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Sport Heritage Re-Enactments: A Look at Vintage Base Ball
One element of heritage, particularly public manifestations of heritage, is that heritage is much more fun to do and to watch rather than to read-about. Most museums and historic sites will provide opportunities for visitors to touch, feel, and try particular activities from the past. Many will also incorporate forms of live interpretation and re-enactments, in order for visitors to see the past “come to life.” Certainly, these opportunities provide a much more diverse learning opportunity for visitors and provide a sensual, and perhaps empathetic, link between past and present. However, these kinds of activities are also enjoyable and make for an entertaining day out. Perhaps this is why forms of heritage events, such as the ubiquitous Renaissance Fair and Battle Re-enactments, are so popular. Of course, the forms and types of authenticity in these kinds of representations can vary. In my earlier life working at a pioneer village, we worked with several re-enactment groups, and while I found there was an intense fidelity to the accuracy of their outfits, there was little understanding – or care – of the broader social, cultural, and political issues of that material culture…or most anything else, really. At times, it was a cosplay, albeit with real or imagined educational overtones. At other times, I have seen re-enactment done very well, where it is entertaining, accurate, and informative.
Sport heritage has been relatively slow to the re-enactment game, although this has been changing. Certainly, sports museums employ interactive exhibits for a variety of reasons, from entertaining visitors to recruiting the next generation of athletes, though given the ludic nature of sport, it is surprising we have not seen more sites use more interpretation and re-enactments. Similarly, sport re-enactments and historical demonstrations may be akin to experimental archaeology, where historical sports are attempted to see how they work in time and space. However, there appears to be a rise in forms of sport heritage re-enactment and demonstration, particularly in the United States using early manifestations of baseball.
Vintage Base Ball, as it is called, uses rules from the mid-to-late 19th century, and includes players dressing up in period costume and – in some cases – using antiquated language. The sport is a bit of a hybrid between contemporary baseball and cricket, most noticeably in that the pitcher is called the bowler and fielders don’t use gloves. As The Guardian describes it in an article from August:
It’s an intriguing slice of Americana. A blend of historical re-enactment and competitive endeavor, the game could be said to occupy something of a fraught intersection between where baseball was and where it is now…(T)he sport also counts hipsters in search of something off-mainstream, and conservative types attracted by a sense of nostalgia, a period when gentlemanly conduct pervaded the game. Even those who crave a scintilla of officialdom.
Certainly, there are broader ideas – and ideals – of simplicity and something of the rural pastoral, which is indicative of many forms of heritage. The Guardian notes that there has been a significant rise in the number of teams in recent years, and while this could be simply the latest heritage/leisure trend, perhaps there is a larger issue going on – what Philip Moore calls “practical nostalgia” – whereby the nostalgic past becomes a roadmap for how to cure the ills of the present and future. Perhaps Vintage Base Ball is the latest antidote for coping with contemporary society.
Earlier in October, I had the chance to actually play Vintage Base Ball as part of the Georgia Peaches – representing the Ty Cobb Museum in Royston, Georgia – as they took on the Shoeless Joes – representing the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum in Greenville, South Carolina. The event is held each autumn, and the host museum flips back and forth (this year’s event was held in Royston). While many heritage-based events have goals related to awareness, or an attendance increase, or to raise funds, this annual event appears to exist simply to exist – that it is a way to celebrate, and perhaps redeem and rehabilitate, two of baseball’s infamous antiheroes: Joe Jackson, kicked out of baseball and banned from Hall of Fame induction, for allegedly being part of a group that fixed the 1919 World Series, and Ty Cobb, one of the game’s greatest players, but who might be most well-known for having an extremely short, violent, and possibly racist temper. Shoeless Joe has become a bit more of a folk hero in recent years, perhaps because of his link to the work of the late W.P. Kinsella and the film Field of Dreams, while Cobb – though still largely viewed in a negative light – has inspired recent scholarship that challenges much of the popular negative depiction of him.
