Baseball *Is* All It’s Quacked Up To Be

Curator's Note

Inning Seven of Ken Burns’ “Baseball” argues that major socioeconomic changes in the 1950s – particularly the advent of suburbia, “car culture,” and television – caused the demise of local independent amateur, semi-pro, and minor baseball leagues throughout the U.S. Baseball fans, Burns’ narrative suggests, began to forego the communal experience of the urban ballpark in favor of the isolated consumption of major-league baseball telecasts in the living room or den. In this light, the resurgence of such leagues across the country in the past decade or so is fascinating. This 2007 promotional video for the Madison (Wis.) Mallards, a Northwoods League team featuring college ballplayers who typically sign on for a one-summer stint, suggests one way in which inexpensive media production and dissemination technologies are used to interrupt the rapt attention given to the highest level of professional and college sports. The Mallards’ video – as well as live webcasts and information about the team – is cheap to produce, can be viewed for free by anyone with Internet access, and promises an experience implicitly more authentic because of its locally-produced, locally-responsive character. The clip suggests that the Mallards play for “love of the game,” rather than fame and money – which both echoes and repudiates Major League Baseball’s recent “I Love This Game!” campaign. While this promotion mimics the professional conventions of sports video (smooth defensive plays + home run blasts + candid fan-in-the-stand shots backed by a catchy rock tune = viewer-pleasing highlight reel), it also strongly emphasizes the difference: the community feel of the small ballpark, the interaction among franchise representatives and the team’s fans (particularly young children, such as the tyke sliding into home during a between-innings promotion), and even the old-style billboards along the outfield walls and in foul – or is it fowl? – territory, mostly hawking [sorry; I’ll stop with the puns now] local businesses like the Great Dane brewery, Madison Gas & Electric, and The Shoe Box rather than large multinational sponsors characteristic of major league advertising. The other un-professional qualities evident within the video (the song, with its cheesy lyrics and duck calls; the hand-held camera work; that strange guy hopping around the third base line in what looks like a distended inner tube…) also underscore the claims to authenticity implicit within the promo: rather than a slick, corporate-driven endeavor like major league baseball, this is an evidently unselfconscious production motivated less by money than by good feelings. Of course it is motivated by commercial imperatives – but it’s a different set of commercial imperatives, one that appears to be more locally engaged and responsive. Ultimately, this clip seems designed to suggest that the Mallards’ brand of baseball, with its personal touches and quirks, is not the same game played by overpaid steroid-abusing strangers who are distanced from their fans; instead, it’s “Baseball the way it oughta be.” It’s the baseball of Burns’ romantic documentary, a fun and participatory pastime – not a cold, calculating business. And, if you call the number or visit the website advertised at the end of the clip, you too can be one of those “flocking from miles around / to see the Mallards that no one can tame.” Your thoughts?

Comments

Mark Williams's picture

Doug, I think you've hit

Doug, I think you’ve hit most every nail on the head. Baseball can seem too readily available for claims about the “authentic,” but if you enjoy going to see a game, this video probably speaks to you.

The frame that you place this in - the notion of a lost and romanticized public sphere, that Burns often laments - is a myth that I find simplistic (and again, all too readily available). Certainly there were significant changes to this sphere after WWII, but the explanations for this tend to produce and rely upon a transposition of the hypodermic model of media tech: it becomes a foundational moment in the still powerful mythos of television as our favorite cultural bad object. (You can blame it for anything. What would we do without it?)

In any case, the evident enthusiasm in this video does invoke the ritual pleasures of going to the ballpark, and well maintains a balance between what we might expect to be constants in this experience and differences as well. That the differences, as you suggest, are principally to be found contra-MLB, but nevertheless represent a return to the traditions of the game, is important to what you’ve described as an unselfconscious affect. It’s clear that every shot and editing choice is savvy and intentional, but they contribute to a spirit of “play” intrinsic to the sport, spanning the experience of the fans, the ballpark personnel, and of course the Mallard team.

