On April 22, 1981, an Ohio teenager named Randy Kobman skipped school to go to Riverfront Stadium to see the Cincinnati Reds play the Atlanta Braves. In the bottom of the 8th inning, Reds slugger George Foster fouled a pitch from Gaylord Perry into the grandstands behind home plate. The ball caromed off the the press box and headed back toward the field. Kobman, sitting in the front row of seats in the stadium’s second deck, moved toward the aisle to make a play for the bouncing ball. He caught it. Then he flipped over the railing.
Thanks to some combination of fate and bench pressing, Kobman saved himself. As he was falling toward the field, Kobman tossed the souvenir ball away, reached back, and grabbed the railing he’d just cartwheeled past with his right arm. His body slammed against the facing of the upper deck, but he never lost his grip. He braced himself against the wall with his legs as his body swung around and held on. It was as clutch a play as Riverfront Stadium, or any stadium, had ever seen.
“I remember it clearly, just seeing the guy hanging up there, way up there,” Ray Knight, the Reds’ third baseman that day, tells me. “The rails at Riverfront were built so that they had an angle in toward the seats, so I saw him hanging up there, but I never knew how he actually grabbed the dang rail, the way it’s built. That was an unbelievable thing.”
The unbelievability of what was witnessed came through in the Atlanta broadcasters’ call. “Oh, my!” Braves TV color commentator Pete Van Wieren said over the crowd’s gasp, as cameras caught the fan swinging from the upper deck.
“He’d be a very dead person, I think,” added Van Wieren’s partner, Braves play-by-play legend Skip Caray, as spectators hauled the hanging fan over to the safe side of the railing.
Randy Kobman is not a very dead person. He is alive and 54 years old and has a wife and two kids in graduate school and runs a shipping business in the Cincinnati area, where he still resides. I know this because I went looking for Kobman this spring and found him.
My search started after I happened upon video of Kobman’s great save while watching a vintage Philadelphia Phillies vs. Atlanta Braves game. The pregame show of that telecast, Phillies Today, which originally aired on Philly TV station WPHL on August 25, 1981, included a package of baseball bloopers. At the end of a series of yuk-inducing clips of baserunners tripping over themselves and outfielders dropping popups, there was that kid falling over the rail and hanging on for dear life. “Just for laughs, folks!” says WPHL host Bob Bradley while coming out of the blooper reel, seemingly embarrassed that a clip more suited for a Faces of Death compendium was thrown into his usual pile of highlights.
Kobman’s flip over the railing got lots of attention at the time. In the late 1970s, the Braves had become the first MLB team to have games telecast nationally by their flagship station, Ted Turner’s cable channel and the first so-called “superstation,” TBS. So Kobman’s superheroism was seen by a lot more people than the 15,735 patrons who, according to the box score, were there in person for the midweek “businessman’s special” day game. The clip was viewed across the country, and went viral before viral video was a thing.
I was a wayward teenager traveling around the U.S. at the time, and saw it on a local news broadcast in West Texas. I immediately linked that clip to It’s a Wonderful Life, probably because I’d seen that Christmas classic for the first time only a few months earlier. The arbitrary line between being here and not being here was right there, unscripted, swinging from the rail at a ballpark. The kid who by standard laws of physics likely should have been, as Skip Caray said, “a very dead person” was going to go on with his life. The world would be a different place.
Much like Ray Knight, I never forgot what I saw. It struck me as miraculous then, and struck me as miraculous all over again on that blooper reel. Seeing it for the first time since the day it happened made me want to find Kobman. I wanted to hear his version of what took place at Riverfront Stadium, and all the stuff that happened in his life that wouldn’t have happened had his grip not been so true. His name was in newspaper clippings from 1981, and I found one “Randy Kobman” in Ohio and left a phone message saying I was looking for the kid who saved himself at a Reds game. A couple days later I picked up a call from the 513 area code. “Yeah, I’m that guy,” Kobman tells me.
Then he politely told me what he remembers of his near-death experience, and about his life afterward. He seemed as surprised as Skip Caray that he left the ballyard with a pulse.
“When George Foster hit that ball, I turned my head to look back and see it hit off the press box,” he tells me. “And there were about 15 rows of empty seats behind us, so I think I might have a chance, and I start moving and all of a sudden I’m in the aisle and it’s coming right back at me and the thing looked the size of the beach ball, and I’m thinking, ‘I can get this!’ And I got the ball! But I forgot where I was. And that railing hit my legs right around the knees and flipped me, and all of a sudden I’m over the rail. At that point, I know something’s going to happen, and it won’t be good. I’m thinking, ‘I’m going to fall.’”
