Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Baseball’s Greatest Slugger? Depends on Who's Telling the Story.

“---- ------ was the … Leagues' greatest home run hitter and one of the most feared sluggers of any era… ------ used a short, compact stride and a massive upper body to crush line drive home runs in ballparks all over… In one of the games played in Yankee Stadium he slammed a home run into the left field bullpen that traveled more than 500 feet. Fans for years after would claim it as one of the longest drives ever hit in that ballpark… ------‘s slugging drew big crowds… ------'s clouts were so impressive that fact and myth soon became blurred…” (“Josh Gibson,” 2006). History would lead us to believe this passage is about none other than “The Sultan of Swat,” Babe Ruth. However, it is actually referring to the not-so-well-known Josh Gibson, who played many years ago in the Negro League.

A long residual that has continuously reoccurred is the plague of racism in America’s national pastime (Schultz, 2008). Ever since the creation of baseball as an organized sport, African Americans and other talented players from different ethnic backgrounds have struggled to find their place in this country’s favorite pastime. This is all too clear when taking a critical look at the life and careers of Babe Ruth and “The Brown Bambino,” Josh Gibson.

Sports, for many years and on many different occasions, have mirrored our society; they share a two-way and mutually reinforcing relationship (Schultz, 2008). Society was never quick to allow African Americans their due rights and baseball was no different. Many would even believe that the first black professional baseball player was Jackie Robinson when he crossed the color barrier in 1947 (“Blacks in Baseball: Integration,” 2008). However, that is not true. There were about 50 players who participated on white professional baseball teams before 1887, including the actual first black professional ballplayer, John K. ‘Bud’ Fowler, who played on an all-white team in 1867. However, mirroring society’s segregation at that time, there was the creation of the “Gentlemen’s Agreement” reached in 1887. This was an unspoken rule that no blacks would be signed to a professional team and it was not, however, until society was further along in accepting African Americans that acknowledgment has been given to blacks playing baseball (“Blacks in Baseball: Segregation,” 2008). Since those running baseball, following the ways of society, were not accepting of African Americans until Jackie Robinson, the story has been told that he was the first to cross the color barrier.

The twenties was a time when nervousness of the post-World War I generation provided fertile soil for the growth of a particular kind of heroism. The arrival of the twenties saw the cult of the hero—the man who provided living testimony of the power of courage, strength, and honor and of the efficacy of the self-reliant, rugged individual who seemed on the verge of becoming as irrelevant as the covered wagon. Given the time that Babe Ruth emerged and the way he stood up against pitchers gave him a heroic presence that society was yearning for (Nash, 2008).

Many would believe it was Babe Ruth’s raw talent and ‘heroic’ stature that appealed to America, but if you look at the comparison between he and Josh Gibson, a different idea might come to mind. Gibson came shortly after Ruth, so it can safely be assumed that America was still in need for that ‘hero’ figure. It can’t be due to talent alone, because it is believed that Gibson hit around 962 homers, with some accounts being closer to, or over, one thousand and one year alone of 84. Many sports historians even believe that Gibson’s offensive numbers are lower than they could have been because of the fact that many fields he played on were without fences (Janik, 2008). These numbers would have easily surpassed the Babe’s. It has also been said that Ruth was such a good athlete due to his amazing pitching ability. However, Gibson was just as good a catcher as he was a hitter; it has been long believed that being a catcher hurts one’s hitting ability due to the amount of strain put on the legs from the constant amount of crouching that is required. They both did have their negative aspects, be it drinking or other unhealthy habits. However, America accepted their lifestyles in very different ways. Ruth was viewed as a charismatic man who just loved life. Gibson, who actually drank to fight off the symptoms of his mental health issues which contributed to his untimely death, was received as a perfect reason for why not to accept a black man into baseball. They have more or less been made out to be the same type of the player with very similar stats, yet something has set them apart.

