Category Archives: Kansas City

A New Kind of Hope

12901406_10153671420364094_5243042037392153871_oWhat’s the right optimism-anxiety ratio for Opening Day after your team just won the World Series? Seriously. This is all really new to me. And I feel like I actually paid less attention to the Royals this past offseason than anytime in the previous two decades. Usually spring training and opening day are exciting. I look forward to them because there’s a chance to move on from disappointment — something the Royals have often over supplied.For years the mantra of Royals fans has been “hope dies hard.” Blogs and Twitter proliferated with overanalyzing Kansas City fans. We were glued to every move, hoping, waiting, believing, that progress, improvement, winning, was just over the horizon. After years of yearning for a winner, years of renewed hope for a better season, and “trusting the process,” I’m forced to face a new season where my team may not improve.This year Spring Training and Opening Day represent the brevity of success and the possibility that the Royals reign could soon be over. It is a possibility I haven’t wanted to face and have prevent myself from facing this offseason. As the season opens, I’m forced to conure up a new kind of hope; a hope I have never needed before. It is no longer a hope for something I have never experience, it’s not a hope for improvement, but a hope for continuation. So, while I’m extremely excited that baseball is back, I’m also extremely anxious. It’s a new feeling for me, one that could be alleviated by a Kansas City dynasty.

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.

My 2014 in Pictures

Why I’m Crying: My Lifelong Love Affair With the Kansas City Royals

19374_517642683402_2642330_n I have no idea when I first became a Kansas City Royals fan. I don’t have any pictures from my first game. There are no foul balls or autographs from my childhood. It’s all a little bit blurry to me. But the Royals have always been a part of who I am. They’ve always been the professional sports team for me and for my family. We’ve always been Royals fans.

I was born in Kansas City in September of 1985. That October the Royals won the World Series. The 1985 connection always felt special to me. They were my team. We were linked by that year.

35851_519716407642_6890275_nI grew up in Kansas. I lived in a few small towns before moving to the Kansas City suburbs for high school. Even though I didn’t live in the City before then, we used to always go to at least one game. My Grandmother was one of the people who frequently took me to games.

I remember going to a Royals Cardinals with her and my cousins during the home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. McGwire hit a monster home run that game. It went so far that it hit someone in the butt who was waiting in line at the concessions stand behind the left field seats. The fans were pretty into it. My cousins were excited, but I recall being disappointed. I hated the Cardinals. They were the enemy. My Grandma laughed at me the next day, but you could tell she was little proud, too. I was loyal to my team.

We got souvenirs at those games. I have a Royals mini-bat from those years. They were fun times.

I grew up a being a big Kansas City sports fan. I was born and, mostly, raised there. Chiefs, Royals, and Wizards Sporting. But even though I’ve been a huge sports fan, and I’m now a historian of sports, my journey and experience as a fan isn’t typical. My Dad isn’t really a sports fan. He’s never been that interested in them. He doesn’t follow any teams. He doesn’t have any favorite players. He briefly played football in high school, but quit because he didn’t find it any fun.

Almost all of my sports knowledge and skills has come from my mother. She’s been a bit more rabid of a fan. She taught me throw a football and a baseball. Maybe that’s why I throw like a girl. Maybe that’s why I never grew into my coordination. My Mom ran track in high school and would always show up to my meets yelling obnoxiously loud, though she sprinted and I ran distance.

Despite this sport dynamic, the Royals were still the family team. The Kansas City Royals were a big part of my parents’ early relationship. My parents would tell stories about going to Royals games in the late 1970s. My Mom grew up in Kansas City. She graduated from high school in 1977. My parents were married in 1979. They dated at Royals games. They joked about cheap beer prices, but they also had some really good teams back then.

They moved to Seattle in 1980, but they still backed the Royals. They went to a Mariners game and held up a towel that said: “I love KC” and got on TV. When then Royals went to the 1980 World Series against the Phillies, they watched the games at the bar and high-fived strangers who had joined the KC bandwagon.

By 1985 my parents had 2 kids, and me on the way. I was born that fall. We were a Royals family.

The Royals were Kansas City’s team. We were a baseball town. The Chiefs were pretty mediocre during this period. It was before Arrowhead Stadium erupted in the late 1990s. The Royals players lived in town; you saw them out and about. They were accessible. George Brett is the typical image that comes to mind, but there were others.

