May 2013 Archways

On Course: Inside Baseball

A Bryn Mawr history class looks at social class and the national pastime.

By Nancy Brokaw

Daniele Arad-Neeman 14, Elizabeth Reilly ’14, and Nora Scheland ’15 get
ready to watch a Riversharks game. Photo by Roy Groething.

Baseball looms large in the story the United States tells about itself. It is the American sport, at once pastoral reverie and democracy in action.

But for Sharon Ullman, a professor in Bryn Mawr’s department of history and serious fan of the game, the national pastime is also an ideal subject for academic study—and a timely topic for one of Bryn Mawr’s half-semester Focus Courses.

As Ullman is careful to point out, the class, called Leisure and Class: Baseball, isn’t a full-scale history of the game but rather a close examination of a single topic: baseball’s historic role as both a reflector and a mediator of social class in the United States.

Students were surprised to learn in their early readings that professional baseball emerged out of private social clubs on the East Coast—a far cry from the myth of Abner Doubleday setting up on a cow pasture outside Cooperstown, New York. Another revelation was baseball’s role in foreign policy; military and political envoys deployed the sport to assert U.S. cultural presence in Japan, Germany, and much of Latin America. “I had no idea that we as a country incorporated baseball into our foreign relations throughout the World Wars 
and Cold War,” says Madison Fuelling, Hfd ’15.

As it professionalized in the late 19th century, the game saw its fair share of rowdiness, cheating, riots, and corruption, and immigrants were all too often assigned the blame for the mischief. They were also assigned the cheap seats when those who created the professional leagues built stadiums that effectively segregated the elites and the masses. “The parks are designed to control questions of class difference,” Ullman explains. “Think about the bleachers versus the boxes.”

At the same time, working-class immigrants started picking up the game—both as players and fans—and in doing so, started identifying with the larger American story. “The impulse toward ‘classlessness’ is reflected in the conversation about America—in the story although not actually in the history,” explains Ullman. “And baseball plays a role in that story Americans enjoy telling themselves as the national game that everyone can have access to—you don’t need to be great to play—and that makes you part of a national fabric. So nationalism and ‘classlessness,’ I think, came to work together. In this country, baseball was one of the avenues by which workers and immigrants were urged to identify as citizens of a nation as opposed to members of a class.”

Today, baseball is still constructing “class communities” as major-league parks charge major-league prices and minor-league clubs flourish. With the major-league teams employing a roster of high-salary players, the cost of a ticket has risen dramatically. This often prices out lower-income fans and attracts corporate buyers in their place. As Ullman observes: “Now even the bleachers are relatively expensive. The notion that only corporations can afford tickets fundamentally changes the nature of who the fans are, the person who goes to every game, the person who buys season tickets.”

Students in Leisure and Class: Baseball tour the Camden Riversharks stadium with GM Adam Lorber. Photo by Roy Groething.

So where do the fans direct their allegiance? Maybe to teams like the Camden Riversharks. Part of a private baseball league of community-focused teams, the Riversharks report healthy attendance, averaging 4,000 fans a game with as many as 8,000 for some. On a field trip to the Riversharks home field, students had the opportunity to quiz the team’s general manager, Adam Lorber, about the team’s prospects—and its community outreach. The team’s stadium, Campbell’s Field, was built in an entertainment complex that was conceived as part of an economic revitalization plan for New Jersey’s poorest city and that stands, says Ullman, “at a line of divide between the rest of the city and the waterfront site itself.”

“I’ve learned how inextricably linked baseball is with American history over the past two centuries, whether it be the Civil War, civil rights, class struggle, or even the struggle to find a cohesive American identity as the nation formed,” says Daniele Arad-Neeman ’14.

As an added bonus, Arad-Neeman and her classmates got to see the Riversharks beat the Lancaster Barnstormers—and experience a little Spring Fever of their own.

Comments on “On Course: Inside Baseball”

  1. Nancy,

    Your article twitched happy memories of baseball and class for me. One Sunday afternoon after lunch my father took our houseguest Moe Berg (former big league catcher and OSS spy) Mother, my daughter Loulie, son Charlie, me, and our black butler Clarence Osborne to an Orioles game in Baltimore. Dad, Clarence, and Moe sat at the end of the row making wise comments about the game. Dad and Clarence had played on local teams against each other and often disected Orioles games. Clarence was a special friend.