But he didn’t fall. So, why not?
“I have no idea,” he says.
Kobman admitted that his memory of that day has been aided through the years by periodically watching it on video; anybody with internet access can find it. The replay made him realize the unlikeliness of his lifesaving catch; Kobman learned only from the tape that, as Ray Knight remembers, the upper deck railing angled away from the field.
“I’ve slowed it down, looked frame by frame,” he says. “And I still have no idea how I grabbed on. I hit that wall and I’m banging around like a Volvo crash dummy, but I didn’t fall.”
After further discussion, I learn that the kid who performed that incredibly athletic feat was already well known around town for his sporting abilities. He was a star prep athlete in a city full of them. A 6-foot-3, 230-pound senior, Kobman was a two-time all-Cincinnati football player, and in the fall had been named all-state in Ohio, where high school football is taken as seriously as it is anywhere, and was chosen to captain his side in the North-South All-Star Football Game in Massillon, Ohio, a prep football mecca. He’d also been named a UPI All-American. Just two months before the fateful Reds/Braves game, Kobman accepted an offer from Coach Lee Corso to play football at Indiana University, and Cincinnati newspapers reported on his National Signing Day commitment.
“I started working out when I was 9,” he says. “I did a lot of lifting in high school, a lot of deadlifting.” He says he was “benching 350” at the time.
Kobman says he recalls having to choose between saving himself or holding on to the foul ball. “At first, I was just thinking about the ball, not about falling, and I had the ball,” he says. “But I had to grab for the bar, or hold on to the ball. I couldn’t do both, so I flipped the ball back.”
There is no known video that clearly shows Kobman throwing the briefly held souvenir back toward the grandstand. But on the grainy clips available on YouTube you can see a guy in the front row just to the left of the falling Kobman who has his hands raised and his back to the field, and who appears to grab a ball and secure it while ignoring the fan facing death beside him.
He says he was embarrassed that he’d made such a scene in front of the hometown crowd and local legends and childhood heroes on the Big Red Machine, including Foster, Tom Seaver and Johnny Bench. He was also peeved that he didn’t come away with the ball that almost killed him. And, since the ball he didn’t get was thrown by Perry, a Hall of Famer with 314 wins and Cy Young Awards in both the American and National Leagues, and hit by Foster, who had been on two of the Big Red Machine’s World Series championship squads (1975 and 1976), won MVP of the National League in 1977, and still holds the club records for home runs (52) and RBI (149) in a season, it’s understandable that he still is peeved. Kobman says he remembers that “an old guy in the section” ended up with the ball.
“Nobody offered to give me the ball,” he says now. “If it were me, man, after that, I would have given it to the kid.”
George Foster struck out on the very next pitch after Kobman’s ruckus in the grandstands. The Reds were down 7-3. Kobman and his brother, Rob, left as the 9th inning started. And he sensed right away his jaunt over the rail was going to be bigger news than the home team’s loss. He gave a comment to an Associated Press reporter that went national—“I just wanted a ball. That was it,” he said. But then he clammed up.
“All these TV people and camera people are following me,” he says now. “I’m going to be going off to college soon, and I really don’t want to deal with this. So when I get home, I’m not answering the phone. I’m not answering the door. I’m going, ‘If anybody asks, I’m not home!’”
The fact that the cameras caught him playing hooky factored into his decision to avoid publicity. But he couldn’t stop the story, locally or nationally. The front page of the next day’s Cincinnati Enquirer had a big photo of Kobman being pulled back into the upper deck, just above a story about how President Ronald Reagan didn’t know until he got to the hospital that he’d actually been shot by John Hinckley.
Word of what happened quickly reached the Hoosiers coach. “Corso called me up the next day and said, ‘Hey what are you doing sitting in the cheap seats? Sit in the lower sections!’” says Kobman.
(Asked about checking in on his recruit, Corso, now a fixture on ESPN’s college football telecasts, says through a network spokesperson that he’d seen Kobman’s near-tragedy on TV “and was so thankful he was okay.”)
