Baseball, Hot Dogs, and Labor Strife
Before he was an artist, Hugh Pocock sold hot dogs in the heyday of Memorial Stadium
Published: September 11, 2013
Desperate times call for desperate measures.
“Do you want mustard on that?”
Back in 1981, when the big boys still played ball on 33rd Street in Waverly, a mixed-up 17-year-old quit school, left his parents’ cultured home in Roland Park, and moved into a single room near Memorial Stadium with his pregnant girlfriend.
The young couple’s escapades echoed those of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, described in Smith’s 2010 memoir Just Kids, their whatever-it-takes approach to life’s problems a notch or two removed from Billy Joe and Bobby Sue in the old Steve Miller song “Take the Money and Run.”
The wild things were Hugh Pocock—the disaffected son of a Johns Hopkins professor of political thought, a kid who did not quite know yet that he was an artist—and the punk singer Valerie Favazza, a beauty who resembled a young Cher and who owned a 1958 VW Bug.
“One winter, all we had to eat was potatoes,” recalls Favazza, now 53 and living in Hampden.
If the world was not quite their crab cake, the ballpark was the economic engine of the neighborhood and, in Hugh’s mind (fueled by a lot of Kerouac and even more beer), the best way to provide for his growing family was selling hot dogs at the stadium.
“I just walked over from our place on Frisby [Street] and started walking around the stadium asking people: ‘How do you get a job here?,’” says Pocock, 50, an instructor at the Maryland Institute College of Art.
It was the beginning of the ’81 season—one to become known more for a players’ strike than diamond heroics—and Pocock was soon outfitted with a smock, a paper hat, and a tub of hot water in which floated the pride of Esskay.
“Selling hot dogs was my first experience with real, hardcore work,” said Pocock, whose road to teaching sustainability and social practice was paved with jobs picking tobacco, driving dump trucks, planting trees, and cleaning oil barges.
The grandstand game was run by veterans of the peanuts-and-Cracker Jack hustle, middle-aged men, many of them African-Americans, with networks of old friends and deep roots in stadium concessions.
“The experienced guys were hustling for real, supporting families,” says Pocock. “They thought I was just in their way.”
It didn’t help that the pony-tailed, New Zealand-born Pocock wouldn’t take off his vendor’s hat during the national anthem.
The beer vendors were at the top of the food chain. The rookie Pocock and the other hot dog guys hung on the bottom.
“They gave you the first tank of hot dogs for free, you’d go out and sell ’em and come back to buy the next tank with your profits,” says Pocock of the days of the $1.50 stadium dog. “You’d be running up and down the stairs with a pot of hot water heated by a buffet burner, hot dogs floating around in it with your buns and condiments.”
Decades before the now-ubiquitous form-fitting Latex gloves, stadium hot dog dudes wore unwieldy plastic gloves with which they had to dress the dogs and make change. There were no tips, just permission to keep the change.
If you absentmindedly dropped a $10 bill in the stands, a third of the day’s profits might be gone with the wind. Still, a doubleheader was always a good payday.
It was a time when drugs in baseball meant smoking grass in the bleachers, and certain vendors were known to sell consumables not listed on the menu. Because of his Robert Plant hair and scraggly beard, Pocock was often asked if he had something that might amplify the sights and sounds of the national pastime.
Attrition took place quickly at the ballpark. Soon, new guys were hired to hump ballpark goodies up and down the concrete steps and Pocock was promoted from hot dogs to soda pop.
“I can still do the Coke shout,” says Pocock, who often reprises the barker’s “COKE! COKE! COKE! GET YOUR COKE HERE!” to amuse his sons, Rowan, 12, and Jasper, 7.
And then, the players—including Orioles like Mike Flanagan, Mark “The Blade” Belanger, Tippy Martinez, and Lenn Sakata—went on strike.
“The season was cut in half,” said Pocock. “And I was out.”
The strike lasted through early August. After carrying the baby for months, Favazza miscarried. Not long after, Pocock left town.
“I mourned that relationship for a few years,” says Favazza, with whom Pocock is now on good terms, sometimes meeting for coffee and a slow stroll down the memory fast lane.
Not yet 20, Pocock landed in New Zealand, where, for reasons he can’t recall, he got a tattoo of a rose on his right earlobe as the sun was coming up in a fishing village south of Dunedin. It has since faded into a blotch.
It took Pocock years to create a life of which he could be proud. He earned a master’s degree in new genres while living in Los Angeles and made his way back to Baltimore through the one thing in which his parents had some hope for him: art.
“Art is about stirring the pot,” says Pocock, a Mount Washington resident who admires the work of Hans Haacke and the international collective of activist artists known as Futurefarmers. “If the pot isn’t stirred, what do we have? Just hot dogs and cars and people trying to make a living?”
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