Statues & Pictures: Thinking Through Commemoration at PNC

Today at Sport in American HistoryJosh Howard has an excellent post discussing the Pirates removal of statues celebrating Negro League’s legends from Legacy Square at PNC Park. You should go read it! The post provides a nice overview of the Pirates history honoring the Negro Leagues and the displays at Legacy Square. But what I found most interesting was a small comment hidden near the bottom of the post  about “passive commemoration.”

The banners as a form of passive commemoration are fine, but they are absolutely no substitution for the active interpretation of the original Legacy Square space.

This line highlights the important of understanding the best practices of public history. While Josh doesn’t fully explain what he means by explaining the difference between passive commemoration and active interpretation in the post, he is absolutely right on the profound difference it makes for visitors to Legacy Square. And I think, noting these difference might hint at America’s unwillingness to talk about things like race and the color line.

Legacy Park with the statues.

Legacy Square with the statues.

It may not seem like much of a difference having banners with pictures and names that honor players instead of full-size statues, but it is. Statues promote what I would call “active commemoration” (because I don’t know think they can actively interpret by themselves) because they force visitors to, almost literally, face the past. A young child walking through Legacy Square would see the large statues and ask questions, such as: Who are they? Why are they there? What are their names/stories? The same child may not even notice the new banners or (be able to) read the names on them.

Similarly, statues offer a great photo opportunity for fans and tourists. I love to visit new ballparks, historic sites, etc. I tend to take a lot of photos and share them with my friends on Facebook or Instagram. I don’t think I’ve taken a photo of a banner. Taking pictures is sometimes a silly act, especially if you strike a pose interacting with them like many of us do. But, snapping photos serves some important purposes. First, it simply highlights the fact that they are noticed. Being noticed is important, it means someone has read the statue and feels that it is “cool” or “significant” enough to remember and possible share. Sharing is where pictures become more significant, I think. When I take a picture and share it with my friends, I am extending the commemoration of the players. If they write captions for the photos (I’m notorious for my long, witty captions on Facebook), then they’re also helping to interpret and prompt others to learn a bit more. This could also potentially start conversations about the players and the Negro Leagues.

Legacy Park without the statues.

Legacy Square without the statues.

Taking pictures, asking questions, and having these conversations — both on site, at home, or on social media — is an important part of remembering and honoring these players. It is an important part of coming to grips with our racist past, too. 

Active commemoration entices us to take notice and engage. As I explained above statues are great at this. Passive commemoration, such as the new banners, let s visitors off easy. Sure, the team is still honoring the players. Fans can still read the names and think about their careers and impact on the game, but it’s not something that their confronted with. You have to go looking for it. Sadly, this passivity is how many Americans treat issues of race. It’s something that they’ve learned about — slavery, the Civil War, and Civil Rights — that is now history. On a few occasions we celebrate major figures or milestones, but largely that history is absent from our daily lives unless we look for it. Few baseball fans are going to look for it. And if they do find it, because of the changes in Pittsburgh, the imposing size and humanness of it will be absent.

Visting Lambeau Field: Reflections on Experiencing History at and in Stadiums

Yesterday I went on a pilgrimage to Lambeau Field to watch the Chiefs and Packers play on Monday Night Football. Lambeau Field is probably the only true NFL mecca (unlike MLB which has a handful). It was a fun trip, even if Kansas City lost. The atmosphere was interesting — it felt more like a college game though with a decidedly older crowd. The stadium itself, while large, felt less intimidating than newer ones, probably because of its large lower bowl, while makes it less steep and towering.


Throughout the trip, I found it difficult to divorce myself from viewing things with a critical perspective. The violence of the game on the field — there were a couple of big hits — and the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Super Bowl I with several of the former player in attendance, forced me to consider the impact on individual players. I wondered what today’s champions would look like in 50 years. How many will be alive? Their size combined with the speed and the trauma of the game today will undoubtedly make aging more difficult for them, even if they have more modern technology.

