The Cooperstown Idyll: Nostalgia and Americana at Baseball’s Shrine

Those that know me know I’m a big fan of the St. Louis Cardinals. They know it’s not uncommon for me to wear a “Molina” T-shirt or my Cards hat while working at the farmers’ market. They also know the story behind why I’m a fan and have probably heard it too many times as I’ve told it to others. But for those who don’t, I often get weird looks and questions, particularly when it’s learned that I’m from south-central Pennsylvania.

“Are you from St. Louis?”

“No, but I’m a big Cardinals fan,” I respond as if to solidify and defend the bold claims my hat is making.

I usually get an unimpressed “Oh…” in response and a half-hearted “So why are you a Cardinals fan then?” follow-up.

And that’s when I get a touch defensive and unfurl the sacred family history. “It’s going to make less sense before it makes any sense so bear with me,” I say. “I was brainwashed by my dad and he by his. They both hail from Vermont, way up in Red Sox country, but back in 1946, when my grandfather was in grade school, the Cardinals played the Sox in the World Series. Grandpa’s friends, all Sox fans, were sure that their team would beat the Cardinals and end a championship drought dating back to their last in 1918. He didn’t have a team but wanted to be different so he declared his allegiance to the Cardinals. When the Cardinals won the series in seven games on Enos Slaughter’s “Mad Dash” from first to home on a hit by Harry Walker in the bottom of the eighth inning, my grandpa was hooked. The Cardinals had backed him up, and in return, he became a full-fledged fan, and my dad and I fell in line.”

My first MLB season of memory came 50 years later, and it was a year that ended in tears after a blown 3-1 series lead against the Atlanta Braves in the 1996 NLCS. I still remember fondly players from that year and era: Ray Lankford, Gary Gaetti, Ron Gant, Brian Jordan, Dennis Eckersley, and, my favorite, Ozzie Smith (even if he sat more than he started in ‘96). But, as evidenced at least in part by our family story, my passion for Cardinals baseball doesn’t begin and end with my own personal history. It’s rooted in my grandfather’s adventure all the way from the farm in Quechee to Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field only to rather unfortunately see Stan “the Man” Musial sit out on one of his rare days off. It stems from my dad’s stories of staying up late in rural Vermont, fiddling with the dials of a radio in the hopes of finding Cardinals games on far-reaching KMOX airwaves. I’ve seen two championships in my lifetime, both memorable seasons I will cherish forever, but I can produce the years and combatants of the nine that came before my time. Any Cardinals fan would say that it’s the number 11 that means more than any single championship. Perched behind the New York Yankees’ prodigious 27 championships all-time sits the Cardinals with 11, and we’re proud of that.

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Enos Slaughter slides across home plate.

The above story, which plays like a rehearsed soliloquy, is a source of pride for me, and it serves as my defense against those who initially question my devotion or think that my fandom is completely arbitrary. On more than a few occasions, I’ve silenced doubters and impressed traveling St. Louisans with this little snippet of Cardinals and family history. Enos’ Mad Dash 70 years ago was not only a critical play in Cardinals history, it was essential to my family’s history as sports fans, and all three of us view it as the seminal moment. Without it – perhaps even if the Cardinals win in some other, less exciting fashion – there is a strong argument to be made that we Eastmans would not be Cardinals fans today.

Our story isn’t unique. Perhaps the plot, players, and details are, but in cities and towns all over, Americans of all walks have stories of how they became fans. For many, that fandom is familial in nature, passed down from one family member to the next as if it were a receding hairline or a nice set of flat feet. My great-grandmother, a devout Yankees fan, remembers sitting on her grandfather’s lap next to the radio, listening to the Murderers’ Row teams of the late 20’s, and her support for the Bronx Bombers hasn’t wavered a bit. Baseball – and the stories the sport generates – is meant to be shared with the ones we love.