Kobman says that over time he decided to embrace his standing as the fan who nearly died at Riverfront Stadium. He says that for years afterward he got mail from around the world from strangers telling him how happy they were that he was alive, and that to this day, whenever people find out he’s that kid, still tell him they remember seeing, and were touched by, his miraculous save.
He says years after almost falling over the rail, he was at a charity function in Cincinnati and met longtime Reds play-by-play man Marty Brennaman, who called the fateful Reds/Braves game back in 1981 and witnessed the fan’s brush with death from the press box.
“Marty was saying, ‘You’re that guy? You’re that guy! I can’t believe I got to meet that guy!’” Kobman says. “He kept telling me and his wife what a big deal it was for him to meet me. ‘You have no idea!’ he kept saying.”
It was as if Brennaman still couldn’t believe “that guy” was alive.
Kobman wasn’t one of them, but lots of people really do die at baseball games.
Robert Gorman, a former research librarian at Winthrop University, has dedicated a good portion of his professional life to chronicling baseball’s body count. The results of the studies he conducted alongside fellow Winthrop librarian David Weeks were originally released in Death at the Ballpark: A Comprehensive Study of Game-Related Fatalities, 1862-2007. But the deaths kept coming.
“We had to put out another edition when [the death toll] hit 2,000,” he says.
Going by the 2015 second edition of the book and other, more recent addenda to the list, it appears at least two dozen ballpark fatalities have come from spectators falling over railings.
Among the most noted rail-related deaths of recent years: In 2011, a Texas Rangers fan and local firefighter named Shannon Stone died after flipping over a railing and falling 20 feet at the Ballpark in Arlington while catching a ball thrown into the stands by outfielder Josh Hamilton. The railing Stone fell over was reportedly 33 inches tall, or about thigh-high. His fall came just a year after another Rangers fan and local firefighter, Tyler Morris, fell out of the upper deck in the same stadium while going after a foul ball. Morris broke his skull but did not die, if only because his reported 35-foot fall was broken when he landed on four unlucky folks sitting in the seats below. (The people Morris landed on suffered only minor injuries.)
In August 2015, Greg Murrey of Alpharetta, Ga., died after falling over the railing at Turner Field during a Braves vs. Yankees game, reportedly while heckling Alex Rodriguez. “When they called A-Rod coming to bat, [Murrey] got all excited, and his momentum took him over [the railing],” a witness told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A lawsuit filed in the state court of Fulton County by the fan’s widow, Laura Murrey, alleges that the height of the railing, 30 inches according to the complaint, contributed to the death. The suit alleges that Braves management, and the management of all MLB teams, have been aware for decades that railings under 40 inches tall increase the risk of fan falls, but that the league and its owners have done almost nothing to lower the death risk. The trial is scheduled for October of 2018.
Most recently, on May 16 of this year, a spectator named Richard Garrity died after falling over a railing at Wrigley Field, where he’d just watched a Reds vs. Cubs game.
Gorman, after years of looking into the fatal falls, now clearly believes that MLB and team owners are complicit in the deaths. “Any railing that’s less than three feet tall is dangerous,” he says. “But they won’t make them higher or do anything. ‘It obscures the field!’ is always the excuse, even when it comes to putting up netting to catch people, which to me is ludicrous.” One exception to baseball’s alleged inertia: The Texas Rangers reportedly spent over $1 million after Shannon Stone’s fall to make all railings in the Ballpark in Arlington at least 42 inches tall.
As detailed in Gorman’s compilation, just a year after Kobman’s near-death experience, a spectator named Lora Schneeman died after falling or jumping from the upper deck at Riverfront Stadium during a Reds vs. Pirates game.
Riverfront Stadium was demolished in 2002. Shane Kane, spokesman for Heery International, the architectural firm that designed it, says the company no longer has any records or building plans from the project, and therefore can’t answer questions about how far Kobman would have fallen or the height of the railing he flipped over, or explain the purpose of the inward slant of the upper deck railing, a design which would seem to increase the chance that anybody who tripped over the railing would fall to the ground. Kobman says he was told at the time that he would have fallen 30 feet; the Associated Press writeup of the incident gives the same height. Reds spokesman Rob Butcher declined to answer questions about the Kobman incident or Riverfront Stadium railings for this story, and prevented other Reds employees from responding. The videos of Kobman’s foul-ball foray make it appear that the railings came just above his knee, what would seem to be ideal height to trip somebody listed at 6-foot-3.