Babe Ruth chose a lifestyle of excessive eating, heavy drinking, and sexual promiscuity. His ‘human’ lifestyle is what people liked about him. He was much more outgoing than Gibson and many believe this might be the distinction between him and Gibson, added with the fact that he was white and Josh Gibson was black in a time of racial tension in America, which allowed Ruth to reach his popularity.

That did not work out so well for a different black athlete around this time. Jack Johnson was a prizefighter in the early 1900’s who, like Babe Ruth, was on top of his game. In a sport like boxing, where it was literally one on one, nobody could stand in the same ring as Johnson. He too liked to live a similar lifestyle of Ruth. “He was a big spender who loved the high life—flashy dress, champagne, night clubs, fast cars, and willing women” (Radar, 2004). However, unlike the Babe, Johnson was persecuted by society and never reached the same ‘hero’ status. By living the way he did, whites were made nervous by him and blacks felt he was worsening the racial tension for them. Though he has his place in history now, Jack Johnson was never fully embraced into that ‘hero’ status and it has a lot to do with the way he lived his life.

History is political and sport history is no different. The dominant class writes history and what we know all depends on whose version of the story is told (Schultz, 2008). A common thought for why not many people know of Gibson is because of the color of his skin. Given the similarity of his statistics with Ruth’s, it would be hard to refute that thought. Josh Gibson has numbers that are as good, if not better than Ruth’s. Mainstream America was not as accepting of blacks back then and that is why more people don’t know about the legendary African American slugger. So the next time you ask somebody about anything that happened many years ago, make sure to ask yourself, “Whose version of the story am I being told?”


References

(2006). Josh Gibson. Retrieved March 18, 2008, from
http://www.baseballlibrary.com/ballplayers/player.php?name=Josh Gibson 1911.

Blacks in baseball: Integration. (2008). Encyclopaedia Britannica's Guide to Black History. Retrieved March 18, 2008, from http://www.britannica.com/blackhistory/article-229948

Blacks in Baseball: Segregation. (2008). Encyclopaedia Britannica's Guide to Black History. Retrieved March 18, 2008, from http://www.britannica.com/blackhistory/article-229947

Janik, J.M. (2001). Legendary POWER. Boys' Life, 91.8, Retrieved March 18, 2008, from EBSCOhost MasterFILE Premier.

Nash, R. (2008). Sports heroes of the 1920s. In S. A. Reiss (Ed.), Major Problems in Sport History (pp. 324-326). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Radar, B.G. (2004). Jack Johnson. In B.G. Radar (Ed.), American Sports: From the Age of Folk Games to the Age of Televised Sports, 5th ed. (pp. 151-154). Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Schultz, (2008). Module I: What is sport history? Week 1. University of Maryland, College Park.


Recommended Reading

Nelson, K. (2008). WE ARE THE SHIP: The Story of Negro League Baseball. New York: Jump at the Sun/Hyperion.

Papazian, R. (Producer), Sullivan, K. R. (Director). (1996). Soul of the Game [Motion Picture]. USA: HBO.

Zoss, J. & Bowman, J. (2004). Diamonds in the Rough: The Untold History of Baseball. New York: University of Nebraska Press.

The Most Popular Soap Opera in the World: Professional Wrestling

Since the beginning of sport, Americans have thoroughly enjoyed seeing people going at it. From eye gouging, to bare knuckle boxing, to today’s professional boxing, to mixed martial arts, America loves fighting. We love to see the blood fly, to see people get hurt. It is why people cheer fervently for fights at a hockey game and why people desperately want to see a knockout in a boxing match. Americans are also in love with their soap operas. Soap operas give us times to get away from our lives and fall into the twists and turns that dramas like Days of Our Lives and As the World Turns give us. The plots are so irrational and the acting so over the top, that as a viewer you just cannot get enough of it. Soap operas such as these have been such an extreme success that they have been running continuously on the air for over twenty years. When you combine the bloody battles and the ridiculously soap opera storylines you get sports entertainment… you get professional wrestling.

