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.