Gorman was unaware of Kobman’s near fall until I directed him to a Youtube clip. Like everybody, he was amazed by what he saw. “I don’t imagine most people could do that,” he says. “I couldn’t do that. The reaction time is incredible. He was an athlete for sure.”
As a reward for not dying trying to catch a baseball hit by George Foster, Kobman got a baseball from George Foster. A dozen baseballs, actually.
Kobman says a few days after the Riverfront Stadium incident he got a call from somebody claiming to be the agent for George Foster; saying that the player wanted to meet him and talk about what happened. Kobman initially thought it was a prank, since he thought there’s no way a superstar like Foster would give a rip about him. But he soon learned that Foster really was concerned, as if his hitting the near-fatal foul ball somehow made him responsible for the kid’s well being. Kobman had been avoiding talking to media and anonymous well wishers. But for Foster, he made an exception.
“In Cincinnati, if you get a chance to meet George Foster,” says Kobman, “you meet him.”
He says Foster invited him to the Playboy Club in downtown Cincinnati. Over lunch, they traded workout tips—“The guy had forearms like Popeye,” Kobman recalls—and Foster gave him some autographed keepsakes, including a box of signed baseballs, to replace the souvenir Kobman gave up while saving his life. Kobman says Foster also gave him a pair of Reds clubhouse passes, and told him to give him a call whenever he wanted to come back to the stadium. But then in early June the Major League Baseball Players Association went on strike, and the players didn’t get back on the field until August. By then, Kobman was off to Indiana to play football. Foster was traded after the 1981 season to the New York Mets for Alex Trevino, Jim Kern, and Greg Harris. “I never got to use my clubhouse passes,” Kobman says.
He still has the baseballs.
Because he left Riverfront Stadium undead, Kobman also got to go to the Cincinnati Enquirer’s annual Enky awards dinner alongside other top area prep athletes a month after the foul ball incident. And what a class! Among the fellow honorees were Jim Leyritz and Daryl Boston, who had long MLB careers, and Barry Larkin, who had a Hall of Fame one (Larkin’s brother, future Notre Dame linebacker Mike Larkin, was another 1981 Enky recipient); Napoleon McCallum, who would go on to football fame at the Naval Academy and with the Oakland Raiders and then have his leg shredded on national TV; and, Gerry Faust, then the head football coach of Moeller High School, the reigning Cincinnati city champs. (Within months of the dinner, Faust would leave Moeller, where he had a career record of 178-23-2 and five state championships, to become head coach at Notre Dame.)
Alas, the most amazing thing about Kobman’s IU football career is that he lived to have one. The paper trail of his playing days seems limited to appearances in team photos and mentions in the IU media guide that he wore #51 and was a letter winner for one season, 1982. He says injuries and turnover in the head-coaching ranks hampered his days in Bloomington. That era of Hoosiers football was notable only for the big-name coaches that passed through. Lee Corso got fired after Kobman’s sophomore season after going 3-8 in 1981 and 5-6 in 1982. Sam Wyche, another coach now known more for his mouth away from the gridiron than his wins on it, replaced Corso and went 3-8 in his first season, then left with four years left on his IU contract when the Cincinnati Bengals offered him their head coaching job. Bill Mallory took over for Wyche and went winless in 1984. So Kobman’s class went 11-33 overall under three different head coaches.
Kobman says he stayed in touch with Wyche when he returned to Cincinnati. “I’d go down to the Bengals offices and say hi to him, and Sam was always really cool,” he says. He says that during one visit, shortly after he’d gotten out of Indiana, and just before the 1985 NFL draft, Wyche let on that the Bengals were going to use the 13th pick in the first round on a receiver. He was debating between Eddie Brown, a consensus All-American from Miami, the 1983 National Champions, or a kid from little-known Mississippi Valley State University named Jerry Rice.
“I told Sam, ‘If it was me, I’m taking Eddie Brown from Miami,’” Kobman says. “Sam must have agreed with me.” (The Bengals did pass on Rice to make Brown their top pick. He made one Pro Bowl.)
