Comptes rendusReviews

Retro Ball Parks: Instant History, Baseball, and the New American City. By Daniel Rosensweig. (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2005. Pp. 214, ISBN 1-57233-351-0)[Record]

  • Neil White

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  • Neil White
    McMaster University
    Hamilton, Ontario

Daniel Rosensweig’s Retro Ball Parks analyzes the impact of Jacob’s Field — a “new old” baseball park that combines elements of rare “classic” parks like Boston’s Fenway and Chicago’s Wrigley Field — in downtown Cleveland’s revitalized Gateway tourist district, as well as the park’s meaning in twenty-first century American culture. Since 1990, an unequal alliance between Cleveland’s municipal government and the mercenary Indians franchise led local officials to pay for the construction of the new diamond, a professional basketball arena, related infrastructure, and employees’ wages to the tune of over $1 billion. Astronomical public subsidies helped “augment the profit of two sports clubs that… might be profitable without” them (13). Similar municipal-corporate alliances have occurred across the United States in the last two decades. The reconstitution of downtowns from commerce to tourism (xi) continues unabated, and, according to Rosensweig, Cleveland leads the pack in scale and depth of public subsidy and planning. Yet Retro Ball Parks is mainly a study of popular culture and socio-cultural theory, not economics or sports and leisure history. It focuses on the cultural, not the financial or political, significance of new old fields (11). To Rosensweig, retro parks offer wealthy residents and tourists vicarious, non-threatening encounters with the carnivalesque marginality of urban life through carefully commodified team histories, the exclusion of contemporary black and poor faces, and the parks’ location in former slums long avoided by the middle class. According to Rosensweig, the consumer’s experience at Jacob’s Field exemplifies atomized middle-class Americans’ longing to be a part of an authentic community and to establish psychic links to a past Golden Age. Rosensweig illustrates — often in original ways — how urban boosters succeed in reshaping downtown space but fail to solve the black/white, rich/poor, urban/suburban binaries of American society in local places. Cleveland’s Gateway actually reinforces those contradictions. The first three chapters set the big picture. Chapter one provides the recent history and a physical description of the parks while two and three chart the rise of baseball’s popularity in American society since the mid-nineteenth century. Rosensweig’s considerable knowledge of baseball history establishes the significance of the contemporary retro fad. He describes the ongoing struggle between moral reformers who saw baseball as a way to instill workers with middle-class values, and those, like St. Louis Browns’ owner Chris von der Ahe (78-79), who believed baseball was a carnival where the lower classes could indulge their baser instincts. In the late 1940s desegregation briefly reconciled the two strains; baseball became an established spectacle that all Americans could enjoy. Yet that momentary consensus collapsed because of white flight to the suburbs. Later multipurpose stadiums — ashtray shaped and set apart from their surroundings in seas of parking spaces — confirmed the gulf between city and suburb, spectator and owner, black and white. In the juxtaposition of elements from classic venues, argues Rosensweig, retro parks promise a new reconciliation while, more importantly, easing fans’ consumption of corporate product. The next three chapters elaborate upon the deeper cultural meaning of retro parks. Chapter four analyzes the experience of what Rosensweig identifies as true fans — bleacher bums or bleacher creatures — and the recent marketing of the cheap seats as the “hip” place to sit. Five explains how white America’s fear of black males’ presumed physical superiority has been sanitized and commodified at new old parks. Blacks are only visible in historical exhibits or on-field — in the acceptable capacity of performers — while poor resident blacks are excluded from tourist districts. Chapter six theorizes the broader cultural meaning of the previous chapters through an extended comparison to Don …