Tag Archives: sports

Sports in the Cold War Race

During the Cold War era it was all about, as Charlie Sheen likes to say, winning!  But, winning in this context was as much about public perception as it was about controlling territory and people.  The perception of the success of one way of life versus another was just as important as the various other races the USA and USSR were running.

The fact that so many of the political moves were described as competitions and races is telling in itself.  During the Cold War there were a series of relays with very specific goals: the arms race (nuclear bombs, bombers, submarines, etc.) and the space race.  Key goals that had to be won by being reached before the other country.

So much of the achievement in these goals was based not on reality, but on the perception created for the public.  More than any other war this was one based on propaganda and its achievement marked in public morale.  Sporting competition and its terminology provided concrete victories in lieu of battles and hot warfare.

Basketball. USSR vs. USA

What follows are some perspectives on this phenomenon.  The first is from the PBS series, Secrets of the Dead, which covers the doping program in the GDR, including its devastating effects for the youth involved–especially the girls.  The latter three are from this year’s American Historical Association Annual Conference in Boston and take on the sporting scene during the Cold War.

Doping for Gold ~ The Cold War Sporting Front | Secrets of the Dead | PBS.

Click on the link, above, to go to PBS and watch Doping for Gold.  Nothing was above board in international sporting competitions during the Cold War.  Athletics was an important tool in demonstrating the superiority of a country’s way of life, thus differing slightly from its significance during the Nazi Olympics which was intended to demonstrate the superiority of the Aryan race.  In order to accomplish this, the Communist nations trained their athletes as much in psychological warfare as they did in their given field–chess players, for example, were groomed to create minor “legal” disturbances in competitions, such as tapping a chess piece while a competitor studied the board in pressure situations.

It was particularly in team sports that dominance was considered vital for Communist nations.  They flouted Olympic rules demanding the participation of amateurs only, by enlisting all of their athletes into the military and then listing them as military personnel, while training them full time in their sports.  They also used doping to gain an edge.  This was especially true of the East Germans who saw women’s sports as the wave of the future and leaped at the opportunity to dominate during the German Olympics in Munich.  The women famously spoke with absurdly deep voices and gave every appearance of masculinity.  The site that you can follow with the link above provides a summary of some of these means for subversive competition.

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 HockeyProfessionals Meet the Soviets, 1970-77, John A. Soares, Jr., University of Notre Dame

This workshop was 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 in its regard and treatment of emerging Communist countries.  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 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) by 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 although Japan, in seeming defiance, sent a B-squad.  (It was suggested that this might have been a determined effort by Japan to distance itself 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 co-author of The 1972 Munich Olympics and the making of modern Germany.  For the purposes of this 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 aspects I found most interesting 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 and subsequent competitions.

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.A.

 

These examples highlight the importance of sports in the Cold War and help to provide a terminology for a war that is being fought in symbolism and achievement (for the most part) as opposed to hot battles.  It is particularly the case for life hidden behind the Iron Curtain, but in the war of words and symbols, the USA was not far behind the USSR and the GDR.  For example, the Kennedy staff, having campaigned on the hawkish need to build missile reserves, was shocked to learn that the USA  had already out-paced the Soviets according to the intel, when it was briefed coming into office.

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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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Local History in our Cities’ Museums

In the U.S., our cities have certain stories of their past to tell:

  1. Life before the European–the story, told mostly through archaeology and treaties, of the American Indian in a particular region
  2. Settlement–a story that often includes conflict, with the previous inhabitants, the landscape or both; sometimes this is a story of innovations, sometimes a story conquest and often it includes stories of tremendous will and perseverance; this is also told through archaeology and occasionally federal and legal documents–under more fortunate circumstances, it includes first person accounts
  3. Growth–a story that explains how a settlement of a few pioneers became a town and then a city; this is usually a story that builds through multiple phases: first as infrastructure improves and again as local industry develops; occasionally these stories include periods of economic and population regression–sometimes it is how they culminate
  4. Local industry–this story features the prominent (usually) men about town that created jobs and economic growth through commercial means and typically effected politics and society, such as Heinz in Pittsburgh, the race track in Saratoga or the ship yards in Baltimore
  5. Local events/catastrophes/individuals–these are uniques stories and major events unique to the region, from cataclysmic natural disasters to military battles to political show-downs or epic instances of courage; they provide much of the local color and show up in any phase along the way
  6. Prejudice and civil rights–these are stories that recognize the local region’s particular participation in our country’s greater history of having failed to live up to our own ideals, tempered with the stories of courage and risk in which those shortcomings were overcome–most of these stories appear in the past tense, often around slavery, Jim Crow or urban renewal, and with the sense that we have overcome those periods and issues
  7. Sports–these stories can also encompass a wide range of periods and are part of the local lore, trial and triumph; these often include a discussion of prejudice at some point, usually looking at the Negro Leagues or desegregation in sports and the impact on society