I’m especially struck by the fact that the team consists of one-summer players. (Do I have that right?) No bowling alone for this group! [possibly obscure reference to Robert Putnam.]

But I’m left a bit curious about the economic model. Everything looks so new and well-maintained, and apparently so well-sponsored. How does that happen in the contemporary public sphere? (And does it also seem overwhelmingly white? Is this an old-school suburb in development?)

Doug Battema's picture

Hi Mark, Thanks for the

Hi Mark,

Thanks for the response! I agree that the lost/romanticized public sphere Burns (and others, clearly) celebrate is a significantly oversimplified one … but I also think it’s increasingly appealing precisely because of its simplicity, as we become more cynical and jaded and feel overwhelmed by the complexity of modern life. Personally, I think the past was just as complex and problematic, albeit in different ways … we just tend to forget that, especially when we see remnants of those cultural institutions that seem far simpler and unproblematic, like this one.

The way the Northwoods League is set up is akin to other college-level leagues, like the Cape Cod League or the New England College Baseball League: the teams consist of college players (who retain their amateur eligibility) who sign up to play for a summer and aren’t paid for playing. It’s an interesting economic model: the teams have essentially free labor, and are thus able to keep expenses low. In this regard, it mimics 1950s-era major league baseball, when the reserve clause prevented players from access to free agency and enabled owners, effectively, to keep salaries artificially low. (Here’s where negative aspects of the bygone past we want to romanticize begin to rear their ugly heads….) In this case, players typically are seeking opportunities to hone their skills at a reasonably high level so they can play better for their college teams, to continue playing a game they simply enjoy because they’re unlikely to play professionally … and, in some cases, to gain exposure to major-league scouts. The reward is not economically tangible — at least not immediately.

Thus part of the reason for the relatively clean, well-kempt field and environs is low costs associated with the endeavor that allows some profit to be pumped back into maintenance, etc. But Warner Park is also part of the Madison Parks system, and thus maintained in part by public funds. It’s located within the city limits, on the northeastern side of the city, near a strip mall and (if I remember right) a few clusters of apartment buildings and private residences … not quite an old-school suburb in development.

Madison is a fairly white city, demographically (though it is more racially and ethnically diverse than some other parts of Wisconsin), but I think baseball’s reputation as a principally “white” sport also has something to do with the racial composition of the team and its fans — with the percentage of African-Americans on MLB rosters at at least a four-decade low, and the percentage of African-American fans similarly low, it’s not surprising that the game, even at this level, may not have strong cross-racial appeal.

Have to run and teach — looking forward to more comments & discussion in a bit!

Allison Perlman's picture

I'd love to hear more of

I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on this issue of authenticity, and on the implied binary between the authentic baseball experience and fan and the inauthentic—or less authentic—world of MLB.

This is a topic I’ve been interested in for some time. I have a working hypothesis (though still very much being worked on) that the label “authentic” has become something of a moral category, one that we use not as a descriptor but as an important evaluative term. Significantly, in the second half of the 20th century onwards its deployment has carried with it a particular politics, one aimed not only at railing against the consequences of the great expansion of corporate power, but also at the suckers who mistake their experiences as meaningful but which are really “inauthentic.” There are countless examples of this inauthentic/authentic binary (suburb vs. chain store vs. mom-and-pop store, Starbucks vs. the local cafe, folk culture vs. mass culture, etc).

While I’m very sympathetic to concerns over the erosion local culture and the attending economic and labor issues that have arisen with the tremendous growth of national (and multi-national) corporations, I’m wondering why we so often couch our disapproval within a discourse of authenticity. It so often seems to be an attack not just on the object itself, but on the people who take pleasures from it.

