By Blair Jackson
As my San Francisco Giants went through the recent World Series, my personal ritual included wearing a different Giants shirt each night when I'd watch the games. Unfortunately, our team was so efficient—dispatching the poor overmatched Detroit Tigers in just four games—I never got a chance to wear my favorite shirt: a Giants “Stealie” (the “SF” logo inside the “Steal Your Face” skull) that I bought years ago at a game. Yup, it was team-sanctioned, sold inside the stadium. Giants reserve catcher Eli Whiteside wore a version of it in the big victory parade on Halloween, just as he did in the 2010 champions' parade. Way to go, Eli!
SF Giants catcher Eli Whiteside shows his colors at World Series celebration on Halloween.
The fact that such a shirt exists—and that you can find a Stealie shirt or decal with just about any professional (or college) sports team's logo—says something about the relationship between Dead Heads and sports fans. It turns out We Are Both Everywhere.
But what's the connection? It's got to be more than just being fanatical about two things at once.
Paul Grushkin's 1983 book, Grateful Dead: The Official Book of the Dead Heads, devoted a two-page spread to David Gans' cogent analysis of how Grateful Dead concerts are like baseball games, noting: “No two are ever alike. The plays are always different, and there's always fresh hope. Sometimes the game's an all-timer even though individual performances are sloppy; sometimes everybody plays great but the team loses anyway …
“You can cherish the great victories and triumphant seasons and chart them across decades, or you can go simply for the enjoyment of tonight and to hell with the standings. Like all the great teams, the Dead have their pennant years and bleak innings, perfect games and whippings, hits and foul balls, heroes and goats … Like big-league fans, Dead Heads are as varied as the game is long. There are score-keepers who record every detail for statistical analysis and a place in the Hall of Fame; camera buffs and video freaks; armchair umpires, die-hards, groupies …”
I do believe that there is a connection between the unpredictability of sports and that of the Dead experience. Is the incredibly exciting and satisfying rush that a home run or a long touchdown pass provides that much different than the thrill of recognition that accompanies the opening notes of a killer “Scarlet Begonias” or “Dark Star” or an end-of-show “Sugar Mag”? Part of it is feeling in sync with the crowd, the notion of sharing a group experience.
I don't think I was aware of a specific relationship between the Dead and the Giants until the start of the 1993 season, when Jerry, Bob and Vince sang “The Star Spangled Banner” on opening day. It was a particularly momentous occasion, because for much of the previous off-season there were strong indications that the Giants would be sold to a group that was determined to move the team to Tampa, Fla. However, the National League did not permit the sale; instead, a new group of local owners were found and the Giants were saved! It seemed fitting that members of another San Francisco institution—the Grateful Dead—were on hand to celebrate the city's good fortune! Jerry and Vince wore black satin Giants jackets (Bob was in his usual polo shirt), and the three sang like angels.
In the years since Jerry's death, the relationship between the Giants and the Dead family has strengthened even more. The past three years, on or around Jerry's birthday, there has been a “Jerry Garcia Day” game at AT&T Park, complete with a Dead cover band playing GD songs atop the visiting team's dugout before the game, Garcia bobbleheads (two of the three years), and various special stadium party activities to raise funds for charity. The first year, Bob, Phil and Furthur's Jeff Pehrson sang the National Anthem. The second year it was Bob, Phil and Giants Third Base Coach (and musician and fan of the Dead) Tim Flannery. This past August, on Jerry's 70th, Bob, Flannery and Jackie Greene did the honors. (Bob also played with Flannery's band at a benefit in Napa last winter for Brian Stow, a Giants fan who was severely beaten and critically injured following the opening day game against the Dodgers in 2011.)
Bobblehead Jerry from 8/1/12 Giants game.
Back in the late '70s and through the '80s, however, the Dead's main link to sports seemed to be to professional basketball, via the group's close relationship with World's Tallest Dead Head and 1993 Hall of Fame inductee Bill Walton. Despite some derision, Walton never hid his love of the band; indeed, he told anybody who asked him what the Dead had meant to him and how listening to the band had helped him as an athlete. He was a fixture at Dead concerts for many years (you couldn't miss him if he was there!) and even went to Egypt in '78. The band and crew reciprocated by rooting for his teams—the Portland Trailblazers, the San Diego (and L.A.) Clippers and, finally, the Boston Celtics. I can still picture Ram Rod and Mickey Hart wearing Kelly-green Celtics jackets everywhere in the late '80s. I even recall being at a a Dead show—can't remember the year or place—where instead of playing music over the P.A, before the show and at the break, they blasted the live broadcast of one of Walton's playoff games through the sound system instead, annoying commercials and all.
(It's been great seeing Walton remain part of the Dead scene in the post-Jerry years, taking on the Bill Graham Father Time role at New Year's spectaculars, being a member of the Rex Foundation Advisory Board, and showing up at various Dead-family concerts and events as his busy schedule permits.)
I would be remiss, too, if I didn't mention the Dead connection to the Lithuanian Olympic basketball team in 1992. A member of NBA's Golden State Warriors (the Bay Area team) named Sarunas Marciulionis was eager to have his homeland of Lithuania—recently free of the iron grip of the Soviet Union—represented in basketball at the Barcelona Olympics, but they were seriously underfunded. The Grateful Dead came to the rescue by providing some much-needed money—as well as the team's bright tie-dyed uniforms, which depicted a skeleton dunking a basketball on the jersey.
Strangest and coolest Olympic jersey EVER!
There must have been some magic in Greg Speirs' shirt design, because the underdog Lithuanian team ended up winning a Bronze medal that year. Man, all that tie-dye looked great up on the winners' stand! Earlier this year, Marciulionis told NBC, “[The International Olympic Committee] didn't want us to do it. They wanted us to wear suits and ties. But we decided that we would wear the tie-dyed T-shirts we got from the Grateful Dead. The Dead had stood behind us when we didn't have any money.” The shirts also became big sellers in the U.S. (and a common sight at Dead shows) and helped finance Lithuania's participation in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
A new documentary about the '92 Lithuanian Olympic basketball team, called The Other Dream Team, was released in the past month and, not surprisingly, the Dead's involvement in the story is featured prominently, as it should be. The film's trailer gives you a nice condensed version of the tale.
What I'd love to hear from you folks is your thoughts on the Dead and sports—as fans and also as participants: For instance, I know lots of folks who fuel their treacherous ski runs and scenic bike rides with Grateful Dead music. Personally, I'm just a brisk walker, but I can't imagine doing that without a hot Dead show to keep me company.