These cases are often the focus and model for local museums.  As with historical textbook authors and documentary directors, curators are often knowledgeable about either one particular facet of the museum’s exhibits or are specifically gifted in their field and happen to be at a history museum (as opposed to art, for example).  Thus, it is frequently the case that museums, as with textbooks and documentaries, do not always deal with the method behind the displayed knowledge, nor thus the disagreement that often exists regarding historical interpretations.  So, in the same sense there is often the perception of the provided information as being HISTORICAL FACT as opposed to an interpretation of evidence–often the result of hard research, I am sure–but not reflective of historical method, which is itself an end in one’s historical education.

So, the question arises: how do we use this as curious human beings and as educators?

For the curious:

Whenever we visit these museums, we have two options in our approach: we can simply take in and enjoy–a passive edutainment approach–or we can consider what is missing, what evidence is provided for the assertions, what implications arise, what other interpretations exist or other questions–an active thinking approach.  This is all really dependent on one’s own interests.  While visiting the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh I was really intrigued by a small exhibit that acknowledged the various religious women orders that had been active in Pittsburgh despite a prevalent suspicion for foreign-born Catholics.  The exhibit explained that the nuns earned respect by providing health services for orphans and poor factory workers in the growing steel industry.  An example of each habit was provided and a brief blurb about the order, but little other information or evidence about their accomplishments and relationships in the city.  I was particularly interested because few of the orders had an education–mission which is the stereotypical role, today.

In the sense that the exhibit brought the subject to my awareness it was positive, but that I left with more questions than answers is an outcome for which the merits must be judged by each individual.

For the educator:

These same challenges can be turned into opportunities by educators.  In fact, tapping into the local industry or sports lore may be a really useful way to engage students in challenging concepts surrounding both historical method and content.  Relationships can be fostered between local institutions encouraging students to engage and research the content in the exhibits and learn more about how historians know what they claim to know.  There are, thus, many opportunities not only to engage students with the physical objects of the past, but to engage their attention to the construction of the content.  Local histories are often exhibited in a predominantly positive way, with the darker points of history usually (but not always) relegated to the more distant past, and this also creates opportunities to prompt thought about other perspectives and more balanced understandings of human past and human nature.  (Incidentally, I think it is often the threat of the darker side of history that makes the accompanying sports history that much more appealing and triumphant!  That is unless, of course, there is something inherently unavoidable about the loss, such as the Baltimore Colts packing up and leaving town, or the utter racism that left the Washington Redskins as the last team to desegregate.)

In short, there is opportunity in our local field trip availability that can trigger really useful active thinking–historical thinking, as Sam Wineburg would call it–that we can tap into as educators at all levels.

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And for the World Cup . . . QATAR???

And, in 2022, the winner is Qatar!

A World Cup to make HISTORY!!

In 2018, the World Cup will not be held in Spain/Portugal, nor England, nor Netherlands/Belgium.  It will be held in Russia–there we will see, no doubt, all sorts of inspiring video-anecdotes about the country and its people–but, maybe not its government.  (Wonder what they’re thinking in Georgia . . .)

In 2022, the World Cup will not be held in Australia, nor Japan, nor Korea, nor the USA.  It will be held in Qatar (pronounced “cutter”).  Qatar is a US ally, sorta.  Troops go on leave there when they are deployed and get laid-over there during their transports to and from theater.  Most of us don’t know much more other than it’s rolling in oil, so it is a wealthy place, but that’s about it.

So, let me provide you with some random fast-facts about the country that beat the US out for a second go at hosting the World Cup.

Location, location, location!

