While it appears that we’re on the cusp of easing some pandemic restrictions, I imagine that most folks will still have plenty of time to pass in relative isolation. My suggestion: put down the phones and read Eric Nusbaum’s Stealing Home and Asher Price’s Earl Campbell:Yards After Contact. I won’t bury the lede: these are the two best books on sport history I’ve read in recent memory.
Like the best books about sports, they are about so much more; like the very best books about sports, they deliver the so much more without being patronizing or insistent, the stories speak for themselves. Both authors are journalists by trade, but they ably embrace the historians craft. Those of us who do “academic sport history” for a living are sure to be jealous, but I don’t hold that against them. Nusbaum explores the pre-history of Dodger Stadium, a saga that intertwines the Mexican-American immigrant experience, mid-century housing policy, and the Red Scare, amongst many other things. Price’s book is technically a biography of the legendary running back, but is as much the story of both the state and University of Texas coming to terms with their past and future in 1970s.
My parents came to LA from Turkey at the end of 1979. Within a year, the Dodgers had called up a young Fernando Valenzuela. Come 1981 Fernandomania was in full effect. I was born not too long after and don’t remember a time where I wasn’t a Dodgers fan. My dad wasn’t much of a baseball guy, but was a fixture in the bleachers for my decade of little league. He spoke lovingly of Valenzuela and often sang a couple bars of—what I think—is this song or maybe it was this one. Years later, I had crafted a fanciful narrative: these two young immigrants, each plugging away at their American Dream in the City of Angels. I felt connected to Fernando, despite really only catching the tale end of his career. I was sure that I played baseball in part because of a connection my old man had felt to the Mexican screwballer. Sometime in my late 20s, it occurred to me that I could actually ask him about this. “Did you put me in little league because of the impact Ferando had on your life?” “I don’t think so, you just put 5 year olds in little league.” Welp. So much for that one.
Growing up in post-Fernando LA, the Chicano-Dodgers connection was one that felt natural, essential. The Dodgers were of the city, as was the Mexican community. It wasn’t till high school that I encountered the complicated history of Dodger Stadium, of the forced relocations of multi-generational families from what we lovingly call Chavez Ravine that are central to Nusbaum’s book. It wasn’t till then that I found out about the pain many still associated with the site; I was shocked when some friends shared that older family members would leave the room if a Dodger broadcast came on. Nusbaum isn’t the first to tackle this legacy, but most treatments begin too late, focusing on the build-up to the Dodgers’ arrival in 1959. But there’s so much more to the story, dating back decades to the rise of the neighborhoods that comprised what was then known as Palo Verde, and the earliest displacements in service of public housing projects that never came to be.
LA is, of course, a city that defies the designation. A pile of neighborhoods and districts that would be big cities in any other context, it offers more diversity than most countries. As a chronicler of this urban world, one of the things that Nusbaum does best is to capture how distinct communities exist unto themselves while remaining in tension with those that surround them, occasionally rupturing at the seams with effects big and small. He layers the history of a place in a character driven narrative, bringing together the lives of the eventually displaced Arechiga family, the crusading civil activist Frank Wilkinson, and Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley, amongst others. (When I close my eyes, I tend to see our lives lived on a vertical trajectory, with disruption occurring laterally as others enter our lane. I take no offense if this sounds silly or wrong to you, I can’t fully articulate it myself, it’s almost like some sort of existential synesthesia.) As I shared with with the author in an effusive email, this isn’t just a great Dodgers book , it’s a great LA book for the way he traces the inevitable fissures when worlds and lives collide. I consider it an essential read for anyone interested in the myriad intersections of sport, community, place, and municipal policy.
I’ve been in Austin for almost 12 years. Living my previous life amongst the coastal elite, I shared a fair amount of the presumptions outsiders have of Texas. I didn’t look down on the state, but like many, I folded it into a broader conception of “the south” and left it at that. This is what happens on the coasts: we got to “barbecue” joints with names like Johnny Reb’s or Big Mama’s that serve overpriced Arnold Palmers in mason jars and put Texas brisket, Memphis ribs, mustard greens, and red rice and beans on the same plate and pretend that there are actually places where these things coexist in nature. This does not prepare you well when a place in Lockhart has a no sauce policy or you’re in Raleigh trying to order pulled pork by liquid volume measure.
