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Adrian Burgos: Teaching Sport and Society

BurgosAdrian Burgos Jr. is a Professor of History at the University of Illinois. He holds a Ph.D. from University of Michigan (2000) and a B.A. from Vassar College (1993). His first book, Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line (University of California Press, 2007), won the inaugural Latina/o Book Award from the Latin American Studies Association and was a Seymour Medal finalist from the Society of American Baseball Research. His second book, Cuban Star: How One Negro League Owner Changed the Face of Baseball, was published by Hill & Wang in 2011. An expert on Latinos in baseball and the Negro Leagues, he has served as advisor on museum exhibits such as the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s Viva Baseball and documentaries such as Ken Burns’ The Tenth Inning and Bernardo Ruiz’s Roberto Clemente.

Dr. Burgos’s syllabus for his Sport & Society class is available here.

For years I often incorporated sport history into the courses I teach, which include “Caribbean Latino Migrations,” “Constructing Race in America,” and “Urban History.” On several occasions, I made race and sport the topical focus of my offerings of both the capstone research seminar and “Introduction to Historical Interpretation”—a course designed for undergrads interested in pursuing either a history major or minor. However, it dawned on me a few years back that after teaching at the University of Illinois for almost a decade, I had not actually taught a sport history course even though my published work examines sport to understand processes of racialization, acculturation, community formation, and transnationalism, among others. Additionally, the popularity of the classes I had taught motivated me to design a course where sport serves as the site for students to explore these intellectual concerns. “Sport & Society” seemed the most fitting name for the new course.

The push for curricular offerings that attract undergraduates drove us to create this new course, since we are faced, like many history departments, with the reality of declining undergraduate enrollment. My department welcomed the addition of a sport history course since it is an area that students had expressed enthusiasm in. 

I organized “Sport & Society” as an advanced-level course for 35 students and successfully secured a cross-listing with Kinesiology to attract a wider cross-section of students. As a former collegiate athlete myself, the enrollment of a number of our student athletes in the course has been a welcome byproduct. The class roster was not typical for the courses I teach in Latino history, urban history, and 20th century U.S. history. In addition to a contingent of history majors, the roster included more than the usual share of student athletes: members of the women’s soccer team, a starter from our women’s volleyball team that went to the NCAA finals, a few wrestlers, and a football player. There were also a few budding sports journalists and almost forty percent women students. Most enrollees were already sports enthusiasts when they stepped into the classroom.

Securing enrollment was not the challenge, which is a rarity of late when it comes to history course offerings; managing student expectations of the course while executing my course objectives proved more daunting.

“Sport & Society” was proposed and approved as a repeatable course. The course has a different topical focus each time students enroll, so that it can be constructed narrowly or broadly. Moreover, the pedagogical aim for the course is not for students to obtain a comprehensive knowledge of sport history. Rather, my goal is to equip students with the ability to critically analyze the human actors, institutions, and social forces that shape our understanding of how sport can not only be a mirror of society but at times serve as a laboratory for testing ideas—such as what transpired with the racial integration of baseball. I focus on the interplay between what transpired on the fields of play, who were able to access those terrains (and why), as well as who were positioned to chronicle the events that unfolded. In doing so, I seek to provide students with the means to critically approach the study of any historical moment, site, or institution. This fall I am offering “Sport & Society” again and have expanded the focus from just exploring baseball’s racial integration to looking at the intersections of race and sport in multiple sports (soccer/football, boxing, baseball, and American football).

Game Plan

The course sought to empower students to use the analytical tools of critical thinkers, whether or not they were history majors. They were expected not just to react to what transpired, but become interpreters of the evidence and of the narratives that were previously produced. Indeed, a vital goal was for them to understand, as Michel Rolph Trouillot’s brilliant Silencing the Past pressed many of us to acknowledge, that history is more than the facts of the matter. I encouraged them to embrace history as a relationship between those of us in the present and the past. History does change as our understandings of the past change with new evidence or analytical tools to examine previous evidence or narratives of the past.

Developing such an approach to history was the goal of the very first set of readings, “Integration Stories: Why Sport and Society Matters.” Students engaged multiple scholarly arguments about whether baseball owner Bill Veeck had attempted to buy the Philadelphia Phillies in 1942 to stock the team with Black players. These readings encouraged students to see that historians grapple with the same evidence to produce different arguments. The readings also challenged them to consider whether a lack of evidence can be interpreted as proof that an event did (or did not) transpire; this lesson is all the more crucial in an age where digital newspapers and archives are making available materials that were once much more difficult to locate much less mine for evidence.

