Here’s to You, Bill Kirwinby Steve Treder
April 03, 2007
Memory fades, but I believe the first NINE conference I attended was the one co-joined to Jim Odenkirk's Diamonds in the Desert one-timer. Prior to that, I had a hard time believing that my bosses would approve a junket that offered "academic papers in the morning, field research in the afternoon and group discussion at night." But after one trip to Phoenix—ah, yes, our old stomping ground, hard up against the interstate—I was determined to return, like the buzzards going back to Hinckley, Ohio, year after year.
I think what impresses me most about Bill is the generosity of his intellectual curiosity. I am a trained historian, and had the conference been mine to organize, I probably would confine it to history. But Bill casts a much wider net—and deliberately so—by extending the run of the house to economists, sociologists, literary scholars, and even lawyers. Harold and Dorothy Seymour wrote about the "House of Baseball," and Bill and NINE are proof that this mansion has many rooms indeed.
- Steve Gietschier, Senior Managing Editor, The Sporting News
Among the many ways baseball is unique among sports is its capacity to inspire writers, and to attract academic inquiry. One suspects that football, basketball and hockey combined don’t generate one-tenth of the analysis of baseball as a cultural phenomenon.
Thus it’s uniquely the case with baseball that when we celebrate those who’ve made it what it is, who’ve significantly contributed to the greater institution, it isn’t just players we consider, nor just players, managers and executives. It’s also the multitude of writers and analysts, who’ve cast such illuminating, perceptive and evocative light on the broader meaning of this game.
It’s likely you’ve never heard of Bill Kirwin. He’s never attained fame, nor has he written extensively on the subject of baseball. His occupation until retirement was Professor of Social Work at the University of Calgary at Edmonton, in Alberta, Canada. But Bill Kirwin’s contribution has been unsurpassed in finding, developing, encouraging and inspiring others to undertake serious, rigorous, superior-quality study of baseball, across a variety of disciplines and from a variety of perspectives.
Baseball is indeed a mansion with many rooms. Bill Kirwin has constructed an entire wing, and his spaces overflow not just with high-caliber academic work and marvelous writing, but with warmth, conviviality, generosity of spirit and just plain fun. His is quite a story.
Through Bill Kirwin's hard work, the NINE journal and organization evolved into an impressive medium for serious research practitioners who are also students of baseball. Bill's inspiration—using baseball to bring together scholars of various disciplines—was sheer brilliance, and played a key role in invigorating my career. Bill and NINE opened my eyes to the many facets of scholarship that exist outside mainstream economics, which is my field of training.
Before I met Bill and NINE, I had never attended a conference at which I was eager to hear every paper given at every session. I had never anticipated the arrival of an issue of an academic journal and then read it cover to cover. I had never begun to contemplate the next year's project before that year's project was complete. I had never been as devoted to my scholarship as I am today. Thank you, Bill Kirwin.
- Keith Sherony, Professor of Economics, University of Wisconsin at LaCrosse
Bill Kirwin grew up in less-than-idyllic circumstances, in Boston in the 1940s and 1950s. His stories about his boyhood invariably revolve around his father, a figure Bill usually recalls without warmth. Bill himself is endlessly gentle and sensitive, a rumpled teddy bear of a man, but his father was evidently something else again. A story Bill often tells, a deeply-etched memory of conflicting emotions, is of his father drilling young Bill to make diving catches of a football, to get used to pain and to shrug off injury, and moist pointedly, to never, ever cry.
Circa 1992, Bill Kirwin thought it would be a good idea to host a baseball conference during Spring Training in the Cactus League, in which the game's historians (particularly professors from the snowy part of the country) might want to participate. The conference began as a simple affair. Early on I remember an informal evening discussion on the best way to experience a game—via television, radio, or at the ballpark—that ran on into the night and grew lively. Bill's conferences are invariably collegial, intellectually challenging, and, oh yes, fun.
Somewhere along the way, he became a friend. I've come to rely on his editorial judgment, his insights into baseball and its history, and his and Wendy's companionable friendship. Looking back over the past fifteen years, I realize what a privilege it has been to speak at the conference and to contribute to the journal. Consider me blessed.
