Hardball Classics

Two San Francisco State professors have found a novel way to bring their favorite pastime into the classroom
June 19, 2005

The history and Literature of Baseball might not strike academic purists as a particularly compelling field of study, but the two distinguished professors who teach the course at San Francisco State would tell those pedants to pull their eggheads out of the sand.

Without even bothering to cite Columbia history professor Jacques Barzun's oft-quoted remark that "whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball," Eric Solomon and Jules Tygiel have no difficulty defending their course on intellectual grounds. Solomon, a 76-year-old professor emeritus of English at San Francisco State, argues that in teaching the surprisingly vast canon of baseball belles lettres, he is exposing his students to "the essential themes of American literature--tragedy, comedy, life, death and the seven deadly sins. What we intellectuals love about baseball is that it's a narrative: Each game, each inning, each at bat is its own narrative."

In addition to the course's required texts (box, right), Solomon's supplemental reading list includes Zane Grey, Mark Harris's Henry Wiggen tetralogy and George Plimpton's classic article The Curious Case of Sidd Finch (SI, April 1, 1985). But literature is only a part of the course, the heavier emphasis being on what Tygiel calls baseball's profound influence on American social history.

The first of historian Tygiel's six books was the acclaimed Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy, written in 1983 but inspired by a 1947 TIME magazine story he had read six years earlier while earning his doctorate at Robinson's alma mater, UCLA. As Tygiel informs his class, "My book is not a biography of Jackie Robinson. It is a social history of the integration process. But I can tell you that Robinson is today a larger figure in American culture than he was in the 1950s."

For all of the intellectual heft the two professors bring to their teaching--the Harvard-educated Solomon is also a prolific writer and critic--they are essentially lifelong fans of the game. Solomon, a native New Englander, fell under the Red Sox' spell in 1941--"the year the Kid hit .406 and Lefty Grove won his 300th game." Tygiel, 56, grew up in Brooklyn and was a Dodgers fan until the team abandoned his hometown in 1957. His allegiance switched to the expansion Mets in 1962 and then to the Giants when he moved to the Bay Area.

The two baseball profs met when Tygiel joined the San Francisco State faculty, in 1978. Solomon had already been teaching there for 14 years and had long contemplated expanding the literature curriculum to include baseball. In Tygiel he found a kindred spirit, and so when Solomon became acting provost of the university 19 years ago, he decided to exercise some of his institutional clout to organize this interdisciplinary course. The two have been teaching it on average every three years.

Solomon and Tygiel are convinced that their course is unique because of the combination of history and literature and by the fact that both professors are in the classroom at the same time, bantering and kibitzing, stepping on each other's lines and, as Tygiel says, "learning from each other."

One day this spring, for example, Tygiel mentioned in passing a Southern ballplayer named Bama Rowell. Solomon immediately swung into action: "I remember him well ... with the Braves in the 1940s ... played second base and the outfield, both badly." And when Tygiel began his discourse on the game's integration, Solomon spotted the literary link: "White and dark ... the subject resonates throughout our literature, through James Fenimore Cooper to Mark Twain. The key line in Huckleberry Finn occurs when Huck tells Jim, 'They're after us.' Us! Huck knows they're not after him, the white boy, but after Jim, the black man. And yet he says, 'Us.'"

Like all college courses, this one is not without student complaints. "We moved along kind of slowly," says one undergraduate. "In fact, I thought we'd never get out of the Dead Ball era." But there is no final exam; grades are based on participation and three essays of up to 1,800 words each. And on the last day of class, May 26, the professors took their two dozen students to--what else?--a ball game.

The Lineup

Here's the assigned reading list for the History and Literature of Baseball.

• William Brashler, The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings

• Robert Coover, The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.

• Eric Rolfe Greenberg, The Celebrant

• Mark Harris, Bang the Drum Slowly

• Ring Lardner, You Know Me Al

• Bernard Malamud, The Natural

• Marvin Miller, A Whole Different Ball Game

• Robert Peterson, Only the Ball Was White

• Lawrence S. Ritter, The Glory of Their Times

• Paul D. Staudohar, ed., Baseball's Best Short Stories

• Jules Tygiel, Past Time

B/W PHOTOGERRY GROPP (TYGIEL) AUTHOR! Tygiel (inset) wrote the book on Robinson and baseball's integration. B/W PHOTOHY PESKIN (ROBINSON)[See caption above] COLOR PHOTOCOURTESY OF POCKET BOOKS (BOOK COVER)

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