It’s baseball season again, and that got me to thinking about fandom. Why do we support one team and not another, and why so passionately in spite of bitter defeats and sometimes years of mediocrity?
Like many fans, I grew up watching baseball with my father. We were Red Sox fans, which in the 1970s and ‘80s meant long stretches of mediocrity punctuated by heartbreak. So perhaps we had all the more reason to take refuge in past glory. Long before David Halberstam memorialized them in his book The Teammates, my father told me about Dom DiMaggio, Bobby Doerr, Johnny Pesky, and Ted Williams, who led the Red Sox to the 1946 World Series. He told me about Triple Crown-winner Carl Yastrzemski, and the “Impossible Dream” season of 1967.
Most of all he told me about Williams, his boyhood hero. Stories of Williams’ legendary hitting prowess were sprinkled with parables of honor and decency: how he surrendered the best years of his career to military service, negotiated his contracts directly with owner Tom Yawkey, and refused to sit out the last day of the 1941 season just to preserve his .400 batting average—and then went 6 for 8 to finish at .406. As far as my father was concerned, Ted Williams was a hero because he was a gentleman.
By the time I was old enough to savor my own baseball moment, the Red Sox’ appearance in the 1975 World Series, I knew enough baseball history to know there was more than just a game or a series on the line when the ball left Carlton Fisk’s bat in the 12th inning of the sixth game. What made me a Red Sox fan, then as now, was not just an accident of New England birth. It was the sense of being a part of something larger than myself.
Every fan of every sport probably has a similar story to tell, and that’s the point. Whether we realize it or not, we all understand sports in historical terms: the finest hitter, the greatest comeback, the biggest choke—the best ever. If the human drama of athletic competition makes sports compelling, it is the well-worn stories of past players, plays, teams and contests that make it memorable, and meaningful. Knowing this heritage binds individuals into a community and gives us a distinctive identity, even in adversity and setback.
Sports marketers take note: This shared history authenticates the fan experience like nothing else. Every team can have a cap or bat day, line up official sponsors, or engage a reality show TV star to perform during the seventh-inning stretch. But only the Washington Nationals can weave a story of baseball in the nation’s capital that started not in 2005, but in 1891, including two pennants and one World Series title (1924), plus Hall-of-Famers Walter Johnson and Joe Cronin.
Only the Oakland Athletics, one of the American League’s eight charter franchises when it was founded in Philadelphia in 1901, had legends Lefty Grove and Jimmie Fox, the longest-serving manager in baseball history, Connie Mack, and two mini-dynasties in the early 1970s and the late 1980s.
And few teams can lay claim to an opening run like the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks, founded in 1998, who won three division titles, a National League Pennant, and a World Series championship, all within their first five years in existence.
In short, if professional sports teams want to connect with their fans, old and new, they would do well to draw on the one thing that no competitor can match: their heritage.
Some teams are beginning to recognize this, opening museums to collect and display physical artifacts such as bats, gloves, uniforms and trophies. Some clubs, including the Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, Colorado Rockies, and Minnesota Twins, have gone one step further, hiring in-house historians or curators. According to Erik Strohl, senior director of exhibitions and collections for the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, these teams recognize that “connecting their history to their visitors is one of the most important things they can do.”
Whether regular contenders, perennial cellar-dwellers, or expansion teams, every sports franchise can use its history to help build a lasting, authentic connection with its fans, one that goes beyond wins and losses. After the Red Sox' shaky start to this season, hard on the heels of consecutive last-place finishes, the marketing juggernaut of Red Sox Nation may have run its course. But there will always be fans like my father and me, whose loyalty is all the stronger because we revere the generations of players who passed through Fenway Park long ago.
John Seaman, the founder and CEO of Saybrook Partners, is currently at work on the history of a leading private bank.