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       The Most Dangerous Game: Death Threats in Sports
      March 4, 2015

      The Most Dangerous Game: Death Threats in Sports

      Dear Sir,

      Please do not take this letter to be a joke. It is not meant to be one.

      I have been a loyal Twins fan for many years and have supported them all year, every year, since they came to the Twin Cities. But now I'm really mad and I have decided to do something about the plight of this year's team.

      The team is losing because they are playing a team of minor leaguers against the rest of Major League Baseball. If the Twins had on their team right now all players who they have lost in the last 3 years just because of Calvin's pocketbook they would be a sure contender if not the powerhouse of the league.

      Therefore, considering all my options, I have decided to respectfully request that Calvin sell his team to someone who will give Mpls the winning team it deserves.

      BUT, if he doesn't sell the team by July 1, at 12:00 NOON. I will hunt Calvin Griffith like an animal and kill him.

      If his relatives choose not to sell the team, they will meet similar endings.

      I repeat—I am not worried about being caught. There is no way you can track me down. I watch police shows on TV all the time and I have thought of everything, so Calvin all I have to say to you is, get on the phone and find a friend with mega bucks.

      Sincerely,

      Mr. X

      Calvin Griffith received the above letter on June 1, 1978. The 67-year-old owner of the Minnesota Twins gave it to his lawyer, who in turn handed it over to the Federal Bureau of Investigations, which quickly determined, "IN VIEW OF THE NATURE OF THE THREAT, CONSIDER [unknown subject] ARMED AND DANGEROUS."

      Griffith wasn't the first—or the last—sports figure to receive a death threat.

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      During ESPN's pregame coverage of this year's Super Bowl, Tom Jackson announced that his colleagues had received such threats as a result of their DeflateGate coverage. Former Green Bay Packers tight end Brandon Bostick said he received threats after he botched an onside kick recovery that helped cost his team a playoff game. Los Angeles Lakers guard Steve Blake and San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Kyle Williams both were threatened because of playoff miscues. Jason Collins received threats after revealing that he's gay. Even Mary Willingham—the University of North Carolina professor who blew the whistle on widespread academic fraud within the school's athletic department—says she has been threatened.

      A sad, sick phenomenon? For sure. But also one the the FBI keeps tabs on. In fact, the bureau categorizes death threats as extortion attempts—intended to bully or coerce their targets—and as a VICE Sports deep deep dive into FBI records reveals, athletes and coaches long have been in the crosshairs.

      In 1964, New York Yankees star Joe DiMaggio received a string of letters concerned with his dating habits. One such message read:

      Don't get serious about any girl and plan on getting married again. The girl will be killed before you get married or she will be killed after you marry her. If you get married secretly, I will kill her and your son. I mean just exactly what I am saying. Don't get married again or you will have one or two murders to worry about. You can prevent them from happening if you stay single.

      The FBI believed whoever wrote these letters—the source never was identified—likely was a Marilyn Monroe fan who believed the actress would have still been alive (she died in 1962) had DiMaggio not divorced her ten years earlier. DiMaggio wasn't overly concerned with the threats, informing the FBI that "he has no intention of getting married and is, therefore, not fearful for his life or the life of his son." The mysterious letter-writer never did attack him.

      Other athletes have been less lucky. Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Eddie Waitkus, a contemporary of DiMaggio's, was famously shot in the chest by Ruth Ann Steinhagen, a deranged fan. Steinhagen was sent to a mental institution; Waitkus survived but was emotionally scarred by the attempt on his life, later becoming an alcoholic. The incident inspired the book and film The Natural. During a changeover in a 1993 match, tennis star Monica Seles was stabbed in the back by G√ľnter Parche, a psychologically disturbed fan of rival player Steffi Graf. After the attack, the BBC reported, there was:

      ... immediate speculation that the attack was politically motivated because of Monica Seles's Serbian roots. She is known to have received death threats in connection with the Yugoslav conflict ...

      Two weeks after Boston Celtics star Reggie Lewis died of a structural heart defect in July 1993, Celtics president Red Auerbach received a card in the mail. On the front was a picture of flowers and the phrase "Thinking About You." Inside, the pre-printed message was crossed out, replaced instead with a hand scrawled note reading:

      It's all about money. About that negro Reggie Lewis, I'm glad he's dead. Like I said B/4 I hope the rest of the black die. You white men kiss their ass. The blacks are part animal. Why you so stupid to pay animals money went you can go to the jungle and [just ends]. His funeral was a phony + a farce and screwed up my TV program. I can keep writing these cards and you won't do shit. The black are all on coke. [redacted] is a dog. Them fight for nothing. Red Auerbach you're next. If your scared of the blacks you surely must be scared of me" The author then wrote, "(over)" and on the card's back it continued, "I know you jerks won't do anything to me because I've more class then you and you're afraid—please no more news about negroes on TV. I've had my belly full. Their animals and breed like rats. Reggie Lewis needed water because he looked like a frog. Tell the Chief he can kiss my ass. Assholes.

      On September 20, 1993, the FBI wrote to NBA Security informing them that "there was no direct threat of death or physical harm" toward Auerbach in the card, so prosecution was unlikely. But the FBI was "definitely" going investigate and talk to the individual responsible since the writer included a return address inside the card.

      The threat writer turned out to be a Navy veteran who had been discharged decades earlier for "psychiatric reasons." He was now unemployed and an outpatient at a Boston-area VA hospital. He was also a criminal, arrested for larceny, DUI, drug possession, and on two separate occasions, charged with assault with a dangerous weapon. Specifically, a gun. He admitted to writing hundreds of other letters, sending them everywhere from the White House to the Golden Nugget casino in Las Vegas because "he gets up early and has nothing to do." The interviewing agents warned him of "the seriousness of his actions," which prompted him to state, "it was a very bad mistake" and he "would never do it again."

