The folk song of Fortune's 500
Some people get up at sunrise to check the latest standings of baseball teams. Some people wait for the next charting of the Top 40 records with bated breath -- and given the Top 40 these days, that may be the only way to breathe.
Some people mark time all spring, anticipating the listing of the Fortune 500 .
Those of us who belong to the third group can relax at last. Fortune magazine has published its 27th annual ordering of economic royalty.
You may not be totally astonished to learn that Exxon is number one, as it was last year, followed by Mobil. In 1974 a mere seven oil companies ranked among the top 20. Now that figure is 13, including four out of the top five. Only General Motors, in third place, breaks up the monopoly. General Motors, it may be recalled, was king of Fortune's hill for a quarter of a century -- until just the past two years.
A scholar could read the history of the United States in the coming and going of corporations on the list. The decline of the American automobile, the rise of the computer, the ever-more-urgent demand for energy --all are spelled out here in very large numbers.
Reading between the digits, so to speak, one gets a profile of the American's daily living pattern. In 1980, for instance, beverages increased in sales more than aerospace products, tobacco more than publishing, cosmetics more than shipbuilding and railroad and transportation equipment combined.
A list-scanner can register inflation in sky-writing-size characters. In the two decades and a half since the first Fortune 500, consumer prices have tripled -- and profits have grown by tenfold.
Beyond the broad outlines there are odd and surprising little revelations.
We didn't know that Pepesi (54) had fizzed over Coca-Cola (56).
We wouldn't have guessed that Avon Products (151) ranked above Quaker Oats ( 160), not to mention Black & Decker (238).
We were amazed that Zenith Radio (277) edged out Hammermill Paper (278) by only this parchment-thin margin. What would Marshall McLuhan have said?
After a while the well-boggled imagination drifts into trivia games. Question: What name occurs no less than three times among the 500? Answer: Dow, as in Dow Chemical (25), Dow Corning (396), and Dow Jones (462).
And a little while after that the names themselves begin to take over, like science-fiction characters in search of a plot. What, we must ask, is the galactic goal of Questor (493)? To be 492 perhaps? And what is Intel (336) demanding from life?
Maybe the same things we are -- like, what does Insilco (410) stand for?
And how did Clorox (414) get back on the list -- for the first time since 1977 -- while experiencing the biggest drop in sales (48.5 percent) of any top- 500 corporation?
And what's the difference between NVF (330) and VF (417) -- besides 87 places and an "N"?
In the end, the 500 list can turn into pure sound -- a chant falling on the ear like the reciting of stations on a railroad line.
Walt Whitman made poetry out of listing the names of American rivers. What verse could he have rolled out of majestic polysyllables like Amerada Hess (41), Crown Zellerbach (123), Boise Cascade (127), and Allegheny Ludlum (229)?
But even Whitman might have lost his rhythm over the revenue of Exxon ($103, 142,834,000). How can a poet make 12 digits scan? And if that doesn't tell us things are getting a little out of h and, what will?