What It's Like To Be...

A Stadium Beer Vendor

October 15, 2023 Dan Heath Season 1 Episode 1
What It's Like To Be...
A Stadium Beer Vendor
Show Notes Transcript

Meeting Muhammad Ali, handling fans who are alcoholics, pouring with no foam, and dreaming about one last game with Howard Hart, who spent three decades as a stadium beer vendor.

If you want to see Howard in action, The Washington Post put together a great video feature on him in 2014.

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  1. What do people think your job is like and what is it actually like?
  2. What’s a word or phrase that only someone from your profession would be likely to know and what does it mean?

Dan Heath:
Howard Hart was a beer vendor, one of the guys who walks up and down the stairs at the stadium during a game shouting, "Cold beer!" And it wasn't a summer job for him. It wasn't a starting out job. It was his career. And he loved it, partly because every now and then his job delivered these incredible moments. Like this one time he was working a Mike Tyson fight in Atlantic City, and he was in a back hallway.

Howard Hart:
And along comes this entourage like about, there was maybe eight or ten people surrounding Muhammad Ali. Well, he was my idol when I was a teenager, and I yelled, "Champ, champ, you were always my hero, I love you." And one of his entourage shoved me against the wall. I mean, hard, pushed me against the wall. And Ali stopped, and he said, "Leave the boy," I'll never forget this, he said, "Leave the boy alone." And he looked over and he reached his hand out to me, and I reached my hand out. And we didn't really shake hands, we kind of clasped like railroad cars do. The tips of his fingers and the tips of my fingers clasped. And he looked me in the eyes, he said, "Thank you. Thank you very much." And he smiled at me. And even right now, it makes me glow inside.

Dan Heath:
I've got goosebumps Just thinking about that. Muhammad Ali.

Howard Hart:
Right. To me, if you said to me, "What's the highlight of your vending career?" That might be it right there, because you could feel the presence of a gentle and kind human being.

Dan Heath:
I'm Dan Heath. Welcome to What It's Like To Be... This is a show where in every episode we profile someone from a different profession. We ask what the tensions of the job are, the highs, the lows, but ultimately it's about the most basic question of human curiosity. What is it like to be someone else, to walk in their shoes? Today we get to know Howard Hart, who was a stadium beer vendor for 35 years. We'll learn how many beers you can carry at once, what can get you fired on the job. And it actually turns out there are beer vendor sting operations that happen, more on that later. And we'll also hear what the coolest event was that he ever worked, and it's pretty incredible. Trust me. So, let's get to it. Here's what it's like to be a stadium beer vendor.

So when you're walking around the stands, you're carrying a beer tub, is that right? Like, paint me a picture of that. How big is it? How much beer can it hold?

Howard Hart:
Well, sometimes you can put somewhere around 50 pounds in it. If you pack it right, you can get about 48 16-ounce beers in there, depending on...

Dan Heath:
48. Wow.

Howard Hart:
Yeah. Especially the Budweiser bottles. I loved it when they went to the aluminum bottles. You could really pack those in there, and you had to be strong to carry that kind of weight.

Dan Heath:
You're carrying 50 pounds up and down stairs for hours at a time?

Howard Hart:
Well, only in the beginning. After you get done selling some...

Dan Heath:
Well, that's true.

Howard Hart:
And listen, if it's a small crowd, you don't do that. But when there's a big crowd, you take whatever you can fit in that case, because the idea is you don't want to waste time walking back and forth to the vending room. The whole idea is to maximize the amount of money that you can make in the time that you're there. Except for me, it became a little bit different, in that I figured I could make as much money if I had regular people and treated people and developed relationships, then I could talk with people as well as sell my products. And that was kind of my thing. My thing was, I love the relationships that I developed with regular customers in Baltimore and Washington.

Dan Heath:
Oh, so you get to work the same parts of the stands?

Howard Hart:
Oh, yeah. That's one of the things about it. With the vendors, if you go to any ballpark in our country, probably, I mean as far as I know, the ballparks that I've worked, that's one of the big things. You get assigned to a certain area, and you develop the season ticket holders. That's your bread and butter, especially...

Dan Heath:
I had no idea. So you get to cultivate a family in a certain section?

Howard Hart:
Oh, yes. Absolutely. Listen, just recently, to give you an example, I just recently got a card from a customer of mine that I've had for like 30 years. And he's an old guy. He's... 

Dan Heath:
30 years.

