Back in April, around the 70th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s MLB debut, I wrote an article for Weekend Caucus about Robinson and protests during the National Anthem. I never got around to linking it from this site, so here it is.
I recently returned from Ithaca, NY where I presented a paper at the Histories of Capitalism, 2.0 conference. The conference, jointly hosted by several Cornell academic departments and part of the Cornell history department’s focus on studying the history of capitalism, was well run and a tremendous intellectual experience. The conference opened with a plenary and reception on Thursday night and continued on Friday and Saturday with four additional plenaries and five sessions of panels. It seemed like every panel had at least one paper that I was interested in. There was a good mix of graduate students, younger faculty, and tenured faculty, and perhaps, best of all, the conference was affordable and featured plenty of food and beverages. What more could a graduate student need?!
Following the final panel session on Saturday, the conference organizers, including Larry Glickman, Louis Hyman, and Dara Canchester (apologies if, in my ignorance, I left off anyone else who organized the conference), scheduled a session where graduate students discussed what they learned and heard over the course of the conference. While non-graduate students were permitted to attend the session, they were not allowed to talk. For the most part, only graduate students did speak.
Dr. Hyman convinced three of my fellow graduate students to go to the front of the room and lead the discussion with generous contributions from the rest of us in the audience. We talked for a little more than half an hour about all manner of things from the role of cultural history in the history of capitalism to the “crisis” of the humanities. Perhaps the most interesting topic was when we tangled with the definition of the history of capitalism. My advisor, Bryant Simon, has suggested to me that the weakness of the history of capitalism is that it everything is part of the history of capitalism and therefore it carries little meaning as a field. Citing Bryant’s concerns, I asked the group to discuss the definition or limits of the history of capitalism, suggesting that it seemed rather boundless to me (a sentiment that seemed to be echoed by some of the faculty in the room who weren’t supposed to talk, but couldn’t seem to control a few scattered mutterings of approval). We did not come up with a clear answer in the session, but subconsciously the question continued to gnaw at me. The entire session, however, was enjoyable and beneficial even though it was the last thing (well, aside from dinner) on the last day of the conference.
Perhaps due to a long night of celebrating at the end of the conference with a great (and large) group of grad students and faculty who stuck around deep into the night (I left at 11pm and it was still going strong) or the four-hour drive back to Philly that began at 9am, I was inspired to think more about the definition of the history of capitalism. Now, let me be clear, I do not primarily define myself as a historian of capitalism. I’m primarily a cultural historian (or as Larry Glickman wisely noted about my work, I’m a cultural historian of business). To an extent, I’m also a historian of sports and a historian of business. I have not attended Cornell’s history of capitalism summer camp (although it got rave reviews from my fellow conference attendees who have been there). Clearly I think that my work touches on the history of capitalism or I would not have submitted an abstract to the conference in the first place, but how exactly does my work do that? Is it because I write about a business? A type of economic exchange? Because I tangle with the promises of capitalism and a free society? I’m not really sure and my work seems different from other scholars who also work on the history of capitalism.
Finally (alright, not really finally, it was maybe an hour into my drive home), I came across an idea that seemed to make sense to me. The history of capitalism is a forum for bringing together different scholars (or scholarship) that is related to economic and labor exchanges, but might not otherwise come into conversation with one another.* I realize that still leaves the field undefined, but at least for me, it gives the field, the conference, classes on the topic, a clear reason to exist. I certainly came in contact with a good deal of scholarship that I, confined to the silo of my own dissertation, would not have had much of a chance to engage with. I also know that scholars who are much more deeply enmeshed in the topic likely have their own, more concrete definitions of the field. For me, at least, my definition helps me to articulate the benefits of the conference (in addition to the food, booze, and company, of course) and the value of the subfield to the broader study of history.
