Study of the Game

Written by: Bill Francis

Fans of the national pastime looking for a broader perspective on the game have – since 1989 – found a gathering place each year at the Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture.

The three-day event held at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, which concluded on Friday, May 29, brings together academics, students, historians, writers, just about anybody with an affection for the sport.

“We provide a unique platform for men and women from around the country to come to Cooperstown and to discuss baseball and its relation to our culture and society,” said Hall of Fame Librarian Jim Gates, a co-coordinator of the event. “We don’t talk about baseball on the field; we talk about everything else: Art, music, poetry, literature, economics, architecture…Whatever.

“We have built up a great history and that history continues and goes forward. What this all adds up to, I hope, is the country’s preeminent academic baseball conference.”

Academia on the Diamond

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Co-sponsored by the State University of New York College at Oneonta and the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, the Symposium examines the impact of baseball on American culture from inter- and multi-disciplinary perspectives.

This year’s 27th Annual Symposium, with its 150-plus attendees from around the country, had more than 50 presentations that took place in both the Museum’s Bullpen Theater and Learning Center. The wide-ranging titles included “Mallparks: The Social Construction of Baseball Stadiums as Cathedrals of Consumption,” “Bums Cry Out: Brooklyn’s Lasting Effect,” “An Empirical Analysis of the Infield Fly Rule” and “A Murderers’ Row of Anti-Heroes: Ty Cobb Meets Walter White.”

Lynne Kirste, the Special Collections Curator at the Academy Film Archive, which is part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, came from her job in Hollywood, Calif., to attend the Symposium for the first time. The subject of her presentation was how home movies can be used for baseball research.

“This experience has been fantastic. I can’t even say how fantastic it is,” Kirste said. “The people are so nice, the presentations are so interesting. It’s just so much knowledge. All of these topics, I never even would have thought to even ask about and people have researched them to the ‘nth’ degree. It’s really amazing.

“I think the main thing that I’m amazed at is how interesting I’m find every subject that people are discussing. Everybody is just so passionate that they all make their topics fascinating.”
The Symposium got under way Wednesday afternoon inside the Grandstand Theater with a keynote address from filmmaker Sarah Burns entitled “Seeking a More Authentic Jackie Robinson.” Burns, the daughter of esteemed documentarian Ken Burns, is currently working with her husband and father on a documentary on Robinson. The two-part, four-hour PBS documentary is tentatively set to air in April 2016.

“As I was writing my speech, I was definitely aware of the fact that this is an audience who knows this story well. This is not an audience who has heard of Jackie Robinson but doesn’t know too much about him,” Burns said afterwards. “So I had to think carefully about how I could tell the story in a way that hopefully there’s something new for everyone. That was a challenge.

“And it was definitely on honor to speak here and especially to be in the company of the previous keynote speakers.”

Besides her father, previous keynote speakers have included Roger Kahn, Eliot Asinof, Stephen Jay Gould, W.P. Kinsella, George Plimpton and Frank Deford.

Living history

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John Thorn, the Official Historian for Major League Baseball, called Sarah Burns’ address one of his highlights from this year’s Symposium.

“The keynote speech this year was fantastic,” said Thorn, who delivered the keynote in 2012. “Sarah Burns, I came up to her afterwards – we’ve known each other forever – and I said ‘Forgive me for being amazed that you were wonderful.’”

Thorn, who is working with Burns on the Robinson documentary, also had praise for the overall Symposium experience.

“Cooperstown is the shrine, so if you’re going to have good talk about baseball over three days by people who know their stuff, this is the place you want to be,” he said. “I’m always interested in knowing what other people are doing. The memorable presentations are the ones that stick with you.”

‘A Shared Love’

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Lee Lowenfish, a former Sports Management professor at Columbia University who is now a blogger and freelance writer on sports and culture, did a presentation on baseball in the life and art of legendary film stars Buster Keaton and Joe E. Brown. He is also the author of four baseball, including the definitive Branch Rickey biography, “Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman.”

“To be with people who understand this and how it’s so much a part of our history – and it’s fun – you don’t get that often in life. That’s why I love to come,” Lowenfish said. “It’s a shared love. It’s using one’s mind and one’s heart and one’s soul and it doesn’t happen that often. People come alive here.”

An attendee for the second consecutive year was Bob Tufts, a left-handed pitcher in the big leagues for three seasons with the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals in the early 1980s. One of a handful of Princeton University athletes to play in the big leagues, Tufts earned his MBA at Columbia University following his playing days. Most recently he was a teacher at Yeshiva University.

“I always wanted to come to the Symposium because now that I’ve moved on from my baseball days to being a teacher, I love to see how baseball fits within culture and how it can be used in education through college,” Tufts said. “In my case, teaching and also doing advanced research seminars for graduates, there are so many topics that can be dealt with in society.
“Having played the game, I just love coming up here because I learn something constantly.”

Bill Francis is a library sssociate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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