A few weeks ago the highly-touted St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Oscar Taveras died in a tragic auto accident at the age of 22. Having been a lifelong Cardinals fan who happened to be at the playoff game in which Taveras hit his last home run, the news of his death shocked and saddened me. Following his death ideas starting coming to me for an essay about public commemorations in sports and the ways fans establish imagined communities of belonging through a shared love of their favorite sports teams. The good folks at Sport in American History generously read a draft of this essay, provided some thoughtful suggestions to make it better, and posted it to their website today. You can read it here. I put my heart into this essay and I hope regular readers of Exploring the Past enjoy it.
I’d also like to give a special thank you to Andrew McGregor, a history Ph.D. candidate at Purdue University and founder of Sport in American History. Andrew is an emerging sports historian and all around great scholar who helped me immensely during the writing process.
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?”
Just a few short hours ago sad news came out of St. Louis, Missouri, announcing the death of St. Louis Cardinals baseball legend Stan Musial at the age of 92. Musial had been ill for a few years and his wife Lillian passed away this past May. I would suspect her death also played a role in his declining health; not many of us get to enjoy the affectionate bonds of their beloved spouse for 70 years like the Musials did.
As a Cardinals fan, there is no doubt in my mind that Stan Musial was the greatest baseball player to don the birds on his uniform. His statistics are stunning and they would have been even better had he not lost a year due to his service in the military during World War II. Furthermore, it is worth noting that for about half of his career there were two teams in St. Louis; the Cardinals and the St. Louis Browns (who are now the Baltimore Orioles). Both teams had to fight for fans and attention in a city that was probably too small to house two professional teams, and at one point there was a distinct possibility that the Cardinals–not the Browns–would be the team leaving town after Cards owner Fred Saigh was convicted of tax evasion in 1952. Had it not been for the immense success of the Cardinals throughout the 1940s, where Musial helped lead the team to three World Series titles in 1942, 1944, and 1946, the team may not have received the support it did in the 1950s when Gussie Busch of Anheuser-Busch fame took over as owner.
Immediately upon the news of Musial’s death a local news station posted a bit on Twitter along with this photo about people in the St. Louis area congregating towards the Stan Musial Statue located outside Busch Stadium. In all honesty, the statue is quite ugly and this book claims that Musial himself didn’t like it. However, I find it significant that many people thought it important to visit the statue and lay wreaths and flowers and/or say a quick prayer. I don’t know how many cities have statues of famous baseball players, but I would imagine that such public art is not common.
The Musial statue does much more than act as a remembrance of Musial’s life; it connects the history of St. Louis to the present. When looking at the statue, many of us probably don’t even think about Stan Musial. For someone older than me, they may think about going to a Cardinals game in the 40s, 50s, or 60s, getting the chance to spend the day with their father, eating a hot dog at Sportsman’s Park or the old Busch Stadium, or visiting other unique destinations in downtown St. Louis. For me, I can remember going with my family to several games recently and specifically picking the Musial statue as the place to meet my Grandpa. Such memories demonstrate not only the power of sport, but the power of public commemoration as a means of creating individual and shared memories about a specific person, place, or event.
The process of creating monuments, statues, and sculptures today is not what it was at one point in time. Thomas J. Brown has suggested that the art of public commemoration in America began around the 1820s, but it began to be used as a more active form of historic preservation and “memory making” with the campaign to save George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon in the 1850s. In the aftermath of the Civil War (1861-1865), a blitz of public art creation commenced all throughout the United States–North and South–to commemorate particular viewpoints about the memory of the Civil War. Statues were erected in the memory of Abraham Lincoln and Emancipation, Robert E. Lee, common soldiers, and women. This form of expression was dominant in popular culture until the 1920s, when new methods for creating memory were established. Brown tells us what happened:
The decline in the commissioning of public monuments during the 1920s partly reflected technological innovations that affected the mechanisms of Civil War remembrance. Monuments tended to be obstacles for rapidly proliferating automobiles, which gave rise to new forms of commemoration like highways named for Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis. Even more significant for American memory was the rise of the motion picture industry. Such films as Birth of a Nation (1915) [of which I will provide more information in a future post soon], Gone with the Wind (1939), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), and Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940) in some ways assumed the cultural role of the public monument.
Stan Musial earned himself a place in history with his play on the baseball field, but this statue will help ensure his place in the collective cultural memory of St. Louis while also creating new memories for many, many more generations of Cardinals fans.