Tag Archives: sports history

A non-baseball Sports Fan, I’m Jumping on the Pirates’ wagon

In some respects, this is easy: I root for the Black and Gold in all professional sports, so, of course, I would root for the Pittsburgh Pirates; and, I am doing it now because they are winning, right now.  This is only a partial explanation for my bandwagon romp.  I’ve never followed baseball.  My family did not watch baseball.  I still don’t know how to score a game.

You may justifiably ask what kind of American I am if I have never been a baseball fan, do I eat apple pie?  Well, I can answer the latter question with a “yes” if it’s quality–no phony jelly stuff, just real apples, etc.  I would answer the real question by saying, firstly, that I am a first-generation American, and, secondly, that I never understood the finer nuances of the game.  (I do get that when you are at bat you try to hit, run three bases and make for home; that if you fail to hit three times, fouls accepting, you’re out; that if you get four bad pitches and don’t swing you walk; that if the baseball you hit is caught by a guy in the in/outfield or you get tagged while running bases you are out; and, that three outs means the other team gets to bat unless it is the bottom of the 9th inning and there is no tie.)  Maybe I should add that the last time the Pirates had a winning season was 1992.  When you are 29 and the home team has lost for 18 years it may be difficult to figure out what makes for good baseball versus bad baseball

So, my leap onto the wagon is a little different than that of others (compare my post with Chris Mack’s blog post).  I come fresh, hopeful and skeptical at the same time, fairly ignorant and excited about having a team to root for in the summer!  I reached this position because of a confluence with my love of history and the Pirates’ first place standing in the National League Central.  This past semester, I taught a history course looking at America’s past through the lens of sports.  The class and I watched The Tenth Inning by Ken Burns.  I loved every minute of it!  (FYI the rest of his baseball series is on my Amazon Wish List . . . and I have a birthday in September . . . just saying.)

All this baseball talk relit an old curiosity I had purely because the sport is entrenched in my country’s history (much like soccer—sorry, Fussball—in the Old Country).  I had this curiosity around the time Bonds was in Black and Gold, but, when the Braves knocked us down into the MLB’s basement, my one baseball friend gradually lost interest.  My only chance for entry onto the diamond evaporated with an eighteen season draught.

So, this time it was a perfect storm.  Sports history—combining sports, society, economy, politics, etc.—left me with an intrigue that had me turning on the TV, here in Baltimore, looking for Pirates games and counting the days they kept a record better than the BoSox.  I had limited expectations.  Can we get to .500?  Can we maybe get above it and stay for a while?  1st place in the NL Central was above my hopes and expectations!  Pittsburgh fans have learned cautious optimism and probably hold onto skepticism longer than most cities where their baseball team is concerned—the standards are considerably different than that of the Steelers and Penguins.  Still, it is exciting that ESPN will feature the Buccos against the Atlanta Braves on Monday Night Baseball next week.  It is a significant landmark for me as I observed that The Tenth Inning began with the Pirates and the Braves, and then did not mention the Pirates again, nor interview anyone from Pittsburgh.

So, it is with giddy anticipation that I head to the Pittsburgh area briefly this weekend, leaving what I hope will be the new MLB desert, humid Baltimore.  I, like Chris Mack, look forward to buying a Pirates hat, unlike Mack, however, this will be my first!

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Opening Day thoughts about baseball and history

Baseball is one of the oldest games in America.  Whether you follow it or not, it is deeply ingrained in our culture and our history.  In my Sports in America history class, I recently took a large chunk of class time to show The Tenth Inning from Ken Burns’s Baseball PBS series.  Sports are such a huge part of our culture.  They intertwine with our lives socially, economically, morally and sometimes politically.  Sports competition is a metaphor for business, political candidacies, casual relationships and academics.  They also mirror our society in its troubles, successes, pessimism and optimism.

We see globalization in politics and economics expanding in our professional sports.  We see cheating in college sports as much as we see it in college academics.  We see scandals of the familiar variety blown up in the media.  We see uncommon philanthropy quietly pursued on the sidelines, in the off season.  We see winning motivate hard work and greatness, as well as shortcuts and duplicity.

Watching Ken Burns’s wonderful work, a tapestry of contemporary music, sports photography, sports writers and history, one observes the escape from Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky scandals to the juiced home run race of McGuire and Sosa.  Almost no one wanted to talk about steroids then!  Sports reporters recalled the cocaine scandal of the ’80s and shuttered.  One also notes down in Houston a stadium still named after Enron.  And, one recalls with chills and tears the season of 9/11 when everyone who had begun to detest the New York Yankees suddenly rallied behind them . . everyone outside of Arizona, that is.

It is serendipity that I happened to show this concurrently with the Barry Bonds perjury trial and Opening Day-week.  In full disclosure, I am not a baseball fan, but I am a romantic for its entanglement in America’s past–I envy baseball fans.  (While I live in Baltimore, I keep an eye on the hometown Pittsburgh Pirates, despite their indomitable success at losing, and shake my head at the incompetence and greed of Pirate’s ownership daring to operate in the same city as the Rooney family and Mario Lemieux.)  Otherwise, I am fully on the outside looking in, not fully comprehending the rules and beauties of the sport, but nonetheless appreciating its entrenchment in our culture.

Part of baseball’s magic is that it is played in the summer.  But, the other part comes from its roots, predating the Civil War, and being integrally caught up in American history.


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Sports devotees = History fans, Super Bowl XLV

Super Bowl history

Sports fans are history devotees!  Nothing brings that home more than the media coverage during the two weeks between the Conference Championships and the Super Bowl.  Every year Hall of Famers and future Hall of Famers roll out to the Super Bowl and fill the media waves with reminisces and reflections.  The two teams playing are loaded with tradition and heritage and their particular histories are being picked apart and debated, recalled and rehashed.  One team had the coach, Vince Lombardi, for whom the trophy they are fighting over this Sunday was named; the other team has the most Lombardi Trophies of any team in the league!

