When our town’s most improbable of World Series runs kicks off tonight in Houston, there will no doubt be the usual network TV bromides about who we Philadelphians are. We’ll hear paeans to cheesesteaks and tsk-tsking tales of booing Santa, and we’ll see video of rabid spectators wearing goofy Phanatic hats, bare-chested aggro dudes playing to the cameras, and that one chubby guy with the torso Phanatic tattoo, complete with belly button snout. And it will all be factual — but not necessarily true. For all that noise will skip over the true meaning of our maniacal fandom, as well as the true meaning of the contemplative, lollygagging sport that is bringing it all out.
For that side of the truth, we need to hear from arguably our town’s most unlikely fan, an academic who grew up a diehard Yankees fan, complete with posters of Derek Jeter on her wall. Penn assistant professor of history Sarah Gronningsater teaches one of the most popular classes on campus: The History of Baseball, 1840-Present.
The syllabus opens with a series of inspiring quotes about the meaning of what is still the quintessential American pastime (if no longer its most popular sport), as attested to by Walt Whitman: “Baseball is our game: the American game: I connect it with our national character … [Baseball] may be regarded as a blessing to the race.”
“Baseball exists in our lives as part of our stories with other people. My students have watched games with their grandfathers or inherited their team loyalties from their parents. I just got a note from a student who said you could feel Philly fans’ hunger and joy more than anywhere else,” says Sarah Gronningsater.
And from famed announcer Bob Costas: “Baseball is a beautiful thing … the way the field fans out, the choreography of the sport, the pace and rhythm of it, the fact that that pace and rhythm allows for conversation and reflection and opinion and comparison.”
To love letters such as those, Gronningsater includes messages that convey the way the sport has alternately confronted and shaped society, like Jackie Robinson musing that “I won’t have it made until the most underprivileged Negro in Mississippi can live with equal dignity with anyone else in America.”
To that, I’d add the brilliant writer David Halberstam’s observation that, “On the baseball diamond, if nowhere else, America was truly a classless society. [Joe] DiMaggio’s grace embodied the democracy of our dreams.”
In countless ways, unlike other sports — which are just about the thing itself — baseball reveals us. When I caught up with her this week, Gronningsater said that baseball is really “America in conversation with itself,” that it both shapes society and explores and explodes the myths we tell ourselves — and the stories we’ve too often forgotten. (See: Leagues, Negro.)
The older I get, I told her, the more baseball speaks to me. It’s a game that’s all about failure: The best hitters don’t succeed 70 percent of the time. But, over the long haul of an interminable season, through the steady application of principle — acts that Phils’ manager Rob Thomson is being praised for, like staying the course with a lineup, steadily putting the ball in play, selflessly advancing baserunners — you’ll likely win more than you lose. The steady application of principle: A lovely prescription for handling life’s left hooks, no? That’s where our conversation began on a beautiful fall day this week, with World Series fever in the air.
Larry Platt: I had a summer of health challenges, and I’d angrily announced to my friends that I was giving up on these Phils during that September swoon. So once again, I’ve learned a lesson of resilience from the game.
Sarah Gronningsater: First of all, I’m so sorry to hear about your health issues. But you’re right. I have a six-year-old daughter and I’m just now trying to teach her the rules of the game as we watch. And the other day, she heard one of the announcers call the Phillies “resilient.” And she said, “Mommy, what’s resilient?” And that started a conversation.
I explained to her that, those times when she gets frustrated because she can’t get something done or figure something out? It’s sticking with it until you do. And what a resilient team this is! I mean, Rhys Hoskins after being booed suddenly hitting home run after home run? Jean Segura following that terrible error with a clutch game-winning hit?
I went to Harvard undergrad, and this team reminds me of those Red Sox teams in the early 2000s, when they won their first World Series since they traded Babe Ruth in 1920. They were David vs. Goliaths, beating teams like the Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals. That’s like the Phillies and Astros now — a fiery, flawed team against a more polished, experienced one. I grew up a Yankees fan, but I’ve grown bored by yet another Aaron Judge home run. I’m much more excited by the beauty of Rhys Hoskins overcoming everything to hit a home run.