There is also an element of kinaesthetic learning to Vintage Base Ball. Like experimental archaeology, Vintage Base Ball could be considered a form of experimental sport heritage – trying a game from the past, in the present, and seeing how it works. I noticed that the game when relatively quickly – we played two games, in fact, and neither took more than 90 minutes or so. In part, it seemed that this had much to do with the rules, in particular that an out could be achieved from catching the ball after one hop (rather than in the air, as is the only way contemporary baseball). Similarly, you could see the echoes of cricket in the game, particularly in terms of fielding and style of play. Certainly, in the 1860s there was a transition from cricket to baseball, though beyond terminology and the lack of gloves, there is also an apparent shared yearning for a more civil form of recreation and leisure. Finally, although there was some fidelity to authentic representation (one player for the Georgia Peaches came all the way from St. Louis, and wore a vintage Detroit Tigers uniform for the game), it was more about celebrating the achievements of Cobb and Jackson, as well as creating a tradition in their name.
Seasons and Sport Heritage
Last year on this blog I wrote about sensing sport heritage, that is to say that there is a particular form of sensuality associated with sport heritage which is more than just seeing or touching a sporting place or artefact. Many heritages, as we know, are more personal in nature and link to individual pasts and memories, particularly from childhood. Things like smell and taste are part of our sporting pasts, and can take us back to particular sporting experiences. One of my students, for example, recently related a story about how drinking hot chocolate immediately reminded her of being at a hockey rink in her home in Vermont. For her, hot chocolate will always be linked to winters at the rink, and she found that it triggered a very specific form of nostalgia for her.
Perhaps less specific than links to specific senses are the associations of sports with the natural calendar; that there is an almost visceral connection between seasons and particular sports. Of course, particular sports must be played at particular times of the year, although with our ability to control and create artificial environments, weather can be eliminated or controlled in sporting environments in many cases. No, this is to say that watching or participating in certain sports simply belong to the wider heritage of a particular season; that certain sports simply belong at particular times of year. Of course, we may simply be conditioned to expect that particular sports belong at certain times of the year – what is commonly called institutional seasonality. American football is associated with the Fall, and though it feels as though it ought to be associated with leaves and cooler temperatures and autumn holidays like Thanksgiving, the institutional structure of it simply puts it at a certain time of year. Football could, of course, just as easily be played in the spring – but, because of its institutional structure, we associate the sport with the broader markers of the season. Other sports, like baseball, have – in a sense – a dual season – as Ken Burns says (and to paraphrase), baseball gives us the promise of spring and the harsh realities of fall. And, yet, there is something wholly appropriate about the traditions associated with Opening Day in baseball – normally one of the most anticipated days in the American sporting calendar – in large part because of the promise of spring renewal. Similarly, I have friends and colleagues who adore October baseball, not only because it is the playoffs but because the feel of the games are part of the tradition; that summer has clearly past, and winter is on the horizon, but the playoffs occupy that beautiful liminal space in-between. As a colleague said to me earlier this month, “it just smells like October baseball.” Baseball may even have a third season, the offseason where many of the moves and transactions take place, which – associating it with cold, winter nights – is called the “hot stove” which “calls up images of baseball fans gathering around a hot stove during the cold winter months, discussing their favorite baseball teams and players.”
A few years back, I had a paper published about the development of community league hockey rinks in Edmonton. Although the paper was largely a historical look at gender and recreation, the paper was – in part – framed around the winter-based tropes that are part and parcel of the outdoor hockey experience. Of course, cold, winter weather is necessary to have outdoor hockey but, of course, the rink and the season associated with this sporting practice are part of broader identities. I liberally quoted from both academic and popular sources that framed the rink as, in part, “a key signifier of our national claims on winter and northernness, of our identity as a wholesome, hardy people. Rosy- cheeked children play shinny against a prairie sky, a city skyline, a ridge of pines. Cold winds are vanquished by the swoosh and cut of a blade, the thwack of a frozen puck on a stick. A national fairy tale.” In this, the sport cannot be separated from the season; they are both part and parcel of the traditions and heritages of certain times of year.
Of course, like any heritage, the linking of sport and particular times of year are contextual and, perhaps, driven by media discourses. The infamous – and often parodied – introduction of The Masters golf tournament by Jim Nantz has constructed and solidified an impression of spring in the South. Of course, in the global media age, many of these impressions of particular times of year are mobile, and may resonate with people who have never directly experienced these conditions – but feel attached and attracted to them, nevertheless. Growing up in Canada, the outdoor rink was simply part of who we were – though, now, through the proliferation of outdoor hockey events, many fans may now see these kinds of environments as part of their heritage too – even if they are relatively foreign to them.
However, we ought to consider these broader environments – seasons, temperature, and weather – as part of sport heritage. In many cases, they are as important in creating and constructing the sporting past as buildings and artefacts.
