have come to the game to catch home-runs, seeing the ball in their direction marks the beginning of the game. As Zack Hample says in one of his videos, ‘it is time to play’. The fans, equipped with baseball gloves, compete against one another to catch the ball.
Sports fandom is an increasingly diversified practice. Football (soccer) fandom has seen the rise of trans-national fandom, where fans support football clubs from other countries and geographical regions, the proliferation and diversification of ultra football fans which is juxtaposed against a kind of flaneuristic, casual fan who watches football whether in sports bars or stadia as a kind of casual, occasional recreation, or consumption of an entertainment product. Groundhopping has emerged as a practice of fandom which prioritises the visiting of stadia and the accumulation of grounds visited. Groundhoppers privilege grounds and stadia which offer nostalgic encounters with the aesthetics of ‘traditional football’. Groundhopping, arguably, was a reaction against the increasing uniformity of football stadia which was implemented based on the Crawford Report of the early 1990s in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster. Although Hample is not a ‘groundhopper’ per se, he has visited a tremendous number of stadia and his knowledge of stadia complements that of groundhoppers. Hample lives in New York, but doesn’t swear allegiance to a particular team, instead, he says, ‘I am a fan of baseball.’
Zack doesn’t visit stadia for their own sake, although he tries to visit as many as he can. The stadia are the fields in which he pursues ballhawking. “Some of the stadia, which most fans regard as being the ugliest in the MLB league, are my favourites. I like the stadia with all sorts of nooks and crannies and left-over spaces. But stadia are becoming increasingly uniform; every square inch is under surveillance from a security guard or CCTV. Ushers are checking tickets all over the place. It used to be a lot easier to roam around stadia and to find great places in which to snag balls. The game of baseball is doing very well at the moment. This is reflected in stadia design. Places like Dodger stadium or the new Yankee stadium are becoming very expensive. And, in some cases, the design of stadia clearly demarcates the differences in wealth of the patrons – there are sections for the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. With increased crowd numbers, it also makes ballhawking a little more difficult at times.”
Photo: Bernard Gangnon, Fenway Park, Boston
Zack Hample is perhaps the most famous and infamous ball-hawkers, having collected upwards 9,400 baseballs. Zack is thoroughly rigorous in the statistics that he keeps: the baseballs he has collected are all from Major League baseball stadiums. He includes toss-ups (those he receives directly from players) as well as the balls that he gives away to (normally) younger fans. Zack, generally, seeks out young fans who are wearing a baseball glove and are yet to have hawked a ball on the day. He is deliberately polite to all whom he encounters: to players, to those whom he competes against and to the fellow-ball-hawkers who make up his own fans. Although competition for balls that fly into the bleachers is tough and vigorous, Zack manages to avoid knocking over fellow-ballhawks or other fans. He is no slouch as a baseballer too, having reached college level.
Hample is (in)famous for catching Alex (A-Rod) Rodriguez’s 3,000th home-run. He caused some controversy for his unwillingness to immediately hand it back to the player. Zack says, ‘I didn’t not want to give it back to him. I just wanted to leave the stadium with the ball still in my hand. I had waited my whole life for a moment like this. There was no way that I was just going to give it straight back.’ In such an instance, Zack went from being just another (obsessive) ball-hawker to a much hated figure who was seemingly acting against the spirit of baseball and deliberately aggravating Mr.Rodriguez. Hample received hate mail through social media. Zack’s fame, however, put him in the position of defending his own hobby and practice as a ball-hawk. Moreover, he was able to leverage his skill at ballhawking and his success in catching such a valuable ball resulting in the Yankees buy it from him through making a $150,000.00 donation to Pitch in for Baseball – his ‘favourite baseball charity’.
Zack Hample has managed to leverage his success as a ballhawk into national and perhaps global fame. His rise to prominence as the most-famous ballhawk in the US has been facilitated by not only the catching of significant baseballs (such as A-Rod’s) but also through his use of YouTube to document his hawking efforts. Through becoming a YouTube star, and seemingly a professional ball-hawker, Zack has been able to gain even greater access to stadia and to ball- hawking opportunities. For example an app, Seat Geek, has sponsored some of his trips to baseball games, while others invite him to go to games with them. Zack has written a few books on baseball, including Watching Baseball Smarter and this also provides him with a degree of income. Zack has traded off his fame and popularity to charge fans who want to attend games with him. His website is simple, but for his YouTube videos he generally employs a videographer. This not only provides a more conducive watching experience, it also allows for Hample’s exploits to be sufficiently well-captured. It seems that numerous people are curious about Hample’s wealth or ‘net-worth’: perhaps this is because his ‘work’ seems very close to a ‘hobby’. Hample plays a dead-bat to such questions. He is clear about what does for work, but he doesn’t reveal his income. He simply points out that such questions are impolite.
“I realise this is a strange hobby for many people. I also realise that I get most of the media coverage about ballhawks. So, I have ended up representing this hobby. When I’m at a game I make sure that interact well with other ballhawks and crowd members. Sometimes competition is tight with fellow-ballhawks. Normally, though to prevent any tension from occurring, we negotiate some kind of basic agreement first. For example, if there is a commemorative ball being used on a particular day, I’ll definitely want to get at least one. So, I’ll strike up a deal with the other ballhawks so that once we each have one, we temporarily refrain from the contest for balls. But, then once we all have one, it is game on again.”
Hample uses a range of tactics in order to obtain his baseballs. Some of these methods are standard and conventional, and some are based on his extensive knowledge of stadia, players as well as his flexibility in being able to give his ‘hobby’ a seemingly limitless amount of time. Hawking is not a hobby; it is something that his livelihood and identity depends upon. As such, Hample already has an advantage over other hawkers, as he is able to devote a huge amount of hours to studying stadia and where players hit the ball. Zack generally arrives at a stadium an hour before the stadium opens, and once opened, he is generally one of the first in. This allows him to find any so-called ‘easter eggs’ – these are the balls that have flown into the bleachers while the stadium has been closed. Once in the stadium, Zack uses a full-range of methods to collect balls: catching toss-ups, home-runs, cajoling players, engaging in playing catch, using the ‘glove-trick’. He changes his location quickly, depending on who is hitting. He wears the colours and hats of the team that is doing the BP – batting practice.
“This area behind the bleachers is so cool. There is just all this dead space you can play half-way up the staircase, barely look out over the outfield wall and then either run up if it is going deep, run down if it is just barely going to clear the wall. There is nothing like this anywhere else in Major League Baseball.”
The practice of ballhawking requires a skilled knowledge of stadia and the game of baseball. Like groundhopping, a ballhawk such as Hample enjoys and engages with the aesthetics of stadia. The ‘dead space’ of a stadium becomes a venue for playing and for snagging yet another ball. Hample is a fan of baseball and ballhawking encourages both travelling to stadia as well as the thorough keeping of scores and statistics which he uses to compete against other ballhawks as well as for his own satisfaction. The leisure and recreational hobby of ballhawking becomes a sport in which the stadium itself becomes the field and the fan becomes a star.
*Photo of Camden Yards by Keith Allison. See: https://www.flickr.com/photos/keithallison/8918202788/
** Other images from Zack Hample’s video, Playing Catch from Right Field at Dodger Stadium.
*** Photo of crowd at Wrigley Field by Brian Holsclaw. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wrigley_Field#/media/File:Bleacher_Bums.jpg