It was a cool afternoon in Boulder, and history professor Tom Zeiler and his students were caught up in a lively discussion about Babe Ruth and the long ball.
From there, the conversation turned to another relevant subject: Barry Bonds.
Welcome to “American History Through Baseball,” one of the few courses of its kind in the country and a world removed from yesterday’s American history courses.
The national pastime is serious business to Zeiler, 49, who has taught at CU since 1990 and is author of a book on the sport.
Every semester he explores how baseball and American society have intersected from the 1830s to the present, drawing both fantasy league junkies and baseball neophytes to his popular Boulder classroom. What Zeiler doesn’t do is focus on batting averages, pitching statistics and the fate of the Boston Red Sox.
“I don’t want to take the fun out of it because it’s a fun course to take,’’ he says. “But my first remark to the class is, ‘Welcome to ‘American History Through Baseball.’ This course uses baseball to look at American society. I don’t play to the fans who want to hear about the Rockies’ run to the 2007 World Series. You’re not going to get a lecture on the greatness of Carl Yastrzemski.’”
After opening with a basic discussion of the ball and bat, Zeiler quickly shifts gears to baseball’s origins. Popular history has it that Abner Doubleday invented the game in 1839 in a Cooperstown, N.Y., cow pasture. But the story is fiction, embraced by a young country hungry for self-identity.
To explore the changes that swept through American society after World War I, Zeiler focuses on Babe Ruth and Major League Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. With his outsized personality and hedonistic lifestyle, Ruth was a perfect fit for the Big Apple of the Roaring Twenties. Landis, a sober, scholarly former federal judge, represented the other America, the America that embraced Prohibition and traditional values.
“I use Babe Ruth and Landis in juxtaposition,’’ Zeiler says. “Landis is rural values, austere. Ruth is the excessive, urban, Jazz Age. You’re making an analogy, and kids get it. My exam question, for example, is: ‘If you lived in the Jazz Age, what would Landis and Ruth reflect about American society?’ ”
In the wake of the 1919 World Series gambling scandal, owners turned to Landis to clean up the sport, a decision Zeiler links to other reforms in the Progressive Era. He also connects the 1919 scandal to the Teapot Dome scandal, which left President Warren Harding’s administration in ruins in the mid-1920s.
Fast-forward to 1959. The Brooklyn Dodgers stun baseball by moving to sunny Los Angeles, virgin territory for the national pastime. For Zeiler, the move is a jumping-off point for a discussion on the rise of the Sunbelt when cities such as Houston, Dallas, Atlanta and Phoenix landed major-league franchises and blossomed into major urban centers.
“Tom gets you involved in what he’s talking about,” says junior finance major Kyle Kummer who took the course last year. “There aren’t many students who would say they don’t like that style of teaching. I think that’s one of the big things that draws people to the class.’’
Zeiler devotes three of his lectures to race relations, focusing in one on that historic day in 1947 when Jackie Robinson toppled baseball’s color barrier, revolutionizing America by merely stepping up to the plate as a Brooklyn Dodger. He was the first black man to openly play in the major leagues since 1889 when the sport became racially segregated.
“I always start out by asking, ‘Who’s the most important figure in civil rights history?’ ’’ Zeiler says. “Someone says, ‘Martin Luther King,’ and I say, ‘You’re close.’ ’’
In another lecture, Zeiler zeroes in on Marvin Miller, the labor leader who helped transform pedestrian players into mansion-living millionaires. Miller served as executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) from 1966 to 1982, creating one of the strongest unions in the United States. In 1968 he spearheaded the MLBPA’s first collective bargaining agreement with team owners that increased the minimum salary for players from $6,000 to $10,000, the first increase in two decades.
“I ask, ‘Who’s the most important figure in the sport’s history?’ Usually someone says Babe Ruth. I think its Marvin Miller. This is the most successful union in human history.”
Zeiler’s fascination with baseball began as a young boy in 1960s Atlanta where his emotions rose and fell with the Atlanta Braves fortunes.
“Those were some bad days for the Braves,’’ he says. “I used to go to games where there were only 1,500 people in the stands.’’
After earning degrees from Emory University and the University of Massachusetts, Zeiler moved to Boulder where he’s a professor of history and international affairs. He’s executive editor of the journal Diplomatic History, has studied and lectured in Japan and Argentina as a Fulbright Senior Scholar and is the author of several books, including Ambassadors in Pinstripes: The Spalding World Baseball Tour and the American Empire (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers).
While researching the book, Zeiler came up with the idea for a baseball course, which raised some eyebrows in academic circles.
“The big battle is proving this is a legitimate course with standards,’’ he says. “(But) baseball is a way to hook students on history. My interest comes academically, not because I’m a baseball fan. I’m not even a sports fanatic. I play on fantasy league teams. I follow my teams, but I can’t tell you who’s playing for the Padres. I’m not one of those people who, when November hits, goes into a severe depression.’’
At first glance “American History Through Baseball” seems like an easy
“A” for sports junkies. But Zeiler throws a curve in his first class, setting a serious tone that catches many students off guard.
“I get students who don’t do well and say, ‘I can’t believe I got a C in a baseball class,’’’ Zeiler says. “Well, you missed the whole point.”
On the other end of the spectrum are students who seemed mystified by baseball.
“Last spring I had a kid who asked, ‘Does a fly ball mean that flies get on it?’’’ Zeiler says.
But a lack of baseball knowledge hasn’t kept the clueless from knocking the ball out of the park in “American History Through Baseball,” which is why one student lobbied Zeiler for another course.
“The kid comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, it’s a great course. Are you going to do one on hockey?’’’