Qatar–Saudi Arabia’s shoe lace

If you are looking for Qatar, first pull up a map of the Middle East.  Find the “boot” of the Arabian peninsula and look for the shoe lace that’s sticking up into the Persian Gulf in the direction of Iran.  Qatar, all 11,586 sq km–so, for those of you who speak miles, slightly smaller than CONNECTICUT–is the first Middle Eastern country to ever host the World Cup.  According to the “Soccerphile” website, FIFA has ranked Qatar the no. 1 soccer country in the Persian Gulf!  Apparently, they are soccer-crazy and have been playing longer than they have had their independence (from Britain, Sept. 3, 1971).  The national team has succeeded in winning both the Gulf Cup and the Asian Games.  The Asian Games were especially interesting–they hosted and beat Iran in the semi-finals and Iraq in the championship match.  Of course, that very fact highlights some of the unique realities that come with holding a major international tournament in a hot region of the globe, both literally and figuratively.  It raises some interesting questions.  Personally, the one I want to see answered the most is what happens if Iran goes fully nuclear by then?  (The U.S. gets the World Cup if Qatar fails to muster . . . now, where is that Magic 8 Ball hiding these days . . .)

Climate Control

The other major issue with Qatar’s location is the climate in that region.  If the World Cup was played in the winter, Qatar would be your go-to destination, but it is not.  When it is not winter, according to the CIA Factbook, Qatar has “very hot, humid summers”.  The Weather Channel website suffered a brain melt-down the moment I submitted Qatar to its search engine, however, according to the Weather Underground website  (wunderground.com), summer highs average over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.  Not to worry, though, because they are crazy rich and have a great plan to beat the summer heat!  Air conditioned stadiums!!!  I have no idea how!!  But, it is an impressive plan to build the stadiums as carbon-free, solar-powered entities–guess we don’t have those in the US.  They are some pretty sweet looking stadiums…

Kill’em with Kindness

One of the really intriguing features of the Qatari bid was that their stadiums will be built in such a way that they can take down portions and use them somewhere else–specifically targeting developing countries.  So, in this one bid we have (1) the first Middle East country ever to host, and (2) a host country that is looking to share its wealth and further expand the game–a longtime commitment of Mr. Sepp Blatter’s otherwise controversial reign as the head ref at FIFA.

Plus, they want to make it a green party!  How this carbon output is effected by the new public transportation and infrastructure that is going to be added for the event, has yet to be assessed.  I do know you cannot deliver all of the world’s soccer hooligans to stadiums by water taxi.  Speaking of hooligans, Qatar assured the world that there will be places to drink alcohol somewhere in the country–the one that’s the size of Connecticut.  Travel, at least, will be reduced from stadium to stadium–unlike, say in Russia!

Roiling Controversy

 

OMG!! RUSSIA AND QATAR!?!?!

So, the next question on the minds of many for this World Cup bid-showdown is simple: did money exchange hands?  Does this stink of a gas for football scandal?  The world is shocked!  Russia beat England–with David Beckham!!  Ask yourself this: Are you drawn by Beckham or Putin?  Stable democracy and economy or mob-run state?  Just a few things I wonder about.  As far as selecting Qatar over the US (or Australia, for that matter–a country that has hosted several international sporting events, not least the Olympics, has an enviable climate, great infrastructure and was represented by Nicole Kidman!), the climate, the region and the unbuilt infrastructure–although, again, it’s not like their Russian-size–are all major questions that the US did not have to worry about in its bid.  (Oh, and we had Morgan Freeman representing us!)

The Week took a quick look at the controversy, providing a glance at three opinions–two crying foul, one concluding that there was no offsides on the play.  Below, are a couple more opinionated reports or blogs regarding FIFA’s 2012 decision.

While the FIFA bids are on the long side–and, not always in English–they also have shorter ads and summaries of each bid’s main points.  If you would like to see them follow this link: http://www.fifa.com/worldcup/bidders/live/index.html.

THE ANNOUNCEMENT:

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Music, Sports, Games, Food — The things people like . . .

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There are several popular things that I really enjoy: music, food, sports, games.

These also happen to be things that most students really enjoy.  And, they are things that are often particularly unique to the cultures that create or adopt them.  Looking at any one of these features opens a window into another culture and, thus, into what makes it strange or familiar.  Later this winter I would like to run I a week devoted to each of these fine and wonderful contributions to society.  For now, however, I would like to make a case for making greater use of these cultural institutions in teaching.

Feasting!

Arguably something we don’t do enough these days, feasting has had an important function in pretty much every culture.  It is also something that can be duplicated with a certain amount of ease.  A feast is a fantastic way to bring together students, families and the greater school community at large.  What’s more, it is also applicable for virtually any unit in your social studies and history classes.

