When was the last time you thought about MC Hammer? Until yesterday, the rapper hadn't crossed my mind since I watched "Behind the Laughter," the meta-fictional final episode of The Simpsons' 11th season. There, Homer, with money to burn, buys the then-broke Hammer's house and has the gates altered to read "Homertime." The only pop culture allusion that comes to my mind when I think of the man who made the fifth-best-selling rap album of all time is a gag about his bankruptcy. That's rough.
But before his relative anonymity, before the money disappeared, before "Can't Touch This" and "2 Legit 2 Quit," before the turtle necks, there was a teenage boy named Stanley Burrell who became an Oakland A's legend without ever taking the field.
The story goes that an 11-year-old Burrell, consumed by his passion for the game, would hang out at the Oakland Coliseum, the Athletics' home field, whenever he could. A Rolling Stone profile on Hammer from 1990 says that he was doing "James Brown splits" in the parking lot when he was discovered by Charlie Finley, the team's eccentric owner. Amused, Finley brought Burrell on as a bat boy.
The A's players, coming off their third consecutive World Series victory, nicknamed the new kid "Hammer"—he bore a resemblance, they said, to "Hammerin'" Hank Aaron, the team's dominant, recently-retired hitter. Burrell was a part of the clubhouse, but he'd go a lot further before long.
Finley, apparently, was turning up to games less and less frequently—he spent time instead running his insurance company out of Chicago. The staff at the A's was threadbare, and the club was in chaos. In a Los Angeles Times piece from 2000 about Hammer's baseball background, Joe Gergen wrote that "the front-office staff evolved into a skeleton crew, invested with the authority to answer the telephone and do little else."
So in stepped the the teenager. With few people left to report on the games to Finley, Hammer ended up sitting in the owner's box, phoning him post-game with the play-by-play. Before he was old enough to buy a pack of cigarettes, Hammer was jokingly awarded the title of "Executive Vice-President" and paid $7.50-per-game for his troubles.
He reveled in it too. Gergen writes that he spotted Hammer in 1978, when the team was in dire straits and attendances were plummeting:
On this particular day, the debut performance of top draft choice Mike Morgan one week after his high school graduation, Burrell was on duty outside the club offices. The Hammer was 16 and semi-conspicuous. On the crown of his green-and-gold baseball cap, in large block letters, was his title: "VP." For those who might not have gotten the message, he greeted the elevator operator in tones worthy of a herald.
"Make way for the vee pee," he commanded.
The operator yawned.
"I'll have your job," Burrell said.
"You can have it," the operator replied.
After graduating from high school, Hammer attended a local college in Oakland. He wanted to graduate with a degree in communications and become a professional baseball player—he even tried out for the San Francisco Giants—but neither worked out. He flirted with the idea of selling drugs in his neighborhood, but decided instead to join the Navy. Then he turned to the Bible, and started his own religious rap group called the Holy Ghost Boys. Despite the brilliant name, that didn't quite work out either.
Instead, the newly-monikered MC Hammer decided to go it alone. Oakland outfielders Dwayne Murphy and Mike Davis each gave the rapper $20,000 to start his own record label, Bust It. He assembled a crew of dancers and DJs to back him up, worked relentlessly to push his stuff to a wider audience, and eventually signed with Capitol. (Even that segment of the story has an uncomfortable ending. His relationship with Murphy and Davis turned sour in the end—they insisted that he had broken contract and been slow to return their initial investment. The situation was public and ugly for a while, but they settled out of court in the end, and the ball-players' lawyer wrote: "They will be rooting for [Hammer] to enjoy continued success in his career." Sounds an awful lot like a kiss of death.)
So, this Opening Day, while you're watching the first of your team's 162 games (Jesus, really?), think about little Stanley Burrell, the kid they called Hammer, who just wanted to play ball and hit some meaty dingers.
Alex Robert Ross doesn't see why you need to play the game 162 times to figure out who's the best at it, but he respects this country's commitment to spending summer weekdays sitting in the sun, doing very little. He's on Twitter.