"Social Political Economic", African American History, De-industrialization, Declining Cities, Economic Inequality, Gentrification, High School Social Studies Teaching Formula, Higher Education, History, History of American Sports, History of Education, Immigration, Industrialization, Migration, social mobility, Suburbanization, Teaching History, The -tions, Urbanization, US History, World History
Off and on for the past twenty years, I’ve attempted to wean my students off the ridiculous high school social studies formula for addressing an essay question or writing a history paper. Thinking about history — particularly modern world history or US history — purely in social, political and economic terms misses so much. History is about patterns, trends and dynamic processes involving people and human tendencies. So in my discussion sections for US History Since 1877 in the fall of ’92, I began to discuss the idea that you can better understand history through applying what I started to call “the -tions” as a series of trends, processes and patterns.
I did this because I’d already grown tired of students who had adopted “the formula.” The formula goes something like this. First, write an introduction (usually, without mention of the need for a clear thesis statement). Then, put facts, events, ideas and evidence in the social, political and economic changes silos (it always has to be these three). Then, write a conclusion that restates the introduction, with a “my essay/paper has proven” sentence.
It’s a terrible way to teach history, and a terrible way to write about it. It leaves so much out, including the idea that history is a constantly evolving process, not a static picture of events involving larger-than-life individuals herding billions of people through one period of history or another. So I decided to make immigration, industrialization, urbanization, and migration (sometimes called internal migration) a bigger focus with my students my second year of graduate school at Pitt. Some liked it, some didn’t, and some just kept writing their formulaic five-paragraph essays for their midterm and final exams. Oh well.
So, in expanding my list of -tions to include de-industrialization, suburbanization, globalization and gentrification over the years, I’ve begun to see patterns beyond what I typically teach or even write about. The rise and decline of American cities are a case in point. Especially if one compares this to the rise and decline of mainstream American team sports over time. That baseball, football and basketball have all been the nation’s first or second most popular sports at one point or another since the 1890s is a reflection of the leisure activities available to ordinary Americans living in growing or declining cities.
Of course, I could also include boxing (as this was America’s most popular sport through the first four decades of the twentieth century). But as an individual sport wrought with even more racial overtones than baseball, boxing deserves a separate discussion. For team sports, though, their rise or decline in popularity seems to have followed a number of trends related to the -tions.
Baseball was the nation’s most popular team sport from the 1890s through the 1950s, mirroring the growth of American cities (urbanization) during the same period. Immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe helped grow these cities, as they left behind rural poverty, religious persecution and pogroms for industrial exploitation here in the US. Native-born Whites, already enamored with baseball, essentially introduced these immigrant groups to the sport, which in turn made it more popular. Of course, many sons of these immigrants became great baseball players. Blacks migrating to cities such as New York, Pittsburgh, Kansas City and Chicago also adopted the pastime. Every -tion is involved, at least, that’s my argument.
As we well know, though, baseball has declined in popularity since the 1950s, as the professional game became an integrated sport, and as millions of Whites began moving to the suburbs, taking millions of jobs with them. Blacks underwent a second massive wave of migration after 1940 that grew during the 1950s and 1960s.
During this transition, basketball and football (especially the latter) became more popular sports. Both were sports whose history and records were less revered than those in baseball, and at least appeared to be more welcoming of athletes of color than baseball. In the migration of Whites from cities to suburbs and Blacks to cities, the shuffling of team sports’ popularity and their locations began.
Once the US economy began to decline, and then de-industrialize, in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990, the role of declining cities attempting to hold on to their sports franchises became a new theme. Declining post-industrial cities like Baltimore, Detroit and Cleveland lost their teams entirely to other cities, or lost them to the suburbs. While Sunbelt cities like Dallas-Fort Worth, Atlanta, Phoenix, Denver and Houston have picked up some of these pieces.
Gentrification, backed by a politically conservative model for economic growth and nary a concern for the declining income of city residents, has led to a return of professional sports teams to city centers. Billions of taxpayer dollars have gone into sports arenas and stadiums in Washington, DC, Brooklyn, Seattle, Detroit, Boston, San Jose, and so many other places across the country. But with little to no benefit for the people living in these cities, especially the poor. As a result of the inflation that came with gentrification and these commercial building ventures, millions of America’s poor have been forced to move out into poorer suburban communities that often border major cities.
Maybe it’s just me. I just don’t find much to celebrate about the business side of sports today, because it reflects the trends of growing economic inequality and much more difficult social mobility. It shows how desperate the mayors of declining cities are for growing their municipalities, without regard for its poor and working-class residents. It’s emblematic of our culture’s inability to see that the shift from industrial work to service industry work has left millions without the ability to live decent lives in city or suburb, whether they migrate to Houston or stay in New York. Sports is a reflection of these trends, but they also exacerbate them as well.