Iowa Alumni Magazine | April 2015 | In Class

U.S. History in Nine Innings

By Tom Snee
A UI class illustrates America's evolution through baseball.

Ah, spring. That welcome season when baseball awakens from its winter slumber to renew the nation's hope, as the heralded boys of summer return to the lush green playing fields…

To which Allen Steinberg interrupts with "blah blah blah."

"The first thing I do is debunk the myth that baseball somehow reflects the American soul," says Steinberg, an emeritus professor of history. While some writers and fans like to elevate baseball to a lofty place in the national lore (Field of Dreams, anyone?), Steinberg says the game no more represents American society than any other sport. Instead it was baseball's place in time that gifted it with mystic properties—and if James Naismith had invented basketball in 1839 instead of 1891, we'd probably wax poetic about our great national pastime of shooting hoops.

Still, the professor believes baseball can serve as an interesting lens from which to observe and better understand American history and culture, and it is from this perpective that he teaches "The Social History of American Baseball." After all, he says, the same forces that shaped baseball history—such as industrialization, immigration, the labor movement, and civil rights—were the same forces that shaped America. "Baseball is history, like anything is history," Steinberg says. "It's people making choices and making changes, only it's about a game."

Steinberg began teaching the class in 2010, mostly to students like UI senior Adam Vink, who, not surprisingly, loves baseball. Says the Cubs fan from Pella, Iowa: "Baseball is the first thing I was allowed to watch on TV. My grandmother was really strict and wouldn't let us watch anything, but she recognized the holiness of Harry Caray and Steve Stone and let us watch the Cubs." Buoyed by such wisdom, Steinberg, Vink, and 34 other students run the base paths of time, exploring the relationship between baseball and America's growth. They begin with the game's mid-19th century origins through the post-Civil War progressive era; explore the golden age that propelled and defined the game through the Great Depression, war, and racism; and finally consider the factors that shape the game today. Along the journey, students discover that just as America evolved through changing times and complexities, so did baseball.

Baseball emerged in the early 19th century from sports like rounders, cricket, and town ball. In the big cities of the East, people from all walks of life played each other using local rules, and by the 1840s and 1850s, young men began forming the earliest baseball clubs. However, it was the Civil War that catapulted baseball to a nationwide sensation as soldiers on both sides of the battlefield played to endure long encampments, anxiety, and boredom. In fact, students learn baseball served as common ground for a country divided—first identified as the "national pastime" in 1856, five years before the U.S. split into blue and gray.

Baseball continued to bring a post-war nation together. The game's fame grew, and it wasn't long before the business-minded saw baseball as an opportunity to make money. In 1868, the Cincinnati Red Stockings debuted as the first openly professional team, followed by the 1876 formation of the National League, developed to organize the game and codify a single set of official rules. The league cast baseball as a business, allowing owners to assert power over the players. Owners pursued avenues like the Reserve Clause, first written into contracts in 1879, which essentially bound a player to a team for life whether or not he liked his salary.


"Baseball is history, like anything is history. It's people making choices and making changes, only it's about a game."

 —Allen Steinberg

As might be expected, players chaffed under this system and pushed back in the 1880s just as worker strikes and labor protests became increasingly frequent. The resulting conflicts between players and management, Steinberg points out, were in keeping with the overarching rise of big business and the U.S. labor movement. To encourage robust class discussion, the professor divides students into "owners and players" to haggle over the wisdom of concepts like the Reserve Clause.

For Jake Balogh, a junior history major and Cubs fan from Rockford, Illinois, it's easier to understand labor issues and other important developments in American history from such a fun and interesting context. "You can see the same things we talk about in history classes," he says, "but they're a little clearer when we talk about baseball."

In the early 20th century, baseball became an even bigger institution. The American League formed in 1901, establishing a game structure that has brought the champions of the National and American leagues to the World Series for more than 110 years. To accommodate the public's interest, modern ballparks of brick and steel were built to seat tens of thousands, right along with the construction boom of the Second Industrial Revolution.

Baseball kept growing through its golden years, led by the amazing hitting exploits of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Ty Cobb, yet shrouded by its 19th-century color line. With baseball mirroring a society divided by segregation, the Negro Leagues started play in 1920. These leagues developed players so talented that they often beat major league teams in exhibition games. Finally, in 1947, the legendary Jackie Robinson's talent became impossible to deny and he became the first African American to play major league baseball when Branch Rickey signed him to the Brooklyn Dodgers.

This shattering of the color barrier provides an opportunity to discuss Robinson's role as civil rights hero as much as first-rate ball player. Assigned readings from Baseball: A History of America's Game and Moneyball prepare students for deeper discussions that explore baseball's relationship to the larger society. In addition to traditional lectures, Steinberg also enhances class time with segments from Ken Burns' popular PBS documentary Baseball or a YouTube video interpreting one of baseball's earliest pop culture references, Casey at the Bat.

Throughout the Great Depression and World War II, baseball provided a shred of normalcy to a society wracked by economic collapse and war. Stars like Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, and Iowa's own Bob Feller—the Heater from Van Meter—left the game for military service and opened up the opportunity for pioneering women to keep baseball alive on the home front by playing in a league of their own. Baseball clubs like the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants moved west in the 1950s and 1960s, as did a good portion of the American population seeking post-war prosperity. Day games and doubleheaders soon disappeared to make way for television.

Steinberg concludes the semester with a common theme of modern baseball and the U.S. economy: wealth. With players now at will to enjoy enormous free-agent salaries, box seat tickets have soared from a few bucks to hundreds of dollars and many athletes have turned to performance-enhancing drugs to maintain their competitive edge. Excerpts from the best-selling book Moneyball—describing how a manager used analytics to sign talented but overlooked players for small-market salaries—offer students a glimpse of how baseball can revolutionize how it does business. Finally, they consider how baseball reflects an increasingly globalized world with teams now drawing players from more than a dozen countries.

Many fans grumble about the state of the game, Steinberg says, as if they believe baseball—like America—had some kind of innocent, purer period in the past. But fans and players have expressed similar sentiments since the game's infancy, complaining back then about corrupt robber barons and all manner of uneducated hooligans. That's the funny thing about retrospect—appreciation and understanding often come when looking back.

Born just a few blocks from Yankee Stadium, Steinberg moved to Long Island as a child and became a lifelong Yankee fan by default, having come to baseball too late for the Giants or Dodgers and too early for the Mets. Even though Steinberg may not hold romanticized visions of baseball, he still speaks of the Yankees with an evangelist's fervor. He hopes his students come to regard baseball as simply another part of the American story, one that continues to unfold with each passing season.