A lot of people question old times. They question what has gone before. They question past generations. And that's their privilege. But without the memories of the past, there could be no dreams of greatness in the future; without those passing yesterdays, there could be no bright tomorrows."1

-- Major League Commissioner Ford Frick, 1970

Cal Ripken
A Norman-Rockwellized Cal Ripken on a 1995 cover of Sports Illustrated
 Of Puritan leadership, Warren Susman claimed, “these intellectuals. . . from the very beginnings of the enterprise carried with them a special view of history; they made the study of history and its interpretation a vital part of the cultural development of the colony.”2 Like the Puritans, Baseball looks obsessively to its past to define the present and anticipate its direction. An exhibit on the National Baseball Hall of Fame's web site outlines the process for the collection of artifacts from San Diego Padres' outfielder Tony Gwynn's 3,000th hit -- his bat, his uniform, his shoes. It is anticipated history -- a history seen before it happened. In the final year of his career, Tony Gwynn is a valuable cultural symbol for baseball fans. Hard-working, eloquent, and reverential of baseball's past, he contrasts sharply with the stereotypical image of player as a mercenary ignorant of all but himself. Like Gwynn, Cal Ripken has remained with a single team, the Baltimore Orioles, his entire career -- a symbol of stability in a period of perceived discontinuity. Gwynn and Ripken are "throwbacks" -- exempla in baseball's hagiographical imagination. They are living history.

Baseball is self-obsessed, bound to its own history, and American history, intricately and generally. As a game, the present is measured in terms of its past -- the continuity of its rules and the ability to measure performance statistically mean that players of today are in constant competition, imaginatively, with players decades gone. As a cultural institution, Baseball's legitimacy is argued by its intersections with greater American society -- as is evidenced in Ken Burns's interspersal of baseball footage with the social issues of the turbulent sixties and seventies.
Jackie Robinson, Baseball's most socially significant hero, is lionized as a primary figure in the civil Rights movement. Critical forays into Baseball's past recall the labor disputes and the game's role in "Americanizing" urban immigrants.
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Introduction to Ken Burns's "Baseball," part eight

On a personal level, many, if not most, fans identify Baseball with childhood -- a game introduced to them by their parents or grandparents. This ever-present past, and one's recollection of that past, often consists of some combination of intellectual and emotional responses. Baseball is, and always has been, both a game and a business. Addressing the state of the game in 1990, after a turbulent decade of labor disputes between players and owners, Commissioner Fay Vincent noted this duality, promising, "Baseball is resilient and it is strong. It will survive. I submit to you the tension between baseball as a game, as a motion, as nostalgia, as family, and the inevitable progress of baseball as business, as profession, as one long negotiation."3 The division between game and business that Vincent acknowledges is not always so closesly heeded by Baseball culture. Baseball is a crossroads of the spiritual, the emotional, the intellectual, the cultural, and the commercial.

As such, its historical sense can prove a messy amalgam of critical history, memory, and nostalgia. Some requisite knowledge of the past precedes fan participation. Baseball remembered is a combination of collective memory and personal memory. So often, the game is learned as the hands of one's parent, usually a father or grandfather, who had in turn learned it from his. Doris Kearns Goodwin noted,

I felt like I was learning the wisdom of the ages through him. Somehow there was that sense of being imparted knowledge that I couldn't have learned on my own because I knew my father had learned it through years of experience with his father and his grandfather in turn.4

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Field of Dreams
 Necessary to Baseball as intergenerational connective is the image of the game's stability and continuity -- that the game of one's own time is that of his or her father's. Baseball, as played, has changed relatively little; one might well imagine Boston's Pedro Martinez staring down Honus Wagner, or compare his statistics to Sandy Koufax's, though they played in vastly different eras. Since the codification of the game's rules by Alexander Cartwright in 1845, Baseball has persisted in consistent form. Poet Donald Hall argued.

Baseball, because of the sense of its continuity, over the space of America and the time of America -- this is a place where memory gathers, a place that we can return to, and it's a place we can even imagine existing in the future. I think we have some hope that baseball might look like baseball a hundred years from now.5

This continuity, which makes Baseball, imaginatively at least, a sort of cultural tetherpole, is complicated not only by the social realities of the game over the decades, but how one experiences the game over the course of one's own lifetime. It is first experienced as a child, through the eyes of a child -- a game of players and performance, of winning and losing. It is a game of heroes. The experience of the adult complicates the game. The game is marked by ticket prices, player salaries, and labor disputes. The heroes of one's own children -- an Alex Rodriguez or Sammy Sosa -- are demystified by the complexities of the adult perspective. One's memory of the game, then, will always render an idealized past measured against a problematic, ambiguous present. The complexity of today is no match for the simpler pleasures of youth. Particularly in the age of immediate media -- when players' dirty laundry is aired by the hour and the camera's gaze is ubiquitous and unavoidable -- the present game will never be the way it was, "when it was still a game."

To pretend that the past was as simple as it was experienced in childhood is to be historically unaware. It is, in essence, to imagine a past that did not exist -- a past cleansed of its pain and complexity. Such a past is attractive, particularly in periods of distinct upheaval and change, when the future seems uncertain and the present is unfamiliar. The impulse to return to a place that seems familiar is a powerful one -- one perpetuated in the last twenty years by Baseball culture. New retro ballparks, throwback uniform styles, and the memorabilia boom reflect an impulse towards a "familiar" past -- a past which, in many cases, never existed at all.

Notes (click footnote number to return to text)

1 "What Hall of Famers Say About the Hall of Fame," National Baseball Hall of Fame (http://baseballhalloffame.org/about/quotes.htm)
2 Warren I. Susman, "History and the American Intellectual: Uses of a Usable Past," American Quarterly 16.2.2 (Summer 1964): 249.
3 Cyrus R.K. Patell, "Baseball and the Cultural Logic of American Individualism," Prospects 18 (1993): 455.
4 Forever Baseball, dir. Irv Drasnin, PBS Video, 1989.
5 Baseball, part nine, dir. Ken Burns, Florentine Films, 1994.


#1 Sports Illustrated, September 1995, cover.


#1 Baseball, part eight, dir. Ken Burns, Florentine Films, 1994.
#2 Field of Dreams, dir. Phil Alden Robinson, Universal City Studio, 1989.