Howard Hart:
Well, yeah. Yeah, I got customers that go back to the very beginning when I started, back to '82, '83. Sure I do. I got a few people that are still around. But I just got a card from a gentleman, Frank Kaufman, who was living in an assisted living center with his wife, and his wife died. And I'd been sending them cards. I never stopped. I sent Christmas cards and Easter cards and all those kind of things to a group of people. And he sent me a heartfelt note about his wife dying and how painful it was. And I knew this guy. I know his children and his grandchildren. It's just an amazing experience to develop these relationships where you feel their joy and you feel their sorrow. And I've had that. That's one of the things I miss. And it's been very difficult for me personally, to not have this. Many people have trouble when they leave their job. I've read this, I've heard this from friends, but leaving vending, not vending, it's like I've lost a huge social life that I had in the ballpark with my fellow workers and with the customers, my regular customers in the stands.

Dan Heath:
So, how many people that were your regulars, how many do you think you would recognize if you saw on the street?

Howard Hart:
Oh gosh, at least... I can guarantee you there'd be easily over 100. I mean, more than that.

Dan Heath:
Holy cow. So it's like you've got your own makeshift neighborhood that you've created over the years. You see the same faces.

Howard Hart:
It was, it was. Look, one of the greatest rewards of the job was that every night that I went to work, I was guaranteed to have people, when they saw me, they'd break into a smile. And when I saw them, I would break into a smile as well. And oftentimes hugs, or, "How are you doing? How's the family?" I guess people watch television, TV shows like Friends or Cheers, where everybody knows each other. And that's how it is in the ballparks. At least it was in the ballparks where I worked in Washington and Baltimore.

Dan Heath:
What were some of the most exciting events that you got to cover over the years?

Howard Hart:
I'll just name a few real quick. The Kentucky Derbys, I worked like half a dozen Kentucky Derbys. They were always fun to work. I worked the World Series in Philadelphia a few times. I worked all the playoffs in Atlanta's Fulton County Stadium, and the World Series there. That was exciting. The Olympics, of course, was very exciting. The spring training, I loved spring training. I was in Florida from 1987 until just three years ago, when COVID hit, is when that stopped. So I would go to spring training for the month of March. That was wonderful. And of course, the concerts, you got Elton John, McCartney, the U2, all these things. But the single most exciting event, the one that I felt like, boy, I'm in the center of the world, was when Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's streak...

Dan Heath:
Oh, you were there for that?

Howard Hart:
Sure I was there. I was one of the top vendors. I was there for Cal's whole career. I was there the entire time. I started work at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore in May of 1982. That's the same time that Cal started his streak. But when that was building up, the numbers on the warehouse coming down, and it was just incredible to actually be there.

Dan Heath:
What was that like?

Howard Hart:
Well, it was chill bumps, one after another. It was a big, big, big night.

Dan Heath:
Tell me a little bit about how the job works. Are you paid by the hour, or are you paid a commission on what you sell? Or how does it work?

Howard Hart:
In recent years, they give you a minimum wage paid by the hour, but I never drew that once. I never did, and not many vendors will. You're paid commission, depending upon where you work, it could be anywhere from 8% to 17% of whatever you sell. So if you sell a beer, nowadays the beers go say $10 to $12 for a domestic beer. You sell one beer, you're making $1.70. And then sometimes there were the gratuities. Everything's credit card now, in the ballparks that I worked. In the old days, it was cash, but there's still gratuity. So, that's how you're compensated. You're compensated commission plus whatever gratuities that the customer puts on the credit card.

Dan Heath:
And so, if you don't mind me asking, what can a good vendor make?

Howard Hart:
A good vendor, there were events where you make five, $600 in an event.

Dan Heath:
Whoa.

Howard Hart:
And sometimes more, like the Kentucky Derby, big ticket items, those products are very expensive and you can make a lot of money. But on an average night in a ballpark, I don't know, 150 bucks, which is pretty good money for three hours of work. And I'd say a good vendor, now, my guess is they can make 30 to $40,000 a year. That would be a good guess on my part.

Dan Heath:
So, this is not just a sidelight, this can be your actual career. This is what you spent your career doing, yeah?

Howard Hart:
Well, I did. And in a way... A reporter did a story on me a few years ago in which I told him I had relatives that said, "Man, you squandered your life. You had so much potential to do so many things." And I said, "No, I didn't. I've had a great life." It gave me a lot of free time. I worked very, very hard. I never missed work. I never complained about the job. I kept my nose clean. And I loved it. And I was able to make a living. But no, could I buy a brand new car? No. Could I get a big house? No. Could I take vacations to the Caribbean or fly to Europe? No. But could I have a good life? The answer was yes, A very, very, very good life, in my mind. And I loved what I was doing, and I know for a fact that I brought something good to the ballpark, and that the people brought something good back to me.