It doesn’t have to be an exhibition on the glamor of exotic or foreign culinary delights, though.  Sometimes what is most powerful is the sense of deprivation.  Thanksgiving on the western frontier is a very different experience from Thanksgiving in Boston.  The food culture of a region depends on resources, climate, environment and access.  Within that culture there are often variations that exist based on wealth.  All of these are teaching points and all of these are often accessible in primary sources.  Food traditions also often represent points of fusion and connection with other cultures and regions, making a certain emphasis on food a great way to experience cultural change through contact.

Sporting!

Spectator and participatory sporting activities have a long history in our human story.  On the one hand, this is something that is easily recognizable and offers a familiar face to a foreign culture.  On the other hand, the purpose these served for ancient cultures is often rather alien.  Most students would be able to grasp the technical similarities that exist between the ball game of Central America with soccer, but most students will not immediately take hold of the idea that losers will be sacrificed on an altar and have their hearts removed.  By starting with the ball game, you lead to other avenues, such as religion, ritual and beliefs.

Even with more recent sports, social issues, such as eminent domain and segregation, are put into a particularly accessible format for students.  Certain international realities are also made plain when looking at international competitions such as World Cup and the Olympics.  ESPN’s 30 for 30 film series is based to an extant on this notion.

Gaming!

There are a combination of factors that contribute to the relevance of games.  Chess, backgammon, cards, dice . . these are games with a lot of history and there is the opportunity to put a student in the same shoes as a child, soldier, king from centuries beforehand and tell him this is the same way they past their time.

Some games are ones of strategy and others are of chance.  Strategy itself has a history as chess enthusiasts will tell you.  But, apart from that, there is also the appearance of games that are adapted to new cultures, such as with chess and its introduction of feudal symbols into the game.  This can quite frankly be brought into the present when you consider modern video games and their increasing ability to create online communities around the games.

Singing!

Music is often difficult to reproduce the further back you go and yet musical historians have made hypothetical reproductions of ancient music and instruments.  The study of particular pieces and styles of music is extremely telling about a culture.  Monks chanting the daily antiphon to each other morning, day and night speaks of the round the clock prayer that accompanied monastic life.  Listening to the Blues speaks of the economic hardship in Jim Crow America.  The triumphant tonal qualities of western national anthems speaks to the nationalistic fervor of the 19th century.  The melding and blending of musical qualities in today’s modern music speaks to increasing contact and interaction through the internet, travel and trade.

Music is also something that can be [re-]produced by students who may be more in their element with singing and their instruments than with history–a point that is valid for all of the above categories as well, though maybe music and sports most.

Below is Stile Antico performing a 16th century piece.  The piece is in Latin, religious and written to be sung by many voices.

Below is Benny More; largely considered to be one of the greatest Cuban singers, he fronted Cuba’s leading big band and was known to be gifted at both the fast rhythms and the slower ones.

Finally, Dylan.  Well, ok, not Dylan–it’s a Dylan cover, because that’s what people do with Dylan songs.  This is gratuitous, perhaps, but as such I need provide little introduction.  In this case, I will only say that the cover is by Ani DiFranco, who is someone akin to Dylan in a post-sixties way.

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A Pittsburgh fan’s case for sports in history

"Stan, Guy, love the show!"

Earlier this week I wrote about history and journalism.  I posted that day with a heavy heart because my favorite radio station had just been unceremoniously scrapped.  (In fact, I had been following the Twitter pages of the afternoon show hosts, The Drive, and they literally were planning their afternoon show Monday when they got the news that they were done.)  I think sports represent a really interesting an important part of social history.  My station was ESPN 1250 on the AM.  It was the Pittsburgh ESPN affiliate radio station.  One of the hallmarks of the station was the Stan and Guy show in the 10-2 slot.  This was a special show, because for years the two sports personalities had previously aired their show together on the local Fox affiliate’s TV station with devoted fans. Pittsburgh is a serious sports town.  There is a long loyalty born out of the economic trials during the 1970s, relieved by the success of the Steelers.  While the Steelers were irrelevant before before the ’70s the Pirates were not, playing in an America whose sports scene was still dominated by baseball (ironically, Pittsburgh and the Pirates face the reverse situation, now–maybe someday Lemieux will buy them).  This blog post is a short argument (admittedly, colored in black and gold) for the relevance of sports history in “real history”–especially, but not exclusively, for the 21st century.  (And, a tribute to Stan and Guy and the guys on the Drive for their unfortunate dismissal by a national sports media company who, as Stan has so often said, don’t get Pittsburghers or the black and gold nation.)