My other Grandma tells a story about my Aunt seeing a young Clint Hurdle out somewhere and she being so tickled to death that he gave her a kiss on the cheek. She also tells stories about going to a couple of games a year with my Grandfather. The bank he worked for would give him free seats and they’d sit in a club box and watch the game. It was a normal part of their summers.

As I grew up these stories endeared me to my team. They were a part of our family. They were part of Kansas City and what made the city special. Baseball was the perfect remedy for a warm hot night in Kansas City.

When I finally moved to Kansas City I became even more obsessed with the Royals. Some of it was the proximity and some of it was the TV. I would watch or listen to nearly every game when I was in high school. That was the summer of 2000. The Royals had a pretty decent team. They only won 77 games but they had some future stars. The starting outfield was Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye, and Carlos Beltran. Mike Sweeney was in classic form. Unfortunately they didn’t have any pitching. After that season, I started following their moves on the Internet. I joined message boards and learned our minor league affiliates. I also started attending more games.

Fourth of July was a common game for us to go to as a family. It was a nice way to spend an evening, and then they had an amazing fireworks display. We also went to “Buck Nights” – where you could hot dogs, peanuts, Cokes for a $1 each. My brother and I used to see who could eat more hot dogs. Then we chugged Cokes so we could stay awake on the drive home.

Then came the summer of 2003. The Royals had a .500 record for the first time in a decade. The team came out of nowhere. There weren’t any stars (though Angel Berroa won the AL ROY). It wasn’t expected, but we loved it. That 2003 team is really what pulled me in. It’s when my true obsession began. My brother and I went to 12 games that year — the most I’ve ever been to in one season. We sat in good seats too – usually down the first base line. We were dedicated fans. We didn’t leave early and we sat through rain delays.

34287_10100241735561859_7768940_nOne of my favorite memories from that season was going to a double header — a classic doubleheader, one ticket, two games. It was on June 30, which is usually a very steamy day in KC. There was nothing remarkable about the game. We lost both halves to Cleveland and it rained between the games, but just being there, soaking in the atmosphere, it was the best way to spend a summer. It was classic Royals.

After 2003 I nearly purchased season tickets. I really fell in love with baseball. It was no longer a family thing; it was a summer time obsession. Baseball was my summer distraction. Since then I’ve hung on their every move. I invested myself in learning more about baseball. I became hardcore baseball nerdy. I read about stuff like Sabermetrics, I started following a slew of excellent Royals blogs, and started to learn about and follow our drafts. If I didn’t know something myself, I at least knew someone or somewhere I could go and figure it out. I remember drafting Zach Greinke, Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, Luke Hochevar, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Christian Colon, Aaron Crow, etc. I recall being upset about some of the major trades we made – Johnny Damon, Carlos Beltran, Jermaine Dye, and Zach Greinke.

It was hard to be a fan for several of those years. Never ending rebuilding projects are hard to stomach. There were so many what ifs; so many failed prospects. There were times when we’d sit around and think about how and why we were cursed. Did Mr. K sell his soul for 1985? Was it when he died in 1993 and they renamed the stadium? Was it when they removed the turf and put in grass in 1995? Or maybe it was when they moved the fences in to try and score more runs, and then back out to benefit our young pitchers off and on over the next two decades? The real curse, perhaps, was the 1994 strike. Kansas City went from one of the highest spending teams in the early ‘90s to the small market poorhouse.

This, of course, was compounded by the death of Ewing Kauffman in 1993. When Mr. K died, a Board of Trustees ran the team with the stipulation that they could not lose money. It took them 7 years to find a new owner – David Glass, the former CEO of Wal-Mart. He brought his “always low-prices” style of management to the team, cutting their bottom line and refusing to invest. The Royals lost 100 games four times from 2002 to 2006. The only glimmer of hope was that magical, fluky 2003 season.

To his credit, Glass got tired of losing. He hired Dayton Moore in May of 2006 and gave them all the resources he asked for. They added minor league teams, created international academies, and added legions of scouts. Signing bonuses went up. International signings increased. They finally began to rebuild the franchise from a player development model. This was how the original Royals teams were constructed. John Schuerholz, the famous Atlanta GM who oversaw 15 years of AL East dominance, learned his trade in Kansas City. He was the Royals GM from 1981-1990, and before that he was the director of scouting and assistant GM. The Royals were a model organization. In fact, Moore learned much of his “process” from Schuerholz in Atlanta.