Dan Heath:
So, you mentioned that your family was saying you squandered your life. What was that dynamic like? Were they trying to get you to switch professions? Or...

Howard Hart:
No, it wasn't really so much that. It was just that, in moments of quiet reflection, there were comments that I had so much potential, as so many parents do with their children, and other relatives. I was expected to do something with my life in a traditional sense of a 1950s, '60s generation. Go to college, get a job, raise a family, and leave your mark in some way. But I got actually a little bit testy one time, and I said, "If I had developed a nuclear warhead, would you be proud of me? If I was a bomber, if I was operating in a strategic air command and bombing people from my little video game command center, would you say, 'My son's a big military member'? Would that make you proud? Would you be able to brag upon me then? No. You know what? If you want to brag about your children or you want to talk about your family members, I would prefer that you just say he was kind, he worked hard, he was honest, and he tried to make the world a little bit better because of his interactions with people."

Dan Heath:
So, I know that the familiar faces in the stands were some of the best things about the job, but I imagine the customers could be some of the worst things about the job, too. I mean, I've seen a lot of drunk people in stadiums, and I imagine you've seen about 100 times more. What was that like?

Howard Hart:
I think one of the most difficult parts of the job, and I'll go way back to Memorial Stadium, to a family that I knew, a father, he would come to the game with his two sons. And he liked me, and right away he made me his beer man. "Howard, I want you to be my beer man." A heavy tipper. This was back, beers were like $3.50, he'd give me a $5 bill and say, "Keep it." Well, he'd drink a beer, he'd drink another beer, and things were fine. And then he'd want another beer. And things were not fine after the third beer, and sometimes he was not nice. "Where you been, man? I tip you money. What the hell do you think I'm... I tip you, man. Where you been?" And I'd be like, "Whoa, whoa." In front of the kids, he'd act like that. And I didn't want to sell him beer.

And I told him I had to talk with him. It was one of the very first times that I had any courage regarding this particular issue. And I took him aside and I said, "I need to talk to you." And I talked to him and told him, and he cussed me, man. He was straight when he did it too, he was sober, but he said, "Who do you think you are? You telling me ... there's other vendors out there, blah, blah, blah." Well, he came back and apologized to me later, maybe about a month later. And then he told me, he said, "Listen, just let me know when I get like that." And I told him, I said, "Here's the deal. I'll sell you two beers a night, and that's it. Because when you hit the third beer, that's when you start to get rough." And we went with that. And then one day, a couple years later, he says, "I'm in the program." And I smiled and we hugged each other and we cried. We cried. And I said, "I'm so glad for you and for everybody concerned."

But that lesson for me was, I had a few regular customers that I lost, because I would not sell them beer, because it made me ashamed of I was part of feeding a disease. And I have to recognize that's the reality of what I did. There were probably people that I did not know were getting drunk, and I was feeding their disease. But I can look the Almighty in front of all things visible and invisible and say that I never knowingly sold an alcoholic beverage to somebody that I knew was intoxicated, not because I was fearful for my job, but because morally it's reprehensible.

Dan Heath:
I just wanted to jump in here to ask a quick question. If you could talk with anyone in your life about their job, who would it be? Your auto mechanic? Your neighbor? The registered nurse? Maybe a childhood friend who's a zookeeper? Tell us about them and we'll be the ones to pester them with 100 nosy questions. We're always looking for new people to talk to. So, if you know someone who loves their job and is a great storyteller, tell us about them. Just email us at jobs@whatitslike.com. That's jobs@whatitslike.com. Thanks, folks.

What was your record sales event? Do you know?

Howard Hart:
Well, I don't want to exaggerate. I'll tell you this. Back in the days when you could sell nine innings, I sold 27 cases of beer at Memorial Stadium, one game, and I sold 34 in a doubleheader. But there were a couple other vendors that sold more than that. There's a guy Clancy in Baltimore, he's a celebrity vendor, very famous vendor, and I could not sell as many beers as he could on any given day. This guy was a physical specimen. As well as another guy, Jerry Collier, they used to call him the Terminator, because he was like 6'5", 240, 250. He could carry triple cases like nothing. And then there was another guy named Perry Hahn that used to carry four racks of sodas. I don't know how the guy did it. This guy could carry like 96 sodas. I don't know. His arms were down below his knees.

Dan Heath:
Oh my god.

Howard Hart:
The funny thing about him, he used to wear a bandana with a big red rising sun on. The samurai, they used to call them the samurai vendor. The vendors have had a lot of shticks over the years. They do different things, pitter-patter, the way that they do it.