Sports Beach Books – 2016 Edition
For the last two years, I have written blog posts recommending some sports-centric books suitable for beach-reading. That is to say, these books need to a) be somehow about sport, and b) need to be substantive – but not weighty (perhaps both in tone and tome, as it were). Though we are a few weeks into summer at this point, there are probably a few weeks left of beach time (at least for us in the northern hemisphere) and a chance to catch up on some summer reading. I will also point out that these are simply some of my recommendations – the excellent Sports Biblio website is a treasure trove for sports lit, and is certainly far more in-depth and complete that my meagre offering here. Finding a theme for this years list, I’d venture to place my recommendations into two categories – deeply bucolic and idyllic, and nostalgic in, perhaps, the most romantic and bittersweet way. Enjoy!
Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack – Larwrence Booth (ed.)
Few things signal the beginnings of summer more for me than the publication of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack. Though the physical almanack is, perhaps, a little unsuitable for beach-reading per se, the “Shorter” Wisden – available for e-readers – includes all of the best written components of the Almanack without the many scorecards from county games and the like (though, personally, I download the shorter version for my Kindle and order the physical copy for my library). Wisden is perhaps most famous for its “Five Cricketers of the Year,” each year offers many original insights about the state of the game (2016’s version includes discussions ranging from the history of cricketing celebrations to exploring why there aren’t more British-Asians in first-class cricket), while the review section includes all of the annual round-ups of cricket miscellany: from cricket books and film to cricket on social media to the market for cricket memorabilia. There is also a wonderful obituary section which includes often moving write-ups of first-class cricketers and administrators great and small, the recaps of England’s international team, the domestic leagues, and cricket around the world. Every summer, I piece through Wisden – reading bits here and there – and it never fails to make me dream of perfect summer days at some county ground.
Sweet Summers – JM Kilburn
“Cricket is of us, as the very breath in our lungs, makes poets of the incoherent and artists of the artisans. Not one of us that takes a bat or bowls a ball or watches a game but gives and receives a precious heritage.” So says JM Kilburn, longtime cricket correspondent for the Yorkshire Post, in this collection of his best cricket writing. Though Wisden is steeped in heritage, it is very much focused on the game as it is now. This collection, on the other hand, reveals a past where cricket – particularly at the county level – was truly important, and poetic, and a goodly heritage. Kilburn’s writing is idyllic and bucolic and wonderful in all of the ways that sentimental writing ought to be, with the added component that it is never saccharine and always done with the greatest affection. I find myself reading and re-reading sections of this book often, particularly when I find that life has gotten in the way of perfect leisure, and it reminds me of what once was, and could be again.
Not by a Long Shot – T.D. Thornton
With apologies to boxing, few sports have seen such a vast decline in popularity – at least in the United States – as horse racing has in the past 80 years. That decline – and, perhaps, the romance that goes along with a sport that is still deeply loved by a few hardcore and dedicated stalwarts – is the focus of Thornton’s book about the (now closed) Suffolk Downs track in Boston. In equal parts autopsy and love letter, Thornton explains the decline of the sport while still demonstrating vast admiration for those places and people that keep it going.
Up, Up, and Away – Jonah Keri
The Montreal Expos seem like a strange topic for such an engrossing book that is both autoethnography (Keri was a die-hard Expos fan) and history, but Keri does a remarkable job of weaving personal narrative, historical narratives, and interview material together to discuss the rise and fall of Canada’s first Major League Baseball team. Though the Expos left Montreal in 2004, there is a growing movement to expand or relocate to the city again. Given what Keri describes in this book, Expos 2.0 will have a long ways to go to live up to the drama, personalities, and fun of their predecessors.
Athletes and the Paradox of Sport Heritage
On Friday evening, I will be going to Turner Field in Atlanta (the former Olympic Stadium which will close at the end of this season) to watch the Atlanta Braves take on the Miami Marlins. Though there are several reasons for going to this game in particular – perhaps, in part, connecting a summer leisure activity to a kind-of American traditionalism and nationalism, not to mention the fact that though I dislike the Braves immensely, I like the Marlins…and I love attending live baseball games in the middle of summer – one of my main considerations is seeing Ichiro Suzuki play one final time before he, likely, retires at the end of the season.