Victoria E. Johnson's picture

I'm interested in the issues

I’m interested in the issues raised regarding race and the problematic notion of “authenticity.” Though not the realm of baseball Doug is focusing on, the MLB Minor Leagues have experienced a resurgence of late, in part, by moving into downtown neighborhoods that had been left to deteriorate, and “converting” them to “safe” spaces for white tourism and revelry (architecturally) in a pre-Civil Rights U.S. past(time). Simultaneously, the MLB has attempted to staunch the loss of African American labor (on the field, anyway) through developing secondary school baseball camps and summer leagues focused on predominantly African American “inner-city” neighborhoods. This is an interesting double-move—both encouraging the “reconversion” for white mobility of spaces previously heavily African American, and “developing” African American talent from those same communities for the league. I would also add that rural America (particularly in the Midwest) has invested heavily in the expansion of the teams and sub-MLB league play that Doug references, in part, as a key strategy in developing local tourism, post-NAFTA (among other things) losses of industrial labor to the region and a turn to service economy and tourism development as a new site of economic development.

Doug Battema's picture

Hey Allison, Thanks for the

Hey Allison,

Thanks for the great comments! I’m wrestling with words as I try to respond … hopefully the following will make some sense:

I think the discourse of authenticity has become prominent in part because it’s a fairly easy and convenient one to use (particularly in a moralistic culture, which I think the U.S. is), and in part because it’s so reliant on a person’s own perspective and experience that it seems indisputable. It’s also easy to set up an us vs. them binary that locates oneself atop a cultural hierarchy using the discourse of authenticity: baseball fans who dismiss statistical analysis say they can trust their eyes and their judgment more than numbers to tell them who is a good player and who isn’t; baseball fans who rely on statistical analysis say they can trust numbers more than instinct to tell them who is a good player and who isn’t; critics of consumer culture argue that “American Idol” (to take one, randomly selected example) by definition precludes an authentic experience because it’s so nakedly manufactured and manipulative [such critics might allege], while those who are fans of the show argue that the emotional reactions they and the participants have are authentic, genuine, impossible to fake [such defenders might allege]. In essence, the discourse of authenticity is based on an emotional truth rather than on an ontological one … and it’s impossible to disregard or deny the emotional truth someone else experiences.

I can’t get away from thinking of Stephen Colbert as I write this: his on-screen persona feels the news at viewers, and he’s necessarily right because, to him, his feelings can’t be denied. I think the same kind of dynamic applies here in this video, and in much (if not all) of the authenticating discourses that circulate in U.S. culture.

What I see in this clip is an implicit suggestion that the *real* baseball fan loves the game itself, not (just) the numbers/statistics/glitz-and-glamor of a major league game. The *real* fan can, and will, have an emotional connection with the game and the players that deepens the closer he/she is to the field, to the community, and the team itself. At the same time, the clip doesn’t explicitly denigrate fans of Major League Baseball, so it doesn’t suggest that fans of the Mallards and fans of Major League Baseball have to be opposed to each other: one could be a fan of both without contradiction, simply getting different experiences from the two. (It doesn’t hurt that the nearest MLB club, the Milwaukee Brewers, are about a 90-min. drive east of Madison, and play in a stadium approved under such contentious circumstances that one state legislator who voted to use public funds for its construction was recalled by irate voters … but that’s a long story….)

I wonder, too, how much the discourses of authenticity center around scale. Do we tend to be more suspicious of the motives of institutions we experience as depersonalized — and less suspicious of those we experience personally? In the abstract, it’s easy to be intimidated by, suspicious of, and concerned about the power these institutions appear to wield. But when *we* feel something, when *we* take pleasure from it, the scale becomes intimate and personal. To use your example of Starbucks, do we tend to view the corporation and its ubiquitous shops as manufacturing a mass, one-size-fits-all culture … until and unless we have a cup, enjoy it, frequent a particular store and get to know the people who work there, etc. — making the experience personally authentic? I honestly don’t know the answer to that one … but it’s a really thought-provoking issue!

