The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008


Jules Tygiel (1949-2008)

The Grim Reaper's hitting streak continues. In the three weeks since I wrote about Eliot Asinof and a host of others, we've lost Tim Russert and George Carlin. Via Baseball Toaster's Bob Timmermann, today's box score is bad news, too. Jules Tygiel, professor at San Francisco State University, author of Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and his Legacy and Past Time: Baseball as History as well as a host of non-baseball books and perhaps the game's top social historian, died of cancer on July 1. He was just 59 years old.

Along with Tygiel's own top 10, those aforementioned book titles popped up frequently in Alex Belth's recent survey of essential baseball books. Of Baseball's Great Experiment, which rated enough mentions to crack the top 15, Dayn Perry commented, "The exhaustive retelling of Jackie Robinson's breaking of the modern color barrier. The story is much more complicated than some renderings have made it out to be, and Tygiel captures the nuance of the struggle. A great and necessary work." I got Baseball's Great Experiment for Hanukkah back in 1984, when it first came out in paperback, but it was only last winter that I retrieved it from home. Since then, I've used it several times in writing about the small but important roles played by Dodger execs Buzzie Bavasi and Al Campanis in Robinson's rise to the majors. Tygiel's meticulous research covered all the bases and made it the definitive scholarly account of the story.

In the introduction of Baseball's Great Experiment, Tygiel writes of his eureka moment in the book's genesis. Amid his doctoral research in 1973, he made a serendipitous discovery of an unshelved Time magazine volume from 1947:
I realized that the Robinson story, easily the most familiar chapter of American sports history, had never really been told in its entirety. Most accounts, primarily biographies and autobiographies, had stressed events and personalities but had failed to place them into a social or historical context. Robinson's entry into organized baseball had created a national drama, emotionally involving millions of Americans, both black and white. His triumph had ramifications that transcended the realm of sports, influencing public attitudes and facilitating the spread of the ideology of the civil rights movement. In addition, Robinson had only launched the integration process. Surely the heritage of decades of discrimination and ostracism had not disappeared overnight. What were the experiences of the scores of other black players hwo had entered baseball in the 1940s and 1950s? What had happened to the now forgotten Negro Leagues in the aftermath of desegregation? I also realized that numerous sources of information -- black newspapers, personal papers and scrapbooks, and the recollections many of the more obscure pioneers of baseball integration -- had been largely ignored. Here, it seemed, lay a tale still worthy of re-examination and re-telling.
While I revere Baseball's Great Experiment, I instead opted to include the much more recent Past Time in my own top 10, calling it "a concise summary of nine trends that changed baseball, by one of the game's unsung scholars." What stands out in particular within the latter volume are Tygiel's fascinating portrait of the ever-tormented Larry MacPhail, his handy primer on the era of franchise relocations (which came in particularly handy when I wrote about the 1959 NL race between the Boston-to-Milwaukee Braves, Brooklyn-to-Los Angeles Dodgers and New York-to-San Francisco Giants for It Ain't Over), and his discussion of baseball statistics from Henry Chadwick to Bill James and the Rotisserie League craze of the Eighties.

Both books came to mind the two times I saw the wonderful Baseball as America traveling exhibit (now in Boston, and if you've got enough chromosomes to succeed at tying your own shoes, you should see it). The way the exhibit covered the essential bases while yielding fresh revelations and connections no doubt owes something to the influence of Tygiel, who wrote the introductory essay to the exhibit catalog. Here's a taste:
When the turmoil of the Depression and World War II began to challenge the prevailing racial consensus, baseball stepped to the forefront as a vehicle of change. In 1945, Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey recruited Jackie Robinson to defy the color line. Robinson's dramatic and convincing triumph produced a modern American legend and a blueprint for social revolution. The success of African Americans in baseball offered one of the nation's most compelling arguments for integration, making it a significant precursor of the civil rights triumphs to follow.

Robinson's achievement had such a profound impact precisely because baseball had such an immense hold on the American psyche. As Thomas Wolfe has written, baseball is "not merely 'the great national game,' but really the part of the whole weather of our lives, of the thing that is our own, of the whole fabric, the million memories of America."

No other common activity resonated so regularly and intensely in American life as the national pastime. Played virtually every day over a six-month span and tracked religiously in the mass media, baseball offered its partisans a steady diet of entertainment, drama and controversy. Americans routinely interspersed their language with baseball metaphors. Unexpected occurrences came form "out of left field." People confounded others by "throwing them a curve." Prodigious feats were described as "Ruthian."

In a a"fireside chat" broadcast on the radio in May 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt presented his hopes for his new administration to the American people in a language they would readily understand. "I have no expectation of making a hit every time I come to bat," explained Roosevelt. "What I seek is the highest possible batting average, not only for myself but for my team." In the last days of his life, Roosevelt confessed: "I feel like a baseball team going into the ninth inning with only eight men left to play."
And who can forget Tygiel's scathing open letter to since-disgraced Hall of Fame president Dale Petroskey over the latter's bullshit decision to cancel a Bull Durham commemoration due to Tim Robbins' and Susan Sarandon's criticism of the Bush administration's waging of war in Iraq:
The presidency of the Baseball Hall of Fame is, in effect, a sacred trust. By politicizing the Hall of Fame, you have violated that trust. Your position does not give you the right to impose your own political views on the events at the Hall to the exclusion of all others. One must assume that if people who protest American military actions are not welcome at the Hall of Fame, then Abraham Lincoln who opposed the Mexican War, Mark Twain who opposed the Spanish-American and Philippine Wars, and Martin Luther King, Jr., who opposed the war in Vietnam would not be welcome at the Baseball Hall of Fame. I also must assume that this letter jeopardizes my own future relationship with the Hall.
Like Asinof, James and so many other great writers, Tygiel is worthy of a spot in Cooperstown himself. He will be greatly missed.

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