Hit or an error? Look to your right. The scoreboard transmits the official ruling. Look to your left. The Sign Man tells you what you’re thinking.
Before there were helpful little gadgets any more exotic than a transistor radio, you had two sources of information to enhance your Sheagoing experience. You had the biggest scoreboard in baseball over the right-centerfield fence and you had Karl Ehrhardt the Sign Man, in that one-of-a-kind derby of his, sitting behind third. The Manufacturers HanovEr sign would tell you it was an E. The Sign Man would make it clear the ball should have been caught.
The most famous images of Karl Ehrhardt, who died this past week at 83, relate to the Mets in triumph, which is as it should be. Karl was the superest of the superfans, and if you saw a picture of the Sign Man after the fact, it was because the fact involved the greatest of Mets moments. His most iconic sign, at least to me, was the one he held up as the Mets became world champions the first time: THERE ARE NO WORDS.
Yet Karl did not pull punches, right down to the end. He disappeared from the Shea crowd after 1981, a result of some dispute with management over admission — perhaps management’s myopic focus on being the new broom sweeping out the old miasmic atmosphere, as if Mets fans couldn’t differentiate between hating a few lousy ballplayers and disliking themselves. Anyway, he was still there in ’81, the year of the baseball strike, the rupture in the summer I graduated from high school. I remember seeing Ehrhardt interviewed once the stoppage was settled. First bad Met play (and there were bound to be a few), he promised to tell the Mets what we would all be thinking: GO BACK ON STRIKE.
And he did. For all his joyous acknowledgement of THAT OLD MET MAGIC and his victory-bound queries of BELIEVE IN MIRACLES?, it was the brassy honesty in editorial comment that stayed with me after the Sign Man became the stuff of legend. I hated that the Mets didn’t arrange for Karl Ehrhardt to keep sitting where he had from the early days of Shea Stadium, but I loved that the Mets couldn’t buy off the Sign Man. I loved that as the years went by, you would inevitably meet somebody at a game, somebody you didn’t know but you knew was one of you, and he or she would ask, “Hey, remember the Sign Man? Karl somebody? He came to every game at Shea and he had all those signs and he’d pull them out at a moment’s notice and he always held them way up over his head and it would be the exact right thing to describe what was happening right then and there…Karl Ehrhardt, yeah, that was his name…the Sign Man. Wasn’t he great?”
Yeah. We remember.