* I know that far more accomplished scholars took on the very question in a Journal of American History Interchange in September, 2014 and that Julia Ott essentially made the same point I am making. Her perspective was echoed by several other eminent scholars as well. However, it’s one thing to read such a statement in the JAH and another entirely to experience it and be able to grasp it. It’s like the difference between using a secondary source to teach students about a topic and using a primary source. A lot of students will trust the secondary source, but seeing the primary source and drawing the conclusion on their own offers a much firmer grasp of the idea.
Recently, Chris Rock did a segment for Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel on HBO in which he highlighted a number of reasons for the decline in interest in baseball in the African American community including the decline in the number of African American major leaguers. The concern with diminishing numbers of African American players and fans is not new. Approaching the fiftieth anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s integration of Major League Baseball in 1997, Claire Smith wrote an article on the cover of the New York Times detailing the decline in African American interest in the national pastime. Major League Baseball admitted their concern with this issue when they funded the RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner cities) program in the 1990s.
However, as several scholars have pointed out in the last few days, notably Adrian Burgos, Wilfredo Gomez, and Tyran Steward, Rock does not engage at all with the Afro-Latino presence in the game today. These three scholars are spot on in their critique of Rock and the historical blindness of his position. However, Burgos, Gomez, and Steward, like Rock, focus heavily on the game on the field in their exploration of the state of African American baseball fans. I find nothing to disagree with in Burgos, Gomez, or Steward’s explorations, but I think there is a factor involved that neither those scholars nor Rock touch upon and that is the effect of new stadium construction in the 1960s and 1970s on the African American baseball fan. In no way do I deny that players on the field contribute to fan demographics, or that if Major League Baseball invested in urban America the way it did in the Caribbean, fan demographics might be different. I am also not arguing that new stadium construction in the 1960s and 1970s is the most important factor in contemporary fan demographics, just that it is a very important point, and the full story cannot be told without it (and a lot of other points as well).
Before 1947 and the (re)integration of Major League Baseball by Jackie Robinson, the vast majority of fans at Major League Baseball games were white, the vast majority of fans at Negro League games were African American, and the vast majority of stadiums were in industrial cities where, due to the Great Migration, the majority of African Americans lived. Following integration, African American fans turned out in great number to watch Major League Baseball games, particularly Jackie Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers. As has been well established, integration of the major leagues put the Negro Leagues out of business. While some teams were well behind on integration, in the 1950s and 1960s the numbers of African Americans on Major League Baseball teams grew as teams were increasingly willing to overlook prejudiced notions about who should be on the field. Instead, teams did whatever they could do to put the best and cheapest team on the field. At the same time that the integration of Major League Baseball increased and the Negro Leagues collapsed, many middle- and upper-class whites fled urban areas for the suburbs. Major League teams at the end of the 1950s largely found themselves in urban neighborhoods that were no longer composed of the traditional demographic base who came to their games.
Steward argues that the end of the Negro Leagues greatly decreased the number of African American baseball fans. I agree that this was the case, but I do not think that this had to be the case. There was a brief exception to the rule that whites were always the majority of fans in attendance at Major League Baseball games, or at least that whites represented a larger percentage of fans in the stands than they did residents of the city. That exception occurred in the decades immediately following integration. However, this exception rapidly came to an end as teams moved away from African American neighborhoods in the 1960s and 1970s. These moves made it far more difficult for African American fans to get to games. If teams had not fled African American neighborhoods then I don’t think the end of the Negro Leagues had to lead to such a great decline in African American baseball fans.
There are a number of reasons why many Major League teams moved in the 1960s and 1970s, but as Alan Sager and Arthur Culbert explained at a Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture over twenty years ago, Major League teams were most likely to move when they were in African American neighborhoods and were most likely to move from African American neighborhoods to white ones. Furthermore, many new ballparks in these decades were largely inaccessible from African American neighborhoods and without a car. It seems then that teams decided to move out of a fear of losing their traditional fan base, middle- and upper-class whites who demanded car-accessible ballparks in new neighborhoods, rather than remain in African American neighborhoods and embrace a new fan base. I’m suggesting that by moving, teams lost the chance to cement a different demographic group as a key fan base. Because there was little to no baseball being played in urban African American neighborhoods by the 1970s, there were few opportunities for Major League Baseball to develop new African American fans. While the increase in Latino players in Major League Baseball since the 1970s created many Afro-Latino fans of Major League Baseball, Major League teams’ flight from urban American decimated the African American fan base.