Professional wrestling has been around for centuries, but not exactly in the form that we know of now. The Greeks and the Romans were the first to wrestle professionally back around 3000 B.C (Beekman 2006). At the time, professional wrestling was a completely real sport. Through the 19th century, fights were so brutal that they sometimes resulted in severe injuries, including fighters being paralyzed and even killed (Beekman 2006). At the turn of the 19th century, William Muldoon was seen as the epitome of a professional wrestler. He was the world champion; he dominated in his fights, and had the personality to go with the status. Muldoon was such a good professional wrestler that he was compared to John L. Sullivan in boxing (Beekman 2006). Muldoon also fit the bill of Muscular Christianity, which is becoming a physically fit Christian and thus a good role model for others to look up to (Schultz 2008). Incorporating religion with sports was quite common during this time period. For Mundoon (the father of professional wrestling), the sport in general was about change drastically.

In the 1920s, after World War 1, fans were not happy with the big muscular wrestlers battling one another each night. They demanded agility and speed, which at the time boxing provided them. Thinking about their profits, professional wrestling switched from being a legitimate fighting sport, to being sports entertainment (Lindman 2000). The switch from genuine fighting to staged fighting caused professional wrestling to lose its mainstream coverage. This included the loss of exposure in the sports section of newspapers. However, fans started to rally behind this new form of wrestling, especially with the new medium of television. (Lindman 2000) This allowed fans to cheer on their favorites and jeer at their antiheroes each week.

Since then, fans have been enamored with professional wrestling. In the 1940s, Gorgeous George (George Wagner) captivated fans with his elegant robes, elaborate entrances and long bleached blonde hair (Slagle 2000). Gorgeous George was one of the characters who led professional wrestling to where it is today. Wagner influenced wrestlers like “Superstar” Billy Graham, “Nature Boy” Ric Flair and Jesse “The Body” Ventura, to not only be good in the ring, but to have over-the-top personalities out of the ring. The wrestler’s charisma contributed to his success and to the business overall. Fans wanted the ridiculousness of characters, not the oversized goons they saw back in the day. These characters are what led to today’s version of professional wrestling, including the immortal wrestlers such as Hulk Hogan, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

Thanks to professional wrestling, celebrities like Hogan, Austin, and Johnson are all extremely popular in mainstream society. All three men have used wrestling to expand their horizons, with Hogan going from the most famous wrestler in history in the 1980s to one of the paparazzo’s golden boys in the 2000s. Austin is currently dipping his toes into the movie business, while Johnson has become extremely successful in the motion picture industry. Professional wrestling led these three men to stardom, as the popularity that they gained there led them to being able to thrive in other areas. Fanatics of wrestling became attached to these men, not just for their ability to wrestle, but because they could relate to them. Hogan was the super hero, the man that could overcome all of the odds. Austin was the rebel, the man that everyone has inside of them who just wants to stand up to their boss and stick up the middle finger. Johnson, known as “The Rock” during his World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) days, was the overly charismatic, sarcastic figure that the crowd just ate up. Fanatics loved to see these and all of their other favorites “fight to the death” over a ridiculously soap opera-ish story line.

Today, WWE has gone back to the days of finding the big muscular fighters, thinking that is what draws the crowds. Vince McMahon, the Chairman of WWE, believes going after legitimately tough amateur wrestlers like Kurt Angle, Brock Lesnar, and Bobby Lashley are what the fans crave, rather than the smaller, faster charismatic wrestlers (Glader 2003). However, McMahon is not looking back at the long residuals that wrestling has given him to follow (Schultz 2008). It is not the ridiculous bodies that people come to see, but the ridiculous characters and story lines. Wrestling is about athletes beating each other senseless, for reasons that are so unfathomable that they cannot possibly real. That’s good because the reasons are not real; they are all a show...A show in which the fans will always continue to love.

Works Cited

Beekman, S. (2006). Ringside: A history of professional wrestling in America. Minneapolis, MN: Greenhouse Publishing Group

Glader, P. (2003, September 12). “WWE pins its hopes on ‘real’ wrestlers” Wall Street Journal, pp B1

Lindman, M. (2000). “Wrestling’s hold on the western world before the great war”. The Historian.