Ichiro was, in many respects, baseball’s first global superstar, having established himself in Japanese baseball before joining the Seattle Mariners in his late 20s. Recently, his combined professional hits total topped that of Pete Rose – and though there is some controversy as to whether his Japanese career “counts,” there is little doubt that Ichiro changed the game of baseball, both through his playing ability and through his global reach. He is certainly a first-ballot Hall of Fame player, and arguably one of the best baseball players of all time.
I first saw Ichiro play live in Seattle in 2006. I took a seat in right field – Ichiro’s then position – and was surrounded by fans from Japan, all there to see him play. In fact, much of the in-stadium signage – as well as many of the on-field advertisements – were in both English and Japanese, suggesting just how much of a magnet Ichiro was for fans overseas. Friday’s game will be my third time seeing Ichiro (the other was a mid-April Braves-Marlins game last season), and though I don’t expect to see the same reaction as I experience in 2006, I wouldn’t be surprised if there weren’t a few fans there who, like me, want to see him play one last time.
In many ways, my desire to see Ichiro play reflects on our understandings of sport heritage, namely that athletes represent a kind-of “living” artefact or heritage object. Sean Gammon, in his 2014 paper “Heroes as Heritage“, argues that athletes represent a type of dual sport heritage, in that they themselves are living heritage objects and that their accomplishments and feats represent a type of intangible heritage. I wrote, in response to Gammon’s paper, that
The heroes and the sporting moments they create then, as Gammon argues, become artefacts, and though we can relive and replay the achievement (and, in a sense, preserve the moment(s) in time, perhaps through both personal memory and vicariously through media) we cannot preserve “the object” in the same way that we might other forms of tangible heritage. The relationship between the achievement and the athlete, in fact, demonstrates a paradox in sport heritage. Athletes age, change, and are no longer what they were – indeed, athletes are some of the few heritage “objects” that are not aided by the patina of age. However, their achievements may become more glorious – or heroic – as time goes on.
Ichiro is certainly not the player he once was, and though he’s had a bit of a renaissance as of late, at 42 years of age he now a fourth outfielder (essentially filling in from time to time from starting players) and is battling well down the line-up (as he often strikes out more than he puts a ball in play these days). But, I am not going to see Ichiro as he is now – I am creating anticipatory heritage for myself (the “tell my grandkids about” moment), and celebrating his past achievements – making them, and he, more glorious and heroic as we are farther removed from them.
New Research: Sport heritage and the healthy stadia agenda
I am pleased to announce the publication of “Sport heritage and the healthy stadia agenda: an overview” in the Sport in Society journal. This paper is part of a special issue about the healthy stadia agenda.
From the abstract:
The healthy stadia agenda and sport heritage research appear to have much in common, though their relationship has not yet been explored in any detail. Many sport heritages involve playing particular sports, which may enhance physical activity aims of the healthy stadia agenda, while stadium tours – a staple of sport heritage industry – may also incorporate healthy stadia narratives. Similarly, sport heritage and the healthy stadia agenda are potential partners in public education, both through informal stadia-based public programmes and venue displays as well as more formal curriculum-based programming at sporting venues. However, the relationship between sport heritage and the healthy stadia agenda may also have some issues and challenges as well, as many sport heritages involve health risks and unhealthy behaviour. Ultimately, managers and researchers alike may wish to further consider the relationship between sport heritage and the healthy stadia agenda.
Health-based approaches and perspectives are relatively new in the the sport heritage field, and this paper is – as far as I am aware – the first that links sport heritage to the healthy stadia initiative, and one of the few that specifically attempts to link sport heritage to health-based agendas.
A limited number of free copies of this paper are available by accessing this link.
I would like to thank the editors and manuscript reviewers, particularly Dr. Dan Parnell of Manchester Metropolitan University, for their comments and suggestions, and for being receptive to a different approach to the healthy stadia agenda.
Sport Heritage Trails
Here in the United States, we have seen an increase in the ways that heritage is presented, marketed, and sustained – particularly in rural regions. Many small towns and communities have museums, historic sites, and heritage markers that – individually – may have challenges attracting visitors and interest. The new approach – which is also seen in broader forms of heritage designation, including at the World Heritage level – is to view heritage more holistically, at least in terms of geography.
