Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Why I Teach Baseball History: A Brief, Self-Serving Manifesto

Chris Beneke

A detail of a print of Union prisoners in a
Confederate camp playing baseball, Salisbury,
N.C., 1863. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Very few people ask me why I teach baseball history. It’s obvious. I love baseball. Lots of students love baseball.

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.
So what particular things do college-level students of baseball history actually need to think about? Well, they should grapple with all the implications of Jackie Robinson’s 1947 arrival as the first African-American player in the modern major leagues and the 1956 decision to uproot the Dodgers from their languishing Brooklyn home and deposit them in the glistening, automobile-centric environs of Los Angeles. They should also be able to explain the significance of the 1975 “Seitz decision” that transformed a labor system premised on depriving its chief employees of nearly every shred of autonomy into a system that bestowed vast treasures on free agents who had the audacity to play a game for a living.

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.


Randall said...

Great post! I like the idea of using baseball as a way to talk about related social and cultural movements.

I use about 20 minutes from the first of the Ken Burns Baseball episodes when I teach the US from 1783-1865.

Here's a fun article I remember reading years ago in Smithsonian Magazine about historical baseball re-enactors:

"The fanatics who play vintage baseball are as meticulous about details as are their brethren who re-enact Civil War battles. Historians as well as players, they read contemporary accounts of games played long before they were born in their quest for authenticity. They re-create the uniforms, equipment (or lack thereof), the home-made balls, even the language of more than 100 years ago. High fives are generally forbidden. . ."

Unfortunately, the whole thing is not online.

Chris Beneke said...

Thanks Randall. Let me add that I don't think baseball history should be taught to the exclusion to modern American history. But it does make an effective supplement.

Randall said...

I'm teaching a course on Curling in American History that will be taught to the exclusion of modern American history. Easy.

Henry/Grandpa said...

Hi Chris....

This blog shows great promise.How about that Hall of Fame vote today. Does the per/steroids era tell us anything about American culture? Politics?


Unknown said...

Randall, would you be willing to share your syllabus on curling? We're in Bemidji MN now, and have just sent our kids to their first curling team practice this week.

Chris Beneke said...

Hi Henry,
We've got a pretty robust history of punishing fallen baseball heroes. There's a line in the Great Gatsby that's quoted in Benjamin Rader's Baseball that sums up the disappointment Americans feel when players cheat: "It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people--with the singlemindedness of a burglar blowing a safe."

hcr said...

Really pleased to read this. There IS a lot you can do with baseball and history. But tell me why baseball is the quintessential American sport. I used to ask Bill Gienapp, who taught a big baseball survey course, that and he would say, "Because it is." But why not basketball? ("Because it isn't.")

Someone in his 80s told me that baseball was the American sport because of something called "one-a-cat" which could be played against city buildings, as he did as a kid (I might be misspelling that).

Can you add any more to it?

Chris Beneke said...

Good question, Heather. It was already known as the National Game by 1860, so had a jump on basketball. It was the first major (respectable) spectator sport. And, of course, its origins as a sport distinct from cricket and rounders does seem to have been American (though football and basketball have claims in this regard too). But notice that all of this is in the past tense. Today, it's often said that football is our national pastime. Given its wild popularity with television audiences, that seems like a fair assessment. In other words, baseball's claim to be America's sport has a lot more to do with its history than its current standing.

Henry said...

Hi all,

Ok...27 days until pitchers and catchers and it is spring! The cruelest time. Every team looks great, pitchers all have rubber arms and the bite on the curve, all hitters are hitting ropes to left and right center, the manager is wise and understands the players. The sun shines. Now is the time of hope. Absolutely tuned to coming out of the iron cold grip of winter. Soon. Play ball! said...

Wow, really nice share. I am very happy to see your blogpost. I love baseball and also love to read any post regarding this subject. I just collect my new baseball bat from at PIJ. Its cool and amazing to me.

Sasha said...

I am a one-on-one instructor in Seattle and I have a high school student who is a pitcher at his local high school; he's obsessed with baseball and I'm given pretty much free reign to design his US history course (Progressive era - Today) in any way I choose. I absolutely know that using baseball as a vehicle would be amazing for him, but I'm at a loss of what resource I can use to get a jump on this. I'm not a baseball guru and would love to teach US history through baseball... Ben would be radically engaged in the course and be able to see history through a whole new lens than his regular history classroom at high school. Any suggestions?

Chris Beneke said...

Hi Sasha,
That's a great idea. Benjamin Rader's _Baseball_ is a terrific introduction to the history of the game and also provides a good deal of insight on its connection to American history. Jules Tygiel's _Past Time_ is less comprehensive but might actually work better as a selective supplement to your typical readings on modern American history. You'll also find some useful selections in Dawidoff, _Baseball: A Literary Anthology_. I've elaborated a bit on the teaching of baseball history here ( Good luck and enjoy!