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Bus Ride Looks At Baseball in Culture

Scholars: A group of college students tours ballparks and sees sport as an academic pursuit while trying to find the game's place in American society.

August 10, 1996|From Associated Press

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — One student presented a book report while sitting on the steps of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Others interviewed ushers and food vendors at Yankee Stadium.

It was baseball as academic exercise, a 1,500-mile bus trip out of Portland, Maine, that explored the game's place in American society.

The 42 participants took in seven games in a week, visiting ballparks at all levels--Class A to the major leagues. The group read books, watched videos, kept journals and met with baseball executives and former players.

"Baseball and American Society: A Journey" was introduced this year by the University of Southern Maine as a way to examine various aspects of the national pastime, including its history, literature and economics.

The class watched major league games at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, Camden Yards in Baltimore and Yankee Stadium in New York.

Minor league visits included Utica in Class A, Norwich, Conn., and Binghamton, N.Y., in double A and Pawtucket, R.I., in triple A. Minor league executives and coaches also spoke to the group.

The road trip also included two visits to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. The class met with the baseball shrine's chief librarian, who discussed the facility's ongoing research program.

The issue of race in baseball drew particular attention, from the era of the Negro Leagues to Jackie Robinson's breaching the color line.

During their New York stop, students spent an hour with former Cleveland Indians center fielder Larry Doby, the first black player in the American League and now the league's vice president.

In Philadelphia, they met with Gene Benson, who played alongside Robinson in the Negro Leagues, and in Baltimore with Rex Barney, former Brooklyn Dodger pitcher and now a commentator for the Orioles.

"If we were going to study the impact of baseball on society, one of the great stories in the 20th century is the civil rights movement and baseball's role in it," said E. Michael Brady, the university faculty member who devised the program. "We knew that we couldn't teach this course without a major focus on race."

About a dozen class members took the course to earn academic credit, but most were simply fans drawn to the tour by their interest in baseball. While Brady acknowledged that the course was still being fine-tuned, students said it lived up to its billing.

"People say, 'You're going on this baseball tour? What a farce. This can't have any academic value.' But they're wrong," said Paul Gauvreau, a lawyer and former Maine state senator from Lewiston who was voted "most valuable student" for his input in class discussions.

The course was the outgrowth of a tour of major league ballparks that Brady, an education professor and avid baseball fan, took three years ago.

Brady thought such a tour would be enhanced by an academic approach, so he teamed up with English professor Frank Carner, an expert in baseball literature.

"We know what the itinerary is, but we don't know where the course will lead," Carner told the class members before the trip started.

While traveling by bus, class members watched "Bull Durham," "The Jackie Robinson Story" and the first episode of the Ken Burns "Baseball" series on PBS. But time was also set aside for classroom-style discussions and baseball trivia quizzes.

Students seemed to spend every spare minute in pursuit of baseball knowledge. While waiting for the last class member to meet the bus outside the Hall of Fame, Tom Fortier presented a book report on "Eight Men Out."

At various ballparks, students interviewed employees and fans to gather material for the journals they kept throughout the tour.

"They were trying to understand how baseball works," Brady said. "We weren't just attending ball games. We were going at it as learners, and a lot of people were very aggressive with pen in hand."

Brady said the performance of the class exceeded his highest expectations.

"The reason was the quality of the students," he said. "The folks who took the course were extraordinary. They were committed, enthusiastic and knowledgeable."

The participants, most of them from Maine, included the state's economic development commissioner, a doctor, a lawyer, an accountant, several teachers and a handful of fathers and sons eager to share a week of baseball. Two women took the course.

The oldest in the class was Lawrence Epstein, an 85-year-old retiree from Portland who grew up in New York and was a frequent visitor to Yankee Stadium during days of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

"It brought back old memories," he said. "I hadn't been to Yankee Stadium since 1937 or 1938."

The youngest rider on the bus was Andrew Shuttleworth, an exceptional 11-year-old from Portland who is about to enter his junior year in high school. He particularly enjoyed the stop at Camden Yards, the videos and discussions about baseball history.

"It was a wonderful trip," Andrew said.

Among those who took the course for credit was John Schwingle, 22, a former Boston Red Sox bat boy. Nearly a week after the trip ended, Schwingle was still reflecting on all he had learned.

"It took me a couple of days to let everything sink in. It was a whirlwind of just baseball, baseball, baseball," said Schwingle, a USM student considering sports management as a career option.

Brady and some of his students agreed that the success of the course was due in large part to the nature of the game and that a similar program devoted to another sport would not work nearly as well.

"Baseball has a way of captivating the hearts of people," Brady said. "These were some highly talented, highly skilled, successful people who absolutely love the game of baseball."

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