Dan Heath:
God, I love these stories of the other vendors. It's like people have these different characters. It's like one guy's known for being huge, and the other guy's the samurai guy.

Howard Hart:
Right, and they had patter. I used to like to listen to him. One guy, he's deceased, a guy named Manny, used to stand at the bottom of the aisle, and he'd pick ice up in his hand and hold it and rub his hands together, and ice would come down over top of his beer. And his pitch was, "You don't have to worry if my beer is cold." And people would like that. People would laugh and do that. And Clancy used to make these lines. He'd do, "Why stand in line when you can buy mine? Who's due for a cold brew? You want a fancy, you got to buy your beer from Clancy." And it worked. It was good. We had one vendor, I won't name him. He used to go in the locker room, he'd stand in front of the mirror making faces to practice his expressions for the customers. It'd be like surprise and wonder. It used to make...

Dan Heath:
Really?

Howard Hart:
Yeah, listen. Here's his pitch. You ready? "Hey, let's get this party started!" And he'd have a big smile on his face and throw his hands up in the air. He practiced that stuff in the mirror in the locker room. I never cared for that. In fact...

Dan Heath:
I feel like William H. Macy is going to play that dude in a movie someday. That is corny.

Howard Hart:
Well, I thought it was, but you know what? He had a very, very loyal younger clientele that they would buy beer from him and they loved him.

Dan Heath:
And what was your patter? Give us some Howard patter.

Howard Hart:
Well, mine was more [inaudible 00:17:48] beautiful night for a ball game. But early on, here you go, here's an early on. When I started out, I wore some shoes that had holes in the bottom of them, and I'd hold my foot up and I'd say, "Daddy needs a new pair of shoes. Who needs a beer?"

Dan Heath:
Howard spent a lot of his career working at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, where the Orioles played baseball. So eventually the team moves to a new stadium, Camden Yards, and it’s time to shut down Memorial Stadium for good. Howard told an incredible story about that last game.

Howard Hart:
When Memorial Stadium was closing, the last game in that stadium, you could not get a ticket. Tickets were going for $1,000, because everybody in Baltimore that had been part of that stadium wanted to be at that last game. And one of my regular customers, a guy named Dave Ely, who was actually the very first customer to call me by name and say... I'll never forget it. I was selling a Busch beer at the time. And he said to me, "Hey, beer man, come here." And I said, "Yeah? What can I do?" He says, "I got Sunday season tickets. I come every Sunday from Norfolk, Virginia with three of my buddies, and we want you to be our beer man. What's your name?" And I said, "Howard." And he said, "My name is Dave, and this is Mike, and this is Chuck." And they introduced me. Well, that was in 1983.

And in 1991, he said to me, last game of the year, he says, "Is your wife coming?" I said, "I can't get her a ticket. I can't afford a ticket." He says, "Your wife should be here for the last game." And I said to him, "Dave, I'm telling you, I can't get a ticket." He said, "I got a ticket for your wife." And I said, "How much is it going to cost?" And he said, "What, are you crazy? It's not going to cost you anything." And I said to him, "Dave, I can't take that ticket." He said, "You can and you will." And he gave me the ticket to the last game at Memorial Stadium. My wife sat with him at the last game at Memorial Stadium, and they sat together.

Dan Heath:
Incredible.

Howard Hart:
And the neat thing was, they did a little article in the Sun paper, the daily paper here, and they had a picture of me with my wife and Dave at the last game at Memorial Stadium. And actually the last beer, when it was over, I took off my uniform, because you had to stop in the seventh inning, took off my uniform, and I said, "The last beer is for me." And the last beer that I opened at Memorial Stadium, I drank it myself.

Dan Heath:
Howard, we always end our episodes with a quick lightning round of questions, so here goes. What's a word or phrase that only someone from the vending world would be likely to know? And what does it mean?

Howard Hart:
Pass out.

Dan Heath:
Pass out.

Howard Hart:
That means you sold every product you had. There was nothing left.

Dan Heath:
I passed out, is a good thing.

Howard Hart:
No, no, not passed with E-D. Just a pass out. P-A-S-S. Pass out. And actually that's a Chicago term. That's where that originated. They've got quite a vending... Man, that's a strong... They've got books about them. They've got books about Wrigley vendors and about Comiskey Park vendors. Pretty cool.

Dan Heath:
Okay. Next, what's the most insulting thing you could say about a vendor's work?

Howard Hart:
Cheat. A cheat.

Dan Heath:
Cheat?

