By Dana Brand
Karl Ehrhardt, the Sign Man, died last week at the age of 83. From 1964-1981, the Sign Man, an ad designer, had a season ticket in the field boxes at Shea. At his feet, he kept a bag of home-made professional-quality signs. When something significant happened in a Mets game, Karl would stand and hold up a sign that would comment on the action. He had 1200 signs in all, the most famous of which were "There Are No Words," which he held up when Cleon Jones made the catch that ended the 1969 World Series, "Grant's Tomb," which he held up in the empty stadium after M. Donald Grant dealt away Tom Seaver, and "Ya Gotta Believe." Tug McGraw was responsible for that last slogan, which expressed the spirit which brought the Mets the 1973 pennant. But it was the Sign Man who made it into the slogan of a team and a city that loved them.
In the beginning, you see, we didn't have Diamond Vision. We fans had to figure out for ourselves when and how to express our excitement. We didn't have Peter Finch telling us to open all the windows. No recorded voice from a pop song insisted that we all had to clap our hands. Don't get me wrong. I've come to love the programmed cheerleading as much as anyone else, but it's nice to remember when we didn't have any of it. Well, we did have the organ going "bump bump bump Bump bump bump bump Bump" and then a trumpet going "da da da Da da Da." But that was it. The rest of it was pretty much up to us.
So we invented a chant: "Lets Go Mets!" Nobody told us to do that. We did it ourselves. And we had banners. You should have seen them. Going to Shea in the early years could feel like visiting the Lower East Side or Little Italy in the early years of the century, with crowds of people and all of these sheets hanging over everybody's heads and flapping in the wind. On the sheets, or on what art teachers used to call "oak tag," were witty and clever drawings and slogans, all desperately seeking a TV camera. People would walk through the stands to look at the banners. And there was even a Banner Day, when proud banner-makers would parade on the field between games of a scheduled doubleheader.
The Sign Man came out of that early Mets world. Being a Mets fan back then was very interactive. Though we didn't have that word back then. Or if we had it, we didn't use it. But we were all in the game, and we had to make up our own ways of loving and cheering for the Mets. We didn't just sit there and do what they told us. We talked back to the Mets. With signs. With words. We were an articulate mob. And Karl Ehrhardt was our leader.
I guess you could say that Karl was the first Mets blogger. The people who brought their banners couldn't vary their message. What they had to say was determined before they came to the game. But Sign Man could respond as things happened. He'd hold up his sign and look around for people's approval. We gave it. He spoke for us. And he spoke for himself. Just like a good blogger. And like a good blogger, he loved the Mets unconditionally, but he was not interested in pretending that he liked everything he saw.
Holding up his sign, Karl Ehrhardt became the first Mets fan famous just for being a Mets fan. He anticipated Cow Bell Man and Doris from Rego Park. We need people like this so that we don't become an undifferentiated mass in our own minds or in the minds of the Mets. We are all individual people. And a few of us have to stand out as representative individuals so that we don't all lose sight of this fact.
The Sign Man disappeared from Shea around the same time that a lot of us were disappearing. But the rest of us came back, although he didn't. I don't know what the story was and I've read several different versions. He did disappear around the time the banners disappeared. I've heard that insurance companies and the Mets didn't like them because they were dangerous (foul balls aren't dangerous?). Maybe. Diamond Vision came around this time too. Everything changed.
I really missed Karl Ehrhardt, and I wish I could have seen his signs from 1981 onwards. I wish that Mets fans over 30 were not hearing about him for the first time in the week after he dies. We need Karl Ehrhardts, like we need Cow Bell Man, and the guy with the Metsmobile. We need the folk art of emotion. We need people who act out what we all are. We need these people to be ourselves, all together.
I hope the Mets appreciate and understand this. I hope there will be room for this in the new stadium. I hope the museum in Citi Field will have some sort of acknowledgement of the contributions of Mets fans. Because if a bunch of guys play a game on a baseball field and nobody holds up signs or bangs cowbells or paints their faces or gets to the park hours early to cook on a hibachi and sit on a very old lawn chair, then nothing has really happened. If no one is around to watch or care, then the Mets don't really exist. Okay, maybe they exist.
But it is because of us that they matter.
Dana Brand's book Mets Fan is out and available from Amazon and other booksellers as well. For more information, see metsfanbook.com.