Slagle, S. (2000). “Professional wrestling hall of fame”. Retrieved April 5, 2008, from http://www.wrestlingmuseum.com/pages/bios/halloffame/georgebio.html

Schultz, J. (2008a). Module 2: Sport in the New World (2008b). Module 3: Sport and the emergence of Modern America.

Recommended Readings

History of professional wrestling volumes 1-7. Crowbar Press.

Official Site of World Wrestling Entertainment. (2008). Retrieved April 5, 2008, from www.wwe.com

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Remembering the Titans and all those who came before: Desegregation of College Football in the South

Denzel Washington, as Coach Boone, stands next to a tree panting and gasping for breath as he turns towards his high school football team.

“Anybody know where this is” he asks. “This is Gettysburg. This is where they fought the Battle of Gettysburg. Fifty thousand men died right here on this field, fighting the same fight that we are still fighting among ourselves today. This green field right here, painted red, bubblin’ with the blood of young boys. Smoke and hot lead pouring right through their bodies. Listen to their souls, men. I killed my brother with malice in my heart. Hatred destroyed my family. You listen, and you take a lesson from the dead. If we don’t come together right now on this hallowed ground, we too will be destroyed, just like they were. I don’t care if you like each other or not, but you will respect each other. And maybe—I don’t know, maybe, we’ll learn to play this game like men.” (Remember the Titans 2000)

Depicting the story of T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia, the year is 1971 and the integration of black and white students into the same school system is still a new phenomenon. This movie tells the story of how an integrated football team was able to work together and achieve the perfect season. However, long before the Titans, black football players fought for respect and dignity, on and off the field.

The “segregation” of college football came side-by-side with the promotion of all black colleges and universities in the early 1900s. Although many universities in the northern part of the country, like Amherst and Harvard would have their first black football players as early as 1888 (Levy 2003), it would take up until the 1966 for blacks to play in the SEC, and even longer for them to gain the respect they deserved (Wolff 2005). Black football players who ventured onto all-white teams risked their lives during games, at practice, and even off the field. Greg Page would be one of two black players for the University of Kentucky—but he would never actually get to play in a game, as he was paralyzed during a preseason drill. Page died about a month after being injured, and it would be his black roommate, Nat Northington, who would become the first black player in the SEC (Wolff 2005). These events took place in 1967. One year later Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would be shot and that incident would continue to create uproar the following decade. But in 1967, when American streets seemed to be filled with riots and upheaval, the accidental killing of Greg Page was just another lost out of many, only helping to show the dialectic relationship between society and sport (Schultz 2007).

Looking at desegregation of college football in the South one can see clear signs of social injustice and the denial of athletic prowess possessed by black athletes at the time. Even those who integrated blacks onto their teams were hesitant to let them shine to their fullest potential. Blacks were often not permitted to score. If they were not moved to defensive positions, they were left in the game long enough to help carry the ball to a reasonable scoring range and then removed from play (Wolff 2005). These types of actions by coaches depict black football players in the 1960s as puppets for the amusement of others, particularly whites. The great athletic ability of black players was stunted. Darryl Hill, who was the first black to play in the ACC at the University of Maryland, seemed to be an exception to this. He set school records and would score crucial touchdowns. When the school yearbook came out, however, the football picture from the previous year was used and Hill was not mentioned at all (Wolff 2005). Integration of blacks and whites in the classroom was one thing; on the playing field was another story. In 1965 Texas A&M coach Gene Stallings was quoted saying “[w]hat we need is a team that will work and pull and fight together and really get a feeling of oneness, I don’t believe we could accomplish this with a Negro on the squad” (Wolff 2005). This quote only goes on to show the ignorant thoughts that contributed to the racism of the time.