Finally — since I’m really running on at the fingers here — I think the “authentic” in sports is a particularly thorny issue. On the one hand, as Phil Sewell and I argued in a piece we wrote about professional wrestling, it’s sort of hard to deny the bodily truths offered by sports: even if the outcomes of matches are scripted/rigged (the choice depends on whether or not you’re a fan…), and even if the bodies themselves are pumped full of steroids and painkillers, pro wrestlers undeniably experience risk and pain; there’s just no way to get bopped on the head with a steel chair without running the very real risk of concussion, skull fracture, etc. So even in the most “fake,” culturally inauthentic quasi-sport, there’s an undeniable element of the real, the authentic. In baseball, football, basketball, etc., even as manufactured as a given experience may seem, the personal emotions a fan experiences are real — and the apparent spontaneity and unscriptedness add to the tendency to understand the experience as undeniable, real, authentic. Witness the debates about alleged steroid use by Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, for instance: are their records, their accomplishments, “authentic”? On the one hand, the circumstantial evidence suggests they didn’t compete “honestly,” i.e. authentically … on the other, there are millions who can say that they watched Bonds really swing at a real pitch and bash a real home run.

And that loops back around to part of what I see as the appeal of the Mallards: we assume that these players are not juiced; that their desire to play is greater than their desire to make money (since they aren’t); that there’s nothing in this amateur game to distort the outcome. There’s no apparent aspiration to a kind of bigness that might inflate the experience beyond the immediate, the tangible, the personal. Ergo, it must be authentic.

Doug Battema's picture

Two quick (honest!)

Two quick (honest!) comments, as I need to leave my office; will think about this more on the drive home & respond more cogently later:

-One of the interesting aspects of the RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program is that it’s been extant since the early 1990s … and still hasn’t produced the kind of resurgent interest in MLB, either as fans or as aspiring players, within African-American communities that it aims for. There are all sorts of potential reasons cited for this (baseball culture is too “white” compared to football or basketball, it takes too long for baseball players to reach their earning potential compared to football or basketball, the equipment and space needed to play baseball are too extensive, etc.) … but regardless of what cause(s) are actually at work, it seems that this effort is failing at everything but its PR value to MLB.

-It’s not just rural America, too, investing in these local amateur/semi-pro/minor-league professional teams and leagues; I know of several towns and cities here in Western Massachusetts — a region that was economically devastated by the collapse of manufacturing industries in the early 1980s and never fully recovered — that are turning to the service economy and tourism, including baseball-related services/tourism, to solve their woes. The town in which I live, for instance, features its own team in the Vintage Base Ball Federation (the teams play in 1880s-style uniforms, using rules of that era) and drew intense enough interest that it hosted the VBBF World Series this past summer — and may become the permanent host for that Series.

More later….

Doug Battema's picture

... and I'm back. The more

… and I’m back. The more I think about it, the more I think Vicky’s comment about race and authenticity with regard to the urban geography of minor-league ballparks and fan bases is really spot-on. It’s possible that this dynamic may be even more accentuated at the various minor-league or summer-league levels, in part because any community outcry or objection would be less likely to attract widespread media attention.

To continue this line of thinking (and get farther afield from the Mallards for a moment), journalist Dave Zirin wrote recently about Hugo Chávez’ concern about MLB exploiting Venezuela — from which stars like Johan Santana, Magglio Ordóñez, and Miguel Cabrera hail — as a source of talent without fair compensation … and his government is evidently “demanding that [MLB] owners pay for the privilege of their pillage.” Zirin quotes an MLB representative as “miffed” by “documents that called for instituting employee and player protections and requiring teams to pay out 10 percent of players’ signing bonuses to the government. Chávez wants to tax MLB for what they take from the country.” In response, several MLB teams have pulled scouts and development league teams from Venezuela.

Looping *back* to the Mallards, many of the amateur/semi-pro/independent professional minor leagues draw from pools of cheap labor — players who aren’t compensated (e.g. college athletes eschewing pay in order to retain their amateur status) or who pay for the opportunity to play (which is part of the club approach undertaken by the Vintage Base Ball Federation teams), or who have for one reason or another been bypassed or released by MLB organizations (e.g. nondrafted college players, or former MLB players or prospects trying to squeeze one last moment of glory from their talent or play their way back into the attentions of MLB teams). They don’t draw from the same labor pools available to MLB, since they’re not able to get visas for players from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, or other Latin American nations. The effect of this *may* be to further “whiten” the kinds of spaces Vicky mentioned — not only by recolonizing inner-city urban locations, but also by fielding teams that have proportionately more white and fewer Latino players compared to major league teams (and, perhaps, fewer African-American players). I haven’t done any analysis of the rosters of such teams to try to ascertain racial and/or ethnic composition, but this makes intuitive sense.