Nor does it prepare you to arrive in Texas and—heaven forbid— suggest to a Texan that you’re in the south. There’s a reason that the Lone Star Beer billboards unironically declare it the “national beer of Texas.” That the average Texan knows more about Sam Houston than most US Presidents. If you’re in line for international arrivals in Dallas or Houston, prepare to be exhausted by the number of people half-jokingly declaring Texan as their citizenship. Texas is Texas.
For all that is great in Price’s treatment of Campbell and Texas (and it’s all great), I found myself most fascinated by the fact that this hardcore Texas is Texas worldview is in some ways a more recent phenomenon than it may seem at first glance. (Any multi-generational Texan reading this likely disagrees with me, and yes, there has always been a Lone Star spirit, the six flags over Texas, the freedom, the endless sky, the chicken fried steak, the superior bean-free chili, the disgusting queso, ZZ Top and all that. I concede this and I embrace it, even the queso and its gastric torment.) But, back to Price. He tells a story about a state clinging to/grappling with an essentially post-Confederate, mostly-southern identity well into the post-WWII era. For broad swathes of the state’s population, the struggle was very real. The scars run deep, the race relations central. My beloved UT, where—as the Texans say—I “took” two graduate degrees before becoming a faculty member, has a lot to reckon with. Price’s archival work is stellar, revealing an institution often intent on manufacturing structural barriers to limit and prevent black enrollment; the University leadership figured that adopting the SAT was one tactic toward this end. Thankfully, some things change. Today, diversity is a core value of the University, programs abound on campus to support marginalized students in pursuit of opportunities that were once unavailable to people like them. This is a very good thing.
The country Texan, good ‘ol boy as a purely white archetype is another coastal assumption that quickly gets tossed once you arrive in Texas. You meet kids of Indian or Chinese descent who talk like Waylon Jennings, African-Americans who grew up on horse farms and spend their down-time bowhunting. Most of my students seem to enjoy a bit of country alongside hip-hop or vice-versa (but never the grotesque merger of the two). The legend of Earl Campbell fits squarely here, the humble country boy who never met a defender he couldn’t run over, whose on field prowess broke barriers and healed racial divides and united Texans of all colors. In Price’s work, we find this legend (like most legends) to be somewhat true, somewhat nostalgically massaged, but it is still a legend well-deserved. Campbell’s story is a fascinating one, the man himself arguably more interesting than legend. But alongside his coach, the equally larger-than-life-Texas-legend-such-a-big-deal-they-named-the-stadium-after-him, Darrell K. Royal, Campbell does emerge as an embodiment of the complex identity of the state, in part because he covered so much ground: first Tyler, then Austin, finally Houston. Price uses the locales to structure the book, creating a geo-chronological effect of sorts: you cover miles and years across Texas, all while Texas itself is evolving as well. (An aside on Royal: Price has received criticism from Royal’s friends and admirers for depicting the coach as an out of touch racist, but I just don’t see it in the text. Like the running back, the coach was a complicated figure who doesn’t fit neatly into a box.) There’s obviously much much more to the book and you really should just read the thing. Like Nusbaum, Price shares the ability to weave multiple threads into a cohesive and engaging narrative and I guarantee that even the hardcore fan has much to learn from the book.
I write all of this in the midst of modern society’s longest ever detachment from sports. Whether we like to our not, we’ve all been forced to reflect on what matters. For many of us sports matter, a lot. Sometimes embarrassingly so. To read these books is to engage in a similarly reflective exercise: how do we reconcile our fandom with histories that are often ugly? How do we tell our kids that sports are the great equalizer, the great unifier, when we know full well that they are just as often divisive and painful? To plug our ears and close our eyes to these stories is a disservice to all. To embrace and learn from them seems to be the right move. Happy reading.
- I hope you’ll consider buying these books from an independent bookstore. They could all use our support right now.
- Price also has another book of interest to sportsfolk, The Year of The Dunk, wherein he spends a year trying to slam a basketball, while also telling a great history of the exercise science and training knowledge one might use to achieve said dunk. He also writes other interesting stuff, you should look him up.
- Nusbaum also writes a lot of good stuff, including a newsletter called Sports Stories that has recently featured George Freeth and the History of the Zamboni. These are important things. Subscribe!
- If you were hoping I’d tell you more about the books and less about my theories of which direction existence travels, here’s a nice interview on Stealing Home with Nusbaum and here’s Jessica Luther’s review of Price’s book from the Texas Observer.