As such many sites are linking together as part of theme-based heritage “trails” in order to both adequately reflect connections between sites as well as pool resources for marketing and promotion. Theme-based trails have demonstrated some success in rural economic development and can be important catalysts for identifying, recognizing, and sustaining important aspects of culture, heritage, and industry in rural and peripheral regions. Typical themes for trails include religious and pilgrimage routes, migration and trade routes, as well as industrial, cultural, and literary routes, although food-based trails have also become popular trail theme in recent years. It is assumed that all members of trails share common goals as to the purpose and outcomes of trail development, although this may not always be the case.
In any event, though many other forms of heritage – particularly those specific to popular cultures like music, literature, and food – have embraced the heritage trail concept, there appear to be relatively few sport heritage-specific trails that link sporting attractions, sites, places, and markers together. Perhaps the best local example of this concept might be the Packers Heritage Trail in Green Bay, that links important sites in the community to the heritage of the Green Bay Packers football team. On a broader regional basis, the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama is one example of a sporting trail, though the actual historical/heritage component this trail is perhaps not as prominent as would exist in other regional heritage trails like the Virginia “Crooked Road” music trail.
The seemingly limited use of sport heritage in trail development begs a few questions. First, are there other trails besides the ones listed above that are exclusively sport-based, particularly those that are regional driving trails (i.e.: require a car) rather than a local walking trail? Second, if sport heritage is not being used as a theme for trail development, why is it not being used? Has it not been considered, or has it been considered and dismissed? Third, if sport heritage has been considered and dismissed in trail development, what were the reasons? Does it have to do with marketability, or lack of sites/attractions in a region, or something else (e.g.: competition between sites)?
Sport heritage seems like it could be a strong theme for some kind of trail development – particularly around a common theme like particular sports (baseball, basketball, hockey) or famous athletes. Yet, there are apparently few examples of sport heritage being used in trail development, and I am curious as to why this is the case.
Excluded Sporting Pasts
It goes without saying that, for most sports entities, heritage is an asset. The past – particularly a glorious heritage or a heritage that induces nostalgia – can be an excellent marketing tool, and an avenue for commodification through souvenirs, events, and other experiences like fantasy camps. Specifically, sports like baseball and cricket have traded off of their heritage, positioning themselves as timeless cultural entities that are intimately tied to the past. Obviously, not all sporting pasts are glorious, noteworthy, or particularly positive but, more often than not, heritage is something that sports entities tend to embrace.
However, Cathal Kelly in the Globe & Mail recently argues that the NFL in particular runs from its past; that it is a forward looking league to the point that it almost denies its history and heritage. His argument appears to hold water, specifically that the NFL’s past is full of broken players who, in the large scheme of things, are almost infinitely replaceable. Sure, there are sometimes memorable players and teams but, by and large, the NFL is a league entirely focused on the present and future, and that the past plays little role in the way the league operates. Heritage, to the NFL, is not an asset.
A closer examination might be that heritage is used differently by the NFL than it is other leagues. In sports like baseball, cricket, golf, and tennis, there are masters leagues and competitions, and that the sports – though difficult – did not render ex-athletes incapacitated. This is not to say that the NFL doesn’t use its former and retired players in terms of promotion – this past weekend’s Super Bowl demonstrated that – and that it does broadly market events like Hall of Fame weekend in August. Rather, there is a knowing element – both by the league and the public – that football is a deeply damaging game, and that the men who played it often no longer resemble who they once were. Talking about the “glorious heritage” of the NFL is to embrace how deeply damaging the sport was, and continues to be. This is not to say that other football leagues haven’t openly marketed heritage – the Canadian Football League’s “This is Our League” campaign positioned the Canadian code of football as a distinctive form of cultural nationalism – but for the NFL, constantly reminding the public of the past only fuels some of the issues of the present.
That said, the NFL does embrace an element of continuity – not neccessarily in comparison with the past but, rather, as an entity that always was and always will be. It’s heritage is that endures. And, while Kelly’s argument is certainly convincing, it is worth noting that all sports – to borrow from this book – have excluded pasts. Baseball actively runs from it’s drug and steroid past. Cricket runs from its racial politics. Rugby runs from a legacy of class division. Soccer runs from its fan violence. Hockey – as Keith Olbermann explains – markets a fictional foundational myth. In fact, all institutions have pasts that are excluded for a variety of reasons, from politics to culture to plain old ignorance. Certainly, the ways in which the NFL excludes some of its past – or, at the very least, is uninterested in it – is unique, but it is hardly unheard-of.
