Play Ball! Baseball in the History Classroom

It’s spring, and there’s nothing like baseball to get a listless young man to actually do some work in May and June.

Getting a boisterous lad engaged in the classroom is a bit like landing a marlin.  You have to hook on, sit in the fighting chair, be prepared for long periods of exhausting tugs and maneuvering until your prize finally tires out and succumbs to the inevitable. 

Boys are notoriously difficult to focus when delivering instruction.  Heck, I was a boy myself, and I had a million things on my mind–the new episode of Thundercats, how to finally get enough hearts to pass that level in Zelda, whether to smile at the girl in front of me or pull her hair, and imagining the ample bosoms of the young teacher across the hall, just to name a few.  Boys often require a little extra effort in engaging discussion, and this is where America’s pastime comes in.

In the Bronx, my boys are rabid baseball fans.  Most are Yankee fans, some quietly root for the Mets, while a few lost souls root for the Red Sox (well, we can’t all be perfect).  Baseball happens to be a great way to connect with America’s past, at least within the last century and a half.  It is a dynamo of archival information: few sports are so heavily accounted, ranked, analyzed and recorded as baseball, which also can give you infinite amounts of mathematics instruction. 

Furthermore, baseball has often intertwined with the seminal events in American history.  The Civil War involved armies that regularly played the game to pass the time.  The game was definitely a showcase for many Americans who were on the lower rungs of society, especially blacks, European immigrants and Hispanics.  The national game was a propaganda tool in two world wars.  It served as the nonviolent battleground for American issues of race, poverty, labor relations and our consumer culture.

One very tangible connection between baseball and history is the Presidency.  According to Baseball Almanac, almost every U.S. President has had some contact with the game, either as a player, a fan or even simply through their presidential duties.  What follows are some interesting facts found on Baseball Almanac about the Presidents and the old ball game.

— Thomas Jefferson stated that “Games played with the ball, and others of that nature, are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind.” Unlike diddling with enslaved girls, which builds lots of character–little brown characters to be exact.

— Abraham Lincoln had an actual baseball field called the ‘White Lot’ constructed behind the White House for games. It was well known that he often played ball with his boys on the lawn.

— Chester Arthur was the first President to invite a professional baseball team to the White House when he invited the Cleveland Forest Cities of the now-defunct National Association on April 13, 1883. Too bad this didn’t get him a second term.

— Benjamin Harrison was the first U.S. President to attend a Major League baseball game and the first to see an extra inning game as the contest remains undecided until the eleventh inning. How could you leave to beat the traffic if the President’s still there?

— In 1907, the National League presented Theodore Roosevelt with a lifetime pass to any game, made of 14 carat gold. The funny thing is he hated baseball, calling it a “mollycoddle” game.

— In 1910, William Howard Taft becomes the first President to throw out the first pitch at a ballgame, throwing to Washington Senators legend Walter Johnson. Not sure if the bullpen teased that Taft threw “like a girl.”

— Woodrow Wilson, our President during World War I, never used his Presidential Pass. He paid for every game he attended, including the first time a President attended a World Series game.

— During World War II, many Americans thought baseball should be cancelled. Franklin Roosevelt said “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going.” So baseball was played, although Major League players were not exempt from the draft. Some of the worst baseball was played between 1942 and 1945.

— In Dwight Eisenhower’s early years, he played semi-professional baseball for money under a false name. According to Mel Ott, that name was “Wilson.”

— Lyndon Johnson had to miss the home opener of the 1968 season, due to the recent assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Vietnam War left LBJ with little time to attend games, though he did dedicate the Astrodome in Houston, Texas.

— Richard Nixon is considered the most rabid Presidential baseball fan. Even after the Watergate scandal, Major League Baseball offered him the job of commissioner of baseball. Too bad he declined: Barry Bonds and mark McGwire could’ve used his cover-up expertise.

— Ronald Reagan was the only President to portray a Hall of Fame ballplayer on the silver screen. He played Grover Cleveland Alexander in the 1952 film The Winning Team.

George W. Bush was the managing general partner of the Texas Rangers from 1989 to 1994.  His presidency proved to be just as successful.

Please feel free to post your own baseball tidbits, or any other baseball-related classroom content.

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