I, like so many of us, first started watching baseball and playing baseball with my dad, when I was probably five or six. My mom is totally hardcore, growing up she fixed way more stuff around the house than my dad ever did, but she throws like a girl– and not in a good way, not like how Chicks Dig the Long Ball is a blog that throws like a girl– so baseball was mostly me and my dad (my sister rooted for the Braves in the 90s just to spite me). But alot of shit has happened in the last twenty years, and truth be told and for many many reasons, I have no desire to go back to that age or that time.
I love baseball history. My team, because it was my dad’s, is the New York Giants. Not the football team, which I get alot. And no, the tattoo on my shoulder under which reads “1883-1957” is not a Mets tattoo (the other shoulder has a Phillies P… that desperately needs to be touched up). I love baseball history. I love the New York Giants and I love 1950s and 1960s baseball especially, but I have no desire to go back to that time, not even to see Joe Dimaggio or Hank Aaron (well, maybe Hank Aaron) as the “Beyond Baseball” ads would have it.
Yet despite this love/hate relationship I seem to have with the past, my academic work (and my Master’s thesis which I recently completed) has been largely concerned with representations and uses of the recent past. Plus I am a baseball fan. Hence, one of the issues I struggle with most is nostalgia.
More and more, I am resentful of nostalgic appeals. In part, this stems from my academic analyses of historical representation in which I encourage a more critical embodiment of cultural memory than the static past nostalgia so often evokes. It also stems from the constant privileging of childhood and “innocence” in baseball discourse which often serves an easy way of saying the game is not political. Further, I am also resentful because that discourse tends to discount my own experience with the game, and as a woman (and a woman concerned with all of things I am concerned with) I already feel discounted.
What I want to consider here, in this context, is not surprisingly the Phillies. Are the Phillies resistant to nostalgia? Why do I want to say that they are? Perhaps it’s just because I love the Phillies and I resent nostalgia. But I think it goes beyond that.
Off and on for the last few months I’ve been reading Howard Bryant’s Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston. (Truth be told every few weeks I pick it up and have to start at the beginning because I don’t remember what I read and so I’m only on about page thirty…) This afternoon I picked it up and opened to chapter three which begins: “Virtually everything about Boston baseball is conditional. What would have happened if… The fight is with history…” (23) I thought to myself, is Red Sox baseball really a fight with history? Or is it a fight against history and for nostalgia, or at least for a nostalgic version of history?
This reminded me of a quote that I love from Suzanne Smith’s book Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit. She suggests that “History, however, is nostalgia’s worst enemy” (260). I wonder if a city like Boston and a fan base like “Red Sox Nation” is afraid of history, instead favoring a nostalgic past. It is not necessarily nostalgia for an ideal past, but it is nonetheless a longing for a sense of self that may or not have ever actually existed, a longing for a past that these individuals may or may not have known, a longing for a Ted Williams, a Carl Yazstremski, a Carlton Fisk they may or may not have known, who may or may not have existed except in a Red Sox Nation cultural imaginary. If theirs is a fight with history, perhaps it is because history is nostalgia’s worst enemy. This is not just a criticism of the Red Sox but of baseball more generally as a game whose identity is so tied up in nostalgia that its history becomes far too selective. Though I may never finish his book since I have to return it to the library in the next few days, and though I think there are some gaps in his approach (some of which are occupied by a strange kind of nostalgia), I do nonetheless praise Bryant for challenging that historical selectivity and opening up dialogues about race and Boston baseball that have long been sublimated.
Where, then, do the Phillies fit into this? How does the current team fit into this? How does the current team fit into its past? As we all know, there is very little to be nostalgic about in Phillies franchise history. I don’t think I have once heard anyone hearken back to the days of the 1915 pennant winners, and in reality aside from Richie Ashburn and Robin Roberts there wasn’t all that much to celebrate or remember about the 1950 team either. Indeed when Roberts passed away recently, I think we might note that the discourse was less about him than about his impact on and reflection in players like Jayson Werth and Roy Halladay. The Phillies are older the Red Sox and yet in some ways we have less of a history.
But then there is Steve Jeltz. But then there is the Vet and the state of mind that is the 700 level. Perhaps, afterall, we are not so resistant to nostalgia, though as fits a city like Philadelphia ours is a necessarily ironic nostalgia which highlights bad style and nosebleed seats as much as a pennant or an all-star third baseman. Either way, I can comfortably say that ours is not a fight with history. What is it then? Perhaps it is a fight with geography. Not for a place in time as it is for the Red Sox, but for a place in space.
My dad recently asked me about the recent fan incidents, including a New York Times quote that said: “All cities have dumb fans. Philadelphia seems to have more than its share.” In the midst fo a lengthy email rant, I made three points– 1. It’s not that Philadelphia has more dumb fans, it’s that Philadelphia’s dumb fans have gotten more press. 2. One of the reasons they’ve gotten more press recently is because the Phillies are very good. and 3. Philadelphia as a city does not have a place in the national cultural imaginary. The cultural construction of Philadelphia, the city’s cultural geography is based on Rocky, Cheesesteaks and the Liberty Bell. (I think DC probably gets credit for the Declaration of Independence even if it was signed at Independence Hall.)
This, I think, is a very powerful thing. History itself, what happened in the past, does not and can not change. We can change how we think about that past, how we interpret it, how we remember it, but there is something real that happened and that can not be changed. Places, however, places can change. Places, I think, highlight the embodied present rather than the wistful past.
Or maybe I’m just hoping that when I make it back to Philadelphia in two weeks, it’ll still be willing to have me.