- Jean Hastings Ardell, author of Breaking Into Baseball: Women and the National Pastime
At least some of his father’s lessons were taken to heart, as Bill was able to attend Boston College on a football scholarship. But while playing what he calls “that nasty sport,” Bill suffered a badly broken leg. Whiling away wintertime hours in the Boston College gym, gimpily shooting baskets, Bill met a young man a few years older than himself. This fellow basket-shooter turned out to be Sammy White, the first-string catcher for the Boston Red Sox.
Bill the college kid was apparently then as he is now, instantly endearing. White took a liking to him. As their friendship grew, White asked Bill if he’d like to come hang out in the Red Sox clubhouse during the season. Bill the Red Sox fanatic was, of course, thrilled.
I first made contact with Bill in Fall of 1991. I had given a paper on ballparks and American culture at a rare session at the Midwest Modern Language Association (maybe '89) and sent a copy to Bob Bluthart, who was chairing the ballparks committee. He described the article in his newsletter, but it was not a venue for publication and back then there were nearly no places to publish such things.
I got a call from Bill, who described his project with NINE and asked for a copy. The article became the lead article in Vol I., No. 1.—something I am very proud of to this day. I then met Bill at the first NINE spring training contest at the old Ambassador Hotel in Phoenix, and, as everyone met him knows, he turned out to be one of the most decent and pleasant people anyone can hope to meet. He was also very generous in publishing articles I wrote on baseball novels, which are tough to place in supposedly "more serious" literary journals. So I certainly fell indebted to him.
He has accomplished a great service to the many people who are not only fans but scholars of the game by providing a high quality interdisciplinary forum for work on the game that goes beyond the stats that seem to be the focus of SABR. The journal has grown; the conference has grown, but Bill, like baseball itself, has remained the one constant. My only regret is that I am not able to attend the conference as regularly as I once did. I have always enjoyed the work presented there, but equally I have enjoyed touching base again with Bill. I think he is among, for all of us, that small group of people each of us feels fortunate to know.
- Peter Carino, Professor of English, Indiana State University
Over the years I’ve talked with several people who had the experience of meeting Ted Williams. Not everyone reports that experience as a positive, by any means, but everyone seems to have been struck in some way by the sheer force of Williams’ distinct personality.
The first time Sammy White brought the young Bill into the Fenway Park clubhouse, he introduced him around to various teammates. Bill recalls most of the ballplayers as giving him a perfunctory handshake, taking no interest in the gawky college kid.
Then Bill was introduced to Teddy Ballgame. The youngster’s intimidation was immediately swept away, as he recalls the living legend looking him in the eye and talking with him, sincerely, respectfully, asking about his college studies, his athletic pursuits, his family. It was, of course, one of the most memorable moments in Bill’s life.
Bill never got to know Williams well, but he seemed to immediately understand Williams in a way that not many did. When he speaks of Williams, Bill immediately hones in on Williams’ miserable childhood, and his unhappy relationship with his father, and the manner in which that tension always burned in Williams, and always animated him. Bill Kirwin and Ted Williams, dissimilar in so many obvious ways, born a generation and a continent apart, shared something deep.
When I received the information about the launch of NINE I immediately thought, “I should be on the editorial board.” This arrogant moment was a bit out of character for me, but something about NINE made me feel at “home.” Bill Kirwin, bless him, did not blow off a person he had never met. Instead, he read my resume and asked me to serve on the board.
When I finally met Bill and Wendy at the first NINE Spring Training Conference, I knew I was among friends. My contributions to the Journal and the Conference over the years are minimal compared to what Bill and NINE have given me… a forum for learning, camaraderie, and fun. What a great ride it has been, and what a great ride it will continue to be. Thank you, Bill!
- Rob Bellamy, Associate Professor of Media Communication, Duquesne University
While still college-aged, Bill goes to a Boston hospital to visit a seriously ill friend. To his astonishment, whom does he find also visiting the friend? Ted Williams.
