Doesn’t it strike you strange that a fan can become as famous as a team or a player? It does me. I don’t mean someone like a President who is famous in ways that have nothing to do with baseball, but someone who is just simply famous for being a fan of the game and of a particular team. I just find that strange. But it’s happened. Let me briefly introduce you to “Howlin'” Hilda Chester, a fan extraordinaire.
She was born in 1897. Although there seems to be a consensus that the birthplace was Brooklyn, there’s no actual evidence of that. It’s equally possible she was born in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. She seems to have been pretty good at sports in school (playing for the Bloomer Girls, a local team) but little is known of her education or her family background. Somewhere along the way there was a marriage and a daughter, but the husband is lost to history at this point (she indicated he died). The daughter went on to play some in the All American Girls Professional Baseball League (see the movie “A League of Their Own” for a highly fictionalized version of the league’s first season). Beatrice Chester was a backup third baseman (basegirl?) for the Blue Sox of South Bend, Indiana and the Rockford Peaches. Beatrice Chester had a son, making Hilda Chester a grandmother, but it seems she was close to neither the daughter (who spent some time in the Brooklyn Hebrew Orphan Asylum) nor the grandson. It’s difficult to tell if the problem was economic (lack of money) or emotional (Hilda Chester didn’t know how to raise a daughter). Maybe it was a combination of both. I just don’t know. As you can tell by now, the elements of her personal life are very obscure. In interviews with her that I read it’s obvious she wanted to keep it that way.
She sacked and sold peanuts at Ebbets Field for a while, but by the 1930s was becoming famous as a loudmouthed Dodgers fan. The Dodgers instituted Ladies Day once weekly for home stands and Chester managed to get into games for 10 cents. It was, she said, “her kinda price.” In the offseason she sold hotdogs at local racetracks. As far as I can tell these were the two primary sources of income. Apparently the sacking job got her entrance to the ballpark and saved her the dime when it wasn’t Ladies Day.
By the mid-1930s she was a fixture at Ebbets Field. She was in the right field bleachers, she was loud, she was garish, she was baseball savvy, and she was absolutely perfect for the new Dodgers team being built by loud, garish, and baseball savvy Leo Durocher, the new manager. He was a favorite of Hilda’s and he returned the favor.
She started out with a frying pan and a spoon as noisemakers but graduated to her famous “cowbell” after a heart attack. Now a short aside about the “cowbell.” I’ve spent a lot of time around cows and their bells and Hilda’s noise maker looks more like a school bell that teachers used to ring while standing in the doorway than it does like a bell that Gertrude the heifer wore around her neck, but it’s come down in legend as a “cowbell.” Be advised. You can compare them in the pictures below (Yeah, I know I’m getting pedantic).
In 1941 she had a second heart attack. While in the hospital Durocher visited her. He became, after that moment, her all-time favorite. When he went to the Giants after 1947, Hilda actually spent some time at the Polo Grounds before returning to Brooklyn and Ebbets Field.
By the 1940s she was something of a legend in Brooklyn. There are stories of her passing notes to Durocher about what she thought the Dodgers should do in the upcoming inning. At least one of them seems to be true. She appeared on radio, did bit parts in a couple of movies, and loved being the center of attention. And of course with those things came a certain amount of money. Today she’d be an internet sensation and make money endorsing widgets and whatnot. That wasn’t happening in 1940s Brooklyn and her economic status never seems to have improved more than slightly.
With the coming of Jackie Robinson, she also found a team that was winning with great frequency. There’s some question about her relationship with Robinson. As crowds changed in Brooklyn after 1946 (more black Americans were showing up for games), the old hands were being shunted aside to some degree. She seems to have resented it a little, but as long as the Dodgers kept winning, she kept showing up with her bell and her voice. It’s tough to tell if the resentment was racially tinged or if she was simply sorry to see the old fans being elbowed out of the stands for new fans. From the little available about the issue, I tend to think it’s the latter.
The Dodgers won it all in 1955 and moved on to Los Angeles in 1958. Hilda loved the first, hated the second. She never seems to have transferred her loyalty to the Yankees or to the newly formed Mets. But then by 1960 she was into her sixties and slowing down.
She was interviewed when Ebbets Field was demolished, then more or less dropped from sight. She went into a nursing home, got out, and moved into a small place in Queens. She died in December 1978, poor, almost indigent, forgotten. She was buried on Staten Island (no, not in Brooklyn) by the Hebrew Free Burial Association. Not a great ninth inning.
But there’s something of a happy ending to all this (maybe we can call it “extra innings”). The next time you head to Cooperstown, make sure you take the stairs to the second floor. There you’ll find a set of life-size fabric-mache statues of fans. I have no idea what fabric-mache is (and am too lazy to look it up), but that’s what they tell me the statues are made of. I’ll take their word for it. Right in the middle, “cowbell” in hand, is Hilda Chester. She made it into the Hall of Fame. I’ve been there twice and given her a salute both times. When you get there, make sure you say “Hi” to her for me.