The question then becomes not whether sports entities exclude particular pasts, but what pasts are excluded and why? Here, Kelly’s argument is important – “..the NFL – alone among all the sports leagues in the world – has no appetite for reflection. With good reason, no league is as frightened of its own past.” Heritage – or, at least, particular forms of heritage – undermine rather than enhance the NFL. For other sports, heritage is an asset – though, again, only particular heritages are touted, embraced, and commodified.
We tend to think of sport heritages as benign, and quite often they are. However, what the NFL’s reaction to its heritage tells us is that sport heritage can, in particular circumstances, also be a threat. Excluded pasts are often not just unflattering or embarrassing, they can also be dangerous.
Gambling as Sport Heritage
The Super Bowl, arguably the biggest betting day in the US, is a little over a week away. Casinos and on-line sports books are famous for taking all kinds of strange bets, called “props”, during the Superbowl – from how long the National Anthem will take to the outcome of the coin flip. Needless to say, betting is as much a part of the Super Bowl experience as the funny commercials, beer, and snacks.
But, can we consider gambling as sport heritage, and do many sport-based museums and halls of fame discuss gambling as part of sport?
Of course, as long as there’s been sport, there has been gambling on sport. Indeed, many sports – like cricket – were codified in large part because of gambling. Some of sports biggest and most notable moments – such as the 1919 Black Sox scandal in baseball – are integral in discussing and interpreting the sporting past.
But, do sports museums discuss gambling as part of their past, or indeed their present? And, should a discussion of gambling – either as in historical or contemporary terms – be part of more sports museums?
The Mob Museum in Las Vegas held an event last year about sports gambling – though, of course, this museum is not sport-based and many of its exhibits are about about gambling. It appears that both the National Horse Racing Museum and Kentucky Derby Museum make mention of gambling, though I don’t believe there’s the equivalent of a gambling simulator at either site. Online museums, like the National Pastime Museum, discuss famous gambling and match-fixing events in baseball. Of course, there may be other examples from sport heritage sites but, seemingly, sports gambling is largely ignored within sport heritage.
In the wake of so many recent gambling issues – in tennis, cricket, soccer, and basketball among others – should sports museums be more proactive in discussing sports gambling, both past and present? Certainly, gambling plays a central role in the history of many sports – shouldn’t sports museums and halls of fame represent these pasts? Similarly, the fact that many sports leagues embrace sports gambling as part of the contemporary sport consumption experience – particularly through fantasy sports – shouldn’t museums play a role in discussing both the positives and negatives of sports gaming? Of course, many sports museums and halls of fame don’t want to touch topics like gambling with a ten-foot pole, but others might find that by discussing gambling at their sites they not only present a more holistic view of the sporting past, they also become part of the contemporary conversations about the role of gambling in sport.
Sports Venues and Historic Preservation: What the Astrodome tells us about heritage
One of the major issues facing historic preservation appears to be making the case for the preservation and protection of relatively recent sites and structures. I think this is particularly the case for buildings that were, at the time, considered futuristic or having a space-age design, or represented some kind of forward-thinking, progressive age – in fact, the polar-opposite of heritage. A recent non-sport example would be something like the site of the Kennedy Space Center, which seems to be much more about the glorious past of the US Space Program than about any kind of future discovery. Seemingly overnight, the site went from a symbol of the future to almost a relic of the past, although in some respects it still exists in a kind-of liminal space where there are still echoes of a future to come. Of course, the Kennedy Space Center still has a purpose, primarily as a tourist attraction as well as the site of occasional launches from private firms, and as such is probably spared from any real threat. However, most recent historic structures aren’t so fortunate, and it can sometimes be difficult to position them as worthy of preservation and protection.
Many sports stadia and venues from the recent sporting past also exist in a kind-of liminal space, particularly as cities and communities struggle with whether the multi-use, multipurpose venues built in the 1960s and 70s are worthy of designation, protection, and repurposing. I have argued many times – both in this forum and in academic publications – that nothing is so dead as an unused and abandoned stadium. A stadium can’t often simply exist to exist, as other historic properties might. In many cases, such as in Atlanta, St. Louis, and Philadelphia amongst many others, multipurpose venues were simply demolished. However, the case of the Houston Astrodome, and the current debates over of what to do with it, might add to the broader debate about the preservation of recent sites and buildings.