These moments that we experience, whether they be watching a mid-season game from the bleachers, hot dog in hand, or a father-son game of catch out in the backyard, leave warm memories that don’t easily fade away. Moreover, baseball serves as a therapeutic balm of sorts. No matter how difficult life may be, there is always an escape in a stack of old baseball cards, the stats in yesterday’s boxscore, or the thump of a ball pounding leather. In fact, those memories augment the past and work to convince us that all was once good. It does not matter the size of the metaphorical spike that may have once driven apart two beings; a baseball diamond was the common ground. This nostalgia that baseball evokes is quintessential Americana, and it is immensely powerful. I could go on, but instead, I will leave those honors to Terence Mann from the nostalgia-driven baseball film Field of Dreams:

“Ray, people will come, Ray. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. ‘Of course, we won’t mind if you look around,’ you’ll say. ‘It’s only twenty dollars per person.’ They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it, for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they’ll walk out to the bleachers, sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game, and it’ll be as if they’d dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick, they’ll have to brush them away from their faces.

“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again. Oh, people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.”

As Mann points out, baseball is a part of our past, America’s past. Certainly, history is littered with what are more significant events – acts of war, terror, or inspiration – but the lore of baseball “marks the time.” Name a year, and some fan somewhere will respond with an anecdote of a game or performance that left an indelible impression. 1932: The Babe called his shot. 1941: Ted Williams batted over .400 for the season. 1951: Bobby Thomson hit his “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” to win the NL pennant. 1960: Bill Mazeroski smacked a walk-off, series-winning homer in Game 7. 1977: Reggie Jackson launched three home runs in Game 6 of the World Series. 1986: Aided by a notorious error at first, the Mets came back to beat the Red Sox in Games 6 and 7 to win the World Series. 1998: Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa put on a show for the ages, each racing to surpass Roger Maris’ single-season home run record of 61. 2004: The Red Sox win their first championship since 1918. 2016: The Cubs win their first championship in over 100 years. These moments mean a great deal to a great many people. In a history pockmarked by bad memories, both individually and collectively, baseball reminds us of the good that once was, a good that is unassailable, that cannot be taken away.

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The first weekend of November, my dad and I took my grandpa to the shores of Lake Otsego for his first visit to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. It was special to wander the exhibits with my grandpa and dad and watch them find items from their lifetimes as Cardinals fans just as my dad did with me in past visits. In one case there were Ozzie Smith’s cleats from the Whiteyball Era of the 80’s, in another Steve Carlton’s hat from his 19-K pitching performance in 1969, and in yet another Stan Musial’s bat from a doubleheader in 1954 during which he slugged five home runs. In this small town in New York, the players, moments, and seasons that helped produce shared memories for fathers and sons across the country have been preserved and protected from fading away to time.  

The bucolic village of Cooperstown is a slice of Americana at its romantic, Rockwellian best. There’s a Main Street with a small traffic circle adorned with an American flag flying proudly above the town and white picket fences surrounding quaint homes. Small, family-owned baseball card and memorabilia shops line Main Street, and everywhere you look, America’s pastime is present. Although early November’s gray chill provided the backdrop for our trip, in summer, tourists flock to the Hall to celebrate baseball’s storied past and their childhood (and adulthood) heroes. It’s easy to get caught up in the atmosphere and forget that there is a whole world outside of those 1.6 square miles of Baseball Heaven.

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The village of Cooperstown.

And yet, during this visit, I found myself often distracted by events taking place almost entirely outside of town. It was mere days before the 2016 presidential election, and even though the weekend was meant to be a family getaway, devoid of all things political, I couldn’t help notice the slew of Donald Trump signs that dotted the front yards on the drive into town. In a simple card and autograph shop along Main Street, Fox News played loudly and clearly on the mounted TV set, and the store’s purveyors sat listening and nodding attentively. In one particularly ugly scene, during a visit to a restaurant’s men’s bathroom, I noticed a chalkboard with the words “Fuck Hillary” and “cunt” written forcefully upon it. I cleaned off the chalkboard, but it was a humble and stark reminder that despite its superficial charm, once you remove the baseball, Cooperstown is no more heavenly than the next village.

