Empty stadiums resonate with history

By Eric W. Jentsch

After months of uncertainty, Major League Baseball will begin a shortened season at Nationals Park. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, will throw out the first pitch in a stadium empty of spectators. It’s a safety measure put in place to help prevent the spread of the COVID 19 virus; but this is not the first time baseball has been played to an empty stadium. Curator Eric Jentcsh shares his memory of another “fanless” game. 

On a night in late April of 2015, I was travelling down I-95 with my museum colleagues Mike and Ryan. We were tired but still elated from the once-in-a-lifetime experience of touring ESPN studios in Bristol, Connecticut. The purpose of our visit was to collect an incredible object for the museum’s collections: the NCAA tournament bracket filled out by the president of the United States, avid basketball fan, Barack Obama. We were collecting the brackets to show how sporting events such as the NCAA tournament bring Americans together, with millions filling similar brackets whether they are sports fans or not. We knew the historical significance of Obama’s presidency added additional resonance and interest to the artifact.  

A March Madness bracket filled out by the Obamas.
President Obama's 2015 men's NCAA basketball tournament bracket.

Well-pleased with ourselves, we were eager to bring the object into the safe keeping of the National Museum of American History. Tired and nearly home, we were struck by a sight that I had never seen in my life: a huge military vehicle, almost like a tank, patrolling the empty streets of the Baltimore beltway.   
The city was in a state of emergency. A young African-American man named Freddie Gray had died after falling into a coma resulting from injuries received in the back of a closed police van during what is known as a “rough ride.” Protestors had taken to rioting in anger over the manner of Gray’s death and the trauma inflicted on his body by the arresting officers.  
As a curator of cultural history, the Gray tragedy is entwined in my memory with a surreal sports experience. After Gray’s death, on April 29, the Baltimore Orioles were scheduled to play a home game against the Chicago White Sox, my team—actually my father’s team. As a child, I found my father often guarded and hard to understand. The White Sox were one of the only things I knew him to be genuinely passionate about, with a blind adoration that went against his normally analytical nature. Eager for connection, I became a fan because he was a fan, and our shared interest made us closer.   
Such personal experiences with sports and entertainment are a primary reason I decided to become a curator: I get to explore how our hobbies and pastimes create shared connections, shape our identities, inspire and develop communities, and participate in our nation’s history. 
The Orioles won the game 8-2, but in an unprecedented situation, the team did so in a stadium devoid of spectators. Before the threat of the COVID19 virus made social distancing part of our life experience, for the first time fans were barred entry to a game, in this case due to security concerns regarding the continued unrest in the city. Watching the game on television, I couldn’t stop the tears, because of how hollow and bleak that sunlit afternoon felt. Without the cheers of families, children, or friends, there was no way to feel connected that day. Freddie Gray, and the ramifications of his tragic death, spoke loudly in the silence.  
The museum later collected objects related to the “fanless” baseball game held in 2015. I find them fitting artifacts to hold alongside the tournament bracket filled out by President Obama. Together, they not only speak of a particular time in the history of this country but point to two different sides of our nation. The bracket speaks of hope, of shared experiences, of achievement, and amusement. The materials from the fanless game show another America, one of fear, of injustice, and of the action and activism that rise to meet that injustice. As a museum, and as a people, we must honor and preserve both stories to celebrate when we progress and to have evidence when we fail.   

Eric W. Jentsch is Curator of Popular Culture and Sports for the Division of Culture and the Arts.

The image on the social media preview is not from the 2015, but a historic image of an empty Griffith Stadium. You can find more information here.