A friend of mine once described the allure of spectator sports as simply the allure of a story. A baseball season, for example, is a long, richly detailed narrative of triumphs and tragedies, both small and large. As fans watch game after game and track the fortunes of their favorite teams, they are pulled in by plot twists and speculate about probable developments.
And as with any story, the characters are absolutely crucial. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are the kings of their respective kingdoms, so every game between the Patriots and the Broncos is as much a tale of mano a mano as a battle between rival nations. The individual personalities of players, moreover, allow narratives making sense of their peculiarities to build up around them; Jackie Robinson as a pillar of strength and dignity, Pete Rose as a tragic addict, Dennis Rodman as a subversive eccentric.
And in turn, often the narratives of teams seem built around the center of gravity colorful personalities provide. Teams, as a whole, are “scrappy” or “seasoned” or full of “bad boys.” Indeed, one threat sabermetrics (or even just old-fashioned management decisions) poses to fans is the disruption of such narratives. For what happens when players who seem to constitute such an important part of the story fans tells themselves about their team get ruthlessly traded or decide to relocate? On a personal note, for example, I’m still coming to terms with imagining a San Francisco Giants team without Pablo Sandoval. How can we be reduced to having only one player nicknamed after a wild animal? It doesn’t seem the same.
But the loss of a player to another team is only one way the story of a sports team can be thrown off track. Every season, there are a million unpredictable contingencies – from injury to personal conflicts – that thwart the storyline any team is pursuing. Of course, then, questions about the relative importance of any given factor abound. How important is ownership or management to steering the ship, or can mega-stars like LeBron James or Clayton Kershaw exert enough agency to bring their teams championships solely through will and skill?
So in all these ways, the hook of sports is weirdly similar to the hook of history – two fields which, as has been much discussed at this blog, have traditionally been undeservedly segregated. In each, commentators bestowed with the status of experts compete to forward their version of the story, and both disciplines have their own internal rules and regulations for assessing and evaluating evidence that are, in turn, themselves constantly being contested. Above all, what is being worked out is a story – how do we account for what happened? Who are the primary characters here, and to whom (or what) do we assign primary or partial responsibility for the result?
Except for two crucial differences. First, a sports season always unfolds in the present, and relatively rather quickly. Sports commentators are constantly incorporating new information into their narratives and predictions – indeed, they might need to rework a story almost as soon as they’ve constructed it. It’s always been amusing to me watching this process unfold in the sports media – before a big game there’s generally a favorite for the win and various arguments are put forward as to why this must be so; and before very big games such teleologically loaded concepts such as destiny are even thrown around to sell the game to spectators by setting up their expectations as extravagantly as possible. If these predictions prove false, the immediate backpedaling and reassessment that occurs can sometimes become comical. The story must be rewritten all over again! It’s fascinating to watch the hopes of the sports media dashed by a less-than-compelling outcome; I am pretty sure, for example, that those responsible for selling the World Series would have preferred the underdog Kansas City Royals to complete their Cinderella story with a victory in the last at-bat in the last inning of the last game of the 2014 postseason. But at least they had the narrative of a dynasty to run with when the Giants won instead.
Historians, on the other hand, rarely have to handle a similar situation. First, huge numbers of us deal with events so far in the past there is no way our work could come to bear on a yet-to-be outcome; indeed we try to unravel cause and effect for nations and societies that no longer even exist. Moreover, we’re usually stuck with a limited amount of evidence – we will likely never get oodles of new data on, say, medieval China. Thus, in a way, many of us are protected by these circumstances from the danger of ever being proved wrong – who is currently regarded as coming the closest to being correct (or, that lovely euphemism we like to use for “true,” the work which is currently regarded as being the most “useful”) is dependent on the consensus of the community rather than results we can confirm.
However, even those of us who work on subjects closer to the present rarely get our feet held to the fire in this manner. It does, of course, occasionally happen – one can most definitely argue that the entire historiography of the Cold War had to be reconsidered in the years and decades following 1989. But even then, sometimes there almost seems to be a suspicion that if what one writes about the past bears immediately on the present, they are in some sense doing something other than history – many a time have I told both fellow historians and non-academics that I work on the 1960s to receive the smiling, only half-serious answer, “oh, so you don’t really do history then, do you?”
And then finally, there is the messiness. Figuring out what happened in history and why is so infinitely harder than figuring out why sports teams win championships. Alas, if knowing why the liberal stage of the civil rights movement was successful but then the radical stage stymied was only so simple as knowing why King James was able to win two back-to-back championships with the Heat but not three. Granted, if it were, we’d all likely be out of a job.
Nonetheless, when I think about why I love history, and why I love sports, it always surprises me how much I find in common: the thrill of a narrative, the attachment to various characters, and the mystery of result – it’s all there. And, being concerned with current events as I am, I suppose there is also something of the gambler in me – the excitement of taking a guess with a prediction that I have a shot of seeing proved wrong or right. By which I only refer, of course, to the question of whether or not the San Francisco Giants will continue to make the rest of the country cry.
 The number of games played, of course, impacts the pace and tone of the story of any sports season; in baseball, with over 160 games, there is time for a lot of commentary, speculation, and sub-plots to develop alongside the larger overarching narrative of looking always to October. In football, however, every game is a Big Game, every meeting an entire chapter rather than a little side development. In an entirely unrelated analogy, lately I’ve been listening to Jane Austen’s Emma on tape, and am amazed at how long and detail-rich it is, especially compared to the much more famous and succinct Pride and Prejudice. It amuses me, then, to think of baseball as the Emma of American spectator sports.