34th LaFollette Lecture Presented by Dr. Todd McDorman
Coverage by Matt Michaloski ‘14
The purpose of the annual LaFollette Lecture, so named in honor of former trustee, Charles D. LaFollette, is to connect one professor’s special discipline with the humanities. This year, the committee honored Rhetoric Department Professor Todd McDorman with an invitation to present. He accepted the honor, and on Oct. 10th, in front of a full house at Salter Hall, Dr. McDorman presented his lecture, “One for the Books: Rhetoric, Community, and Memory.”
Dr. McDorman was introduced by former LaFollette lecturer and Classics Professor Jeremy Hartnett. He informed the audience about Dr. McDorman’s lifelong love for baseball and how Dr. McDorman decided to forgo his plans for law school after developing an interest in rhetoric as an undergraduate, an interest which he now works with academically. After taking the podium and expressing his gratitude for being chosen to lecture, Dr. McDorman quickly made clear that the topic of his lecture would link his love for baseball and his professional interest in rhetorical studies: He intended to analyze the rhetorical effects of a new exhibit at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, titled “One for the Books” (an exhibit which I happened to witness on a trip to Cooperstown last August!).
One of the goals of rhetoric, Dr. McDorman argued, is to reveal our ideals and to shape or define our communities. Baseball, he claimed, has always been a window through which one may see many of the values dearest to the American spirit: fair play, justice, democracy. The exhibit in question houses records of great statistical achievements and relics of those ballpark saints who achieved them. These sacred statistics have, however, been profaned by the unfortunate but not easily ignored performance-enhancing drug (PED) scandal. Dr. McDorman spent some time reviewing the details of the scandal with reference to the well-known stories of Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, and Mark McGwire. The problem for baseball, argued McDorman, was not only that the sacred records of many baseball legends were shattered by those using or suspected of using PEDs but also that the very spirit of baseball, which honors hard work and fair play, was perceived as challenged by these tainted records.
Dr. McDorman suggested that the “One for the Books” exhibit, though committed to telling the story of the PED-era records, admits implicitly that the statistics contained within can be misleading or even useless if they are divorced from context. The exhibit, he argues, represents an attempt both to rescue the dignity of baseball and to keep from omitting the records set by players partaking in questionable acts. The exhibit redefines public memory by marginalizing tainted records in an effort to protect the social identity and the solidarity of the baseball community. This is achieved in subtle ways. For instance, the exhibit de-emphasizes the home run record, typically at the center of statistical attention, by placing its display case beyond those of several less tainted records such as those for season RBI and career batting average.
Dr. McDorman also commented upon the physical orientation of some of the relics in the exhibit. There is a Hank Aaron uniform in a prominent glass case which stands erect on a mannequin. The museum placed Barry Bonds’s record-breaking homerun ball in a small case directly behind the uniform as if to suggest that the great hero of yesteryear is turning his back to the dishonorable scandals of the present. The museum, and the baseball community more generally, elevates the players of the highest character – like Lou Gehrig, Hank Aarons, and Cal Ripken Jr. Baseball wants to channel the values that are forever attached to these heroes and thus it holds their records sacred while calling attention to the fact that other records, while impressive, may have been tainted and ought to be regarded with suspicion. I don’t believe it surfaced in the lecture, but perhaps the most telling statement is the fact that one won’t see a plaque for Bonds or McGwire or other PED suspects hanging in the Hall itself as they have not been elected by the baseball writers. This is a clear act of separation between what is regarded as sacred and what has been profaned.
Dr. McDorman concluded his talk by summing up his observations and judgments of the exhibit. The museum has employed rhetoric, a specific and deliberate presentation, to reformulate the collective memory of baseball and to protect the community. By rearranging details and strategically de-emphasizing certain records, it reconfirms the identity of baseball as America’s national pastime. This baseball fan and student of the liberal arts found the lecture fascinating and will, perhaps like many others present for the lecture, look upon the game with new eyes.