Laurie Chin knows there’s a lot more to baseball than one, two, three strikes, you’re out.
“Since its inception into American society, baseball has been a central player in defining America’s cultural and political identity,” said Chin, who teaches History 495, “American Baseball,” this spring. “This class explores the game’s evolution from a British sport dominating city culture to a definitely American national institution.”
One source of baseball’s enduring appeal is the emotional connection between the teams and their communities. “Local residents became so vested in team rivalries that we begin to encounter superstitions like the one surrounding the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry and the ‘curse of Babe Ruth,’” she said. “The curse hearkens back to the days when baseball defined regional identity. Then baseball began to grow with the rise of the corporations. Just look at the rise of multi-million-dollar baseball fields. Teams became institutions like the corporations that paid for them. But what I still find intriguing about baseball is the level of identification with the teams on the local level. Kids identify with local, not national teams, and that is more so with baseball than with almost any other sport.”
Baseball serves as a lens that magnifies the issues of its times including race and gender. Chin noted how baseball was a vehicle for African-American activity through the Negro Leagues. She also explores the changing nature of women’s relationships with professional baseball starting with the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League that operated from 1943 to 1954 and ending with the current Women’s Baseball League.
One of Chin’s special interests is the nearly forgotten Indianapolis Clowns and one of their players, Hank Aaron. “He started his career with the Clowns, yet his autobiography begins with his start in the big leagues,” Chin said of the all-time champion with 755 home runs. “Our collective cultural and historical memories also do not associate Aaron with the Negro Leagues. It is a loss of history, one that is so central to not only Aaron’s life and career but to the Negro Leagues and all that is associated. Why our culture loses this history is something that intrigues me.”
Race always has been an issue in baseball. “In the same way many Americans define themselves by race, they define themselves by sport,” she explained. “There are many Latinos in today’s games and the representation of Asian players is growing. In the 1930s, America’s Jewish people had issues which baseball addressed.”
Chin grew up on the East Coast but considers herself a long-time L.A. Dodgers fan. This May, she will speak about the Indianapolis Clowns at the North American Society for Sport History conference in Texas.
The future is a rocky one for modern baseball. Chin’s course examines the use of illegal substances, minorities in baseball and growing corporate involvement in the game which she views within the wider spectrum of domestic and international politics, economics and culture. “Sports history is beginning to catch on,” she said. “Columbia University offers a course. You have lots of people taking a more intellectual look at baseball. Courses like these challenge students to discover what cultural history really is.”