Adam Eaton: Blue-Collar Hero?

 Photo Lori Vaughan

Photo Lori Vaughan

White Sox centerfielder Adam Eaton is a blue-collar player playing in the blue-collar collar part of town. Just ask him.

“[W]e play on the South Side,” said Eaton shortly after the start of the season. “Those are blue-collar people, it’s our job to give them a show and give them 110 percent.” Because working-class people demand unattainable proportions of effort!

The week before, Eaton called the Sox “A hard-nosed team on the blue-collar side of town.” And as far back as SoxFest the former Diamondback was telling the media, "I want to be the blue-collar player." 

Eaton is not alone; he’s just the latest manifestation of White Sox blue-collar hero with an affinity for the local proletariat.

For example, Jake Peavy said last season “I love, love our fan base. I love the blue-collar attitude…because that’s who I am, that’s the way I was raised.”

Sometimes the media gets in on the act, like when Bruce Levine wrote last year that Paul Konerko “has always been ‘The Man’ of the blue-collar White Sox fan base.”

My question for the purveyors of White Sox blue-collar enthusiasm: Who have you been hanging out with? Because I define blue-collar like they do in the dictionary:

There used to be lots of these kinds of people in the neighborhoods around the ballpark. Look at this 1923 panoramic photo of the White Sox original home ground at Pershing and Wentworth. By this time the field was called Schorling Park and it was home to Rube Foster’s American Giants of the Negro National League. A while back I marked the buildings that I could make out in the background of the field based on old fire maps; most of them were factories and cheap housing for workers from a bygone industrial age:

In the second half of the twentieth century Chicago began to shed its industrial base — much of it on the South Side — and with it blue-collar jobs. The closing of the Union Stock Yards in 1971 and the steel factories in the early 1980s was emblematic of the decline of manufacturing in Chicago. The change was reflective of a larger crisis in blue-collar work regionally and nationally:

 Graph from Richard Florida, "The Midwest's Manufacturing Conundrum,"  The Atlantic , May 11, 2012.

Graph from Richard Florida, "The Midwest's Manufacturing Conundrum," The Atlantic, May 11, 2012.

These days 7.5 percent of working Chicagoans have jobs in manufacturing, according to 2011 US Census data. In the zip codes below the Chicago River on the city's South Side, manufacturing work makes up 8.5 percent of all jobs—higher than the city average but still below the statewide average of 11 percent. And considering the rate of manufacturing jobs is 18 percent in our neighboring states of Wisconsin and Indiana, it’s a real stretch to call south side baseball fans comparatively blue-collar.

There is a higher percentage of blue-collar jobs in a few of the zip codes around the ballpark: in areas of Bridgeport and in the old river wards, where the number of residents working manufacturing jobs is between 11 and 17 percent. 

But a closer look reveals another reality in our postindustrial city: a lot of remaining blue-collar jobs are crummy ones. In these zip codes along the river, about 60 percent of “goods-producing” workers earn less than $40,000 a year. The percentage is roughly the same for goods-producing workers across the South Side. 

These are not the people the White Sox marketing team has been targeting for ticket sales, as the cost of Sox games has increased rapidly over the last few decades, much faster than the cost of other goods and services. And it’s questionable if these blue-collar South Siders are even part of the television fan base, considering that baseball polls much higher among suburbanites and households earning at least six figures.

So the people Adam Eaton is out there “giving a show” to almost certainly are not blue-collar. Still, if players want to believe that White Sox enthusiasts are gritty factory toughs and that motivates them to play well then, as a fan, I’m all for it. After all, from breaking balls that drop off the shelf to undying playoff hopes, baseball is a game of illusions.

It makes sense though that a line between perception and reality should be drawn by those charged with informing the public when it comes to demography and economy, or class and society. Because illusions in these areas have real-world political implications. And the Chicago media ought to be more mindful of this.

Mindful so that as fans, we might continue to kid ourselves about our heroes in White Sox pinstripes, but stop short of kidding ourselves about ourselves.