The things of the past are never viewed in their true perspective or receive their just value; but value and perspective change with the individual or the nation that is looking back on its past.1

-- Friedrich Nietzsche

In his address to the American Historical Association in 1931, President Carl Becker claimed of "Mr. Everyman's" perspective of the past,

It is not possible, it is not essential, that this picture should be complete or completely true: it is essential that it should be useful to Mr. Everyman; and that it may be useful to him he will hold in memory, of all the things he might hold in memory, those things only which can be related with some reasonable degree of relevance and harmony to his idea of himself and of what he is doing in the world and what he hopes to do. . . the history which he imaginatively recreates as an artificial extension of his personal experience will inevitably be an engaging blend of fact and fancy, a mythical adaptation of that which actually happened.2

The subjectivity of historical perspective Becker cites certainly destabilizes any sense of the past. Any collective history is imagined, concocted collaboratively and constantly being redefined. Any account must be truncated simply to be consumed, producing but a flattened version of reality. The past, or rather one's sense of the past, is then a hybrid of personal experience, empirical evidence, present conditions, and anxieties concerning the future. Representations of the past are certainly deserving of exploration, for as David Lowenthal noted, "as we remake it, the past remakes us."3 What is believed of the past is a catapult for the future, regardless of empirical accuracy. The past is pulled into the present as a confirmation of personal and collective identity, establishing a sense of continuity and stability over time. It residually enriches the present, either positively by justification, or negatively by juxtaposition.

Or this, at least, is one use of the past. Has the utility of the past been neglected? Lowenthal argued in 1985,

Our precursors identified with a unitary antiquity whose fragmented vestiges became models for their own creations. Our own more numerous and exotic pasts, prized as vestiges, are divested of the iconographic meanings they once embodied. It is no longer the presence of the past that speaks to us, but its pastness.4

Naming the phenomena, we might call the use of the past, in conjunction with the present, memory; the rejection of the present for an imagined past, nostalgia. Christopher Lasch elaborated on this difference between memory and nostalgia:

Just as we should reject the thoughtless equation of progress and hope, so we need to distinguish between nostalgia and the reassuring memory of happy times, which serves to link the present to the past and to provide a sense of continuity. The emotional appeal of happy memories does not depend on disparagement of the present, the hallmark of the nostalgic attitude. Nostalgia appeals to the feeling that the past offered delights no longer obtainable. Nostalgic representations of the past evoke a time irretrievably lost and for that reason timeless and unchanging. Strictly speaking, nostalgia does not entail the exercise of memory at all, since the past it idealizes stands outside time, frozen in unchanging perfection. Memory too may idealize the past, but not in order to condemn the present. It draws hope and comfort from the past in order to enrich the present and to face what comes with good cheer. It sees past, present, and future as continuous. It is less concerned with loss than with our continuing indebtedness to a past the formative influence of which lives on in our patterns of speech, our gestures, our standards of honor, our expectations, our basic disposition toward the world around us.5

The conservative, nostalgic impulse has been prevalent in Baseball culture, and American culture at large, in recent years. It is, as Richard Hofstadter might have described it, a "quest. . . carried on in a spirit of sentimental appreciation rather than of critical analysis. . . . If the future seems dark, the past by contrast looks rosier than ever; but it is used far less to locate and guide the present than to give reassurance."6 This need for "reassurance" suggests cultural tumult and fear. Nostalgia, in the words of Fred Davis, "always occurs in the context of present fears, discontents, anxieties, or uncertainties even though those may not be in the forefront of the person's awareness."7

In 1992, an article in The New Republic warned, "America is so swamped in baseball nostalgia that the game threatens to be obscured by a cloud of kitsch," before continuing, "baseball nostalgia undermines the authentic appreciation of a great game. It deprives the memory, flattens the past, and makes it generic rather than personal. It turns real memories into folklore; genuine stories into a design style; a real old stadium into an instantly aged contrivance."8 These words suggest how easily memory can devolve into nostalgia, and connect that degradation to consumerism. It is the personal memory flattened into a collective and anonymous past; the use of Jackie Robinson to sell a product that morally didn't deserve him; the rustication of surfaces to hide the substance and functionality beneath.

