Why I love baseball history

Thursday afternoon, news broke on Twitter that Derek Jeter would be out injured until at least the All Star Break and the response was fairly predictable. While Yankee fans bemoaned yet another sidelined Bomber, opposing fans took the opportunity to bash Jeter and the organization. In the midst, my friend Melissa tweeted a call for fans to respect Yankee history and resist the urge to pile on. Of course that drew one person who argued with her. Melissa wrote the tweet above in response.

I met Melissa awhile back when I tweeted that I could name more members of the 1919 Black Sox than cast members of “Jersey Shore.” (In the interest of not sounding like an elitist, let me add that I can also name more Black Sox than current U.S. senators, Supreme Court justices or foreign heads of state.) People like Melissa and I are in a minority among baseball fans, particularly younger ones. I know full well how little use most fans have for baseball history. I see the traffic numbers for this website, pedestrian even when we’re posting good content regularly. I see the shrinking membership for the Society for American Baseball Research, even while baseball attendance has increased markedly over the past 20 years. People still love baseball, but its history most can take or leave. That’s unfortunate.

I’m drawn to baseball as a writer, historian and journalist. I love the stories. When people ask me which team I’m a fan of, I sometimes say I’m a fan of baseball history. It’s a little dorky but it’s true. While technically I’ve been a San Francisco Giants fan since grade school, it’s baseball history, all 150-plus years of it that I really love. I’ve been reading about it since I was eight and what I’ve found is that most every team has something cool in its past, something worthy of respect regardless of uniform colors. I think of Ted Williams serving in two wars, first as a flight instructor in World War II then as a combat pilot in Korea. I think of the Dodgers signing Jackie Robinson. As for the Yankees, few moments in baseball history yield the emotional impact of Lou Gehrig’s “Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth” speech. Any opposing fan not moved at least somewhat by the Iron Horse’s words is either unaware of their existence or a cold-hearted cynic.

It’s not just baseball history that I love but history in general. I enjoy accumulating knowledge and anecdotes. I like the better understanding of the world the information gives me. I like to think it makes me a better writer and wiser person. More than that, I just enjoy learning about history. A writer I like, Sarah Vowell is, similar to me, a history nerd. Some years ago in an essay, she expounded on this, writing:

On the first day of school when I was a kid, the guy teaching history– and it was almost always a guy, wearing a lot of brown– would cough up the pompous same old old same old about how if we failed to learn the lessons of history then we would be doomed to repeat them. Which is true if you’re one of the people who grow up to run things, but not as practical if your destiny is a nice small life. For example, thanks to my tenth-grade world history textbook’s chapter on the Napoleonic Wars, I know not to invade Russia in the wintertime. This information would have been good for an I-told-you-so toast at Hitler’s New Year’s party in 1943, but for me, knowing not to trudge my troops through the snow to Moscow is not so handy day-to-day.

The other sort of useful thing the history teacher in the brown jacket never really said, probably because he would have been laughed out of the room, was this: knowing what happened when and where is fun.

Ultimately, that’s what baseball history is for me: fun. Its importance in understanding what goes on in baseball today is debatable, seeing as baseball changes from generation to generation and other tools are more useful for deconstructing the current game. Knowing that Joe Sewell struck out as many times between 1926 and 1932 as the Detroit Tigers and Seattle Mariners did on Wednesday night– 40 times– won’t explain why strikeouts are up so dramatically in the majors these days. It won’t say whether baseball’s gotten better or worse over the years, even if some may attempt to use the stat that way. But it’s a fun, quirky fact that provides some contrast. Baseball history is littered with these. (Another fun Sewell fact while we’re on the subject: He had six seasons with at least 600 plate appearances where he struck out fewer than 10 times. Who does that anymore? Answer: No one.)

In February, I got my eight-year-old nephew Jasper his first book of baseball history. From what I hear, he was excited to receive it. That puts a smile on my face. I hope he gets out of the book what I have (Ken Burns’ Baseball– one of my favorites) and is one day able to return the favor for someone else. To me, baseball history is too enjoyable not to be shared.

4 thoughts on “Why I love baseball history

  1. Great piece. I too love the history of the game. Like James Earl Jones said in Field of Dreams, this game and these players have marked the time.

  2. i couldn’t agree more – The history of the game is totally awesome. And wow, I knew Sewell barely ever struck out, but wow, LOL less than one long game’s worth these days.

  3. I’m with you.

    I might also add that one thing that’s appealing is the baseball history community seems to contain fewer loudmouth blowhards than the baseball community at large. I like to just learn and share without having to worry about arguing about everything.

  4. I’m with you too, Graham. The thing I’ve noticed about myself after quite a few years of baseball blogging: I still follow the current game, but I have very little interest in writing about anything other than history.

    Maybe you should change the name of the site to Baseball’s Past is a Present. OK, super corny, I realize. :)

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