After I graduated college I moved away from Kansas. I started my master’s degree in Nevada in the fall of 2009. My love for the Royals stuck. I signed up for Twitter that year and immediately found a community of Royals fans. We live-Tweeted games and talked about the various moves and developments. We became friends. Several of us didn’t live in KC. It was a tie back home for us.

1074116_599035561422_1340170161_oThis Twitter-fandom has sustained me that last 5 years. I’ve sparsely attended Royals game during these years, but when I could, I did. I saw them play the Athletics in Oakland in August of 2010. I saw them in Chicago in July of 2013. It was fun for me to go see them play at away ballparks. I have batting practice balls from both games. They made me feel like a kid again. And I felt like an even bigger fan because I was representing my city even though I was away from home.

The summer of 2013 was our second winning season since 1993. I followed it closely. I was deeply engaged in the Royals Twitter community. I started a Twitter glossary of our nicknames and hashtags. Many of the people I’ve met on there have become friends. It’s both an imagined and a real community. We have our language and customs. We’re connected by our love for our city and our team. Many of the fans have met and become real life friends. They’ve started movements and gained major recognition, including #BooCano at the 2012 All-Star Game and dubbing Billy Butler #CountryBreakfast during a rain delay. Even more amazing was the reception of a Korean fan, Sung Woo Lee. This year they brought him over to attend his first game in Kansas City and gave him the “Royal” treatment. He was local celebrity for a week. The local and national media loved it. The New York Times wrote about him.

Sung Woo and I Tweeted each other many times over the past few years. He’s an incredible inspiration, always positive. He wakes up in the middle of the night to watch the games. Fans like him are who’ve been waiting 29 years for this, fans that run the many, excellent Royals blogs and podcasts such as Kings of Kauffman, Pine Tar Press, Royals Review, etc. They’re the lifeblood of the Royals community.

This past summer I only attended one Royals game. I took my Grandma with me on an unseasonably cool July night. We were in contention, still battling for the division and the wildcard. The next morning she set the sport section of the paper out for me at breakfast – like she’s always done every time I’ve stayed at her house. As we sat there I couldn’t help but think back to those early games of my childhood. We’d cheer for the Royals, often we’d leave an inning early when they were losing and she was getting tired, but I’d always read what happened the next day. But this time I drove, and we stayed until the end. Unlike so many of those games from my childhood, the Royals won. It was a special moment for me, something I’ll always remember.

It’s really hard to fully explain what the Royals mean to me. They’re a symbol of my family, who I am, where I’m from. They’ve been one of my obsessions for the majority of my life. They the sports team that I care about more than any other.

When the Royals made the Wildcard game I was excited. I wanted to buy playoffs gear to remember it. But I was also cautious. I didn’t want to buy gear and then have us flame out after 1 game. My friend told me I should wait and see. When we advanced I thought about it again, but I wasn’t too excited about the design of the divisional series gear. I didn’t buy anything. Now that we’ve won the American League pennant, I’m rethinking my decision. Earlier tonight I stared at the new gear in the online store. As I clicked on the different items emblazoned with “American League Champions” and “World Series 2014” the reality sank in. This is really happening. This is reality. We won. I almost bought some gear tonight, but waiting has paid off. I’ve waited 29 years – my entire life – for this to happen. What’s another couple of weeks? And if we don’t win it all, it’s not like they’ll stop selling the ALCS stuff. They can’t take this away.

tumblr_ndigiuHsYK1qc0ltvo1_500As personal as this has been to me, it’s also been incredible to see the excitement and enthusiasm of the community. Sure, most of this is through online communities and social networks. Royals Twitter has joked about how hard their #RoyalsPlayoffBoner is raging. That it’s been way more than 4 hours. My friends and family from Kansas City, spread out across the country, have jumped on the bandwagon. There’s nothing that makes me smile more than seeing friends who never cared about baseball or sports, people who only went to Royals games for the fireworks, all of a sudden becoming rabid fans. A “lost generation” of fans is rediscovering how fun baseball is. They’re falling in love with their hometown team. After each win you have 40 people commenting and like your posts. My timeline is full of news stories and pictures celebrating the Royals. People are sharing personal stories like mine; they’re soaking up every minute. Kansas City is rediscovering its baseball core, it’s reuniting the family atmosphere, and it’s doing it in dramatic fashion with some of the most likable and exciting players in recent memory. This is what brings tears to my eyes.

