GORHAM – We just returned home from the 16th edition of University of Southern Maine’s travel course titled “Baseball and American Society: A Journey.” It was our last.
A difficult economy, changes in the university’s core curriculum and other factors have brought an end to this award-winning course.
In 1996, associate professor of English Frank Carner and I created a travel course that was designed to explore baseball’s role in American culture.
While we thought we’d be fortunate to run a successful course one time, it turned out — 40,000 bus miles and 466 registrations (318 different people) later — that “Baseball and American Society: A Journey” would have a life span of more than a decade and a half. In 2000, upon Frank’s retirement, USM Athletic Director Al Bean joined me as co-facilitator.
Over the years we have traveled to cities as large as New York, Philadelphia and Chicago and towns as small as Oneonta, N.Y., Bluefield, W.Va., and Dyarsville, Iowa, to attend games and talk with experts inside the game as well as scholars who have studied baseball’s impact on society.
These have included community business leaders, general managers, coaches, book authors, umpires, broadcasters, trainers and even Hall of Fame players (like Bob Feller, Larry Doby, Al Kaline and Jim Rice). On three different occasions, we had face-to-face encounters with a panel of women who played in the All American Girls Professional Baseball League, the erstwhile “League of Their Own.” These were the real players in the women’s league created by Chicago chewing gum mogul Philip Wrigley during World War II.
Forty years later, these women worked with film director Penny Marshall and actors Geena Davis, Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell and Tom Hanks to “get it right” in the movie. We also have met with six former Negro League players.
These hours spent talking with and learning from AAGPBL and Negro League players were precious and even magical because, as I reminded my students, like World War II veterans, “God doesn’t make them anymore.” Every year, their numbers diminish.
We have had 56 people take this course more than once. (I have been a professor for 35 years, and only twice outside of the baseball travel course did I have students repeat a course — both because they failed the first time.) Thirty individuals, many of whom were adults who audited, participated three times or more, 12 five times or more, and seven people eight times or more.
One of many implications of having these “veterans” travel with us year after year was that they mentored the younger students and also helped to create an unusually strong community.
There are two indicators of the community we were able to develop from this diverse group of individuals — we’ve had lawyers, teachers, accountants, factory workers, ministers, retail clerks and a myriad of other careers represented. We organized three memorial services on the bus for colleagues who had died, and every winter since 1997, we have had between 25 and 30 people attend a “Hot Stove Reunion,” with former students traveling from as far away as St. Louis.
I understand that baseball may no longer be America’s most popular sport. In recent years, football appears to have won the national popularity polls. During our travels we have discussed numerous times whether the moniker “national pastime” still applies to baseball.
Our usual conclusion is “yes,” but we also need to be clear that “pastime” and “popular” are not necessarily the same thing. I can say with confidence that a teacher would have difficulty running a similar travel course to explore football, basketball or hockey because of the seasons in which these sports are played and the relative infrequency of games.
Baseball is played every day in the summer, and we took full advantage of this fortunate fact in our 16 years of educational travel across America. For a myriad of reasons, the course has been a special highlight in my long career as a teacher.
It has blended vocation with avocation, has invited rich intergenerational dialogue (every year we have attracted students of traditional college age, middle-aged adults and retired people), and has demonstrated the power of experientially based education.
As our course comes to an end, I am filled with a deep sense of gratitude. I am thankful that the university supported and in fact encouraged “Baseball and American Society: A Journey” for so many years, that 318 people chose to participate, that we had only two rainouts in 144 days, that the baseball literature is rich enough to have allowed 185 different books to be selected by students for oral reports, and that America has this glorious game through which so much may be taught and learned.
- Special to The Press Herald