ESPN hosts a debate about which team, the Dallas Cowboys (hosting the Super Bowl), the Pittsburgh Steelers or the Green Bay Packers, is actually America’s Team.  Articles and sports shows are dropping Titletown, USA and the City of Champions 100 times a day.  NFL Network is running past games and discusses heritage and legacy; the Top Ten series which ranks any number of football games, positions, teams, statistics, milestones, eras, etc., and spans the football ages, is rerunning topical top ten lists to reflect the upcoming battle!

I love both sports and history, so there is nothing better for me than to mix the two.  I am fortunate to be teaching a special topics history course, Sports in America, at CCBC (MD) this semester.  Check out the class’s blog, America’s Pastimes Unwound, sportsrewind.wordpress.com, and keep an eye on it throughout the spring!

In the meanwhile enjoy all the tradition, legacy, heritage and history of the NFL as these two titans, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers, with all their lore, continue the Super Bowl tradition while the nation watches in Super Bowl XLV!

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Reflections on the American Historical Association Annual Meeting, 2

I loves sports!  I am a huge football and ice hockey fan!!  So, I was thrilled to attend the following workshop in preparation for my Sports in America special topics history class at The Community College of Baltimore County.

The Hynes Convention Center where the AHA 2011 conference was held (and where an exceptionally irritating fire alarm interrupted the session I am describing in this post)!

Cold War Sport in Global Context

Winning the Cold War in East Asia: Sport and Regionalism, Sandra Collins, California Sate University at Chico

Home and Away: East Germany and the 1972 Olympics in the Age of Ostpolitik, Christopher Young, University of Cambridge

The Soviet-Canadian Rivalry and a Japanese Battleground: Canadian Hockey Professionals Meet the Soviets, 1970-77, John A. Soares, Jr., University of Notre Dame

This was a fantastic workshop based on the premise that sports during the Cold War were not merely symbolic but deliberate tools in diplomacy, control and, as Soares described it, clearly identifiable victories and losses.  Collins evaluated the IOC’s political maneuvering in Asia and the clear absence of its supposed political neutrality.  Young looked at the GDR and its involvement in the 1972 Olympic Games (although I confess one of the most interesting features was the poll of GDR youth in evaluating national vs German success in the Games).  Soares presented (through fire alarms, believe it or not . . . poor Bobby Hall . . . being disrespected in Boston!) on the intentional use of ice hockey by the Candians in the Cold War diplomacy and international competition.

Collins (author of the book, The Missing Olympics) discussed the IOC’s lack of neutrality in Asia during the 1960s, banning certain countries from participation.  This prompted the founding of the Games of the Newly Emerging Forces (GNEFO) out of Indonesia.  These games were aimed at those countries in Asia and Central/South America who were blacklisted by the IOC precisely for political reasons.  Whereas the Olympic Games were heading to Japan in 1964, GNEFO was being held in defiance in 1962–the IOC banned any country that participated in the ’62 GNEFO from the ’64 Japanese games.  South Korea withdrew from GNEFO and Japan, in seeming defiance, sent a B-squad.  (It was suggested that this might have been a determined effort to distance Japan from its internationally enforced relationship with Taiwan.)  Clearly, this active involvement in international politics on the part of the IOC.  (Inspired by this talk I found this 1963 Sports Illustrated article covering GNEFO.)

Young is a scholar after my own heart (although much more accomplished and knowledgeable) who is actually a medievalist, doing sports history for the joy of it!  For the purposes of my brief post, I choose to focus on two points from his larger presentation–one from his paper and one from the comments and questions afterwards.  One of the most interesting aspects from this discussion was his summary of the opinion polls that the GDR took from their youth–the category of youth who were not on board with the government were categorized as those “not yet disposed” to support the government!  In these polls, a hypothetical handball tournament was suggested among the USSR, East Germany, West Germany and Denmark and the youth were asked which teams they would support.  Whereas East Germany won by a landslide and the USSR came in second, the West came in at a very close third.  Polls also revealed a great deal of animosity for the individual GDR athletes, despite the universal support for the GDR teams.  Citizens of the GDR reveled in the success of West Germany during the Olympics, as well.  Young concluded that the support for athletic representation was not necessarily support for the regime.  In response to a the commentator and a query from the audience, Young also discussed gender during the Olympics and the preparation for those Olympics.  The GDR recognized the rise of female participation in the Olympics and deliberately sought to dominate in this arena.  Of course, this policy led to the tainted metals won by the steroid-juiced athletes in 1972.

During the Cold War, the competition to demonstrate the superiority of these opposed ways of life and governance spawned many “cultural exchanges” that were intended to out-do and create dissension among the various populations.  Soares demonstrates the deliberate use of ice hockey by the Canadians to fight these cultural wars.  Ice hockey, in particular, is uniquely appropriate for this discussion, Soares explained, because all the relevant powers played it, it was a team sport and the diplomats considered it one of their weapons.  There was deliberate discussion about utilizing ice hockey instead of ballets and symphonies to win the war for the people’s sympathies.  The Canadians boycotted the Olympics for many years, offended by the farcical claim of communist and socialist countries that they were sending teams of amateurs in compliance with the rules.  Ice hockey was also an important link between Canada and Japan in their attempts to build diplomatic ties independently of the U.S.

Of course, this is a brief summary of larger discussions and contexts, but it shows not just the legitimacy of considering sports in the Cold War, but the actual necessity of it!

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