- Understanding Baseball: A Textbook by Trey Strecker, et al.
Long dismissed by most professors as unworthy of serious scholarly inquiry, baseball has, in recent years, enjoyed greater academic acceptance. This acceptance has translated into an increasing number of college courses on the National Pastime. A simple Internet search reveals, for example, that courses on baseball have recently been offered at such schools as George Mason University, Pacific Lutheran University, Penn State, Texas Tech, and the University of Central Florida. Before his untimely passing a few years back, noted baseball historian Jules Tygiel regularly cotaught a class at San Francisco State University on the history and literature of the game. A quick glance at the syllabi for these courses reveals that the courses usually examine more than just the history of the sport; they also explore the game’s social and cultural dimensions.
Despite the growing number of college courses on baseball, there are few survey texts on baseball, and most of those surveys are centered on the game’s history. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with a basic history of baseball, such histories force professors who want their students to appreciate baseball’s relationship to larger social and cultural forces to assign multiple books and articles on different aspects of the game. Understanding Baseball: A Textbook attempts to fill this need for a comprehensive text on baseball. Each of the five chapters in this volume is by a different author from a different academic discipline. According to Trey Strecker, who wrote both the introduction and Chapter 5, the authors hope that their varied approaches will promote academic interest in the sport while also “suggest[ing] different routes to studying, researching, appreciating, and contributing to ongoing conversations about baseball, its history, and its culture” (1).
Steven P. Gietschier begins the book with an historical overview of the development of baseball, from its contested origins to the recent past. Along the way, he discusses the emergence of the professional game, various rule changes, and controversies, including the Black Sox and steroid scandals. David George Surdam follows with a chapter introducing readers to the economics of the sport. Surdam calls American sports leagues “cartels” and describes Major League Baseball as the “granddaddy” of them all (62). He maintains, however, that fans will overlook the owners’ sometimes shady business practices as long as the owners continue to put an entertaining product on the field. In his chapter, John A. Fortunato investigates how the media and baseball shape one another. To cite but one example, he points out how cable and satellite television have increased the game’s viewership and [End Page 249] boosted its revenue and how baseball, in turn, has changed the face of cable and satellite TV. Notably, the Yankees have partial ownership of a cable channel, the YES Network, and Major League Baseball has its own twenty-four-hour channel, the MLB Network. Mitchell Nathanson considers the relationship between baseball and the law in Chapter 4, focusing his discussion on the history of baseball’s antitrust exemption and federal cases concerning the powers of the commissioner. Strecker wraps things up with a fine essay on novels about baseball. Such novels, he asserts, “are rarely just about [emphasis in the original] baseball; they are about people” (186). Although many aspects of the game have been the topic of baseball fiction, Strecker contends that some elements of the sport have largely escaped fiction writers’ notice. The Negro Leagues, for example, have been the focus of few novels.
One might fault this volume for including only five disciplinary perspectives on baseball, but Strecker is clear in the introduction that the book is limited in scope. He and the other authors anticipate that future editions of the book will include chapters on baseball and gender, baseball and politics, and baseball and film, among other topics. In short, this book is just a starting point. One might also question whether the chapters are equally accessible to their intended audience. The book is meant...