IMG_0990The Hall of Fame also was an interesting look into both the past and how it is presented to fans (most of whom are extreme partisans). I was impressed with the amount of ‘stuff’ they had on display. Too many halls of fame rely on videos, text panels, and photos, rather than tactile and 3-dimensional artifacts. To be sure, this requires smart collecting and preservation, but, man, does it make a difference for showing the reality of change over time. I would have loved to see them take it one step further and use these items to show connections to the present, perhaps using different type of football equipment to show the advancement of technology and safety alongside the increased size and speed of players. Combined, these narratives could offer commentary on how football has become more safe and yet more dangerous using material culture.

IMG_0992Making a trip like this also requires reflecting on the purpose. Some of the folks I went with are die-hard Packers fans. To them visiting Lambeau is ritual, it’s game day. Others, myself included, saw it as a place to be experienced for its history and significance. It’s something on their bucket list. The game is and was important (I wouldn’t have gone if they weren’t playing Kansas City), but one of the guys went regardless of teams just to experience it. The history of the stadium, the mystique of Monday Night, and the atmosphere of an NFL game. Here you see a blending of sports and cultural heritage tourism. You see ideas about quintessential American experiences as sports fans that are tied to larger notions of a participatory involvement in American culture. Everyone of us viewed ourselves as a stakeholder in the cultural experience — we’re all football fans, we’re all americans, and we could all afford the experience. Some of us were more closely tied to the team(s) but regardless, we viewed Lambeau and Green Bay as culturally significant. We wanted to learn and experience its history and join in the creation of more.

The Packers signify this perhaps more than other clubs, because of the collective nature of its ownership structure, but even beyond that, these pilgrimages, or bucket list trips, hint at our obsession with authentic and democratic cultural experiences. Sports add a further dimension to this, I think, because we are visiting a historic sites and learning history at the same time as we are coming together to witness history. This is precisely what makes historic stadiums such powerful experiences. They tie the past and present, interweaving personal and collective narratives, and offering the possibility that you might witness the extraordinary. The opportunity for you to be present for not just for the making of new history but the next culturally reverberating moment. Traditional museums and historic offer connections to the past and present, but can’t always guarantee the living history experience, where you become a part of that place’s history. For many, this opportunity, this promise, and this excitement to be a witness to ‘new’ history unfolding before them, is what makes them feel alive.

WIMG_1038ithin this critical frame of mind, I kept coming back to my own work and recent conversations I’ve been having surrounding ongoing projects. I’ve been pondering ideas about sports history, public history, heritage, and teaching. Thinking about and asking question such as: what kind of narratives resonate, what kind of techniques work, what are students as well as the general public’s motivating factors for learning and experiencing these stories. Visiting Green Bay with a group of folks — two of them I met for the first time — helped me see some of these things in action.

Thinking forward, and about old stadiums I will never experience and games I’ll never see, I wonder how or if we can salvage, rescue, or reproduce this type of engagement. A few years ago when I visited New Mexico, I had some interesting conversations about the concept of place-based history. It mixed location (GPS points), with videos and images, enabling people to see places as they once were. I think some of this could work for sports. The prevalence of old footage could make it easy to link old games with their former locations. Blending these with a few more tactile features could extend the experience further. Imagine a small historic site near the old the location of old Tiger Stadium in Detroit or Ebbets Field in Brooklyn that pinpoints the location of some seats. In that location reproduction (or even better yet, salvaged seats from the destroyed stadium) were placed in small groups (like park benches), and there, on your cell phone, you could call up historic footage. You could sit in the seats, in the exact place, watching history.

These ideas aren’t too far off. Apps like Next Exit History and a few small projects like those going on at New Mexico State, hint at these possibilities. Maybe some day it will be a reality. It will take a team of collaborators with the resources to build apps, purchase and place tactile features in historic locations, and buy rights to historic footage. I’d love to see a world with this exact type of digital public sport place based history.

A Dream Opportunity: My ESPN Appearance

When I tell people I study the history of sports, they look at me puzzled and half jealous. “That’s a real thing,” many of them reply, “what are you going to do with that?” It’s a different twist on an all-too-familiar question for history graduate students. One that forces us to verbalize our uncertain futures into a palatable answer for small-talk situations. I usually answer with something about teaching, writing, and perhaps some public history work. Noticing my limited response, people are generally encouraging and toss out a few ideas of their own. “You could be on ESPN!” is a frequent suggestion I get. Those suggestions have always sounded a bit outrageous to me. And then last night happened.

