Baseball history class goes beyond balls and strikes

On a Monday evening in February, as baseball fans across the nation were debating which players should make their favorite team, the students in Mark Sigmon's class on baseball were debating ethics.

The 1919 Chicago White Sox became infamous for taking money from gamblers in exchange for throwing the World Series, but were there mitigating circumstances, Sigmon asks his students. Could anything have made the scam OK? "Fans are paying to watch an honest game," one responds. Another counters by arguing the players, notoriously underpaid by their wealthy owners, were doing what anyone in their situation would have done.

A photo of SF State history lecturer Mark Sigmon.

History lecturer Mark Sigmon has revived a popular class about the history of baseball.

It's a discussion that highlights one of the main reasons Sigmon, a lecturer in history, is teaching "The History and Literature of Baseball." Baseball is about more than just the players and rules of the game, and discussions about fair and foul are about more than whether or not the ball landed in play.

"Baseball reveals a lot of things about American history," Sigmon said. "Once in a while, baseball actually shapes American history, like with Jackie Robinson." Because of that, he hopes the class will give his students a new way of looking at American history and examining the U.S.

"It's one thing to talk about industrialism and the rise of the robber baron era, but to talk about the baseball owners and the way they exploited players to the point they were willing to throw the World Series, that's an important insight," he said.

It was an insight of Sigmon's own that led him to recreate the class, originally taught by longtime SF State professor and baseball historian Jules Tygiel but discontinued following Tygiel's death in 2008. While preparing a lecture on housing discrimination in California, Sigmon thought of how, when the Giants first moved to San Francisco in 1958, star player Willie Mays could not buy a house in some neighborhoods because he was African American. That led him to think about the many other ways baseball history has illuminated American history, and to revive Tygiel's course.

"Baseball is the perfect analogy of America because there's baseball in the idea, where everyone gets three outs and nine innings. It's all perfectly fair in theory, just like in America, where all men are created equal," he said. "But in practice, in both baseball and America, that is often not the case."

Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier in 1947, long before the country was fully integrated. Babe Ruth's popularization of the home run in the 1920s spurred backlash from those who felt it was a selfish and gaudy way to play the game, mirroring a country where speakeasies and jazz battled with social conservatives and the temperance movement.

The course also includes examinations of baseball literature, such as "The Natural." But in case enthusiasts worry the class will venture too far beyond the game itself, Sigmon mixes in a lesson on fantasy baseball -- "They will know enough that their friends will call them to settle baseball bets" -- and a trip to AT&T Park to see the San Francisco Giants.

Sigmon himself is an Oakland Athletics fan and a member of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), an organization that has gained attention in recent years due to its development of advance statistics. He usually teaches required courses on United States and California history, and was unsure how many students would sign up for an elective on baseball. But the class filled up in just a few days.

"There's just something about baseball that demands to be taught," he said. "It engages the mind and the heart."

-- Jonathan Morales