By Larry Levine
“You were born and raised in the Bronx and you’re a Red Sox fan? What’s up with that?” This question was posed to me every semester during the decade in which I taught the History of Baseball course which I developed at Quinnipiac University. It was a welcome question because it provided the opportunity to reinforce one of the basic thrusts of the course which is that you can’t fully appreciate the present without some understanding of what preceded it, or as Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead, it’s not even past”.
I would carefully explain that once upon a time there were three Major league teams in New York. Those of a somewhat superior upbringing and stronger intellect tended to favor either the Brooklyn Dodgers or the New York Giants (as I did). The benighted remainder followed the American League entry. Alas, I continued, both the Dodgers and Giants left for California following the 1957 season. As it happened, I too, went off to graduate school at precisely the same time. Given the yet to be developed state of communication technology, it was impossible to follow the fortunes of my team and so when I returned to this area, I was without a serious rooting interest. All was not lost, however, when it became apparent that there was a team which mirrored the Giants closely and whose fans shared my animus toward that remaining New York team. The Red Sox made me feel at home. As the leprechaun in Finian’s Rainbow proclaimed, “When I’m not near the girl I love, I love the girl I’m near.”
I hereby confess that the Baseball course served a subversive purpose. Today’s college students are bright, creative, and energetic but their principal flaw is their absolute disdain for the study of history. They abhor it. For many, history began when they first became aware of a world outside themselves which for this year’s incoming freshmen is about the year 2000. Anything prior to that is essentially irrelevant. By attaching the development of Baseball to the major events and issues in American history, the hope was that a greater appreciation for the latter might blossom. I’m vain enough to think that it worked.
In fact, it’s a natural fit. One doesn’t have to entirely agree with philosopher Jacque Barzun’s thought that “whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball” to understand that the national pastime has been part of the fabric of our society since the mid-19th century and perhaps earlier. From its beginnings, the game has evolved in ways which have mirrored the trends in the wider culture. For example, the virulent racism and the rise of the Jim Crow era following the end of the Reconstruction period resulted in the ultimate exclusion of African Americans from the then existing professional leagues. Adrian Anson was an enabler in this process, not a serious cause. The development of the professional leagues, themselves, was a reflection of the social changes in the last quarter of the 19th century which involved the commercialization and industrial growth characteristic of the gilded age. Labor-management strife, dormant at the moment, also had its long history dated from the same period with the insertion of the reserve clause into standard player contracts. The creation of unions, the lawsuits, the role of the Congress, and changes in the very nature of the game which derived from this event is worthy of a course all to itself.
Baseball has had a serious role in the assimilation of the children of immigrants. The Irish, the Italians, and the Jews, particularly, have used the sport to forge an “American” identity. Discussing the travails of the John McGraws, the Joe DiMaggios, and the Hank Greenbergs, puts a face on the whole issue of ethnic strife in our history. The parallel with the current infusion of Latino players is too obvious to ignore. The place of baseball during the great depression and World War ll allows for some insights into the politics and economics of those critical periods, etc., etc. What is not forsaken in all of this are the events of the game itself. The great players and their exploits are not ignored.
The course for me has been a labor of love. All things must end, however, and with my complete retirement from the academic world, so too has my teaching of the course. How fortunate are future students, however, to be exposed to the capable hands of Brother Ryczek of our chapter who has taken over its instruction. My devotion to the game will, of course, continue as I have become interested in writing some book reviews and lecturing on the history of Jews in the sport. I will also continue to search for a baseball thrill to surpass Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard round the world”. The 2004 AL post-season came close but I was only 14 in 1951 and that was my first pennant. You never forget your first.