I’m waiting on a package. It’s somewhere between here and Seattle, and it contains a trove of loss and defeat: three ball caps from minor league baseball teams that no longer exist. This is a thing I do. It’s one of my favorite things, actually.
Relocated, renamed, contracted, defunct. The history of professional sports is littered with teams that failed, moved, or slipped quietly away. And I love them. The St. Louis Browns (American League, 1902–1953). The Indianapolis Hoosiers (Federal League, 1914). The Hamilton Red Wings (PONY League, 1939–1956).The package making its slow, meandering way toward me contains the bright red cap of the Habana Leones who last played in the Cuban League in 1961, the black cap and orange O of the Ottawa Giants who existed only for the 1951 International League baseball season, and the kelly green cap with a gold H of the Hawaii Islanders who made a go of it in the Pacifc Coast League from 1961–1987.These teams—the knowledge of them, the evidence they left behind, and replica merchandise featuring their logos—fascinate and excite me. The obvious question is why?
Authenticity is a thing we may move toward but never touch; if it’s to be found at all, it approaches us. But make no mistake, in buying these caps and memorizing the names of players and owners and stadiums from 20 years ago or better I’m attempting to will myself toward something authentic.
Two lost teams conspired to stoke my interest as a kid: the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Seattle Pilots. The Dodgers you know—they moved to LA and everything was swell except the borough of Brooklyn never forgave Walter O’Malley and didn’t get a pro sports team again until the NBA’s Nets forsook New Jersey in 2012. The Dodgers’ Brooklyn years exist now as a fondly regarded ancestral history for a team that is unmistakably Californian. The Pilots are a bit more obscure. Seattle, longtime home of the minor league Rainiers (Pacifc Coast League, 1919–1968), was awarded an American League expansion team for the ’69 season. The Pilots, as they were named, played in the Rainiers’ old park, a supposedly temporary measure until a larger domed stadium could be built. But the team quickly slid into bankruptcy and a Milwaukee used car salesman named Selig snapped them up. By Opening Day 1970 they’d moved to a different state and been rechristened the Brewers. Twenty years later I stumbled on this lurid bit of history in a book of baseball trivia, on the last page of which was a photo of a skeleton wearing a Pilots hat with the caption: “Seattle Pilots, 1969–1969.” That discovery created in me a great desire to know the names and fates of all lost baseball teams, a desire I have yet to satisfy, though Lord knows I have tried.
I’ve always been interested in history, so that plays a role, but this desire to know baseball’s past isn’t academic; it’s a deep and furious nostalgia, albeit of a misplaced, borrowed, or adopted sort. The word nostalgia is concocted from the Greek nostos, meaning homecoming, and algos, for pain. The ache of going, or wanting to go, home. This condition of mine is a curious variant because nothing about my home or my past has anything remotely to do with Sick’s Stadium in Seattle or Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. What we’re dealing with here is the longing for a feeling we’ve glimpsed or known before, a pastoral contentment wrapped up in a sense of community, as well as that slippery notion of authenticity—the desire for something real and honest and unstaged, unsullied by irony or commerce.
This feeling, this misplaced nostalgia, is a thing we’re collectively suffering a terrific bout of—not just a desire to know about the past but to actually live it. In the midst of this postmodern malaise we don’t just want to watch Mad Men and appreciate its fidelity to the time period in which it’s set; we want to drink old fashioneds and dress like Don Draper. It’s pandemic, really, and aspects of this widespread feeling are easily linked to contemporary urbanism, with its love of antiquated things, ironic display, and unprofitable small-scale industry (craft beer, moustache wax, suspenders, fixed-gear bicycles, etc.). It’s a response, you might argue, to the uncertainty of our times, the perceived soullessness and homogeneity of modern life. Whatever the cause, I’m particularly prone.
So my backward-looking form of self-expression is to drape myself in the uniforms of dead baseball teams, and though I’d like to claim otherwise it is doubtless tinged by the snobbishness widely associated with pointedly arcane pursuits. I like knowing this stuff in large part because a lot of people don’t know about it. It’s another way to define and differentiate myself (“Oh, you like baseball? Yeah, your hat is cool, but ever heard of the Cienfuegos Elefantes?”). Mostly, though, it’s an innocent love taken to an extreme. Those early discoveries of the Dodgers and Pilots, combined with my own experience of loss—the Montreal Expos, the Ottawa Lynx (International League, 1993–2007)—sent me running into the loving arms of Ebbets Field Flannels, makers of those caps I’m awaiting. The folks at Ebbets—and forgive me if this sounds like an ad but I’m boundlessly enthusiastic about their products—lovingly design and make gorgeous, high-quality reproductions of caps, jerseys, and jackets of long-gone teams in the minor and Negro leagues. Their continued success points to the existence of plenty of people similarly afflicted with my particular strain of nostalgia. Ditto Philadelphia’s Mitchell & Ness, a “Nostalgia Co.” that has thrived since they transitioned from supplying actual uniforms to recreating the logos and uniforms of yesteryear. Even the big guys have gotten in on the action with the explosion of major league teams wearing throwback uniforms on the field.
It isn’t possible, of course, to actually root for a team that no longer exists. But the celebration of dead teams seems to me nevertheless consistent with the celebration of sport in general. Sports lend themselves to nostalgia because of the oral tradition, their long histories, and the way we measure players’ performances against those who played decades ago. My grandmother used to tell me about her days of playing basketball on her high school team in the 1920s, and my father regaled me with tales of buying standing room only tickets at Maple Leaf Gardens.
The heart aches sweetly for things long lost and never to return. The caps, jerseys, and T-shirts are the ghostly evidence of things that existed: ballparks and the players who played in them, and the people who watched, who reveled communally in victory and suffered together in defeat. They’re elements of a past for which I long, pointlessly. The past is perfect because we can never go back there. It’s a safe precinct in which any disappointments have already been suffered and none will take us by surprise. The Pilots will always move to Milwaukee, the Islanders will always leave Hawaii, and the Dodgers are always bound for the West Coast. There is comfort to be found in the act of remembrance, in the notion of memory’s long reach, for if some still take the time to learn of the history of the Montreal Royals (Eastern League, 1897–1911; International League, 1912–1918, 1928–1960), or the New York Cubans (Negro National League, 1935–1936, 1939–1950), perhaps in a hundred years the world will still know something of us.
Excerpted with permission from The Utility of Boredom: Baseball Essays by Andrew Forbes. Copyright © 2016 by Andrew Forbes. Published by Invisible Publishing.