Cardinals

GO CARDS! (Image via mrg.bz / jdurham)

The 107th World Series of Major League Baseball is in full swing! I root for the Cardinals, having grown up near St. Louis with a happy appreciation for the sport and a reverence for the home team. (Baseball runs deep in the Gateway City, which makes being a fan a great pleasure. When I was a kid, Ozzie Smith was doing backflips on the field. What’s not to love?)

So. In keeping with the subject of the blog, I thought about how to tie baseball with some academic, college preparedness lesson. On the surface, sports do not seem to have much to do with academics, and may even seem to be their polar opposite. Echoing in my head with scornful repetition is my high school math teacher’s voice: students’ priority is “playing ball” instead of studying. Some folks object to the business side of professional sports because athletes’ rather sizable paychecks must indicate our national priorities are skewed. In some academic corners, I’ve also heard our love of pro sports is, if not exactly anti-intellectual, somewhat boorish; we love sports too much; if only we had more culture here in the US, and so on, and so on.

But then, so many smart people I know are either athletes themselves or knowledgeable spectators of various sports. And baseball in particular is a thinking person’s game. Ah — it was time to search for further enlightenment in my public library’s sports section. Yes, “enlightenment” is appropriate here, for while I knew sports writing has a thriving following, I’m impressed at the learning possibilities apparent at just a casual romp through the pages of some baseball tomes.

It’s clear one may learn about history and even philosophy and literature through studying this game. To warm up:

-The first World Series was played in 1903, though baseball was gaining national popularity decades before that. Great writers commended the sport: in 1846, poet Walt Whitman declared, “I see great things in baseball. It’s our game – the American game. It will take our people out-of-doors, fill them with oxygen . . . and be a blessing to us.” Mark Twain in 1889 referred to baseball as “the very symbol, the outward and visible expression of the drive and push and rush and struggle of the raging, tearing, booming nineteenth century” (1).

Ernest L Thayer

The man behind "Casey at the Bat": Ernest L. Thayer (Image via Wikipedia)

I’m sure the most famous baseball poem is Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat,” but a search for “baseball poetry” on the web will turn up more. One good place to start is Levi Stahl’s “Baseball and Verse, from Tinker to Evers to Big Papi,” published at the Poetry Foundation’s website.

-In the early days, catchers’ masks and even gloves were thought to be for wimps: the Louisville Courier-Journal in 1877 opined, “There is about as much sense in putting a lightning rod on a catcher as a mask” (2).

A. G. Spalding, a talented pitcher and later, manufacturer of sporting goods, took the Chicago White Stockings and some all-stars on an international exhibition tour in 1888. He lost money on the venture (in which they visited Egypt, Australia, Rome, and England) and seemingly made no baseball converts overseas – but thanks to US sailors and schoolteachers, the game was spreading elsewhere: in Latin America and Japan (3).

Civil War soldiers of both armies played the game; I was astonished to see a photograph of some Union troops posing with what looked like their weapons—yet a handful of the “muskets” are, upon closer examination, baseball bats! (4)

Moses Fleetwood Walker

Moses Fleetwood Walker (Image via Wikipedia)

-You likely know that Jackie Robinson was the first black man in the modern major leagues, signed to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. You probably also know that blacks had owned and played in the Negro Leagues for years before that. But you may not know that in the organized leagues of the 1870’s and ‘80’s, over 50 black athletes had played alongside whites. Moses Fleetwood Walker was the first among them to make the majors in 1884, playing catcher first with the American Association and later joining the International League (which included clubs in New Jersey, New York, and Canada).

Baseball sources document the surrounding controversies and these players’ uphill struggles in the face of resistance to integration. In the late nineteenth century, arguing against league owners’ barring black players from the game, the editor of the Newark Call said, “If anywhere in this world the social barriers are broken down it is on the ball field. There . . . the best man is he who plays best” (5). In discussing the Negro Leagues, Alex and Rob Ruck noted baseball “was a force for cohesion in a black community troubled by divisions over social class, skin color, and splits between Southern migrants and Northern-born” (6). So baseball warrants further study as a historical “force” and a prism through which to examine struggles (here, pertaining to race specifically, but also pertaining to ethics, faith, sacrifice, and role models—to name a few topics covered in the book Baseball and Philosophy: Thinking Outside the Batter’s Box—citation below).

-Some consider baseball to be symbolic and mystical. I remember my World Mythology professor in college discussing baseball – think the magic of Field of Dreams, and consider this quote:
“Baseball writers range from those who spill thousands of words breaking down the game statistically to those who spend just as many words explaining the deep spiritual meaning of the game, conjuring up emerald chess boards and the secret of life itself being found somewhere on the base paths” (7).

You can explore many more such secrets between the covers of baseball books. Grab some peanuts and Cracker Jack, curl up in a chair with a bookmark, and read on into extra innings.

Related reading:
http://www.loc.gov/topics/baseball/
Historic Baseball Resources at the Library of Congress.

Sources and Notes:
Bronson, Eric, ed. Baseball and Philosophy: Thinking Outside the Batter’s Box. Chicago: Carus, 2004.

Kindred, Dave. Glove Stories: The Collected Baseball Writings of Dave Kindred. St. Louis: Sporting News, 2002.

Ward, Geoffrey C. and Ken Burns. Baseball: An Illustrated History. New York: Knopf, 1994.

(1)    Qtd. in Ward and Burns, pgs. 3 and 31.
(2)    Ward and Burns, pg. 28.
(3)    Ward and Burns, pgs. 29-31.
(4)    Ward and Burns, pgs. 10-13.
(5)    Ward and Burns, pgs. 40-44.
(6)    Ruck, Alex and Rob Ruck, “The Negro Leagues and the Contradictions of Social Darwinism,” pg. 184, in Bronson.
(7)    Feinstein, John, Forward, pg. 13, in Kindred.

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