I’m also tearing up because of all the emails and text messages I’ve been getting from friends and colleagues. Classmates and professors I’ve worked and studied with – many of whom are not from Kansas City and their only connection to the Royals is knowing me – are calling. They know how much this means to me. They know that Kansas City, that the Royals, and that baseball has been such a huge part of my life, such a huge part of who I am – and they want to be a part of that. They want to celebrate with me. It means me the world to me that they’re thinking of me, that they’re rooting for my team, that they’re enjoying it alongside me.

Sports are beautiful. They help us discover who we are and connect us to our family, our cities, and our friends. And as my favorite team arrives at the pinnacle, these memories and these relationships, they mean the world to me. They make the wait all worth it, because I don’t think it would be this special, this emotional, this big of a deal, if it happened all of the time.

Royals Twitter and Digital Anthropology

Today I created a glossary of terms and hashtags used by the Kansas City Royals Twitter community (which I have been a VERY active member of for over 3 years). It got me thinking of several cool ways to look at and study social media and digital communities as they relate to subcultures, particularly sports fan bases.

The Royals Twitter community is populated by hundreds, if not thousands of people, who share a common language. There are numerous of blogs and personalities. On the surface my collection of our terms is nothing more than “historical recording” but it’s indicative of digital community formation and evolution. You get a feel for the type of humor we have, how we cope with 2-and-a-half decades of losing and incompetent management, how we celebrate, and our perspectives on the sport of baseball. There are certain areas where division and disagreement are also evident. It’s really kind of cool to see all of that happen through little pieces of language.

I’m not exactly sure how I would describe the “so-what” to those in my own discipline, but there’s something there. I guess it’s like a digital anthropology? I really enjoy it. It’s probably why I spend so much time participating and thinking about it. And, even if I never do anything with it, since the Library of Congress is archiving all public Tweets, the glossary could be handy for future scholars looking to study similar subjects.

Critiquing and Teaching Films: A Review of 42

I finally got around to seeing the new Jackie Robinson film, 42, last week. Overall I enjoyed the movie and thought that they did a pretty good job of developing the characters and presenting an engaging story. Going into it I was curious how far the story would go. Most of the time we hear about Robinson breaking the color line and winning the Rookie of the Year award (now named the Jackie Robinson award), but the story usually ends with integration. He broke the color barrier, we are told. He won the ROY award. The Dodgers were a good team with him. But the narrative is less about those things as it is his initial entry into MLB. That’s not a bad thing, but it presents problems for movie making.

The film covers a rather short snippet of Robinson’s life. It begins with a few scenes of him playing with the Kansas City Monarchs and challenging racial norms on road trips and quickly progresses to his meetings with Branch Rickey and the Dodgers. From there, we see his wedding and first two spring trainings, one in Florida and one in Central America. These events show the racism of the South and professional baseball. Soon thereafter Robinson is called up to the majors to start the 1947 season. The film depicts an attempted player mutiny and lots of emphatically racist gestures during games including those by an opposing umpire and manager as well as an intentional spiking by an opponent. After the call up we follow Robinson throughout the 1947 season witnessing his frustrations, the calming support of his wife, and a satisfied and happy Rickey. The movie ends with Robinson hitting a homerun to clinch the 1947 National League pennant for the Dodgers.

The homerun ending was a bit abrupt and sappy with its Disney-esque music montage. For me, it returns to the issue of narrativization. I would have preferred it if the film showed the Dodgers lose the 1947 World Series offering that as a metaphor for how Robinson helped the Dodgers (and baseball) improve, but they had not yet reached the promise land. Indeed, the ending made no mention of Larry Doby or any of the other African American players who trickled into the Majors after 1947. Doby and some others were listed on a chalkboard earlier in the film, however, during a discussion of which player the Dodgers should get.

Watching the film as a sports fan and a historian of sports presents another layer of analysis. I’ll readily admit that I am not well versed in the historiography of baseball (that’s part of summer reading list), but I have read a couple of books on the Kansas City Monarch and visited the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum several times while growing up in KC. Before viewing the film I did a bit of homework and re-read a few passages of Janet Bruce’s The Kansas City Monarchs:  Champions of Black Baseball.  Bruce’s book is a short and easy-to-read account of the Monarchs but focuses on the team’s relationship with Negro Leagues. The team’s history is a nice parallel and exemplar of the larger story of black baseball.

