OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

David Vaught

Portrait of David Vaught
Image Credit: Texas A&M University

David Vaught is a professor of history at Texas A&M University. He is the author of four books: The Farmers’ Game: Baseball in Rural America (2013), winner of the 2014 Society for American Baseball Research SABR Baseball Research Award; Teaching the Big Class: Advice from a History Colleague (2011); After the Gold Rush: Tarnished Dreams in the Sacramento Valley (2007); and Cultivating California: Growers, Specialty Crops, and Labor, 1875-1920 (1999). His research has been funded by three fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities. He is a past president of the Agricultural History Society, former head of department, University Distinguished Lecturer, and recipient of the Melbern G. Glasscock Professorship in Undergraduate Teaching Excellence. He currently is writing a book with the working title, “Spitter: The Notorious Gaylord Perry,” a biography of the notorious Hall of Famer, for both scholarly and general audiences, that examines his rich and revealing life experience from his innovative ascent from rural poverty in eastern North Carolina, to baseball stardom, to his subsequent descent to failure on the farm during the 1980s agricultural crisis.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

In 1907, baseball’s promoters decreed that the Civil War hero Abner Doubleday created the game in the village of Cooperstown, New York, in 1839. Baseball thus acquired a distinctly rural American origin and a romantic pastoral appeal. Skeptics have since presented irrefutable evidence that America’s pastime was neither born in America nor a product of rural life. But in their zeal to debunk the myth of baseball’s rural beginnings, historians have fallen prey to what Annales School founder Marc Bloch famously called the “idol of origins,” and all but neglected the very real phenomenon of rural baseball itself. The claim that baseball has always been “a city game for city men” does not stand up to empirical scrutiny anymore than the Doubleday myth itself, as Vaught's lecture demonstrates with three case studies—Cooperstown in the 1830s, Davisville, California, in the 1880s, and Milroy, Minnesota, in the 1950s.
Broadly speaking, this lecture argues that baseball played a central role in southern rural culture in the twentieth century, countering the long-held view that the game, from its origins in the mid-nineteenth century to the present, has been primarily an urban phenomenon--a "city game for city people." Through the life experience of Hall of Fame pitcher Gaylord Perry, the lecture explores, among many themes, the last generation to come of age in the segregated South, the last generation of sharecroppers, race relations in baseball after Jackie Robinson, and the links between rural southern culture and American popular culture.
This lecture, through the experiences of "swamplander" Ransom S. Carey and other gold-rush migrants, examines the failure of early private, county, and state efforts to reclaim California's Sacramento Valley, which routinely filled up like a bathtub during the winter flooding season. Ignorant of the region’s volatile environment yet seduced by its “natural advantages,” confident in their ability to tame nature yet lacking due respect for its power, swamplanders were utterly unaware of the enormity of what lay ahead of them. More than a few would battle the forces of nature in the second half of the nineteenth century with a resolve and, indeed, a vengeance that can only be described as remarkable--if ultimately futile.