Baseball History IS History

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As some of you know, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is opening a new exhibit on March 24 exploring the Cubs/Cardinals rivalry. This has taken up nearly all of my work time since I became Research Historian in November. It’s been fun immersing myself in the histories of these two teams and collaborating with the Hall of Fame and the clubs themselves has been a lifetime thrill. However, as the opening gets closer, the same sorts of questions I get about my work on music are popping up: Why should baseball be in a museum exhibit? What does baseball have to do with Lincoln? Is baseball really history? I wish I could say these questions reflect genuine curiosity but they usually don’t. They’re almost always pejorative–a phenomenon we cultural historians deal with constantly. So, I decided to dust off the old blog and offer my thoughts on why sports history is very much worthy of historical consideration and exploration.

First, let’s talk about team loyalty and rivalries. I’ve bounced from one place stricken by a sports rivalry to the next, so I have some experience with the phenomenon. I got a taste of it growing up in Toronto, with the hockey rivalry between the Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens, and then experienced one of the most insane examples in Tuscaloosa with the Alabama/Auburn rivalry. I won’t say Cubs/Cardinals measures up to what I saw in Alabama (few rivalries do) but I’ve been surprised by how deep these loyalties run in Illinois and how evenly they split Springfield. As a Blue Jays fan, I’ve never had a true baseball rival (at various times, the Jays have considered the Red Sox, Orioles, and Expos as rivals, which is to say, no one). But for people around here, this baseball rivalry is the only one that matters and its roots go over a hundred years deep. For at least its historical length and prominence, it’s worthy of a museum exhibit, but there’s more going on here than just longevity and different colored ball caps.

Sports rivalries–and Cubs/Cardinals in particular–are fundamental building blocks of many Americans’ individual identities. If I ask 10 random people in Tuscaloosa or Springfield to define themselves in 3 attributes, I’m guessing at least 7 of them will offer “[insert team] fan” as an answer. Some might list it first. Fandom shapes the way people view themselves and their place in the world. Sports are indeed ephemeral–at root just another form of entertainment–but a big part of what makes them something more is the personal and cultural value people attach to their teams.

While researching the Cubs and Cards, it’s been fascinating to see how loyalty to these teams shapes their fans. The clubs have very different interior cultures and that has surprisingly far-reaching implications. Starting with Branch Rickey in the 1920s, the Cardinals became a hyper-efficient winning machine. Their fallow years have never lasted long and they’ve produced a near-steady stream of powerful teams with legendary players (Musial, Ozzie, Pujols). As with my beloved Bama, this style occasionally inspires arrogance and overconfidence, but it mostly creates an image of efficiency and good management that makes being a Cardinals fan safe and satisfying. The Cubs, on the other hand, had a glorious early start, culminating in World Series victories in 1906 and 1907, but years of bad luck and haphazard leadership drove them to mediocrity, which they finally transcended by winning last year’s championship. 2016 notwithstanding, this history has given the Cubs a more relaxed image–one that encourages a sort of ironic loyalty that comes from loving something precisely for its faults. This makes them a more fun, if less satisfying, club to embrace.

But what’s really interesting about these two identities is the way they filter down to the fanbase. They shape not just people’s attitudes about baseball, but their personalities more generally. Cardinals fans emulate their team’s mastery of the game by priding themselves as truer, purer appreciators of “America’s game.” They cheer for bunts and rarely boo opposing teams–things they think only connoisseurs of baseball would do. This comes off as repugnant to many (Deadspin mocks it relentlessly) but Cardinals fans really do love baseball and appreciate the meticulous way their club plays the game. Cubs fans, on the other hand, revel in the less-refined culture of their team. Besides its ivy (and age), Wrigley Field is most famous for its bleachers, where drunken and rowdy fans pick fights with opposing teams’ outfielders and each other. Hipsters have partially ruined this atmosphere but Cubs fan culture always seems to be half-smirking. This can be interpreted as uncouth or slobby, but it’s also endearing (you know, the kind of team culture that would attract Bill Murray). Cubs fans love their team intensely (did you see their championship celebration?) and the “lovable loser” image has fostered a genuine and deep community. Put them next to the Cardinals, and the two teams are perfect foils for each other. If you read it in a novel, you’d think it was too on the nose.

So, what you get is a concrete example of popular culture’s importance and reach. Being a Cubs or Cardinals fans is not just about team loyalty, it often reflects the kind of person you are or want to be. Growing up with one team or another has a significant potential to shape your attitudes, work ethic, and even philosophy. That’s important and makes this rivalry a major aspect of Illinois’s history. Outside of Chicago–where the choice isn’t Cubs or Cards, but Cubs or White Sox–Illinoisans adopt the mask of one of these teams and either mold themselves around that identity or allow it to mold them. In doing so, they learn to reject what the other team represents, and always have. That sure as heck sounds like history to me.

Note: OK, I’m done playing George Will. Hoping to resume writing about Civil War pop sooner rather than later. I’m still swamped in the writing commitments that kept me from keeping up with Mercy Street (RIP #SaveMercyStreet) but I’m hoping to follow along with Underground and offer my thoughts from time to time.

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9 comments

  1. Pingback: Trump’s budget madness; Mercy Street can be saved; Jackson vs Clay; Huckabee should be ashamed; Eisenhower Memorial in DC?; Defending U.S. Grant on race & slavery; Do our sports rivalries define us? | History Headlines
  2. gdbrasher · March 21

    And on the exhibit: I meant to tell you that word has definitely gotten around. One of my former history major students that is a Cards fan (her grandfather played for them, I believe) excitedly told me about the exhibit, not having any clue that I knew someone that worked on getting it together. When I told her that a Bama history grad was involved, she got even more excited.

  3. gdbrasher · March 21

    Nice work. Of course baseball history is American history. In fact, I may have never told you that baseball was my “gateway drug” into becoming an historian. As a kid playing little league baseball and collecting baseball cards, I got interested in the history and heroes of the sport and the first history books I checked out of the library were on the subject. That led to becoming interested in film history, and then to WWII history, and so on, and so on. I lost my love of major league baseball somewhere in the mid 90s (right about the time NBA basketball was having a renaissance), but as you know I rediscovered my love of the game with college baseball. It is pure, but much of my affection for it comes from the fact that baseball history was the gateway to finding my true passion.

    • Christian McWhirter · March 21

      That’s really interesting, Glenn. I can’t say I had a same experience, but I can relate a little. Baseball was the first sport I really got into as a kid and, subsequently, was one of the first things that gave me a sense of having its own history that shaped and informed its current state. I didn’t chase that history the way you did, but it certainly set a template for me that I then applied to other things.

  4. Nick Sacco · March 21

    Great essay, Christian.

    I’ve adopted Benedict Anderson’s theory of “Imagined Communities” to explain how people identify with their sports teams nowadays. I may know nothing about you, but if you’re a Cardinals fan we can be good friends.

    • Christian McWhirter · March 21

      This was definitely my experience at Bama. As a Canadian, I was always going to be an outsider, but if I started a conversation with “Roll Tide,” suddenly I was part of the community.

      • gdbrasher · March 21

        On that note, I recall the time you referred to the football team as “we” and quickly corrected yourself. But then I quickly corrected you and said that because you’d come aboard during the struggling Shula years, you’d earned your place inside the community, especially since you were a graduate. As you know, I’m no fan of these Saban bandwagon riders. Haha

      • Christian McWhirter · March 21

        Poor Shula. Funny how his tenure is a sort of “trial by fire” for those of us who witnessed it firsthand.

        By the way, I hope to see you and our mutual Cubs fan buddy up here to see the exhibit.

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