Kobman added to his Zelig-esque athletic portfolio by joining a mob of 175 dreamers at the Reds training facility in Plant City, Fla., in January 1995. The Reds’ general manager, Jim Bowden, had announced open tryouts for replacement players. A players’ strike, the first since 1981, had crippled the 1994 season, which ended without a World Series for the first time in 90 years. So all MLB owners except one—Peter Angelos of the Baltimore Orioles—decided they’d field replacements if the job action wasn’t over by Opening Day. The Cincinnati Post featured Kobman in a roundup of prospects at the scab team tryouts, identifying him as “the guy who found himself dangling by one arm from the railing at Riverfront Stadium after an unsuccessful attempt to snag a George Foster foul ball in 1981.” Kobman was 31 years old at the time and hadn’t played baseball since he was a teenager, but wanted to be a pitcher. He tells me now that he trained for the tryout by throwing tennis balls against the wall at the local racquet club, and says that at the tryouts his fastball “got clocked at 93” miles per hour. He thought velocity alone would get him an extended stay with the organization, but says the dream ended as soon as the scouts heard (perhaps through that Cincinnati Post story) about what happened to him at a Reds game a decade and a half earlier. “Then they knew I wasn’t 19 or 20 years old,” he says. “And it was over.” He had told the paper he wouldn’t be disappointed if he got cut. He got cut. (As things turned out, the strike was ended by a ruling in favor of the players from future Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, so no replacement teams were ever fielded.)
By not dying for a foul ball, Kobman lived to get a chapter in Hornsby Hit One Over My Head, a 1997 compendium of obsessive baseball fandom assembled by author David Cataneo. Kobman told Cataneo about dealing with the rise and fall of Pete Rose, whom he worshiped, as did every other Cincinnati kid of his generation. Kobman told Cataneo that as a little kid he met Pete Rose at River Downs, a racetrack, and Rose bought him a soda and immediately became his favorite player. In tribute, Kobman told the writer, he wore a homemade Pete Rose Reds jersey adorned with #14 during his tryout for the replacement version of Rose’s old squad. (Pete Rose Jr., meanwhile, wore the same jersey number while signing on as a scab for the Chicago White Sox.). Cataneo, who now teaches writing at the University of New Hampshire, says he had heard about Kobman’s stadium episode, and that it factored into his being used in the book. But Cataneo had never seen video of what Kobman actually did back in 1981. So I sent him a Youtube link of the clip. His reaction? “Holy sh… how the heck did he ever hang on?” he says. “This is like one of those movies where you see a guy hang on to a helicopter with one arm and you go, ‘No way he really did that!’ Well, he really did that!”
After not dying at a Reds game, Kobman grew up to spend lots of time at the racetrack, just like Rose. Kobman even became a racehorse owner with his brother, Robert Kobman, who was with him that day at Riverfront Stadium and was among the fans that hauled him back over the rail to safety. According to racing stats clearinghouse Equibase, horses in the Kobmans’ stable had 11 wins in 38 starts between 2002 and 2006, and posted $141,786 in earnings.
There is no fame like that enjoyed by the high school football star. And because he grabbed that railing and held on as a senior, Kobman got to relive those glory days in 2005, when he was inducted into the Lakota High School athletic hall of fame. At his induction, Kobman was remembered as a three-year, two-way starter on the varsity football team who was voted captain his senior year, and, as of his induction, still held the school record for solo tackles in a season (151).
After Kobman tells me much of his life story, a tale that almost ended when a teenager chased a foul ball, I made the corny confession to him that through the years I’d related his dangling from the railing at Riverfront Stadium to Jimmy Stewart standing on the bridge in Bedford Falls. He tells me that he, too, has thought about the It’s a Wonderful Life angle, and occasionally dwells on how different everything could have turned out.
“It’s like an angel was looking out for you going, ‘Hey, drop the ball and put your hand on that bar and hold on!’” he says. “I look at that video and, yeah, think, ‘What if Randy Kobman didn’t exist?’ No kids and no wife and none of my life would have happened. Thinking about that is eerie and weird. But it doesn’t stop me from doing life stuff. I still raft down white waters and I even went skydiving once. Everything is a risk, you know? At Riverfront, I didn’t make a choice to take a risk. I wasn’t like a guy who chooses to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. I didn’t choose to go over that railing. It just happened, and I was very fortunate. Nobody knows why.”
He remembers the first time he showed the clip of the incident to his two children. He assumed that they, like him, would come away thinking about how neither of them would even be around to watch it had their dad not turned in such a clutch performance on that April afternoon all those years ago. Their immediate takeaway, however, was less existential.
“They just looked at me and said, ‘Didn’t you have school?’” he says.