Not sure how all of this relates to television & media, at least not directly. But it’s interesting stuff.

Victoria E. Johnson's picture

Doug, This won't be as

Doug, This won’t be as well-thought-out as your entries, above! But, I wanted to thank you for bringing in Zirin’s work—I did not know of it and it’s a particuarly interesting moment for such issues considering the World Baseball Series (forgive me if I got the name wrong!), as well? And, I think all of this relates to television and media in the sense that sport is probably the most visible, inherently multi-mediated everyday site of the intersection of issues of place-identity with questions of race, labor, et al. raised above.

Doug Battema's picture

Hey Vicky, I definitely

Hey Vicky,

I definitely agree about the extraordinary visibility of race, labor, and gender in sport, and the way in which television & media invite us to build collective and individual identities around those representations. I had been thinking mostly about the smaller, community-based semi-pro or amateur teams — most of which don’t have lots of, if any, television and media exposure and thus fly beneath the proverbial cultural radar. Many don’t even have broadcast media exposure of any sort, but instead rely on local newspaper coverage, podcasts and YouTube clips to reach potential fan. But then the whole point of cultural studies, in my opinion, is to root out those kinds of things that escape broad attention.

Also, here’s the link to Zirin’s site: http://www.edgeofsports.com/index.html — he regularly discusses issues of race, labor, and culture in sport. Enjoy!

Doug Battema's picture

Missed this in the first

Missed this in the first reply - do you mean the World Baseball Classic (which MLB inaugurated in ‘06 as a quadrennial Olympic-style event)? If so, the word “classic” is really telling — MLB was trying to evoke both a sense of timelessness and nostalgia for a time when ballplayers played for pride and love of the game rather than money. And to tie back in to Allison’s question about authenticity, I think a lot of fans wound up ambivalent about the event because it seemed forced and insincere — a sort of soulless, distanced product created for marketing purposes and lacking an authentic human touch.

Great comments on what is a

Great comments on what is a fascinating week of posts. This may be somewhat anecdotal but the discussion of the use of minor league sports as a means of facilitating tourism has be thinking of the ironies associated with the minor league team in my former hometown of Youngstown, OH. Its not clear if the double meaning of the Mahoning Valley Scrappers was intended, but as a team that plays not in the city limits of a city that considered itself Steeltown USA but rather across the parking lot from a suburban mall - in Cafaro field named for the builders of said mall there is room for ambiguity to say the least. Both in discourse and practice, the team seems to have repudiated the goals of using sports for urban revitalization in favor of remaining outside the now largely African-American central city in favor of the relatively sanitized suburban space. Still, as the deindustrialization that has historically been linked to urban areas spreads to postwar suburbs and regional economies it raises new questions about how issues of history, identity, and economics will play out.

Jeffrey P. Jones's picture

At this late stage in the

At this late stage in the conversation, my thoughts here might seem a bit off the wall. But, I guess the thing that stands out most for me is the bad rock music (and cheezy lyrics) that seems de rigueur for these types of promotional spots. It also signals social class. As a former working musician for many a year, it is hard to underestimate the ability of bad renditions of music to signal a “let’s get down and party” tone to whatever setting—which to me, is best signified here by the shot of the crowd behind the backstop (with sloshing beers in hand and jukin booties). Here’s a test—put a different, even more professional sounding soundtrack to that clip and tell me what you think. THIS soundtrack signals more than just hometown fun. It signals redneck, down-and-dirty, local fun (and yes, rednecks live everywhere—said the Alabamian :-) It even incorporates the kids! Rock on, Mallards!

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