The Washington Post recently posted a video interview of Howard Hart, a sixty-something stadium vendor who has sold beer for nearly four decades, most of those years at Baltimore Orioles games, at the old Memorial Stadium, then at Camden Yards, and, now, both there and in Washington, D.C., at Washington Nationals games, at Nationals Park.
Mr. Hart, who counts himself as a fan of both teams, comes across as an unsung 'character' of the beer business, right at the intersection of commerce and conviviality, an observer of life through beer and baseball.
In Baltimore, the number one beer is Natty Boh. In Washington, the shandy, the IPA, the Heineken. That tells you about everything you need to know. If I were to have a big party, I could invite the Orioles and Nationals fans. There wouldn't be any fights.
I wanted to know more about Howard Hart, so I asked Charlie Vascellaro —a baseball and travel writer, based in Baltimore, who blogs at Baseball Vagabond— to tell me more. "I love this guy," Vascellaro said. "He's one of the most spiritual people I know."
Hart engages the crowd, Vascellaro told me, more than by simply selling to it. "He's a sweet and sentimental man," who seems to know what folk are thinking before they say it (and we're not talking just "beer, please," Vascellaro interjects!). "Going out of his way to be nice," he is "the true definition of an old soul."
Hart runs a constant dialogue, not a set patter, but more like an always topical stand-up routine. He will quote passages of literature, germane to the game in progress, and often recommend books he has read. He's got great stories about the teams behind the scenes, during the season and at spring training where he also works, Vascellaro added. "There's that's that one about George Steinbrenner" (former owner of the New York Yankees). And, Vascellaro marvels, Hart is always "into the game," which is a difficult thing for a vendor who's concentrating on selling his wares. "Somehow, he always knows the count."
Hart has written stories on baseball, and was instrumental in assisting with the success of the recent Paul Blair Day —a celebration, at Camden Yards, of the Orioles' great former centerfielder, who died suddenly last year— organized by Vascellaro and fellow Baltimore-based writer, Rafael Alvarez.
Only vendor Clarence Haskett (known as "Fancy Clancy" because of his behind-the-back double-beer pour) has more tenure than Hart. Both men grew up in Baltimore during a time of rampant segregation. Both men —Hart, white; and Haskett, African-American— became colleagues because of beer and baseball. Both would become friends because of beer and baseball.
"I never realised I would get old," says Hart, who has waited a long time for another opportunity to see one of his teams win it big. Well, we wouldn't dare tempt the ire of the baseball demiurges by saying more, but ...
Last night at Camden Yards, the Orioles spanked the Detroit Tigers 12-3, in the first game of the American League Division Series. Howard Hart was there, smiling and doing what he has always done, dispensing warm wisdom and cold wares, in the stands along the first base line at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. And, today, he'll be doing the same at Nationals Park, working near the home team's dugout, as the Washington Nationals take on the San Francisco Giants in the National League Division Series.
Look for the "Popeye" forearms that Hart has developed from years of lugging pounds of ice and beers. Listen for his distinctively booming voice. Buy a beer, tip him big, and tell him: "Charlie sent me."
- In addition to travelling the country researching baseball for Baseball Vagabond and many publications, Charlie Vascellaro can be found dispensing wit and wisdom, and beers, evenings at Grand Cru in Baltimore, Maryland, where he tends bar. He also is a snappy dresser.
- In the interest of bi-partisanship, I excluded one of Howard Hart's bon mots from the body of my post. Referring to a sparse crowd before the start of the game, mid-September, in which the Nationals would clinch a playoff berth, Hart told an usher not to worry. "They're always late in D.C. It's a California crowd." So true; too funny; meant with love; hopefully, changing.
- I inadvertently posted a draft version of this story (since removed). In it, I had written, "This is one reason I do what I do." The sentiment remains valid. I omitted the comment because I felt it drew attention to me rather than to Mr. Hart.