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Rhetoric Reshapes Community

The poet Donald Hall wrote that “baseball is a place where memory gathers,” and that place, Professor of Rhetoric Todd McDorman believes, is shaped and re-shaped by the way we write about, talk about, and represent it visually. In the 34th Annual LaFollette Lecture in Salter Hall Thursday, he offered a convincing argument that the study of this rhetoric of baseball offers insights into the ways we shape and re-shape the memories of our own communities.

McDorman’s lecture was the first of many events marking the inauguration of Greg Hess as the 16th President of Wabash College, and LaFollette Professor of the Humanities Dwight Watson began the afternoon’s program with a rhetorical moment of his own, turning to President Hess and saying, “May your days be filled with purpose, good fortune, and goodwill.” The audience offered it own good wishes with applause.

McDorman is the first professor from the Department of Rhetoric to be invited to deliver the College’s most prestigious lecture. The former McLain-McTurnan-Arnold Research Scholar has twice presented his work on rhetoric and baseball at the annual Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture. His study of Pete Rose’s attempt to rehabilitate his reputation was published in Case Studies in Sport Communication in 2003. He also teaches a freshman tutorial on Baseball and American Identity.

He told his Salter Hall audience that baseball and the study of rhetoric became intertwined his own life after a sixth-grade media fair project.

“When I was eight, my father and I began listening to Cincinnati Reds games, and we began collecting baseball cards,” McDorman recalled. (His first card was of Pete Rose). “Baseball transported me into a different world, and I began devouring information about it, both its numbers and its stories. I spent hours compiling baseball statistics. I developed a system for evaluating players and my own baseball universe.  It was a rich, if imaginary, world.”

Made with his mother’s assistance, McDorman’s grade school media fair project was a slideshow on baseball cards, complete with narration on cassette tape.

“I didn’t realize the meaning of what I was doing until I was in graduate school.  Studying speeches, legal decisions, and newspapers from the 19th century replaced analyzing lines of statistics on the back of cards—it was my first exploration into the values and ideals of American culture as seen through baseball.”

On Thursday, McDorman’s exploration focused on the One for the Books exhibit at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. The popular attraction displays articles, photos, video, and artifacts connected with the most honored records in Major League Baseball, claiming to provide “the stories behind the records.”

But one can’t talk about modern records held by players like Barry Bonds and Mark McGuire without talking performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs).

“In this exhibit the story of baseball records has been rhetorically (re)constructed to explain PEDs in the context of the sport’s larger history,” McDorman said. “Public memory is redefined, cultivating a particular collective memory of the steroids era, a shared understanding by the community comprised of baseball fans that allows for a re-arrangement of baseball records and their meaning.

In fact, McDorman said, “a perceived crisis over PEDs created conditions that called forth the idea of the exhibit.

“If we mark time with baseball’s greatest numbers, what happens if those numbers are perceived as compromised?  The popular feeling has been that if the numbers are ‘tainted, so is the game and our memory of it. Thus changes in the record books achieved in an era of PEDs, including new marks for single-season and lifetime home runs, present difficult challenges. It is to these challenges that “One for the Books” can be read as offering a preliminary response.”

That response may be most obvious in the order in which the records are presented in the exhibit, McDorman said.

“Home runs made baseball popular in Ruth’s time and redeemed it in Mark McGwire’s, but the exhibit doesn’t start with home runs, because they are not only baseball’s most recognized achievement, but also the symbol for the prevalence of PEDs.”

Instead, a visitor see 10 cases documenting “cleaner” records that don’t involve PEDs before reaching the home run display.

The issue of PEDS is addressed directly in One for the Books by a placard that reads: “In documenting baseball history, the use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) cannot be ignored, although a complete list of players who have used banned substances throughout time may never be known.

“In this museum you will find artifacts, images and stories of players who have either admitted to or have been suspected of using banned substances. Even though you will not always find specific references to this issue, this museum is committed to telling the story of PEDs within the game’s historical context.”

The design of One for the Books controls that historical context, not only through words and images, but also in the way display cases are arranged in relation to one another. For example, McDorman said, “Barry Bonds is recognized as the record holder, but his display is such that it undercuts the legitimacy and significance of his accomplishment, distancing him from the baseball community.

“Hank Aaron, the career home run leader prior to Bonds and likely baseball’s most revered living player, has been honored at the Hall of Fame with his own individual exhibit, and that exhibit physically intersects with One for the Books so that the Bonds artifacts are next to a display case featuring Aaron’s uniform from when he set the career home run record in 1974.

“Aaron’s jersey is positioned so as to have its back turned on Bonds and literally looms over the Bonds display in a manner that signifies the superiority of Aaron and his home run total! Aaron’s accomplishment is celebrated while Bonds’ is questioned, making it clear which record we are to embrace.”

McDorman said One for the Books demonstrates “how rhetoric is used to reformulate public memory in the hopes of renewing and protecting a community. That baseball, as historian Spatz says, is “a game built to be explained by numbers” is why One for the Books is important to the identity of the sport: It helps to explain how we might understand what its numbers represent."

McDorman added that while his interpretation of One for the Books “largely endorsed” the exhibit’s approach, “there are reasons to question the use of division and victim age, techniques that explain and protect through their isolation and blaming of select individuals and records as being the source of baseball’s short comings. 

“Such a construction comes with its own costs, and risks a form of myopia not so different from the one that caused PEDs to be ignored in the first place.”

McDorman said decisions like those made in the design of an exhibit like One for the Books constitute our community and disclose what we value. How we speak about these concerns, the quality of those deliberations, and the compassion of our discussions help determine the character of our community.”

“What we say and do defines and impacts our community; our rhetoric matters.

“I urge you to remember what rhetoric and rhetorical criticism can do,” McDorman concluded. “They are central to the development and analysis of messages, provide a means to consider their implications and values, and contribute to the larger domain of humanistic studies, be they about public memories of the community that comprises baseball or the rhetoric and memory that make, remake, and celebrate of our own treasured Wabash community.”