Whether or not a unified team was created on the field, society was still crashing in from all sides demanding an end to this integration. In the movie Remember the Titans (2000), based on a true story, Alexandria, VA gets an eye-opener from these young men. A group, once split along the lines of skin color, learned to appreciate and respect each other. They learn to play the game like men (Remember the Titans 2000). At colleges and universities found in the South during this time, this feat is not as easily accomplished. In the story of the Titans one can see how it is not only the society which plays an impact on the football team, but also the football team which helps to smooth things over in the town. This dialectic relationship can also be seen in more negative ways like with Greg Page. Once the racial barrier began to be crossed, there was still the setback of fairness in the game and full recognition of one’s athletic ability (Levy 2003). Together though, these ideas show how the desegregation of college and university football in the South during the 1960s depict the idea of a dialectic relationship between sport and society, while at the same time showing the hurdles black athletes had to jump over in order to survive this sport.



Works Cited:

Levy, A.H (2003). Tackling Jim Crow: Racial segregation in professional football. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc. Publishers.

Schultz, J. (2008). Module I: What is sport history? Week1. University of Maryland, College Park. Speaker.

Wiggins, D. and Miller, P. (2003). The unleveled playing field: A documentary history of African American experience in sport. Springfield: University of Illinois Press.

Wolff, A. (2005, November 7). Long after Jackie Robinson smashed the color barrier in baseball, these Southern college football pioneers desegregated a more violent sport, in a more violent place, at a more violent time. Sports Illustrated. Retrieved March 10, 2008, from Academic Search Premier database.

Yakin, Boaz (Director). (2000). Remember the Titans [DVD]. Covington, GA: Jerry Bruckheimer Films.


Recommended Readings:

Demas, L. (2007). Beyond Jackie Robinson: Racial integration in American college football and new directions in sport history. History Compass. Retrieved March 11, 2008 from Google Scholar.

Wolff, A. (2005, November 7). Long after Jackie Robinson smashed the color barrier in baseball, these Southern college football pioneers desegregated a more violent sport, in a more violent place, at a more violent time. Sports Illustrated. Retrieved March 10, 2008, from Academic Search Premier database.

Yakin, Boaz (Director). (2000). Remember the Titans [DVD]. Covington, GA: Jerry Bruckheimer Films.

Native American Imagery in Sport: The Florida State Seminoles

Author’s note: Throughout this blog feel free to click on any of the hyperlinks which provide some pictures of the racist imagery that exists.


Braves, Indians, Utes, Chiefs—these team nicknames may seem harmless at first glance. Yet, all of these team names, and the symbols used to represent them, are brimming with racist connotations against Native Americans. In August 2005, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) created standards which prohibit colleges and universities from featuring “hostile and abusive” team names at the NCAA championships (Williams, 2005). This means that if a team wishes to be eligible for an end-of-the-season championship tournament, it may not display any offensive images. Many universities were affected by this ruling because of their selection of mascots that depicts a Native American. By late August, Florida State University (FSU) appealed the NCAA’s ruling and was granted permission for the continued use of the Seminoles nickname and the imagery associated with it (Wieberg, 2005). FSU, along with all other sports programs (high school, collegiate, professional) must realize the cultural implications that accompany the use of Native America imagery to represent their team.

FSU traditions—fans chanting and swinging their arms in a chopping motion; a student depicting Chief Osceola, the former leader of the Seminole tribe; the athletes or cheerleaders wearing uniforms and costumes that imitate the Seminole tribe—romanticize, while at the same time typecast Native American images. Let us assume for the moment that the FSU athletic program respects and honors the Seminole tribe of Florida. Interestingly, the use of the name Seminole, and FSU’s representation of that tribe, has never been approved by any of the Seminole tribes in Oklahoma (King & Springwood, 2001, p. 146). In addition, other Native American tribes are likely to be offended and appalled by the presentation of such images. FSU’s depiction provides a narrow view of Native American life and customs. Before every FSU football game a student ostentatiously rides out on a horse in full face paint, wearing a headdress and traditional Native American attire. An uninformed American or a na├»ve child sees this mascot and assumes that all Native Americans appear and behave like this image of Osceola.