It can be a hazy gray between memory and nostalgia, particularly in a consumer culture which takes advantage of a lack of awareness. Consumer complicity in the mythologizing and fetishizing of the experience and its memorabilia further complicates any discrepancy between the two. People love freshly-built “authentic” ballparks, to the degree that Bostonians would replace Fenway Park -- the very model for so many of these new parks -- with its own replica. Reflecting on his own analysis of Disneyworld, Stephen Fjellman suggested the difficulty in approaching the problem of the “hyper-real”:
In theoretical moments our critique may be clear: Television is bad; the world is full of kitsch; machines and tools are shoddy; politicians kill, as does cholesterol.

In the lived-in parts of our lives, however, we are often complicit in reproducing part of a situation we otherwise deplore.9

But why nostalgia then and now? Writing in 1977 Davis claimed, "clearly, if one can speak of a collective identity crisis, of a period of radical discontinuity in a people's sense of who and what they are, the late sixties and early seventies in America come about as close to realizing that condition as can be imagined."10 Lowenthal, in 1985, noted the nostalgic response to this identity crisis: "to an American, the landscape of the 1980s seems saturated with 'creeping heritage' -- mansarded and half-timbered shopping plazas, exposed brick and butcher-block decor in historical precincts, heritage villages, historic preservation. . .."11 The new retro ballparks, though lagging a few years behind, certainly fit into this architectural trend; the memorabilia boom and stylistic returns to traditional uniforms had already begun by the opening of Camden Yards in 1992.

The nature of the game itself was in doubt in the eighties and nineties. Labor disputes, including play stoppages in 1981, '85, '90, and '94, frustrated fans. Television revenues soared, enriching players and owners alike; profit that both perpetuated these labor disputes and colored them ridiculous in the eyes of the general public. Free agency undermined Baseball's proud sense of continuity and stability. In the face of such turmoil the past looked rosy indeed. Baseball returned to its past as both comfort and model, in a post-Cold War age of globalization and free agency, down-sizing and franchise relocation, sociopolitical recentering and the death of the hero. In this period of anxiety and consumerism, Carl Becker's warning in 1931 seems appropriate: "One of the first duties of man is not to be duped, to be aware of his world; and to derive the significance of human experience from events that never occurred is surely an enterprise of doubtful value."12

The past will always be present in Baseball. It will be remembered favorably -- its attraction is as a game, and a game first experienced through the unjaded lens of childhood. For this intimate relationship of past and present, one's sense of the game's past, and by extension the past in general, is vulnerable -- vulnerable to the manipulation of marketing, vulnerable to the lazy retreat into romanticized indulgence. The tendency to flatten the past -- to revere a past at the expense of the present -- speaks both of current cultural anxieties and suggests the degree of critical engagement with the past being participated in both inside and outside of the ballpark. "Not to be duped" about the past is of vital significance to a society's future; it is central to a healthy cultural identity.

Notes (click footnote number to return to text)

1 Friedrich Nietzsche, "The Use and Abuse of History," trans. Adrian Collins (New York: Macmillan, 1957) 19.
2 Carl Becker, "Everyman His Own Historian," American Historical Association (
3 David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985) xxv.
4 Lowenthal, xvii.
5 Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1991) 82-3.
6 Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1948) v.
7 Fred Davis, "Nostalgia, Identity and the Current Nostalgia Wave," Journal of Popular Culture II, 1977: 420.
8 Nicholas Davidoff, "Field of Kitsch: Is Nostalgia Wrecking Baseball?," The New Republic August 17, 1992: 22.
9 Stephen Fjellman, Vinyl Leaves: Walt Disney World and America (Boulder: Westview Press, 1992) 9.
10 Davis, 421.
11 Lowenthal, xv.
12 Becker.