Many of the new wave of ballparks built in the 1990s and 2000s were in or near African American neighborhoods, but they were strategically separated from those neighborhoods in a variety of ways. These stadiums were also based on a nostalgia for the 1920s when the first generation of concrete and steel baseball stadiums were in their prime. Rock’s analysis of the use of nostalgia at Major League Baseball games and its lack of appeal to the African American community is spot on. Aside from being an era of beautiful ballparks, the era in which these new parks are intended to recall was also one when African American fans at Major League games were largely unwelcome and Jim Crow laws and de facto segregation were part of daily life. Nostalgically appealing to the 1920s as a time in which all was supposedly good will not do much to attract a community that was excluded from the game in that time period. Perhaps if baseball’s nostalgia focused on the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, the peak years of African American star power in the majors, the results might be different. But those decades do not have the same pull for the most whites who have, aside from a brief exception, always made up the majority of fans in attendance at Major League Baseball games. Choosing to flee African American neighborhoods in the 1960s and 1970s to embrace white fans created an era in which Major League Baseball would like to grow its African American fan base, but seems to lack the tools to do so. Major League Baseball today expresses a lot of interest in revitalizing baseball in urban areas, but baseball in those would not have needed any revitalizing if Major League Baseball had not left them behind in the 1960s and 1970s.
Like a lot of people I know, I’ve been struggling these last few days with the news coming out of Baltimore. It is simultaneously sad, infuriating, and not at all surprising. I don’t feel like I have much to contribute to the wealth of blog posts, commentaries, and columns that have been published in the last few days on the murder of Freddie Gray and the reality on the ground in Baltimore. If you want to read some good ones, check out Heather Thompson, Alex Elkins, Will Bunch, and Ta-Nehisi Coates among others. As I was reading Dave Zirin’s piece on Oriole Park at Camden Yards and the protests on Saturday I realized I might have something to contribute to the discussion, albeit something smaller than what the above-linked authors have written.
As a historian who writes about the fan experience at baseball games, the decision to play Wednesday’s Orioles-White Sox game in front of an empty stadium is certainly an interesting one. Camden Yards was the first of a wave of urban baseball stadiums built in the 1990s and 2000s that were baseball-specific, relied on nostalgia about older stadiums and urban life, and were part of urban renewal programs. These urban renewal programs of the 1990s were part of what John Hannigan described as a Fantasy City in his 1998 book by that same title. Essentially, Hannigan argued that these fantasy cities were like Disneyland for people who wanted to garner the cultural capital the came with urban experiences, but without the risks involved with being in a city, notably interacting with poorer people. Hannigan argued these urban spaces were inauthentic, did not present a true urban experience, and existed mainly for people who do not live in the city. The key drawing point for these fantasy cities was that they presented a nostalgic view of urban America as safe, secure, and prosperous without interacting with actual city life.
Camden Yards and the baseball stadiums that were inspired by it, are meant to feel as though they exist within the city without actually carrying the full experience of the city. They are meant to be spaces where fans are protected from “risks” and discomfort. In Baltimore, on Wednesday, the only way to preserve that fantasy is by keeping all the fans away from the stadium. That, I think, says a lot about why calling positive attention to the grave problems in American cities has been so difficult. It just doesn’t fit with Americans’ fantasies about our nation.
You have managed to stumble across my very much in progress and under construction website. I’m Seth Tannenbaum and I am a doctoral candidate in history at Temple University. My dissertation is about food concessions and the fan experience at professional baseball games in the twentieth century.
I hope to add some content to this site eventually, but for a while this is just going to be a place holder.