Sanitizing History

For the last few years, there has been a recurring news item in early January that sets my historical rage going. The repeated refusal of the Baseball Writers Association of America to elect Mark McGwire and others suspected of steroid use in the 1990s and early 2000s was bad enough. This year tipped me over the edge; the idea that neither Barry Bonds nor Roger Clemens deserve a place in the Hall of Fame is nothing short of preposterous. For better or worse, McGwire, Sosa, Clemens, and Bonds defined an era in which baseball regained its popularity after a self-destructive strike in 1994. For the hallowed halls of Cooperstown to pretend they never really existed is willfully sticking heads in the sand.

Of course, the sanitizing of history is not limited to the game of baseball. Every year, the NCAA comes down with ‘sanctions’ on college sports programs for a series of violations, whether academic, financial, or moral. Most typically, those programs are asked to ‘vacate’ their wins – doing nothing to actually award wins to the losers. And the sorry mess of the Lance Armstrong saga reflects a similar tale – those consulting the record books will simply be told that no-one won the Tour de France between 1999 and 2005, as if the race had never been run. At least the ‘vacation’ of title or a blank space in the annals encourages the casual observer to do some further reading on the circumstances. At root, though, it is a cop-out – if the record books don’t give us the nice morality tale that we’d like to see, we just press the delete button and hope that no-one comes to notice.

It strikes me that this desire to micromanage the public history of sports reflects the desire of many to micromanage the public memory of the founding era. Or, to put it another way, it is a version of the NAS call to ‘depoliticize history’ by ‘handing down the American story, as a whole, to future generations.’ A nice, simple morality tale, with heroes good and villains bad and nothing in between. (It’s best of all if the villains are British). A ‘don’t frighten the horses’ approach that simply rewrites the past to help us feel good about the glories of bygone societies.

This blog has already highlighted the ways in which popular history and academic history have taken divergent paths in recent years – well-read hagiographies of Founding Fathers on the one hand (often written by journalists or lawyers) and well-intentioned but little-known monographs and journal articles on the other. It seems to me that ‘Founders Chic’ and the sanitizing of sports history are part of exactly the same movement. A David McCullough or Jon Meachem biography serves largely the same purpose as cleansing the record books of undesirable characters – it provides us with the notion we live in a society in which good will triumph over evil.

(This is not to say I don’t think there is a place for popular biographies. For those completely uninitiated with the period, they can be very helpful introductions. I just don’t think they should be the beginning and end of the consideration of the past.)

Of course, the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown does not simply limit itself to being the Hall of Fame –  it styles itself the ‘National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’. A national baseball museum that fails to adequately confront the messy nature of the past, though, does its sport (and the pursuit of history) a grave disservice. All too often, recent American history museums fall into the same fallacy – take, for example, William Hogeland’s review of the National Constitution Center, or Katy Lasdow’s takedown of the Boston Tea Party museum. (I dare say, though, that Cooperstown manages to present its visitors with more than one historical artefact!) A serious approach to history should dictate that museums present a story with room for reflection and disagreement – not simply pandering to those desperate for the warm sepia tones of nostalgia.

Why should it surprise us that popular approaches to founding history tend toward the whitewashing of the past, when we find that the popular memory of much more recent phenomena also highlights simplistic tales of good or evil; defining people not as humans full of contradictions, but rather by which of their most glorious and most lamentable deeds stick strongest in the public memory. Barry Bonds can possess one of the smoothest swings in the history of baseball AND a drug-addled cheat. A college coach can care deeply about the welfare of his students while failing in moral responsibilities outside of the game of football. George Washington can be a visionary national leader and a protector of his political and material interests. To pretend otherwise ultimately infantilizes the public.

I prefer to hold history to a higher standard – one that helps inform us about the present by showing that the resolution of historical conflicts was necessarily messy, disputed, and uncertain. But if we are to hope to change the way founding history is viewed, we should probably look more closely at the culture around us.

4 comments on “Sanitizing History

  1. Alec Rogers says:

    Thanks Ken. I agree with much of what you write especially about college football (not to mention the mediocrity of some more popular books on the Founders).

