Interview with Peter Benson and Noah Cohan: In this post, Pete and Noah discuss their collaborative examination of Metcalfe Park, the Delmar Divide, Little League baseball and the function of the St. Louis Cardinals as an “anti-politics machine” that obscures the region’s distinct racial inequities.
How did you choose your site? What intrigued you about that particular place?
Pete – Metcalfe Park is in my neighborhood in University City (“U. City”) and my son went to preschool across the street. When I found out there was a contentious, racially charged issue related to baseball there, and my son is about to enter the baseball league in U. City, I thought it would make a useful microcosm for thinking about bigger issues surrounding baseball in the region (the Webster Groves Little League did not want to play at Metcalfe Park).
Noah- I’ve played ball there, it’s a fine little park. I did not know if my work in sports studies was place-based enough to be part of the MWMS project, so I give credit to Pete for helping me see that my work does have a relationship to a sports-based site like the park, and that I have something to contribute to the larger project. I remember the controversy regarding the little league, but hadn’t considered studying it before Pete brought it to my attention.
What kinds of questions do you find yourself asking about the site, and how are those questions shaping your exploration of the place?
Pete – I think it is important to remember that our site is connected to many layers of other sites, so we have Metcalfe Park but it is a kind of springboard for thinking about the Cardinals baseball team. So a lot of the questions that I think about when I think about youth leagues are related to the general culture of baseball in the city. One particular question I have thought about is what if it were a soccer league game, a question Iver Bernstein asked me. Would the Webster Groves league have been so afraid of coming to U. City to play? I don’t know the answer to that. But I do try to think about the way the Cardinals structure a kind of broad culture of whiteness in St. Louis, and the way that a place like Metcalfe Park, spatially, culturally, and socially, seems to be excluded from what counts as “Cardinals” [or, baseball] in St. Louis.
Noah- The question of scale here is important, with the park as representative of the kind of discourse happening at the youth level up to the Cardinals, but also in the other direction, more broadly, the national question of baseball and race. Gerald Early has written about this: about why it is that African American participation in baseball has declined significantly in the last thirty years. In the 1980s at its peak it was close to 20% and now it is under 10%. But we need to be careful because there are many more people of color involved in baseball, but they are mostly from Latin America; they are not U.S. citizens. So the numbers of African Americans specifically has declined. The question of Americans and baseball, and African American participation in it, speaks to politics, sports, and race on all three levels – the microcosmic level of the park and the recent controversy, the regional level of the Cardinals and how they represent a kind of white normativity and normative cultural politics, and even nationally in how baseball is viewed as a game for white people, largely. So that is one of the strengths of thinking about the issues surrounding Metcalfe Park - you can scale the argument in relation to different community bases.
What challenges are you encountering with site-based study? What new questions or insights are emerging as you think about them?
Pete – I would like to do more ethnography, but I am just not sure what one would do. It is really just a scrubby little field so I don’t know what else you do but maybe sit there and meditate. I would also like to do more archival work, although there are likely challenges in getting these kinds of materials related to the park. It used to be a drainage facility. We would have to look back to the 1940s and 1950s and figure out why they transformed this drainage area into a park, and what this history has meant for its development.
Noah – I think the nondescript and underwhelming scale of the place presents challenges and raises new issues – it is just a tiny little park, it is not well kept up, it is not maintained meticulously, so it is really an innocuous space. It is not threatening, and it is not notable. So the racialization of this space appears to be completely imposed by St. Louis local cultural understanding of the “Delmar divide,” with the perceived threat of blackness and the notion that anything in this presumably black area must be threating. Because if you actually see the field, there is nothing there. What’s the big deal? There is nothing notable about the field! But maybe there is something to think about regarding the quality of the field at Metcalfe – its scruffy nature – in relation to youth sports culture. Today resources are poured into turf fields, athletes are specializing at younger and younger ages, and playing in ever-better facilities. So big money goes into youth sport, but Metcalfe Park definitely does not represent that trend, it is a baseball field as it used to be. This gets me thinking about cultural nostalgia – baseball, of all American sports, is the one most associated with a nostalgia which in most cases, unless you are talking about the Negro Leagues, is also tied to whiteness. So there is a way in which the field could be viewed through the lens of nostalgic Americana, but no one is doing this because of where it is.
