Two summers ago, associate professor of anthropology Tom Porcello and his son Niccolo set out on a cross country trip to visit 10 major league baseball stadiums, starting with a Philadelphia Phillies game at Citizens Bank Park and finishing up with the Mariners at Safeco Field in Seattle. But what began as a father-son pilgrimage has unexpectedly evolved into an academic study for Porcello, who has a scholarly interest in sound.
[Listen to a National Public Radio story about Porcello’s project, which aired nationally beginning February 16 on the weekly program Only a Game. Please be advised, you must use RealPlayer to access this file.]
Porcello began casual audio recordings at each game, wondering if there were something unique he would find at each ballpark. “Among the sounds I was paying attention to were the various renditions of the national anthem,” he said. “And the vendors were interesting – their regional accent variations and also the different linguistic strategies they use to call attention to themselves.” Sound, the anthropologist points out, affects sociability. “In a baseball stadium filled with thousands of strangers, the sounds of the crowd – the cheers, the yells of outrage, the cries of surprise – have the effect of bonding the community.”
In fact, Porcello, who also chairs the program in Media Studies, teaches a seminar at Vassar that explores architecture and acoustics – how the acoustics of a building affect people’s experience of the space. “I remember how as a kid, listening to baseball on the radio, the sound keyed you into the action – the announcer, of course, but also the crack when the bat hit the ball and the crowd sounds, the ebb and flow of the audience’s excitement.”
Porcello and his son continued their journey last summer, and to date their stops have also included Baltimore (Camden Yards), Cleveland (Jacobs Field), Detroit (Comerica Park), Chicago (Wrigley Field), St. Louis (Busch Stadium), and Boston (Fenway Park). As he has become more systematic gathering and analyzing sound samples at the various ballparks, the makings of his research study have emerged.
As with all professional sports, Porcello points out, baseball teams strongly evoke local identity and pride, and can be the fuel for intense, locally-defined rivalries, be they geographic, class or ethnicity based, or even inter- and intra-familial dimensions (when, for example, family members differ on their loyalty to a local team, such as choosing to root for the New York Yankees or the New York Mets). But, he contends, “More than any other American sport, baseball is also linked to a unifying (and often nostalgic) sense of a collective American identity. It is explicitly invoked as our ‘national pastime,’ but is ideologically also ‘our’ American sport in a way quite unlike any other. Thus for baseball, the tension between evoking a local and national identity is particularly acute.”
To explore this material as an anthropologist, “I am seeking to explain how the ‘soundscape’ of contemporary major league stadiums both reflects and helps to construct this balancing of local and national identities, and to examine both the overtly constructed and more unplanned dimensions of how stadiums sound the way they do,” Porcello said. “And as a documentarian, I am hoping to use these insights to create an auditory tour of major league baseball that evokes its place in the contemporary American imagination.”
Meanwhile, Niccolo Porcello can look forward to about fifteen more ballparks on his excellent baseball adventure with Dad.