LP: Yes, in a nation addicted to stories, Hoskins and Harper and the others — I love Bryson Stott, who started the year 6 for 66 — are providing the best unscripted drama around. Let me ask you — I noticed that, early on in the course, you assign readings from Clifford Geertz’s essay Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight. What’s up with that, in a history of baseball course?
SG: You sound like my students. But then they get it when they come across a line that says, “Cockfighting is the story the Balinese tell themselves about themselves.” That’s what I mean when I say that the history of baseball is the story of America in conversation with itself.
LP: Nowhere is that truer than in the history of race relations. I mean, the civil rights movement didn’t start with Brown v. Board of Ed, it actually started seven years before, when Jackie Robinson broke the color line.
SG: Absolutely. The Jackie Robinson story is the heart of the course. But we also go back before that. Here in Philadelphia, there was Octavius Catto, the civil rights pioneer whose Pythians competed against White ball clubs.
One of our best speakers in class walked us through the history of baseball statistics. You know, a couple of years ago, Major League Baseball added the stats of Negro League ballplayers to the official history of the game.
LP: Talk about an ongoing conversation with oneself—
SG: Yes! The recognition of who was left out, and the rethinking of who gets included, who gets to be part of the story. That’s what baseball and America does.
“I want the Phillies to win, so Phils in five. I know that’s optimistic. But baseball can make us dreamers, right?” says Sarah Gronningsater.
LP: That said, in light of Robinson, I am extremely disappointed that so few African Americans play the game today — the percentage is the lowest it’s been in three decades, only 7 percent. How does that fit into the story of baseball and America?
SG: You’re right, very few Blacks are in the Major Leagues. But far more Latin American and East Asian players are. If you’re a Black player with Haitian roots from the Dominican Republic, what are you? There’s an expansion going on of what it means to be diverse, an ongoing conversation about what it means to be included, and what it meant to be excluded.
LP: The class meets tomorrow, as I write this. What will happen?
SG: One of our guest speakers will be Eve Rosenbaum, the assistant general manager of the Baltimore Orioles. She played catcher on the Harvard softball team and is one of many women breaking the game’s glass ceiling. Which is great, because a lot of my students want to break into the game — and a number already have. And it just so happens that one of the topics for the class was to be studying the African-American girls baseball team during World War II.
LP: You’re a serious historian, but I’m getting a sense of passionate fandom from you, too.
SG: As an academic, you’re not supposed to be romantic about your class, but, especially after the pandemic, there’s something about being in the room with other human beings talking about baseball. There’s something about baseball’s innocence from the before times. I tell students, be prepared to cry during this course — we all do. I think that’s because baseball exists in our lives as part of our stories with other people. My students have watched games with their grandfathers or inherited their team loyalties from their parents. The game brings people together. I just got a note from a student who said you could feel Philly fans’ hunger and joy more than anywhere else.
LP: I remember, about 20 years ago, being on the West Coast at the home of my friend, the award-winning sports filmmaker Mike Tollin. And he had his young daughter recite the whole Phillies roster to me. He was dead set on raising her a Phillies fan in Los Angeles, because, he said, rooting for the Dodgers, who always win in sunny L.A., doesn’t build character. Pulling for the losing-est team in all of pro sports history, though? That teaches you how to lose okay. No offense, but, given that, I’m surprised you’re a Yankees fan.
SG: Oh my God, no offense taken. You’re so right. I tried teaching this course in Los Angeles at Cal Tech, and it wasn’t the same. I’ve been thinking about this — watching the Yankees games, those fans look so square. It’s only one and a half hours away from Philly, but like two different universes. I grew up a Yankees fan, but this gritty, flawed Phillies team with its fans that just want this so badly, they are more interesting.
LP: Final question, and you had to know this was coming. Who do you like in the World Series?
SG: I want the Phillies to win, so Phils in five. I know that’s optimistic. But baseball can make us dreamers, right?