|A detail of a print of Union prisoners in a |
Confederate camp playing baseball, Salisbury,
N.C., 1863. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
But let me offer another explanation, something out of left field: baseball history is also a really effective way of teaching American history.
Before you sport non-enthusiasts get too worked up, let me dispense with the usual caveats. College-level baseball history students shouldn’t memorize how many American League pennants the Yankees won during the 1950s (8) or the last time the Chicago Cubs were major league champions (1908). It’s unnecessary for them to recall that Ted Williams batted .406 in 1941 or that George Foster led the major leagues with 52 home runs in 1977. They could also receive a fine education in baseball history without knowing that Don Larson pitched the only perfect post-season game in 1956 or that Bob Gibson struck out 17 batters in the opening game of the 1968 World Series.
|Jackie Robinson comic book, ca 1951. |
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Part of what makes baseball so appealing as a tool for teaching American history is the happy coincidence of professional baseball history with the chronology of the modern survey course. Baseball was already considered the “National Game” in the 1860s, by which time its regnant metaphors such as “fair play” were beginning to saturate American life. As Jim Crow took hold and segregation hardened at the tail end of 19th century, the major leagues imposed their own unofficial bans on African-American players. The “Latinization” of baseball over the last two decades, and the secondary impact on the Dominican Republic in particular, also tracks neatly with larger changes in American society.
There’s a lot to like in terms of methodology as well. Baseball’s durability and internal consistency, the obstinacy of its basic forms and rules, its century of diamond-shaped fields, balls, strikes, outs, and runs, provide the sort of historical constant that one seldom encounters amid the bewildering flood of variables that usually factor into historical interpretation. Organized baseball’s first half-century (roughly 1840-1890) offers a case study in historical anthropology, an illuminating example of the sometimes arbitrary, often unpredictable ways that rules and institutions are fixed and formalized. For my business-oriented students, the adoption of statistical analysis and the specialization of baseball labor are vivid analogues to the rationalization of fin-de-siècle industrial practices. The correspondence of baseball celebrity with the advent of radio and television offers yet another opportunity for linking material and technological changes with broader trends in American life.
In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have to choose between the intensive study of Rosa Parks and the intensive study of Jackie Robinson, but given the constraints in college curricula, one often has to do just that. And given an either/or choice between the two, you could make a good case for Robinson.
Tracking the infielder’s first harrowing major league season, integration becomes a northern story as well as a southern one, a story about the collision of soaring liberal ideals, pragmatic business interests, city politics, regional prejudices, and national demographic change. Of course, Robinson’s story is best told in conjunction with a broader national history in which regular lynchings were only just ending, equal employment laws were finally gaining traction, and bus boycotts, lunch counter sit-ins, and educational integration lay on the near horizon. At any rate, there’s a lot of riveting historical substance there.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the embarrassment of literary riches that makes the study of baseball history so rewarding and pleasurable. Some of America’s best writers have meditated on the subject, including Stephen Jay Gould, David Halberstam, Stephen King, Michael Lewis, Philip Roth, Carl Sandburg, and John Updike. And that’s not to mention the iconic baseball essayist Roger Angell, the quirkily brilliant baseball statistician Bill James, or the Brooklyn-centric newspaperman and historian Roger Kahn. (For better or worse, most of the great baseball writers have been journalists or popular writers of one kind or another. Professors Warren Goldstein, Louis Masur, Bruce Kuklick, Benjamin Rader, and Jules Tygiel are splendid exceptions to the rule.)
In short, studying baseball history allows students to take a hard look at the gloriously illumined realm of business, work, play, aspiration, and identity that we call sports. As far as I can tell, there are few other ways to engage young men and women in the study of the past and few other forms of historical study that render the seemingly familiar in such arrestingly unfamiliar forms.
And it’s a heckuva lot of fun.