The history of the Astrodome is well documented, though needless to say it has arguably been the most important sporting structure – in events, design, and legacy – in the US in the past 50 years. It is undeniably an important building in telling the story of American sports since the mid 1960s, and if it were a more conventional building the debate over its preservation wouldn’t be in doubt. However, because it is a large, abandoned sports venue, it becomes a little more complicated. There remains an ongoing debate about what to do with it, from the unusual suggestion of maintaining it as site for “ruin porn” tourism to the more conventional adaptive reuse options, but the fact that it hasn’t been torn down and that there are various proposals about what to do with it is encouraging – not just for those who value the building itself, but for proponents of a much broader understanding of historic preservation. The idea that sports venues are not only icons of place but repositories for memories and intergenerational bonding, sites where spectacular feats happened and amazing people performed, and sources of all kinds of artistic inspiration, are not new. However, the notion that the much-riducled multipurpose sports venue also possess heritage qualities is unique, and might make us re-think all kinds of structures from our recent past. Of course, we probably don’t want to save every stadium or every building built since the early 60s – this is simply neither feasible nor desirable. But, the example of the Astrodome demonstrates that historic properties come in all shapes and sizes, and that heritage value is much more than simply a case of a structure being particularly old or particularly ornate.
Commemorating the Discarded Stadium
As many sports organizations have realized, heritage is an asset that can be used for a variety of needs and in numerous circumstances. We have seen many kinds of ways heritage have been used in sports, from throwback apparel and uniforms to retro stadiums to nostalgia-based events and experiences (like fantasy camps). Many teams, such as the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox, also view their historic stadiums as assets which provide both cultural capital as well as economic benefits (the Red Sox have the second highest revenue generating ballpark in MLB, despite the capacity, in large part because of Fenway’s history and heritage).
When a team moves venues, often for economic reasons, there is normally a celebration of the old venue. Often, as in the case of Yankee Stadium, Anfield, or the Montreal Forum, the old stadium was beloved and reflect the fact that – paraphrasing sports geographer John Bale – sports stadiums are more than utilitarian structures and many supporters feel a strong sense of attachment to them. In the case of both the new Yankee Stadium and the Molson Centre (which replaced the Montreal Forum), care was taken to provide a blend of old and new – where the new venue has either direct references or explicit echoes to the previous stadium (as Anouk Belanger notes, the Montreal Canadiens had a parade of ghosts from one venue to the other). There was generally an acknowledgment by the teams that, though fans loved the old venue, the new venue would provide the club much needed benefits while also maintaining the sense of place and tradition.
However, this year there are two examples of teams celebrating the final seasons at venues that – to employ an overused phrase – they “threw under the bus.” The Edmonton Oilers, who are set to move to the new Rogers Place in Fall of 2016, are celebrating the final season in their longtime home, Rexall Place (nee: Northlands Coliseum; Edmonton Coliseum; Skyreach Centre).
Rexall Place, architecturally, is unimpressive, but as a venue that has hosted numerous notable events – particularly as a hockey venue – it undoubtedly has broad historic value. However, in securing a new arena deal, the arena was denigrated as “antiquated and outdated“. In fact, there appears to have been little mention that the venue had any heritage value at all until the “Farewell Season” commemorations were announced.
Similarly, the Atlanta Braves are set to commemorate the final season at Turner Field during the 2016 season.
The Braves inherited Turner Field, as it was previously built for the 1996 Olympics then converted to a baseball stadium. As such, the Braves were never particularly fond of the stadium or location, and so a celebration of the final year at a (shockingly recent) venue is a bit odd.
Celebrating the final season at a venue can have benefits for both team and spectator. For the team, it can provide an additional revenue stream through memorabilia, as well as an incentive to come to games that season. For fans, it allows them to experience the venue one more time, relive memories, and provides a transition to the new stadium. The tone of both the Oilers and Braves commemorations are a little different though, in that neither organization will shed a tear for their old venues given the apathy and, in the Oilers case, hostility towards their former homes. While I suspect the teams would have had commemorations anyway, the fact that both are teams have had or are expected to have little success in their final seasons, the heritage angle to “visit one last time” is probably an effective motivator for fans to go to games, purchase merchandise, and perhaps acquire memorabilia like seats, turf, signage and the like after the final out/whistle. It is the one season when, very likely, “just being there” rather than victories is incentive enough for fans to turn out. That said, these two celebrations this year come across as slightly hollow, particularly when compared to how other teams have seemingly handled these occasions.