It all started about 3:30 p.m. I was laying down for a quick nap to recharge before a scheduled run with a group of friends. That’s when my phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number, and considered ignoring it so I could rest. But my phone noted that number of the incoming call was from Bristol, CT. As a long time sports fan, I knew that ESPN is in Bristol. I also knew that there wasn’t much else located there.

Still, I assumed it was probably a wrong number or a telemarketer. My initial thought that it could be ESPN was one of those jokes that your mind plays on you. An inner wish that you’ve dreamed about, like winning the lottery or the Royals winning the pennant, but don’t expect in reality. After all, why would ESPN call me?

Of course, last year the Royals really did win the pennant. The dream had become my reality. ESPN was calling. I answered.

The call was short. They asked if I would be willing to be a guest on Outside the Lines at 5:30 p.m. on ESPN2. The show’s topic was the image of the Kansas City Royals, a subject that I blogged about in early July. I quickly agreed, and we went to work setting up the details. The show was less that 2 hours away and they wanted me to be live, on-air. First, they needed to find a local TV studio, then they’d call me back.

While ESPN went to work figuring out the logistics, I was going through a range of emotions. I was elated and shocked by the invite. I was nervous about what I was going to say. I also was worried that they might not figure out the logistics, or that I’d get bumped from the show. Nothing was set in stone.

About 15 minutes later I got a message back. Everything was good to go. My live-remote would be filmed at Purdue’s on-campus TV studio. I needed to arrive by 5:15 p.m. to get everything set up, and dress business casual. Things were moving quickly.

Before I left for the studio I posted a few messages on Facebook and Twitter alerting friends and family on the impending madness. I told my running group I’d be absent. I even called my advisor, hoping he’d have some tips (unfortunately, he didn’t answer).

At the studio things were relaxed. The technicians showed me where to sit, hooked up my mic, and put on my ear-piece. They were in control and had been talking with ESPN getting everything ready. From there, it was a really simple and easy process. I received my direction from ESPN though my ear piece. The producer explained that I was joining a 4 person panel to discuss the Royals’ image on Outside the Lines, hosted by Andy Katz. The other panelists were ESPN Senior Writer Liz Merrill, Kansas City Star Columnist Sam Mellinger, and former Royal Brian McRae. We’d each get a chance to talk and answer some questions sharing our perspectives. The discussion segment lasted around 15 minutes. I got the chance to answer 4-5 questions.IMG_0728

The discussion was fun. It was a bit strange, because I could only hear the other guests in my ear-piece. I couldn’t see anyone. I didn’t even know when I was on camera. I felt blind, nervous, and a little self-conscious. After the show ended, I had no idea what I looked like or sounded like. I experienced it, but I didn’t see it.

I felt like the show went pretty well. I made most of the points I had hoped to. I didn’t curse or stutter. I didn’t do anything to embarrass myself, my team, or my city. I survived. (You can watch clips of the show here:

IMG_0733In the hours after the show I remained in a euphoric haze. I was on national TV. I was on ESPN2. I was on ESPN2 talking about my favorite baseball team — a team that had been a national punch line for 30 years. A year ago none of this seemed even remotely possible. It was not just a dream come true, it was multiple dreams come true layered together to play out my childhood fantasies.

Today, as I reflect on the craziness of the last 24-hours, I can’t help but ask: how did I get here? The answer to that question is mostly luck, but the roots of that luck stem from years of hard work. I committed myself to the serious study of history (and sports) in 2009. Within that commitment has always been a firm belief in public engagement, dating back to my undergraduate days delivering chapel sermons and working in the archives. As a Royals fan, as I wrote last fall, it’s always been in my blood. My obsession with team and deep involvement with its Twitter community continue. I couldn’t have made my comments without all of these experiences. And then there is the blog. ESPN introduced me as the Founder and Co-Editor of the Sport in American History blog, which I launched in May 2014. They cited my post from early July on “The Kansas City Royals and Baseball’s “Unwritten Rules.”  The blog post is what attracted them to me.

