Emory Report
April 18, 2005
Volume 58, Number 27


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April 18, 2005
White, Dowell's course circles the bases for a seventh time

BY Eric Rangus

In 1947 Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color line when he suited up for the Brooklyn Dodgers—seven years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Brown v. Board of Education. The Star-Spangled Banner was played before baseball games years prior to its selection as this country’s national anthem.

Most any fan will say that baseball is more than just a game. And a lot of historians and cultural researchers would agree with them. Beyond baseball’s historical significance, from Pride of the Yankees to Field of Dreams, to the extracurricular writing of syndicated columnist George Will, the game has touched artistic and intellectual nerves as well.

From its 19th century pastoral birth to its modern state as a worldwide athletic and social signpost, the game that continues to mesmerize entire regions of the country (ask any New Englander, Red Sox fan or not) is explored through the Emory College class “Baseball and American Culture (AMST 322).”

“This class is less about baseball and more about the context of baseball,” said Goodrich C. White Professor of Liberal Arts Dana White, who co-teaches the course with English chair Peter Dowell. “We use baseball as a subject of study just as other professors might use poetry.” Not that there isn’t a lot of poetry inherent in baseball.

First offered in 1996 and six times since, Baseball and American Culture consistently has been one of Emory College’s most popular courses. Capped at 25 students per semester, it is common for three times that many undergraduates to sign up. Since seniors are given preference, juniors and underclass students are rarities. Guests, however, are frequent. Longtime Emory baseball coach Clyde “Doc” Partin, for instance, is a regular visitor.

Dowell came up with the concept for the course, which grew out of classes he and White had been teaching on cities. Needless to say, the two professors—longtime friends and frequent partners in attending Atlanta Braves games—hit a home run.

This year they have introduced students not only to well-known athletic and cultural icons like Babe Ruth but also the not-as-well-known social and economic situations that helped lead to the Black Sox scandal (when the 1919 Chicago White Sox threw the World Series). Not only are racial relations explored with the example of Robinson, but also Hank Greenberg’s iconic status among Jewish-Americans and Joe DiMaggio’s among Italian-Americans are shown to be no less important. Modern issues such as the impact of free agency and labor strife not just on baseball but on all sports and wider American culture, also are studied.

One of the semester’s highlights is the group presentations that take place throughout April. The first of this semester’s six presentations took place April 12 and covered Jane Peavy’s 2002 biography Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy. The presentation, which mixed PowerPoint slides, film clips and baseball cards, was equal parts research report and performance art.

Enlightening descriptions of Koufax’s career were mixed with discussion of his importance in the Jewish community (although not devout, his refusal to pitch the first game of the 1965 World Series on Yom Kippur contributes to his legend) and his place as a trendsetter in the game’s economics was delivered by a four-person team wearing Los Angeles Dodgers caps and preceded by a snack of blue cookies decorated with “LA.”

Five more 75-minute presentations, all based on nonfiction books (although works of fiction have been presented in previous years), will wrap up the semester, and they will include presentations on the 1908 season (the last year the Chicago Cubs won the World Series), an examination of Japanese baseball, and the cultural significance of record-breaking performances (such as Hank Aaron’s 755 career home runs). Every year the books, which White and Dowell select, change. The only holdover project text from the 2003 course is the best-seller Moneyball, by Michael Lewis.

“You look at baseball books now, and they are being published by Harvard University Press or the University of Pennsylvania Press,” said White, outlining the prevalence of high-quality, baseball-related research and historical texts.

“The class process has evolved gradually,” Dowell said. “We didn’t used to have the projects. We would just lead group discussions of the books. But now we had found that it is better to plug each topic into a text.”

Contrary to belief, Baseball and American Culture isn’t just for over-the-top seamheads; some students know very little about the game. Discussion about batting averages of “point two-five-oh” or an introduction of Emory pitching coach Ethan Solomon that included a demonstration of how to throw a “speedball”—turns of phrase that would make purists cringe—are not uncommon.

So while some students may enter the class without much baseball knowledge, they learn a lot before they leave. And their appreciation for the game’s place in American life, both past and present, takes many forms.
One student in the spring 2000 class had very personal reasons for taking the course. Although she wasn’t a baseball fan and admitted she didn’t participate much in class discussion, she wrote White and Dowell a letter explaining her interest. They keep a copy of the note.

“I took this course to enable myself to talk to my aging, senile grandfather. Even though he didn’t remember a lot, he remembered all the baseball stories from his past. This class meant so much to me because of the moments I could share talking with him before he passed away this month. I had an opportunity I never would have had if it had not been for you overloading me in this course. Thank you again so much—L.”