“Blue Collar” as a Sports Marketing Gimmick

blue collarIn a just-released Episode 62 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast, I reminisce with our founding producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling about the time we may have offended ESPN’s Paul Lukas, a historian of sports uniforms and founder of Uni-Watch.  Listen to our interview with Lukas in Episode 7.

Lukas has a great piece at The New Republic on the way sports teams use the label “blue-collar” as an “attitude, a lifestyle, a brand, a hashtag.”  Here is a taste:

Earlier this month, the New York Giants held a press conference to introduce their new head coach, Joe Judge. In between the usual football clichés about how the Giants will “play aggressive” and have a “physical attitude” under his leadership, Judge dipped his toe into the pool of class consciousness. “I want this team to reflect this area. That is blue-collar. It’s hard work,” he said. “We’re gonna come to work every day and grind it out the way they do in their jobs every day.” That same day, Mississippi State University announced that it had hired Mike Leach as its new head football coach. The school’s athletic director, John Cohen, issued a statement praising Leach for, among other things, his “blue-collar approach” to football.

These were just the latest examples of a phenomenon that the sports world shares with politics: a strong desire to be associated with the working class, often in ways that strain logic and credulity.

The sports world’s blue-collar roots are real enough. The Green Bay Packers got their name from a meatpacking company that originally sponsored the team. The Detroit Pistons got theirs because their first owner ran a piston foundry. The Pittsburgh Steelers’ logo is based on the “Steelmark” originally used by U.S. Steel. And before the days of multimillion-dollar contracts, pro athletes routinely worked regular jobs during the off-season—often in blue-collar trades—to make ends meet.

Those days are long gone, but that hasn’t stopped teams from trying to establish their working-class bona fides. While the trope isn’t new, it has become unavoidable in recent years, especially in the realm of team marketing and branding.

Read the rest here.

Indeed, this idea of playing sports in a “blue-collar” fashion has been around for a long time.  This phrase seems to be always associated with a team that makes up for its lack of talent with a heavy dose of grit, determination, and hard work.

My public high school lacrosse coach often described our team as “blue collar” as a way of motivating us whenever we played an expensive prep school.  Football teams that run the ball (“3 yards and a cloud of dust”) are often described as playing “old school” or “blue-collar” ball. (Are the 2020 San Fransisco 49ers a blue collar team?).  In basketball, athletes committed to playing defense, rebounding, and diving for loose balls in the open court are often called “blue collar.” Blue collar baseball players–like Pete Rose–are known for their “hustle” on the base-paths and hear-first dives.  Some have made the case that ice-hockey is a blue-collar sport.

I’ll close this post by linking to an article in The Guardian announcing that “every single US sports team is blue collar.”

“An Indefensible Hope”

Shea

Drew Dyrli Hermeling and I just recorded Episode 7 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home podcast.  It is our baseball episode and it will go public on Sunday.  Our guest is ESPN’s Paul Lukas, an expert on the history of baseball uniforms.  Stay tuned. Better yet, head over to the podcast page and download a few episodes.  Even better yet, tell your friends to download a few episodes.

As the baseball season gets underway this week, I have been trying to catch up on the work of sportswriters and commentators who usually use the first week of April to reflect on the meaning of baseball to American life.  So far that best thing I have read comes from Chris Gerhz at his blog, The Pietist Schoolman.  Here is a taste of “Opening Day: ‘An Indefensible Hope.’“:

For my Twins and most other major league teams, today is Opening Day: the time each year when I’m reminded again that I love baseball far above every other sport — and that it’s hard to explain that love to non-fans. For example, the fact that baseball could inspire a writer as acclaimed as John Updike to do some of his best work speaks volumes about the National Pastime: why I love it, and why others roll their eyes at people like me.

Consider Updike’s 1960 New Yorker essay on Ted Williams’ last game (“Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu“). Within three sentences, Updike has already described Fenway Park as “a compromise between Man’s Euclidean determinations and Nature’s beguiling irregularities.” And he’s exactly right to do so… But that’s just the first classical reference in an essay that goes on to liken Williams to Jason, Achilles, and Nestor.

And to compare him to works by both Donatello and Leonardo.

And to use “Wordsworthian” as an adjective. And to record a joke about Thomas Aquinas.

As you may have heard, baseball is “the thinking man’s game.”

But even if you find such allusions pretentious, stick with Updike’s essay. You’ll eventually come to his riveting account of the 41-year old Williams stepping into the batter’s box in the 8th inning of an otherwise meaningless game:

This was almost certainly his last time to come to the plate in Fenway Park, and instead of merely cheering, as we had at his three previous appearances, we stood, all of us—stood and applauded. Have you ever heard applause in a ballpark? Just applause—no calling, no whistling, just an ocean of handclaps, minute after minute, burst after burst, crowding and running together in continuous succession like the pushes of surf at the edge of the sand. It was a sombre and considered tumult. There was not a boo in it. It seemed to renew itself out of a shifting set of memories as the kid, the Marine, the veteran of feuds and failures and injuries, the friend of children, and the enduring old pro evolved down the bright tunnel of twenty-one summers toward this moment. At last, the umpire signalled for Fisher to pitch; with the other players, he had been frozen in position. Only Williams had moved during the ovation, switching his hat impatiently, ignoring everything except his cherished task. Fisher wound up, and the applause sank into a hush.

As a historian, I appreciate how Updike has all those memories of the past (each hearkening back to earlier sections of the essay) converging in a single moment. That’s a big part of baseball’s appeal for me: everything that happens adds a layer to the archeology of a game that would be recognizable to Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama alike.

Read the entire post here.