This is the second time that blogging has helped me land a media appearance. In early 2014, I was featured on TSN 1260 in Edmonton, Canada based on my expertise on Billy Mills. And now ESPN. These are dream opportunities. They are rare, but they’re also what motivates me to keep writing, to keep publishing, to keep blogging. Putting myself out there, sharing my work, engaging in conversations about my area of expertise is at the heart of what it means to be an academic to me.

I’m lucky to have had these chances. But that’s not what we academics really do. You’re more likely to find me in a cold, dank archive sifting through dusty files, cursing at a microfilm reader in a library, or sitting in my front of my computer writing. Being on TV is really, really rare for academic historians, no matter what area they study.

A job at ESPN, as so many people suggest, would be fun. Being on ESPN has always been a goal and a dream, but I’ve never seen it as the ultimate goal. I didn’t decide to study sports history to be on ESPN. I’m a historian first, I chose to study sports so I could answer interesting questions about the past. So I can introduce students to important issues and nuances in history through an interesting topic. I elected to study the history of sports to help theorize and add context to conversations about American cultural life. Those conversations, whether with colleagues, students, or the public sustain me. I’d love to have more of them on ESPN or another media outlet, but if not, a classroom will do.

Reflections on my “Teaching The Black Athlete” series

The Paseo YMCA, KCMO where the Negro League was formed in 1920.

The Paseo YMCA, KCMO where the Negro League was formed in 1920.

The final part of my summer series of designing my African-American Studies course “The Black Athlete” for this fall is up at the Sports in American History blog. The post talks mostly about my philosophy and strategy in creating assignments. They’re not necessarily unique to a sports history course. I don’t include the syllabus in this series, though I plan on sharing it on “Teaching” section of this blog once it’s finalized. If you’re curious about how things go, this winter I’ll probably write some sort of postmortem (also on this blog) to see how well things worked in the course.

The teaching series didn’t quite turn out as I hoped. While it definitely helped me with my course prep, I felt like I was either too vague or too specific when writing about it. Being a relatively inexperienced teacher, I felt kind of reluctant, under-qualified, and vulnerable putting ideas out there that haven’t all been tested. It’s really hard to write about your choices and goals without being too specific or knowing if they’re truly the best approach. In the end, I wanted to share my process and approach to start a conversation and get people thinking. Perhaps it is all that time I spent in the Ed. School as an undergrad, but I believe that reflecting on our choices is important. So as the series ends, I hope everyone who’s read the posts has at least found it thought-provoking and maybe a tiny bit useful. Thank you to everyone who has commented and shared their advice. I’ve really enjoyed the conversations; hopefully they continue.

Teaching “The Black Athlete”: Part I Choosing Course Materials

Teaching “The Black Athlete”: Part 2 Organizing the Course

Teaching “The Black Athlete”: Part 3 Designing Assignments

AAS 371 The Black Athlete Syllabus

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The Kansas City Royals and Baseball’s “Unwritten Rules”

Andrew McGregor:

It’s impossible to totally escape my bias, but in my latest blog post for Sport in American History I tried to interrogate narratives surrounding the Kansas City Royals from the playoffs to the All-Star game to highlight the many contradictions and embedded cultural values within baseball’s “unwritten rules.”

Originally posted on Sport in American History:

This is the first of two posts on Baseball’s Unwritten Rules.  The rules entail issues of masculinity and decorum. They’re often contradictory and at times fans, players, and former players in sports media disagree on what they really are. In this series we want to take a closer look at them and try to parse out the values and assumptions are embedded within them. We argue that the very concept of ‘unwritten rules’ reveals coded language that highlight and expose the competing values in regards to race, class, masculinity, and fair play in American culture. Indeed, narratives surrounding the “unwritten rules” are a way to combine nostalgia, history, and sport into a type of cultural pedagogy.

In this post I use narratives surrounding the Kansas City Royals as lens to try to understand what exactly the “unwritten rules” and expose contradictions within them. Then on Thursday, Dain TePoel will interrogate…

View original 2,621 more words

APUSH Grading in Louisville

I just returned home from grading AP U.S. History exams in Louisville, KY. It was 8 consecutive days of grading from 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. It was intense. I graded one of four short answer questions on a scale of 1-3. Others graded longer essays, document based questions. We were organized into tables, with a Table Leader that trained us and encouraged us to share essays and help each other out. Each table had its own camaraderie. I got to know the guys at my table through conversations over  meals, drinks, and general commiserating about the grading process.