A Pittsburgh legend: Myron Cope, inventor of the Terrible Towel.

When he was alive the great Myron Cope dominated the airwaves in western PA.  Cope was not just a great personality, he was a great human being.  He inaugurated the Terrible Towel era (and in 1996 gave the rights to the Allegheny Valley School which cares for people with mental and physical disabilities, such as Cope’s autistic son).  The affection for this man was genuine from players and fans alike.  People connected with him.  The city’s history was connected to him and through him and the world of sports.  He was also a huge influence on every sports voice and journalist who came out of Pittsburgh.  It is illustrative of how important a sports community can be in some cities and how important the local media is in bonding that community together through its discussion.  It is that much more evident when you consider the charitable power that these same individuals have and exercise for important causes, locally, nationally and sometimes internationally.

To my mind a beloved sports personality and team in a beleaguered city is a unifying and positive force.  And, any city that puts so much heart and soul into its sports and sports personalities, as Pittsburgh does, has to have that element acknowledged when its history and self-identity are explored.  There are genuine points of interest for sociologists, anthropologists and historians.  Pittsburgh, in particular, is such an interesting case study, because so many people left during hard times creating a widespread but ever-loyal fan base (as with a case like me, exiled in Baltimore!) and because the city has evolved so much in the years since its sports teams stood for success while the city’s success, in general, had faltered.  We can’t ignore the relevance of sports in society, nor should we, be it negative or positive.  The problems in sports are reflective of society’s problems, both because of how they often represent examples of excessive and indulgent behavior in society’s vices and because of the heroism attached to these players.  But, by the same token some of the victories in sports have also been essential in our evolving society, including the emotional victories, such as the Lake Placid’s Miracle on Ice and the Saints victories in post-Katrina New Orleans; and, also the social victories, such as Jackie Robinson’s courageous first step dismantling the color barrier in sports and society, during segregation.

Consider the Pittsburgh Pirates, who drafted Roberto Clemente.  Clemente, a Puerto Rican, would become the first Hispanic player to win a World Series as a starter (1960), win a league MVP award (1966) and win a World Series MVP award (1971).  He died in plane crash, in flight on a mercy-aid mission to earthquake rocked Nicaragua.  While Major League Baseball maybe littered with the stats of Latino-American ball players, today, Clemente was inspiration to a population that was treated like second-class citizens–maltreatment that continues even now.  In an era when one’s race still carried suggested undertones of one’s ability, Clemente challenged those notions with his work and gave back generously when he could have withdrawn in bitterness.  His foundation continues to give to Pittsburgh youth and awards others who give.

Art Rooney, the Chief--a damned admirable man.

During the 70s, as much of the country fell on hard times, the steel mills cut back and Pittsburghers felt the times more harshly than many.  Seemingly out of nowhere, behind a young head coach, Chuck Noll, the Steelers helped lift up a depressed city.  As the team gained momentum and became the standard bearer for the city, the team’s chief, Art Rooney, the Chief, became an accessible hero for the fans.  He walked through the city with a warm smile, a friendly handshake and cigar for anyone who came up to him.  Rooney was humble and generous.  He was the unofficial leader of the city.  When he died the whole city attended the funeral.  Despite some recent blemishes, the Rooney family is still one of the most loved and respected of NFL owners because of what they gave the city and society.  (At the bottom of the page is a link to the NFL Films special on the Chief.)

Super Mario! Twice the savior of hockey in Pittsburgh and a man who had a hand in every Pens' Cup!

Mario Lemieux educated Pittsburgh in ice hockey.  I tend to think that it was essential that he do so, because the arena the Pittsburgh Penguins played in, the Civic Arena, later the Mellon arena, but always the “Igloo” in our hearts–a unique architectural building now at the end of its life–had been built on top of a neighborhood that had been confiscated by the city, displacing one of Pittsburgh’s minority communities, through eminent domain.  (It is, of course, a recurring challenge for cities–just ask the former residents of Southeast D.C. who were displaced by the National’s new stadium–one constantly justified by promises of economic growth that do not often pan out.)  Lemieux turned a largely apathetic city into great fans of the fastest sport!  When, in the 1990s, the team suffered financial woes, Lemieux saved the day, again, and bought the team.  Only a couple of years ago, he saved the team for the city, managing to keep it in Pittsburgh instead of losing it to Kansas City, despite a sweetheart deal awaiting them in that other city.  The days of limbo were awful and as a fan then and someone now living in Baltimore, a city that knows something about uprooted teams, I will always be grateful to that French-Canadian along with thousands of other Pens fans.  Since then, Lord Stanley, the prize of the NHL finals and the most unique trophy in sports, has returned to the city that sits on the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers!