Then, bustling into the hospital ward comes a TV cameraman and reporter, having gotten wind of Williams’ presence, ready to film the star-athlete-visits-the-sick story for the evening news. Bad idea. Williams violently confronts the TV crew, presenting obscenity-laced threats of intense physical harm if they so much as shoot one second of film, or even think about reporting Williams’ visit in the newscast.
Williams’ enraged explanation of why he would permit no publicity is simple. “I don’t do this because I want to!” he hisses. “I do it because I have to.”
Bill understands. Williams, the wealthy superstar, isn’t choosing to do good works for the sake of his reputation. Instead, Williams, the once-poor half-Mexican kid from the broken home, is compulsively driven to give help and support to those in need. It’s a moment of profound clarity for Bill, and will be a defining event in his own decision to pursue a career in the field of social work.
While having an early morning breakfast at the 2006 NINE Conference, Bill Kirwin and I shared our earliest remembered baseball experiences. My first game in uniform was near the end of World War II, in southwestern Oklahoma, against a team of non-uniformed Negro youth from the Lincoln Addition across the railroad tracks. In organized and sandlot baseball, gloves were then left on the field after the third out. Our opponents picked ours up and used our better gloves to beat us.
Bill recalled winning a game against a team of pre-adolescent boys from a more upper-crust neighborhood of his Boston-area home. He excitedly told his father about the game and who they played. His father’s response to Bill was, “Why would you want to play with boys like that?”
Attempting to answer his father’s question may be the basis of Bill’s non-discriminatory guideline for NINE, which is “The Journal reflects an eclectic approach and does not foster a particular ideological bias.” We’ve come a long way in improving human relations on and off the baseball field since Bill and I were boys, but there are still backsliding events to confront. But the Bill Kirwins of the world continue to make a positive difference.
- Royse Parr, co-author of Glory Days of Summer: The History of Baseball in Oklahoma, and author of Allie Reynolds: Super Chief
After college, Bill served a hitch in the Army, and was stationed at a fort in Georgia. He tells the story of his first exposure to the harsh reality of the Jim Crow South, in the form of a racially segregated grandstand at a baseball game he and some Army buddies attended.
Bill recalls being shocked, not only by the segregated seating, but by the way blacks were openly insulted in public places. He admits, ruefully, that his response, and that of his friends, didn’t extend beyond being stunned. “We didn’t say anything,” Bill laments. “We didn’t do a damn thing about it.”
I have known Bill and have participated in his NINE Conferences from its early beginnings. We worked together in 1998 when I directed the International Diamonds in the Desert Conference at Arizona State University, and invited Bill to join forces with the NINE Conference. We also have had great times attending games at SABR Conferences.
Bill is a consummate gentleman of the highest order, who has done a marvelous job of stimulating scholarly interest in the National Pastime. Whenever I think of Bill Kirwin, I associate him with NINE, baseball, his lovely wife Wendy, and even occasionally with the results of the 1948 American League pennant race and World Series. (Lest anyone lack understanding, I am an avid fan of the Cleveland Indians and Bill is a Red Sox fan.)
- Jim Odenkirk, Professor Emeritus of Exercise Science and Physical Education, Arizona State University
One of Bill’s favorite stories from his childhood has to do with that 1948 World Series. The Indians had nosed out Bill’s Red Sox in a hard-fought pennant race culminating in a one-game playoff, but Bill’s disappointment was tempered by the fact that the National League pennant winner that year was the other Boston ball club, the Spahn-and-Sain Braves.
Bill wasn’t as big a Braves fan as he was a Red Sox fan, but still it gave him some chance to exact rooting revenge on the Indians. And best of all, Bill’s father somehow managed to come up with a World Series ticket for Bill, to attend the seventh game at Braves Field.
Bill was the toast of his circle of friends, as he brought his World Series ticket to school, and proudly showed it off. “What was I thinking?” he says now. “What if I’d lost that ticket, or if someone had stolen it from me?”
As it turned out, it would have mattered little. Cleveland beat the Boston Braves in six games. Bill’s prized ticket went unreconciled.