It was a great experience that allowed to me to chat about history, teaching, and so much more with likeminded people. I met a lot of great folks and got to catch up with some old colleagues. This helped me learn a lot about history, teaching, evaluating, the structure of high school curriculum, and several other things. While the gig comes with a hefty paycheck and an all-expenses paid trip to Louisville, the best part was the people. I plan to return next year.

Rapid Response: Alberto Salazar and Galen Rupp Doping

I’m in Louisville, KY this week grading AP U.S History exams so I haven’t had the time to pay close attention to the news, which is a shame because it has been a busy news week between FIFA, Sepp Blatter, and today’s story about Galen Rupp and Alberto Salazar. As a former distance runner and track coach, I’ve had a couple of people ask me today about the Alberto Salazar and Galen Rupp story. Here’s my rapid reaction and quick thoughts. Let me know what you think or what other questions the story bring to mind.

First off, the news honestly doesn’t surprise me. I feel bad for Galen Rupp and Mo Farah, but it seems like Salazar has been doing shady things trying to get ahead for years. Those crazy extra oxygen tents and special houses in Oregon, plus his own ultra competitive career. It’s sad to say this, but in track and field it’s becoming more common to assume people are dirty rather than clean. This is especially true in sprinting, so that this involve distance running just broaden those concerns. At the same time, I hate how the news always tries to say either the coach or the athlete are innocent while the other is guilty (in this case Rupp is innocent while Salazar is the villan). Both have agency and are guilty of what happened. Elite athlete are very aware of what they put in and on their bodies. To be sure, Rupp and Salazar have a long relationship that dates to his teen years and maybe Salazar took advantage of an ambitious Rupp willing to do whatever it takes to succeed. But, if the doping has been going on that long it would have been detected by now, right? Maybe not, maybe its a new sophisticated test or something. Regardless, both individuals have agency and it tremendously affects them both.

It’ll be interesting to see how Nike reacts. Rupp and Salazar are two of their big athletes in distance running and both spend a lot o time at their training center. I’m pretty sure Salazar is a Nike coach (as well as a special coach for USATF and the British Track and Field body). This really creates questions about not just his ability and motives, but also those governing bodies and their screening/oversight processes. Nike is hurt not just with its track and field interests, but also with the emerging case file against it. Given the rumors about its involvement in FIFA — a lot of folks assume they’re involved in the bribing — the company is starting to look even more greedy and shady than it already did. Nike’s actions and greed beg us to ask several broader questions about the nature of modern sport. Such as: What’s more important, sportsmanship, fair play, winning, marketing, money? As apparel companies, promoters, media conglomerates, and sponsorships dollars increase and become more and more tied to each other (sometimes even being the same people), these questions become more and more important. You can ask the same thing about ESPN, College Football, and the SEC, for example. Does winning matter less if no one is watching or you make less money? This has become the culture of professional and amateur sports not just in the U.S. but globally.

It will also be interesting to see how USATF reacts. Rupp was only the 3rd American to ever medal in the Olympic 10K (and the first non-Native American) when he won silver at London in 2012. Many view him as America’s hope for distance running glory. What’s next for him? Sure, it hasn’t been proven yet, but doubt is often enough to destroy your career — just look at MLB. Does USATF need distance running or big name athletes? Maybe. USADA has done a good job of holding its ground and I trust them to continue to do so, but Rupp was in some ways a “Great White [American] Hope” in a sport often dominated by Africans. It’s a brutal indictment to those wanting to see a revival of American distance running, akin to the days of Salazar, Ryun, Santee, and Prefontaine. Globalization has rendered that landscape obsolete, and this news is just one more reminder. Western chemistry is perhaps the only match, but it’s always exposed in the end.

This story is an entry point into conversations about a lot of different issues and elicits questions that we don’t have answers to. While I’m sure this story will soon fade away — especially because track and field isn’t a major sport that capture the 24-hour news cycle, like the NFL — these questions will remain.

I know many of you are track and field fans. What do you think? What questions does it make you ask? How do you see the story playing out?