Trump’s campaign promised a return to a perceived better time in American history, a return to an America that only exists in an issue of the The Saturday Evening Post. It is this perception of past through the false, rose-tinted lenses of nostalgia that makes us uncritically receptive to a message like “Make America Great Again.” It is this thinking that helps us rewrite our history and redefine what made our country so great. At the same time, we too easily forget the aspects that made life so difficult and painful for many Americans (which very much continue to this day), and in doing so, we risk a return to those times.

In places across the country, people long for simpler times and the way things used to be. We cling to our cherished memories and blot out the bad, and our views on how the world worked back in the day cloud our decisions in the present. It’s a natural impulse; every generation uses nostalgia to combat the new and the different. In many ways, Trump’s election is the embodiment of this line of thinking.

The effect that nostalgia has on politics and baseball is one in the same. In remembering and teaching the past with little regard for the bad, we open the door for people to make the same mistakes. We stunt our own growth in this ever-evolving world around us.

In our schools, students learn about westward expansion, World War II, and slavery as it relates to the Civil War, but seldom do we teach extensively about our government’s and population’s brutal treatment of the indigenous tribes, our use of internment camps for Japanese-American citizens during the war, and the pro-segregation Jim Crow laws and lynchings in the South that existed and occurred long after slavery was abolished. Overlooking these parts of our checkered past play a large role in remembering America as an exceptional nation, devoid of wrongdoing. Remembering the significant achievements of our founding fathers, our servicemen and women during the war, and those who fought for human rights is critically important, but only teaching about these great Americans does not the whole picture paint.

With baseball, things are not so different. We think of baseball as merely a game played by carefree children on a dirt sandlot and, for some lucky few living that other American Dream, men playing in the big leagues, and it’s admittedly less fun to let the real world trickle into our sacred sport. Baseball, however, has its own political baggage that goes largely forgotten by the masses in our oral retellings and is romanticized by the powers that be. To name a few: baseball’s past of segregation and it’s handling of integration, which only came about due to immense pressure to put a better quality product on the field; team ownership of players through the reserve clause, which wasn’t dismantled until 1975; and baseball’s long relationship with the tobacco industry and its role in enticing children to use tobacco products through trading cards. We remember each of these aspects incompletely, honoring appropriately those who helped bring about change (Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey, Roberto Clemente, Marvin Miller, and Honus Wagner and his “Holy Grail” of baseball cards) while largely forgetting other important contributors and components along the way (Larry Doby, the low representation of black players in baseball today, Curt Flood, and baseball’s long history with smokeless tobacco).

With nostalgia working its magic on these two aspects of American life, they’re affectionately known as America’s “good old days” and baseball’s “Golden Age,” and Cooperstown is where the two intersect. Together, they work to illustrate a rosy – albeit one-dimensional – image of our country. While objectively picturesque, it’s a version of America that exists only for some people in our diverse population, and to revel in that adulatory view of America and baseball is to choose aesthetic simplicity over the messy truth.

The idyll that Cooperstown represents is comforting; it is familiar; it is guarded. It represents small-town, American values where life moves slower than the hubbub and glitz of the big city. The residents of this town – which could be any small town across the country – are content and want to keep change and its effects at arm’s length. Life moves much like a baseball game where events unfold methodically and, most importantly, without a timer. The nostalgia that presents Cooperstown in such a perfect light is the very same the Trump campaign sold so effectively to the American people desperate for a return to the America of old.

The memories and American ideals Cooperstown evokes need not be cast away and forgotten. There is a time and a place for our nostalgic musings; I shudder myself at the thought of a future without my favorite memories. Yet we cannot become complacent. Nostalgia can undermine our thinking and choices and is the deceit that elevated Trump to power by promising a return to an America that never really was. We must be wary of the emphasis placed on the past and reject views that marginalize whole categories of people or reduce the history of America to that of propertied white men.

By romanticizing the past, we can very easily convince ourselves that change is an enemy, a threat to our way of life. In doing this, we shut ourselves off from criticisms and cease searching for solutions to complex questions, putting off our problems for later generations to solve. These efforts to restore the past do not actually do us a service. They hold us back and jeopardize the potential to make this country great for so many Americans.

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