If you’re in the vicinity of Cooperstown the week of June 1 (and really, why wouldn’t you be?), you might want to amble over to the Hall of Fame. The institution is hosting the 23rd edition of its annual Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture. For three days, the Hall will host many of the pastime’s leading scholars, who will be leading presentations about the nuances of the game, debating its controversies, and generally having a ball talking about ball. For a three-day fee of $175 (or a one-day fee of $50) you can watch a variety of programs, consume an endless supply of coffee, cookies and pastries, and have a chance to dine in the Hall of Fame Plaque Gallery.
I’ve been attending the symposium regularly since 1995, the year I started working at the Hall of Fame. At first, I was skeptical. I thought: A bunch of academics sitting around pontificating about obscure subject matter and acting as if they know more than anyone else about baseball. This is not for me.
I was wrong on several counts. First, I think I was scared off by the intimidating word “symposium,” but it’s just a word, and doesn’t begin to describe the energy, the fun, and the camaraderie of the event. Second, the people who attend and present in Cooperstown are not all from the same world of academia. Yes, the majority of the presenters are college and university professors (and some damn good ones), but many who attend come from other areas: museum teachers (like me), freelance writers, members of SABR, doctors, archeologists, local citizens, retirees and even a representative of a major league team’s hall of fame. All in all, it’s a pretty diverse group, varied enough to include both liberals and conservatives, southerners and northerners, and even Yankees fans and Red Sox fans.
The subject matter can be obscure and arcane, but only if you don’t like baseball. (I’m guessing that most readers in this space are baseball fans, so this should not pose a problem.) While not every aspect of baseball will be appealing to every person who attends, there is enough variety on the menu to satisfy most preferences. This year’s schedule of presentations includes talks on George Steinbrenner’s worthiness for the Hall of Fame, the integration of minor league baseball, the effect of World War I on the 1918 season, the role of baseball players as political activists, the management style of Joe McCarthy, the Al Campanis incident, and the rhetoric of baseball card prose (hmm, I really like that one). There will also be discussions centered on Dick Allen, Elden Auker, Roy Campanella, Roberto Clemente, Pete Rose and a fellow named Babe Ruth.
The proceedings will begin on Wednesday, June 1, with a keynote address by longtime sportswriter and Hall of Fame voter Jack O’Connell. He’ll be speaking about the future of sports journalism, a subject that has hit him all too bluntly; O’Connell was one of the writers laid off by MLB.com shortly after the start of the 2008 recession/depression.
While O’Connell and the others are experts in their areas, most are willing to be questioned and debated. The keynote speech and all of the presentations are followed by Q-and-A sessions, which sometimes evolve into spirited arguments. Yet, I’ve never seen anyone lose their temper, and I’ve rarely seen anyone become disrespectful or insulting. And even if that did happen, it might be kind of fun to watch.
As baseball fans, we tend to think we know a lot about the game and its history. If nothing else, the symposium teaches us that there is always much more knowledge to be gleaned, if not from books then from each other. At last year’s event, I picked up the following nuggets of information from the various expert presenters:
*In one of the more enlightening presentations, longtime writer Steve Jacobson cited the difficult roads faced by many African-American players other than Jackie Robinson. He reveled that Mudcat Grant’s family built a trapdoor in their Florida house to protect the children from being hit by bullets coming from drive-by shooters. In another story, Jacobson talked about Curt Flood being promoted to a minor league stop in Savannah, where he had to live in a tin shed with a dirt floor. And then there was the time that Al Jackson, a pitcher with the Mets, was told that he could not use a spring training hotel pool even though he was staying at that very hotel.
*The coaching and managing career of Larry Doby was particularly checkered, cut short by claims of racial division and criticism that he was brought in to sell tickets. In 1974, the Indians hired Doby as their hitting coach, principally to work with three young African-American hitters, Chris Chambliss, George Hendrick and Charlie Spikes. But Chambliss was traded early in the season, Spikes failed to develop as expected, and Hendrick remained an enigmatic player who flashed All-Star talent at times but confounded observers at others. When the Indians hired Frank Robinson at season’s end, making him the major leagues’ first black manager, Doby found himself out of a job. Robinson decided to dismiss Doby, apparently because he felt that Doby’s presence was racially divisive within the Cleveland clubhouse.
Four years later, White Sox owner Bill Veeck fired manager Bob Lemon, replacing him with Doby in midseason. Critics claimed the hiring was little more than a publicity stunt. The Sox played worse under Doby than they had under Lemon, resulting in his dismissal at season’s end. Perhaps Doby’s saving grace as a manager was his decision to hire Tony LaRussa as one of his coaches. LaRussa would become the Sox’ skipper in mid-1979 (replacing player-manager Don Kessinger) and lead the team to the American League West title in 1983.
*Just before his infamous 1976 sell-offs of Vida Blue to the Yankees and Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers to the Red Sox, A’s owner Charlie Finley tried to engineer a blockbuster trade that would have brought back talent—and not just money—in return. Finley proposed a seven-player deal that would have sent Rudi, Blue, Fingers, Gene Tenace and Sal Bando to the Red Sox for catcher Carlton Fisk and center fielder Fred Lynn, who was in the midst of his simultaneous Rookie of the Year and MVP season.
From the strict standpoint of talent, Finley would have given up more than he gained, but four of the five players were destined to leave as free agents anyway by season’s end. In theory, Fisk and Lynn would have given the A’s at least a few years of service before possibly leaving as free agents, and would have strengthened Oakland at two positions, representing substantial upgrades over incumbents Larry Haney and Jeff Newman behind the plate and Billy North in center field.
These tidbits came from just three symposium presentations, three of about 25 that I watched during the three-day slate in Cooperstown. I filled up about 10 pages of notebook space with the information provided by some of baseball’s leading academics and researchers.
Who knows what could be learned this time around?