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The Mass Media

History Department Offers Course About Baseball’s Past

Professor Cannato




History is a subject of contradictions. It can be tedious yet abstract. Difficult yet fun. UMass Professor Vincent Cannato has taken the subject’s fun side to another level with his course, America’s National Pastime: The History of Baseball, which is being offered this semester. Baseball has always been known as the one sport, above all others, that celebrates its roots and history. With pitchers and catchers reporting as this piece is being typed, baseball is on the brains of the UMass student body and there’s no bigger authority on campus than Cannato.

The professor described the inspiration behind the course. When asked about when he first got academically interested in baseball, he said, “Probably in the last 10 or 15 years, because there’s been so much more written about baseball history, there’s really been an explosion of books”.

Cannato is yet to publish his first paper about baseball history, but he said that he’s strongly considering it. He said, “My interests are urban history, and 20th century American political history, so it meshes with baseball history, but I come at it as more of a fan who’s a 20th century historian than a baseball historian.”

The proffessor has an interesting experience trying to get the unique course added to the history department curriculum. He said, “(the course) has to be approved by a faculty senate council … when they first looked at it they looked at it like ‘what is this?’, but when they went through the syllabus they realized that it was a serious class and they liked it.”

When it came to planning the course, Cannato used books from multiple genres of literature including a textbook, a novel, and pieces of sports writing. He said, “There’s actually a baseball history textbook written by a historian, as well as a book called Past Times by Jules Tygiel, who’s a historian that writes about baseball, and that’s a nice book.” He added, “We also use Eight Men Out, which is a classic, The Natural, which is a great novel, and Moneyball, which is so important when it comes to modern baseball and what’s going on.”

When asked about the role of present day baseball in the class, Cannato said, “We’ll talk about pure baseball, but the way that I’ve set the course, I like to keep it focused on history. I’d say 90 percent of it is baseball history, and 10 percent is ‘baseball baseball’.” He added “We talk about things like race, labor unions, and urbanization, all of which relate historically to baseball.”

Baseball can trace its roots back farther than any other professional team sport in America (although it’s exact origins are disputed), and that is reflected by its significant role in American history. From the Black Sox scandal in 1919 serving as a harbinger for the corruption that would dominate Chicago in the 20s, to Willie Mays and other powerful African American voices emerging in the game in the midst of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, the game has a richer history than any other, and Cannato said it best when he said “Baseball lends itself to studying it as history in a way that basketball, football, and hockey don’t. It has a story, a narrative, and a history to it.” He added, “Even though there are some fans who aren’t that interested in baseball history, there are alot of fans who love the game as well as the history of it.”

Cannato explained why he thinks the history of the game is so popular right now. He said, “We do have this sort of nostalgic view of baseball. It is deeply emotional the way people relate to it … another reason is the overwhelming wealth of statistics in the game. Every game sport has statistics but the wealth of statistics, and how you measure things, is so integral to baseball. If you’re talking about great hitters of the game, if you want to talk about how Mike Trout compares to Ted Williams…you have to have that historical comparison.” He added, “You don’t really need to compare Adrian Peterson to running backs of the 60s and 70s … Tom Brady’s a great quarterback but you don’t need to compare his stats to Bart Starr or Roger Staubach.”

Professor Cannato’s course is a prime opportunity for UMass students to connect with the rich history of a game we all love. The season’s right around the corner and learning about baseball’s past will always make us hunger to see what the future holds.