Karl Lindholm: All that dough for a baseball class?

I was sitting in Sama’s, near the rear, with my back to the door, drinking coffee and grading papers, hard-copy, the old-fashioned way.
My neighbor entered, sat down opposite me, and asked me what I was doing.
“Reading student papers. I’m teaching a course this spring,” I explained. “I get to teach one a year in retirement.”
“So,” my neighbor asked, “what course?”
“A baseball class. It’s called, “Segregation in America: Baseball’s Negro Leagues.”
He thought for a minute, and said, “No disrespect intended, but why would a student, whose parents are paying $60,000 a year to send their kid to Middlebury, take a baseball course?”
“No disrespect taken,” I said, dumping my coffee in his lap. “Well, the students read, write, and do research — that’s always good, right?”
“OK, but seriously, baseball?”
“Sure. Baseball explains America,” I said.
I told him about an essay by Bart Giamatti, former commissioner of baseball and president of Yale, titled “Baseball and the American Character,” which reflects on a game whose central metaphor is “home,” in a country of immigrants.
The essence of the game is a great Odyssean adventure of going out and coming back, and when one makes it home, all exult.
The game goes back so far! First the British in the 19th century adapted their games to American soil and spirit; then the Irish (McGraw) and Germans (Ruth) and Italians (DiMaggio) embraced the game in their new home — and always, black Americans, shut out at the highest levels for so long, played this distinctive 19th century game, in the shadows, out of the limelight.
My friend is of an age where he can remember when baseball was everything, in the 1950s, when every town, school, church, factory, club, you name it, had a team. For 100 years, Americans loved the game like nothing else — it was truly the “national pastime” worth studying indeed — a window to American culture over a long span.
My special heroes are the guys, about my age, who traveled the country with their tape recorders in the 1970s, interviewing black players from the Negro leagues, getting their stories before they passed away.
These stories are wonderful, and important. They constitute an oral history of the game. Because black teams routinely played 200 games a year against all-comers, the statistical record is unreliable, the competition uneven, the comparisons to white baseball ambiguous at best.
For these baseball historians, researching the black game was an act of compensation. For me too. Black baseball was a lost world for us, an Atlantis, regardless of how baseball-obsessed we were as kids. And what a fascinating world it was, born of prejudice and discrimination.
Integration was always the goal — and no black player ever thought the game would be integrated piece-meal, one player at a time. With integration, of course, came the end of the Negro leagues and the loss of a vibrant black institution.
Race relations in America has often had this tension between integration and cultural distinctiveness.
Black teams played year-round: in their own leagues in the summer, in exhibition contests against white teams of all-stars in the fall, in Cuba and throughout the Caribbean (with their white counterparts) in the winter, and then in the spring they barnstormed north in the U.S., picking up new blood as they went.
It was quite a life, a hard life. Sometimes they played three games in a day, plying the by-ways of America by bus. The heyday of the Negro leagues was the Depression and Pittsburgh (then Kansas City) was the capital, and the Pittsburgh Courier and Chicago Defender, weekly black national newspapers, were their chroniclers.
The game they played was their own. Cool Papa Bell called it “Tricky Ball,” emphasizing speed and daring. These teams had to entertain to survive. Often they “clowned,” forced to affect crude stereotypes to sell tickets to white fans.
Ballplayers and musicians were heroes in the black community during segregation, for a people who generally lacked opportunities for professional status. In the 1930s and ’40s, black fans from all over the country came to Chicago for a week of celebration at the annual East-West Game, the Negro leagues All-Star game. Over 50,000 exuberant fans filled Comiskey Park on the South Side.
Forty-three percent of the players elected to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown since Jackie Robinson’s debut in 1947 would not have been able to play in the major leagues prior to ’47 because of their color. Forty-one Negro leaguers are enshrined in Cooperstown today. Even the most knowledgeable fan can name only a handful.
I wanted to tell my friend all this, and more, there in Sama’s. But his party arrived shortly after he sat down, and he joined them nearby. They talked about numbers and property values, business, from what I could tell, important stuff, the basis of which we should teaching at Middlebury, I guess, in this pragmatic age.
Oh well, it’s spring finally. I still have papers to grade. It’s a beautiful day. Let’s play two!

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