The most avid sports fans, be they Seminole fans or not, seldom are familiar with the history of the Seminole tribe, hence racism ensues because they do not comprehend the full picture. As Davis (2005) noted, “schools cannot control how others, such as the media and other schools/teams, use their mascot” (p. 125). Ignorance towards FSU and its history has been observed in many disturbing instances. As the recent basketball game between our Maryland Terps and FSU’s Seminoles neared an end, the Tomahawk Chop and its accompanying War Chant could be heard and seen by groups in the student section. How many non-FSU fans who display the Tomahawk Chop realize what they are doing? To give another example, in 1999, the Knoxville Sentinel printed a cartoon prior to the Fiesta Bowl between the University of Tennessee and FSU. The cartoon included Smokey (Tennessee’s mascot) and a “buffoonish caricature of a generic Indian.” This cartoon lampooned “the genocide, lies, and destruction associated with the conquest of North America” (King & Springwood, 2001, p. 129). These examples involving FSU are forms of rude, inconsiderate, and ignorant racism.

It may seem obvious for FSU and other teams simply to change their mascot and team branding, but it’s much more complicated than that. The reason that FSU and other schools are opposed, and sometimes unwilling, to change their team name is because of the sense of pride that athletes, students, and alumni have for their team. FSU has a variety of symbols, customs, and rituals that have been taken from the Seminole tribe and used in the sporting tradition. The fans have come to know and love the logo, fight song, and pre-game ceremonies, just to name a few. To change this would destroy the “imagined community” that has been created over the years by fans, the athletic programs and the school (Schultz, 2008). Fans feel bonded by these offensive symbols and to take them away, or even worse, to change the team name would ruin their sense of unity.

An extreme example of people not understanding history relates to FSU head football coach Bobby Bowden’s addition to his signature—“Scalp ‘Em” (King & Springwood, 2001, p. 131). Bowden, or any American for that matter, has no reason to use this phrase. Many people do not appreciate that racism goes beyond the realm of black and white; it extends to many ethnicities. Years after settlers came to colonize, Americans still find it acceptable to mock, stereotype, and abuse the Native Americans’ symbols, cultures, heritage, etc. (Schultz, 2008). So I challenge you to be more thoughtful next time you watch a team with a Native American mascot. Be hesitant to do the Tomahawk Chop in a mocking manner. Be wary of painting your face with war paint. Do not simply accept everything at face value. Next time you’re watching an exciting game featuring the Seminoles, Cleveland Indians, Washington Redskins, or the Chicago Blackhawks (I could keep going), think about the history and implications involved in mocking these cultures.


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References

Davis, L. R. (2005). The Problems with Native American Mascots. In D. S. Eitzen (Ed.), Sport in Contemporary Society: An Anthology. (pp. 121–128). Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

King, C. R., & Springwood, C. F. (2001). The Best Offense… In C. R. King and C. F. Springwood (Eds.), Team Spirits: The Native American Mascots Controversy. (pp. 129–156). Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska.

Schultz, J. (2008). Module II: Sport in the “New World.” Week 2. University of Maryland, College Park. Speaker.

Wieberg, S. (2005, August 23). NCAA Allowing Florida State to use its Seminole Mascot. USA Today. Retrieved February 18, 2008, from http://www.usatoday.com/

Williams, B. (2005, August 5). NCAA Executive Committee Issues Guidelines for Use of Native American Mascots at Championship Events. Retrieved February 18, 2008, from http://www.ncaa.org/

Recommended Readings

Associated Press. (2007, February 17). Illinois’ Chief Illiniwek Performs Last Dance. ESPN. Retrieved February 18, 2008, from http://www.espn.com/

Fisher, D. M. (2001). Chief Bill Orange and the Saltime Warrior. In C. R. King and C. F. Springwood (Eds.), Team Spirits: The Native American Mascots Controversy. (pp. 129– 156). Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska.

Mohr, J. (2005, August 18). Lame Name Game. Sports Illustrated. Retrieved February 18, 2008, from http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com