For better or worse, many historical topics are discussed here at Exploring the Past. Some blogs have a fairly strict boundaries for what gets discussed, but I’ve always wanted to create a blog with a broad theme, one that has many different topics and strands of discussion. I’d like to broaden that theme a bit further and explore some thoughts that have been rolling around in my head lately about sports and identity. There are several reasons why this particular topic interests me: 1. I’m an unabashed sports fan (St. Louis sports, to be exact), 2. I’ve lived in two cities with two almost completely different “sports cultures” (St. Louis and Indianapolis), and 3. I think sports can tell us a lot about a particular city and its residents.
Both Indianapolis and St. Louis became centers for sporting events during the Gilded Age. Advancements in industrialization provided money, free time, and leisurely opportunities for America’s middle and upper classes, who frequently resorted to sporting events for entertainment. The St. Louis Brown Stockings began playing baseball in 1882 (later joining the National League in 1892 and becoming the “Cardinals” in 1900). Indianapolis has hosted a baseball team since 1887, and in 1902 the Indianapolis Indians–now a triple A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates–were formed, making them one of the oldest existing minor league baseball teams.
In Indianapolis, however, the real turning point in sports history was the creation of the Indianapolis 500 race. Track founders Carl G. Fisher, James Allison, Arthur Newby, and Frank Wheeler had originally conceived the racetrack in 1909 as hosting a series of races over Labor Day weekend. Following the races on Labor Day weekend in 1910, however, Fisher announced that there would be one 500 mile race hosted on Memorial Day in 1911. Historians of the racetrack such as D. Bruce Scott and Ralph Kramer and Carl Fisher’s biographer Mark S. Foster have all failed to explain why Memorial Day was selected as the race day, but this decision requires serious inquiry and explanation. Since 1868, Civil War veterans, religious groups, and many other residents in Indianapolis had utilized Memorial Day as a day of remembrance and commemoration for Indiana soldiers who had lost their lives in the Civil War. Fisher’s decision to switch the race to Memorial Day received strong condemnation from veterans and religious groups, but by the start of World War I, the race was annually attended by more than 100,000 spectators from all parts of the United States. Fisher and other business leaders in Indianapolis celebrated the race as a demonstration of American ingenuity and Indiana’s strong automobile industry. By hosting the race on Memorial Day, the holiday’s meaning transformed itself in Indianapolis.
What is interesting about this transformation is the changing rhetoric of patriotism that attached itself to the race. An editorial from the Indianapolis Star on May 31, 1913 captures the idea perfectly. Memorial Day, according to the Star, should still be a day of commemoration for Indiana’s Civil War dead, even though the race was being held on the same day. However, “the men and women [who attend the race] are of the twentieth century; they are looking forward, not back as it is the nature of each generation to do.” Additionally, “at the Speedway they celebrate the triumph of invention and industry that of itself was made possible by the services of the veterans.” By looking forward–rather than the past–Hoosiers were allegedly expressing patriotic sentiments and thanking their veterans by attending this annual sporting event.
In 1957, an annual parade around Indianapolis the day before the race was inaugurated (the date of the parade now varies). According to the Parade’s website, “the committee [in charge of organizing the parade] felt the project should be a civic-oriented, annual activity keyed to the 500-Mile Race.” John Bodnar argues in Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century that this annual parade “emphasized not commemoration [of the soldier dead] but fantasy and escape rather than the serious matter of life” (91). Entertainment was (and still remains) an important part of these parades. For example, parade organizers of the bicentennial celebration of 1976 arranged patriotic floats that included an infant with an Uncle Sam hat and a colonial soldier playing flute with a bear that strummed a guitar (93). Nevertheless, there were messages of American patriotism and civic pride in Indianapolis that attempted to portray the city as a center of “uncontested patriotism” thanks to its annual race.
In St. Louis, Cardinals baseball has dominated the sporting landscape. When the Cardinals win, the city’s residents (and those like myself who support the team from afar) feel good about themselves. We often assert ownership in our teams and our city (“that’s my team!”, “Our city is the best sports city in America!”, etc.) and frame these victories as a reflection of the good people who live in that area. Yet this recent month of Cardinals playoff baseball has me asking why such expressions are made. None of the Cardinals players or coaches except for David Freese were either born, raised, and/or trained for their professional careers in St. Louis. Team owner Bill DeWitt Jr. was born and raised in St. Louis, but moved away from the area long ago and now resides in Ohio (the same questions should be asked of the Indy 500, which is now dominated by racers born outside the U.S.). Sure, the people of St. Louis buy tickets and support the team through thick and thin (I think), but the success of the team on the field really has little to do with anything local St. Louisians have done.
Furthermore, while it’s perfectly normal to take civic pride in a local team through its successes on the field, such success does little in actually assessing the health of a city, as St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan argues. Detroit has had relatively decent sports teams for years, but their city is bankrupt. What does that say about the priorities of the city’s leadership, team owners, and citizenry?
I’m no sports historian, but it’s clear to me that the creation of individual and civic identity and the popularity of sports are intertwined in ways that demonstrate that sports are far more than just games or races. In 1983, Benedict Anderson famously asked in Imagined Communities, “What makes people love and die for nations?” The more I think about and understand the power of sports in popular culture, I find myself asking, “What makes people love and die with sports teams?”