With the help of Bruce’s book I was able to identify some small and fairly insignificant historical inaccuracies with the film. One example is that the movie often showed the integrated seating during games. The films also says that there were 400 players in baseball in 1947, and 399 were white. Although I haven’t seen the exact numbers and rosters, I find this difficult to believe. Native American and Latin American (particularly Cubans) players had been accepted into Major League Baseball much earlier than African Americans. According to Jeffrey Powers-Beck, Louis Sockalexis joined the Majors in 1897 and was followed by other prominent Native Americans such as John Myers, Charles Bender, Allie Reynolds, and Jim Thorpe. This is not to dispute the significance of Jackie Robinson, however. Black integration was a huge deal and Robinson had a much deeper impact on American than the Sockalexis. Another tedious example is from one of the early scenes depicting Robinson stealing bases in a Negro League game. The film shows an umpire at each base making the safe call. According to Bruce, however, most Negro League games only had two umpires.

Bruce also challenges many of the popular narratives that Branch Rickey “bought” Robinson for the sole purpose of integrating baseball. She points to two competing interpretations but doesn’t point to which one is correct. Both suggest that Robinson was signed by Rickey because he was trying to start a competing Negro League (the United States League) and Jackie would play for his team, the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers. The USL never got off the ground, however, so Rickey was stuck with Robinson and a three-year contract. It remains unclear whether the USL was just a cover to mask Rickey’s original intentions or if its failure quickened the pace of integration. Regardless of which is true, the film mentions neither. Instead, the Negro Leagues are presented almost like informal barnstorming teams that Rickey scouted and selected the best players for tryouts.

The film’s portrayal of the Negro Leagues seems to accurately match Rickey’s. The Dodgers plucked Robinson from the Kansas City Monarchs without compensating the team and refused to acknowledge his prior contract because it was verbal. According to Bruce, Rickey believed “there is no Negro league as such as far as I am concerned” (112).

Despite these small inaccuracies, I think the film did a good job of presenting the history. Branch Rickey was presented as innovative baseball lifer who had clung to strict values. Based on my limited reading, I believe this to be fairly true. He did attended Ohio Wesleyan as the movie explains, and he worked to build the farm-system during his time with the St. Louis Cardinals. The most power aspect of the movie, of course, was its use of the N-word and overall depiction of racist attitudes.

There are a couple of particularly vivid scenes that bring the pervasiveness of these racial attitudes home. The most powerful is a moment between a father and son in the stands. We first see them talking about the Dodgers and the Reds making predictions on who will win, and other small talk. Then, Robinson takes the field and the father erupts with racial epithets. The son looks confused and sits there for a moment before following suit and hurling his own slurs. You get a feeling from the scene that the son sensed this was wrong and didn’t quite understand it, but followed along anyways because he respected and looked up to his father.

Although one of my friends described the movie as a Disney film with the n-word, I think that’s a little bit unfair. It is impossible to judge a big-budget Hollywood film by historical standards and not be disappointed. In fact, I think 42 accomplishes quite a bit within those restraints. It is very entertaining and has good character development that is largely grounded-in and true-to historical facts. Although I wanted a bit more, it did an adequate job a presenting a succinct narrative of Jackie Robinson’s first season integrating baseball. Likewise, through its use of the n-word and racism it helps provide an understanding of the courage and willpower Robinson displayed in integrating baseball as well as the pervasiveness of racism.

I think historic films, no matter how imperfect, are important. As scholars and teachers we owe it to our students to see them and critique them. It is important, however, to execute our critiques in the proper way. I think 42 is an entertaining and good movie. It introduces a lot of topics and ideas and sketches out the contours of Jackie Robinson’s integration story. As an American hero who almost everyone has heard of, it’s good to make the story entertaining and accessible to larger audiences. As teachers then, we can use the film as a baseline and an entry point into deeper discussions of race, sports, integration, etc. Our critiques should not serve to ridicule the film or Hollywood narratives of history but rather as opportunities to fill in the gaps. As I hope I have illustrated here, we can use the film to look deeper into a variety of related ideas and themes. One such idea that I mentioned earlier is the notion of “integration” and the differing types of “color lines” drawn by baseball and American society. Another might be the reaction to Robinson’s integration moment by society – both white and black. For me, historical films if used correctly can become excellent teaching points, and I think 42 does just that.