Pete – There is an interesting tie-in with the Jack Buck field, located one-half mile west on Midland Ave. That is a field built by the Cardinals; it has really impressive ball fields, outfield fences, and I think a wooden scoreboard. I think it is where the U. City High School team plays. It has that nostalgic feel of old baseball even though it is in U. City and well north of the Delmar Loop/Delmar divide. I wonder if Webster Groves was slated to play there – it has a safer feel – and associated with the Cardinals - would they have been so concerned? It was funded by the Cardinals, it has a parking lot, it is not on the Loop, it is somewhat more bucolic, and the field is a diamond, unlike Metcalfe Park’s field design which is more circular. So there is a lot of complexity in studying Metcalfe and its relation to other sites. The Metcalfe link to the Loop is something of particular interest; it is north of Delmar but not far from the Loop. The way that the people from Webster seemed to view the Loop has to do with the wildness they seem to perceive about the Loop. They associate it with wild young people walking around Delmar. There was a lot of discourse around crime rates when this Webster Groves – Metcalfe Park controversy was discussed online. Some used this as a justification for not playing at the park. But it was a decontextualized use of statistics; it fetishized crime reporting as totally accurate and legitimate.
How has collaboration played a part in your research process?
Pete – We bring different things to the table. I don’t know a lot about the Cardinals, so I was interested in asking Noah to participate. I do not know much about the history of baseball but for being a fan growing up, and Noah is the sports studies person on campus, so it works really well. I just had an emergent interest in this little scuffle at Metcalfe Park, and felt there was more tie in with the Cardinals. Some fear going to Metcalfe Park and some also don’t want to go downtown at night for a Cardinals game. There is a similar logic at work.
Noah- As I said earlier, I hadn’t thought of what I do as site-based, but Pete really helped me see the link between the park and the culture of sports, and I saw how I could connect some of my expertise to what Pete brings to it, so it has worked really well. I remember both the conflict with the Cardinals fans and the Mike Brown protestors at the stadium, and the Webster Groves – Metcalfe Park controversy. I associated both things with a brand of whiteness, but I had not thought to relate them in any substantive way. Now that we have, these incidents seem inextricable in lots of complex ways that are ripe for exploration. I think what we have produced for the symposium is just the tip of the iceberg.
Pete – Going back to challenges. I deal with a lot of big time Cardinals fans in my social network, and I find that is challenging to engage around that. That for me is challenging, and this research is putting me at odds with fellow St. Louis region residents.
How do you plan to incorporate visual content into the publication? What new insights or questions come up when you think about the visuality of your subject?
Pete - Maybe we can reproduce the images of the Black Lives Matter protest that happened outside Busch Stadium, the ones you were talking about, Noah.
Noah – In particular, if we could get the image of the white male Cardinals fan with “I am Darren Wilson” taped to the back of his jersey with protesters standing next to him, it would speak to a lot of themes we are getting at and it would be an evocative image to include. Maybe also one of Mike Brown in his Cardinals hat if we can find one. What the Cardinals represent does not change the fact that a sports team is a kind of avatar for investment in particular themes that can be geographic, regional, political – Mike Brown was killed wearing a Cardinals cap, so it is a ripe symbol for the tangle of race and regional politics.
How do you see your research going beyond an academic contribution?
Noah – There is a larger cultural conversation to be had in St. Louis about this. Any sports-oriented academic project has that potential but especially this one given recent racially-charged events around the St. Louis region. I do not think it would be a popular conversation, and it likely would receive a lot of critical attention from sports media and fans. But I do think if we can find an appropriate way to talk about these things in the public sphere that would be an interesting exercise.
Pete - Maybe we could have a panel forum. We can work with AMCS to help get the word out and foster broader conversation on the subject.