    There IS a serious misunderstanding of how the Baseball Hall of Fame works, however, propagated by those such as ESPN’s Keith Law, who ought to know better but in his smug assurance cannot bother to check his facts.

    I agree that Bonds and Clemens should be “in” because their achievements would have easily merited admission regardless of their latter use of steroids. McGuire is a much more marginal case (a very one dimensional player without the use of steroids would have retired much earlier in his career a virtual unknown).

    Here’s the misunderstanding though: The National Baseball Hall of Fame AND MUSEUM (it’s full title) is really two entities in one location. There is a hall with the plaques of those inducted. It’s worth about 10 minutes to wander and take pictures of your favorite players’ plaques and that’s it. The Steroids guys may never get a plaque in here and for some, but not all (IMO), it’s a shame.

    BUT they ARE prominently displayed and their story told in the much more interesting 90% of the building, which is the museum itself. In the museum are more artifacts and exhibits covering every facet of the game including the Black Sox, Pete Rose and Steroids use. There is no whitewashing here. Admission of players to “the Hall” and how the museum portrays the game’s history are two different things all together.

    There are arguments to be made that we should just ignore steroids use when voting on Hall admission, but the historical white washing issue I’ve seen several people make now isn’t one of them.

  2. Ken Owen says:

    Alec, I will readily admit to deliberately blurring the line between the Hall of Fame and the Museum for effective rhetorical purposes. I should also say that I am well aware of the good work that the BBHOF has done in terms of promoting smart and revealing research on baseball history. Not least for the excellent set of works that have been done on Negro League history.

    But the BBHOF is a strange museum in that its most prominent ‘curatorial’ work comes from its position within national (some would say international) sports culture; who it chooses to induct or not induct to the Hall of Fame therefore does matter as one of its ‘exhibits’, as it is critically important in framing the way that people think about baseball history.

    That’s actually why I deliberately drew the comparison with the National Constitution Center – that starts with a live performance extolling the virtues of the constitution, and sanitizing the muddied history of the Constitution to quite a remarkable extent. In the same way, so the election or non-election of certain players to the Hall of Fame shapes the narrative of how people think about baseball history first and foremost. I think for an institution with its prominence and curatorial mission, the Hall of Fame could do better.

    As a sidenote – the voting also shows the dangers of muddled historical thinking. If the steroids guys shouldn’t get in, then what about the guys who aren’t so closely identified with steroid use? If everyone was juicing, then keeping people out makes little sense; if some people were, then the voters really should be looking to vote in the second tier of players. Again, there would be useful parallels to this within early American history – the complicated figures like John Dickinson don’t get the attention they deserve. (Yes, I did just essentially argue John Dickinson is the Fred McGriff of the American Revolution).

    • Alec Rogers says:

      Thanks Ken – we certainly share some common ground if we’re analogizing baseball players to Founders.

      Election to the Hall is an honor to some degree (not that everyone within the HOF is strictly speaking honorable of course). No one is entitled to get in merely because they did certain things on the ball field. The debate over election to the Hall is the debate over the steroid era generally. Like gambling, steroids nearly ruined the game. I agree that if virtually everyone was on steroids, it makes little sense to differentiate. I don’t believe that was the case, though. I really hate to see guys like Bagwell and Piazza get tagged because they happened to be big guys during the steroid era without a shred of other evidence.

      In short, no one will forget McGwire should he never be inducted. It would be a different debate all together, however, if baseball were to expunge his home run records, or Bonds’, declaring that Roger Maris was still the official holder of the single season home run record or Aaron the all time HR king (both of which I unofficially believe).

  3. Paul says:

    Thanks for the interesting post Ken.
    I don’t see how keeping certain players out sanitizes history, I should add that I don’t particularly care whether they induct them or not even though i have long been a baseball fan. Keeping them out is part of history, the debate is part of history, should they be voted in as service to history or posterity? Doesn’t this reflect the sensibilities of the present culture and doesn’t that carry with it as much significance? Aren’t you, in a sense, trying to manipulate history according to your sensibilities?

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