Redemption for Big Ben? Too early to say . . .

On a less triumphant note, I submit, Exhibit D, the 2010 summer of Ben “Big Ben” Roethlisberger.  I do not know exactly what happened in Milledgeville, GA, but I do know it smells bad.  If Ben did not sexually assault the college girl who accused him, he still behaved intolerably.  The emotion in the city was palpable; and, yes, I could feel it all the way in Baltimore.  What is so depressing is the deplorable behavior of all involved: if Ben did it, we will never know, because the alleged victim was too intoxicated to provide the necessary testimony and evidence; regardless of what occurred in the end, it is hard to understand why the bodyguard, a Pennsylvania state policeman, let it go as far as it did, clearly an accessory; and, finally the apparent utter lack of respect for other human beings exhibited by the big man on campus, and shared by so many other hot shots in our society, at some point along the way became an integral part of Ben’s personality.  Now, what we all wonder, is can he reform–does he even want to?  Again, I cannot answer that, and certainly not at this juncture, but preliminary evidence suggests he might redeem himself.  Perhaps, it would be fitting of me to traverse the Keystone state and consider Michael Vick.  If both men are guilty, Vick’s crime is the lesser but remains deplorable.  Vick, now working closely with the Humane Society, has returned from the pallor of a jail sentence and the probable conclusion of his career as a humbled man and one who still has game.  One may hope he is truly a repentant, new man.  I would be hard pressed to judge anyone for not forgiving Ben, but I would like to believe a second chance is out there if he is responsible and determined enough to fully earn it, all the more so because jail time will not be served to punish any action that might have happened.  I know that for more than a few Pittsburghers it will take more than a winning season to embrace him, again.

In a society where history is often regarded as drab, boring or irrelevant, I think it is important to take advantage of fans’ passion.  In this case, I am clearly talking about more than just statistics.  I believe that there is legitimate course of study and a way to catch the interest of a broader segment of the population.  Imagine, for example, the depth and value of investigating the removal of the Baltimore Colts from a city devoted to them by a young Ravens fan today.  Covering the Baltimore scene would bring up many fruitful research segues into the economic times and trials of the city that coincided with that unfortunate event.  (No offense Indianapolis, but the NFL gave you the team and Baltimore’s football history and heritage!)

Legends: Guy Junker, Mike Lange, Steve Blass, and Stan Savran (left to right)

So, sports are an important window into society’s soul.  In order to reach that window, we rely on sports journalists to boost us up and give us a glimpse through it in our contemporary world which shapes history.  Where some are comedic, like NFL Network’s Rich Eisen and ESPN’s Kenny Mayne, others are brash and contrary, like ESPN’s Colin Cowherd and Pittsburgh’s Mark Madden, and still others are in touch with the pulse of sports in society, like ESPN’s Chris Berman and Pittsburgh sports guys Stan Savran and Guy Junker.  Stan and Guy brought genuine emotion and real insight.  I will miss that and hope to hear from them again, soon.  In the meanwhile I want to thank them for great and moving times that I experienced as a listener.  Guy’s savant-like knowledge of Pittsburgh baseball earlier this year, a fantastic interview at this year’s training camp with “Mean Joe Green” and this summer’s discussions about childhood games and crotchety neighbors are just some of my favorite memories from this year alone.  I have been moved to anger, tears and laughter over some jubilant and trying years in the Pittsburgh sports scene and ESPN 1250 (online) was there through the last decade of it!  It was great being reunited with former Mountaineer and Steeler Mike Logan!  And, it was great having the Stan and Guy show reunited on ESPN while it lasted–may it return again, soon!!

Go Stillers!  Go Pens!  Pittsburgh is the City of Champions!  (Except Pitt!)

Check out this short film about the “Chief” from NFL Films:

http://www.nfl.com/videos/nfl-game-highlights/09000d5d801c5078/NFL-Films-Presents-The-Chief

Myron Cope:

Decorative relief from the Basilica of St. John, Ephesus, Turkey

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