      This wasn't the first time Auerbach had been targeted. In a 1980 letter that was written on New York Hilton stationary, the author ran out of ink and had to switch pens mid-way through a 12-page long rant against Auerbach, the Celtics, the Boston Herald, the Boston Globe, and the Securities and Exchange Commission. The author ended it with a demand: "I expect $75,000,000 for this letter so tell your secretary to spread her ass cheeks, put her tail between her legs, and reach to the back to get the cold hard cash for me. Keep it between the telephone poles. Adios."

      A different letter directed at Auerbach in 1982 was written in rhymes:

      ... during a game, you'r oh so bad, not this time, you'r ass is had. Exploding backboards, distract attention, one on one, its my invention. Helter Skelter, creepy crawling, a knight without honor, falling falling ...

      Included with this note, perhaps to indicate a bomb was imminent, was what the FBI called "radio transistor type material"—a capacitor and two resistors which were soldered together. Much like the threat, the radio parts ultimately proved harmless.

      As he closed in on Babe Ruth's career home run record, baseball slugger Hank Aaron may have received more death threats than anyone in sports history—toxic, racist, frightening. One letter read:

      Dear Hank,

      You are a very good ballplayer, but if you come close to Babe Ruth's 714 homers I have a contract out on you. Over 700 and you can consider yourself punctured with a .22 shell. If by the all star game you have come within 20 homers of Babe you will be shot on sight by one of my assassins on July 24, 1973.

      Aaron's parents received threats against themselves and their son via phone calls and the mail. The FBI was aware of an alleged plot to kidnap Aaron's daughter while she studied at college. To help ensure his safety, the slugger was forced to register at hotels under false names, and required a police escort to and from games. Things got so bad that Aaron warned his teammates not to sit next to him in the dugout for fear that someone would take a shot at him—and miss.

      If it seems absurd that a fan would attempt to gun down a player on the field—like, Last Boy Scout absurd—think again. During the 1972 Oakland A's-Cincinnati Reds World Series, a woman waiting in line prior to Game 6 at Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium overheard a man talking to a companion. He warned if the A's Gene Tenace hit a home run that day—and Tenace had already hit four during the Series—the A's catcher wouldn't walk out of this ballpark alive.

      Alarmed, the woman informed stadium security, who according to FBI files located the man, a 32-year old fan with a bottle of whiskey and a loaded pistol in his possession.

      Fourteen years later, a more serious threat was phoned into Anaheim Stadium. The caller first contacted Anaheim police twice, seeking the phone number to stadium security. When asked why he needed the number, the caller informed the switchboard operator that his brother—"who has mental problems"—was seated in row 14 and had in his possession a .22-caliber rifle with which he intended to shoot and kill Dallas Cowboys head coach Tom Landry. After hanging up, the caller then repeatedly phoned the threat into Anaheim Stadium during the Cowboys' Week 14 game against the Los Angeles Rams.

      Both NFL Security and the Cowboys' security outfit were alerted. Their agents escorted Landry off the field during the second half to further assess the situation. In the locker room, Anaheim Stadium security informed them that "in the past, two persons have been found in Anaheim Stadium with rifles." Landry was fitted with an "anti-ballistics vest" and returned to the field. According to FBI files, Cowboys security told players about the threat and "requested that they continue to move back and forth behind the coach in an effort to lower to possibility that the threat could be carried out."

      In other words, take a bullet for Landry.

      As the FBI continued to pursue the case, they came to believe a former Cowboys player, perhaps a rookie cut during training camp, may have been the source of the threat. Yet in talking with the team, even more anti-Cowboys sentiment came to light. Team security informed the FBI that the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders' plane was the target of a bomb threat earlier in the season. Moreover, the sniper call wasn't the first Anaheim Stadium threat against Landry, who had received a threatening letter just a month before the Rams game. Landry confirmed this with the FBI, adding that he employed a private security firm to watch his home and protect him and his family.

      Oddly enough, despite all of the efforts made to protect Landry during the game in question, something appeared to have been overlooked—the threat also made against Rams head coach John Robinson. When the caller witnessed Landry get pulled from the field on TV, he claimed that Robinson would be shot instead. A coach was going down, no matter what. But when Landry returned to field as the caller spoke with the stadium's switchboard operator, he said, "Oh, never mind. Landry's back," and hung up. While Landry received a bulletproof vest, Robinson, it seems, was never made aware of the bull's-eye on his back.

      Robinson was later interviewed by the FBI. He stated he, too, had a death threat made against him in the past. The Bureau noted Robinson "believes that on that occasion the United States Postal Inspectors Office investigated the matter and it was resolved." When pressed about the likelihood of a former player holding a vendetta against his coach for being cut, Robinson told the interviewing agents, "Most, if not all, accept their termination from the team as 'part of the professional football experience.'" In the end, he believed the entire matter "can be easily classified in the crank category."

      Since no other leads could be developed, the FBI closed Landry's case without ever discovering who made the threats—a typical result for older cases. Today, electronic threats made via Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms are easier to track. But in the analog era of snail mail and fingerprint analysis, a smart letter sender could easily evade detection. Anonymous threats often remained so.

      In Calvin Griffith's case, the FBI sent the letter ordering him to sell the Twins—or else—to its Behavioral Science Unit for "psycholinguistic analysis." The unit ultimately declared, "the threat is without substance and [unknown subject] poses no clear or imminent danger to the victim."

      Was that comforting for Griffith? Probably not. The report was dated July 14, two weeks after the threat's deadline.

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