I met Bill Kirwin at the first NINE Spring Training Conference in 1994. My long-time friend and frequent co-author Rob Bellamy had expressed to Bill his interest in serving on the NINE editorial board and Bill was kind enough to include him. Rob also found out about this great idea for a conference that brought together academics from many fields who shared a common interest in baseball (and in attending spring training games in warm weather).
When I first attended the NINE Spring Training Conference, I saw it as a lark. I didn’t expect much from the papers; it was more about the sun and a Spring Training break. I could not have been more wrong. The papers were first rate and the participants were all passionate about baseball.
Sure, participants went to games in the afternoon, but they attended sessions all morning and evening. I hadn’t attended that many sessions at a conference since I was an eager graduate student. And the conversations after the sessions were terrific. What a wonderful thing I had discovered!
And behind that wonder was one man, Bill Kirwin. Editing a journal and putting together a conference are open-ended tasks. The deadline comes, but you are never really finished. Once one issue or conference is put to bed, the next must be planned. Most of the work is unobserved by those of us who benefit. Bill did all of the work that allowed the rest of us to prosper.
By welcoming academics and educated fans from all fields, Bill created something most of us find hard to locate at our own institutions: a true university, where minds trained in many different ways of thinking can focus on a common interest in mutually supportive environment. Bill Kirwin created and propagated for a few days each spring, the University of Baseball. It is an institution of higher learning where none of the students ever want to graduate.
- Jim Walker, Professor and Chair, Department of Communications, St. Xavier University
Bill is Central Casting’s ideal of the absent-minded professor, with the tousled gray hair, the ill-fitting clothes and the habit of always suddenly thinking of something even more interesting to say, when he’s just half-way through his current Boston-Irish brogue sentence. He’s utterly disarming, with a twinkling eye, an open smile, and a ready joviality.
Bill Kirwin is a fine scholar and valued friend. His keen critical eye and welcoming embrace makes writing for NINE and attending the annual spring training conference the highlight of the academic calendar.
Bill's labors in making the NINE Conference such an important event to baseball scholars are a remarkable contribution to the field, but even of greater significance is his warmth of personality and generosity to make sure that everyone is included and welcome. Some of my fondest memories are of conversations with Bill regarding sport, politics, history, and family. Bill, thanks for everything and keep up the good work and generous spirit.
-Ron Briley, Assistant Schoolmaster, Sandia Preparatory School, Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Adjunct Professor of History, University of New Mexico at Valencia
Bill is currently battling inoperable cancer of the brain. In perfect character, he faces this grotesque ordeal with humor and with quiet strength, and without a trace of bitterness or self-pity. In a display of remarkable will—and with, certainly, the constant help and companionship of his beloved Wendy—Bill was able to take the long journey from Edmonton to Tucson, and be the center once again of this spring’s NINE conference.
The several-minute standing ovation Bill received at the conclusion of the Saturday evening banquet was one of the most heartfelt public tributes I have ever witnessed. There may have been a dry eye in the house, but I assure you neither of mine would qualify.
I've been privileged to know Bill from the inception of NINE. While thinking about the possibility of launching a baseball history journal, he contacted Peter Levine, editor of a recently defunct baseball journal. Peter told him to get in touch with me, and he did. We talked about the promises and problems of producing the journal and discussed people who might serve on the editorial board. We critiqued together the first few issues, and from that developed a close friendship.
While driving to Tucson each year in early February, Bill and Wendy spent a day or two with us. Bill loves carrots, and joined me in preparing dinner by slicing up carrots and other veggies, all the while talking about baseball and much more. I learned quickly that he favors dark beer, but never could find any comparable to the good dark brew he became accustomed to while stationed in Germany. Ever gracious, he drank some of the swill I gave him without comment.
When I called him in January to find out the dates they would be in Salt Lake, I learned they wouldn't be stopping by this year. The room is reserved for next year.
- Larry Gerlach, Professor of History, University of Utah, and author of The Men in Blue: Conversations with Umpires
Steve Treder can often be found spending way too much time talking baseball at Baseball Primer. He welcomes your questions and comments via e-mail.