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Stumblebums and Princes: A Brief Observation about Nostalgia

I have, in some form or another, been encountering nostalgia for most of my professional and academic life.

For many years, I was a heritage/historical interpreter at a living history museum, which not only meant I spent a great deal of my time in period costume discussing (and, perhaps arrogantly, correcting) visitors’ impressions, recollections, and nostalgias about the “good old days,” but that, over time, I also developed a nostalgia for those years spent interpreting the past, forgetting that my dreams then were very much centred on having the career I do now.

In entering my doctoral studies, and later as a tenure-track faculty member with a keen interest in the sporting past, I spent many of my research hours learning about, dissecting, and confronting nostalgia.  Indeed, some of my earliest published pieces – and, it would seem, my most cited – deal with nostalgia and its shortcomings, particularly in sport.  I will admit, nostalgia and I have had a fractured relationship of sorts – I often time rail against it’s sepia-toneness, while also realizing (see: grudgingly acknowledging) that it may actually serve a purpose beyond its commercial exploitation.  As a middle-aged sports fan, with a limited athletic career well behind me and support for a vast array of teams that possess incredible pasts but woeful presents, I often become unwillingly nostalgic despite myself.  Indeed, having moved to several different places in my life, with my current locale feeling ever more permanent by the year, I do often get wistful for the simpler days of yore, even though I know my recollection is frequently misguided.

In any event, every so often I come across a quote or description about nostalgia that seems to encapsulate its essence; that gets to its heart, exposing both its fallacies and possibilities.  The other night, I began to read a book called The Stolen Season by David Lamb.  It was one of those “you might like to read” Amazon recommendations based on my previous purchases, and is a memoir of a former war correspondent – who required time, space, and some peace following his assignments – who travels across America watching minor league baseball games.  The Kindle price was $1.99, and the dozen or so reviews often referred to it as a baseball version of Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, so I figured it was worth a look.  I’m not that far into it at this point – only a couple of chapters – but it is fantastic thus far.  Nevertheless, the prologue opens with the following observation about nostalgia:

Nostalgia is a dangerous obsession. It turns stumblebums into princes and dunghills into shining mountain peaks. It makes yesterday sweeter than tomorrow can ever be. But nostalgia is an expression of faith, because inherent in our embrace of the past is the belief that rediscovering the lost values of our youth will return us to simpler, more innocent days.

Beyond the fact that I find this quote infuriating, not because I disagree with it but rather because I am jealous of its simplicity and eloquence, it confirms that nostalgia is a mug’s game – one we know we can’t win, but are all too willing to play anyway.  Nostalgia is dangerous, because we can get lost in it, and it can dangerously skew our perspective about the present.  It can also be palliative, and help us to rediscover something about ourselves we thought lost.  Being nostalgic is also a sign of privilege; in that we have the leisure to remember, and we have a past we want to rediscover. And, nostalgia is complex and powerful, despite our (and, often, my) desire to pejoratively dismiss it.

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Sport Heritage Simulacrum – The Case of Crash Davis and the Durham Bulls

One of the common themes in contemporary heritage literature is that heritage exhibits a particular depthlessness, particularly as it is produced, disseminated and consumed at a global level.  This suggests that not only heritage is primarily concerned with aesthetics, but also that much of heritage is surface and concerned with little more than producing a sign or symbol of a particular idea or ideal.  For example, the feel/aesthetics of a pioneer village (and any village, really, will do) is a sign for “simplicity” or “family values” or “hard work” or something of the like.  It is also interesting how many heritages are endlessly imitate and replicate one another to fit a particular representation – returning to the pioneer village construction, I recall a lecture during my masters degree at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne where the instructor showed seemingly endless photos of “old-time” schoolhouses from pioneer villages from around the world, all appearing to be nearly identical and lacking in any local/place context and for which no “original” schoolhouse exists to compare against these endless replicas/representations.

In any event, the idea of simulacrum – the idea of a copy of a copy (i.e.: a copy for which there is no original); or that a structure becomes a symbolic of a place and set of values (i.e.: Eiffel Tower as a symbol of Paris, or France, or French culture, etc.) – is one that I know is important to heritage but, as the above passage illustrates, I struggle to comprehend. Seemingly, the representation (copy) becomes a substitute for the real (if it actually exists), or the representation (copy) becomes a symbol for a broader range of ideals (if they actually exists) to the point where the real and the representation cannot be distinguished…or, something like that.  As I say, I struggle with this concept.  However, I think we can see examples of simulacrum in sport heritage and may help with our understanding of this topic, with one case in particular coming to mind.

The city of Durham, North Carolina is famous for a few reasons – it was a major tobacco producer for many years, and is home to Duke University, one of the most well-known and prestigious universities in the world.  However, Durham may be most famous for this:

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The 1988 film Bull Durham – a well-known romantic comedy about a love triangle between veteran baseball catcher, a hot-shot young prospect, and a a literature-quoting groupie – was based in Durham.  More specifically, Durham’s actual minor league baseball team – The Durham Bulls – were, in essence, one of the characters…or, at least were representative of the strange culture that is small-town minor league baseball (a topic I discussed previously). It is a very famous film (and, might I mention, an excellent, quote-worthy masterpiece, IMHO) and has become, arguably, one of the most famous sports films ever made.

Of course, many destinations use film as a tourism development strategy.  However, the interesting thing about Durham is the extent to which the film is produced and reproduced into the city’s landscape – essentially grounding these fictitious situations and characters into the tangible landscape.  For example, the lead character in the film is Crash Davis – the aforementioned veteran baseball catcher played by Kevin Costner.  “Crash Davis” is a fictitious character who exists only in the film, and yet his number is retired at the Durham Bulls baseball stadium next to the very real former player, Joe Morgan:

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Crash Davis is further immortalized outside of the stadium in a public art piece:

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Even the stadium used in the film has survived, though the team has long since moved to a more upscale minor league stadium:

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Although I did not see a game at the Bull’s new stadium, they apparently even have the bull on the outfield wall, same as the movie:

The film Bull Durham has come to represent a particular slice of American sport culture – maybe even one that has long since passed, if it ever existed – and perhaps the Durham Bulls have come to represent, embody, and self-consciously perform this culture.  Perhaps Durham and the Bulls have also come to represent a particular manifestation of the South, or of small-town America, and of hard-working athletes who are chasing their major league dreams in these places.  Of course, these representations masks all types of contradictions and struggles – by the players, and by these places.  Perhaps this what is meant when critics charge heritage with depthlessness – when places like Durham emulate copies of realities that never existed.