Howard Hart:
A cheat. Yeah. A cheat.

Dan Heath:
Meaning what?

Howard Hart:
You're dishonest. I mean, the casual term is bum, but that's not the worst. The worst thing is when a vendor is known to be a cheater, they cheat the vending room, or they cheat the other vendors, or they cheat a customer. If you know somebody's a cheat, that's the worst thing you can call them.

Dan Heath:
What's your favorite tool that you got to use in your job?

Howard Hart:
I had a can opener. Back in the days when we had to shotgun, to pour the beer quickly, you used to have to pour the beers, and that was the one thing in which I excelled. That's one of the reasons why I was a number one vendor. I would put two cups in my fingers on my left hand. And before I did that though, you would pop the can, and then put a hole in the backside of the can so it would pour quicker. If you didn't put that in, you would get a lot of foam, and you couldn't get the whole can into the cup. So, I had a heavy duty old antique, what we called a church key back in the day. And I loved that, I carried that with me, in fact I still have it, and it hangs on the wall in my bedroom.

Dan Heath:
I love that. What phrase or sentence strikes fear into the heart of a vendor?

Howard Hart:
Secret shoppers. That means the company has people out there that are underage that are going to try to buy beers from you.

Dan Heath:
Oh. I didn't think of... I thought you just meant in terms of how's the experience, but they're actually trying to do a sting.

Howard Hart:
No, they are. And in fact, I lost my job one time on that, was insanity. But then they had a video, they had a camera in their cap. And the truth was, you're only allowed to sell two beers to one person, and I sold three beers. But I actually sold three beers to two people, and the video proved that. I got my job back. Took a while, I missed a few games because of it, but I was so grateful. Because there is no union in Washington, and the company went to bat for me, and I will always treasure that memory of them standing up for me.

Dan Heath:
I've only got one more question for you.

Howard Hart:
Go ahead.

Dan Heath:
Do you think you'll ever vend again?

Howard Hart:
I don't know. I'll be honest with you. I'd like to. I'd like to be able to go back to Baltimore and Washington for one more home stand in each ballpark, and work and see the people. Not really so much to work, but to have that uniform on that gives you access to everything, you got that uniform, and go up and down the aisles, and just look at the faces and burn those memories. I mean, I don't need to, I've got them. But now that I know that it really is over, the way it ended with COVID, and the different situations in my life that have created the inability to vend. I'd like to. Whether it'll happen or not, I don't know. I don't know. I'd love to go to Florida one more time, too. Oh Lord, I would love to go to Clearwater one more time, and be in that small ballpark, and look out over the center field, and look up at the osprey nest and just see the palm trees. I would love it. Yeah, I would love that.

Dan Heath:
Howard Hart is retired now and lives in western North Carolina. That conversation went such a different direction than I expected. I didn't expect to be moved by a beer vendor. But I guess that's the point, right? That you can make your job as big or small as you want. Here is the ultimate transactional job, the guy who walks the stairs and charges you $14 for a beer, and yet he made something bigger from it. It's like over time you get to recognize his face, and then you're making small talk together, and then you make inside jokes about the crazy samurai beer vendor, and then you see him at the game a dozen times a year, and suddenly you know what's going on in his life and he knows what's going on in your life, and around you are 100 other people with that same relationship. And then one day you come to a game, and Howard's not there, and you feel it. There's an absence. And I think there's something remarkable about that, that he conjured meaning from his work by cultivating a community.
And folks, that's what it's like to be a stadium beer vendor. If you enjoyed this episode, please do us a favor. This is the first episode of a brand new show. Give us a rating, tell a friend about it, and drop me a line. I'd love to hear what you think of it. My email address is dan@whatitslike.com, no apostrophes in there, just dan@whatitslike.com. So, our plan here is to drop new episodes of the show every two weeks, but for the launch of the show, we have something special. We're dropping three episodes all at once for you to binge. So right now, you've got a decision to make. Do you want to find out what it's like to be a criminal defense attorney?

Criminal Defense Attorney:
If you've got a good reason, and if you're passionate about this work, then I can't think of a job that exists on the face of the planet that is better.

Dan Heath:
Or do you want to find out what it's like to be a couple's therapist?

Couples Therapist:
I paused for a second and I said, "Let me just see if I can speak for you, if that's okay." And so I spoke for the female, and I looked directly at the man in his eyes, and I said, "Honey, when you are struggling and you're in pain and you're emotional, it's really scary for me. And I don't know how to respond to you, and I definitely don't know how to make it better."

Dan Heath:
I'm Dan Heath. Thanks so much for listening. Take care.