Similarly, a later assignment called for them to conduct readings of two famous photographs in the narrative of baseball integration: the 1947 photo of Jackie Robinson and Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman ‘making’ amends; and the 1948 photo of African American Larry Doby, who pioneered integration in the American League, being held in an enthusiastic embrace by his white teammate Steve Gromek after the Indians claimed the World Series pennant. For this assignment, students wrote a “micro-history” of these two captured moments where they interpreted for their audience (the rest of the class) the significance of what the photograph illustrated. The in-class discussion of these micro-histories reminded us all of the power of producing narratives, and that these narratives can be multiplied to speak to who we are as scholars and to reflect the times in which we live.

The (Reading) Lineup

  • Rebecca Alpert, Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2011)
  • Howard Bryant, Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003)
  • Adrian Burgos, Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).
  • Timothy Gay, Satch, Dizzy, and Rapid Robert: The Wild Saga of Interracial Baseball Before Jackie Robinson (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010)
  • Neil Lanctot, Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008)
  • Rob Ruck, Raceball: How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game (Boston: Beacon Press, 2011)
  • Jules Tygiel, Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy (New York: Oxford University Press, rep. 2007)

Books and articles assigned illuminated the work involved in maintaining segregation: how did the policing of racial boundaries and baseball’s color line during baseball’s Jim Crow era require vigilance from the sport’s fans, players, team/league executives, and the media? The readings also complicated the traditional narrative of integration by shedding light on how widespread segregationist practices were within baseball. Indeed, students had to confront the fact that even after the incorporation of the previously excluded players was initiated, particular practices within organized baseball continued for decades (such as hosting spring training camps in segregated towns), and how this ensured that vestiges of white privilege—cultivated over decades of segregationist practices within the sport—remained.

Readings such as Alpert’s Out of Left Field that describes the Jewish involvement in the Negro Leagues, Lanctot’s Negro League Baseball that provides a compelling view of those executives involved in operating Black baseball, and Gay’s Satch, Dizzy, and Rapid Robert offers students multiple vantage points to baseball that existed beyond the Major Leagues. Tygiel’s Baseball’s Great Experiment and Howard Bryant’s Shut Out illustrate the process of integration that unfolded over a decade’s time, where in each organization pioneering Black players encountered institutional inertia and individual resistance from many upset about the negative consequences of disturbing the racial status quo.

Among the more vital questions we returned to throughout the semester: Who got to decide what integration was within professional baseball? Who were able to determine the pace of integration and its participants? How applicable are the lessons learned from the way Major League Baseball implemented its “great experiment” for the rest of society? Finally, in what proved to be one of the more lively debates, was there a significant difference between integration and desegregation as societal projects? Such questions brought us back to the ways that studying our topic in sport is really about understanding that they were intimately connected to everyday life. That the sporting figures we studied were members of communities, and households that they returned to at the end of their “work” on the baseball diamond, and as individuals whose experience were at the crucible of the intersections of race, class, gender, and nationality.

Post-Game Wrap

Since the semester coincided with the 65th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color line in the Major Leagues, I opted for a singular focus on “Baseball and Integration.” The course design also does not encompass all of baseball history, but rather aimed to study a specific theme deeply, and to examine that theme from multiple angles through assigned readings and course assignments.

My main expectation, which I shared at the first class meeting, was for us to examine the narratives of baseball and integration in such a manner that students could pursue a similar line of critical analysis in other subjects within sport and society. This proved important as most students, I would learn during the course of the semester, were not baseball fans—even though quite a few regularly sported their rooting interests (Cubs, Cardinals, and White Sox) on their caps and clothing.

The majority of students entered the class with a rudimentary knowledge of Jackie Robinson and baseball integration that they had learned during Black History Month. The course’s required books and assignments sought to disrupt their Whiggish understanding of baseball integration by placing Jackie Robinson within the larger history of Negro League baseball, exploring the impact of integration in different parts of the baseball world, and indicating integration was a process, not a predetermined success. Breaking the color barrier took the courage and labor of many historical actors, not just Robinson and Dodgers executive Branch Rickey.