Books Before Baseball: A Personal History

This article was written by Harold Seymour

This article was published in the The National Pastime: Premiere Edition (1982)


The image of American higher education reflected by college athletics is any­thing but flattering. As of March 1982, 17 schools were on the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s pro­bation list—the highest number for a single period—and the Association’s enforcement department declared that the list would lengthen before it shortened. An additional 35 schools were under investigation for possible violation of NCAA rules.[fn]For a brief survey of the current college athletic situation, see a series of articles in the New York Times, March 21-24, 1982.[/fn] What is more, these cases are only the ex­posed fin of the swimming shark. A prominent coach estimates that 50 percent of American colleges quality for probation, and numerous ad­ministrators and faculty members believe that the athletic situation is out of control.[fn]John T. Cunningham, The University in the Forest (1972), p. 205.[/fn]

 The transgressions are well known, ranging from breaking NCAA rules to downright scandals. The wrongdoing starts with recruitment of semiliter­ate high-school athletes who have graduated by virtue of spurious grades or nonacademic curricula. Like hyenas squabbling over an an­telope carcass, college coaches com­pete with each other for these high school jocks, wooing them with let­ters, telephone calls, home visits, and free trips to campuses where they are dined, entertained, and given sales talks.

The chief lure in the degrading chase is, of course, that contradiction in terms, the athletic scholarship. This camouflage is the major source of violation of NCAA rules. Charges of undercover payments beyond the amount of the scholarship are not new, but recently Notre Dame’s Rich­ard “Digger” Phelps became the first college coach to claim openly that at least seven schools were using boosters’ cash to offer a high-school player the standard underground rate of $10,000 for each of his four years, in the hope that he would be the decisive factor in earning millions for its athletic department.

Abuses do not cease after the bar­rage of high-pressured salesmanship. Once corralled, the high-school lumi­nary receives further perquisites­—perhaps a car, an apartment, money for clothes and a stereo, game tickets purchased by alumni to convert into cash, a promissory note cosigned by a local businessman, and, in one case at least, even arrangements for a girlfriend’s abortion.

Lastly, the “student” athletes come under the control of coaches who are under great pressure to produce win­ning teams (but at least are rewarded by higher salaries than the institu­tion’s scholars and, not infrequently, presidents). In a win-or-perish en­vironment, coaches stoop to conquer. To preserve their gladiators’ academic eligibility, coaches steer them into such Mickey Mouse courses as “Safety with Hand Power Tools” and “Jog­ging.” One football player even re­ceived credit for wind sprints performed during practice. Worse, col­leges have given athletes credit for extension and off-campus summer courses they never took or even knew they were taking. Academic tran­scripts have been forged.

Because of the financial stake in­volved, college presidents, ad­ministrators, and trustees tacitly condone and faculties primly ignore these odious practices. They, together with the superkindergarten alumni they suborn and the college’s political and financial patrons they cultivate, are all consumed by a craving for winning teams. The rot of mal­practice that, like damp under fresh paint, seeps through the razzledazzle surrounding intercollegiate sports is only slightly less deplorable than the hypocritical pretension that the play­ers are amateurs and the contests educationally beneficial. In fact, as the New York Times put it, the ath­letic program constitutes an en­tertainment business quartered on campus.

The moral dwarfism of these ath­letic spectacles often has a pernicious impact on both the athletes and members of the general student body. Despite all the talk about edu­cation the athletes soon learn, if they did not know it beforehand, that their primary function is to perform well on the playing field or risk losing their scholarships. Indeed, realizing that many colleges in effect provide cost ­free farms for pro football and bas­ketball leagues, many athletes see college playas the way to fulfill their dream of becoming professionals; however, since only an estimated 2 percent achieve pro status and count­less others fail to finish college, ath­letes frequently end up with neither pro career nor college degree. Those who manage to get an education in spite of everything deserve respect.

Detrimental effects of the athletic system on the other undergraduates may be more insidious. These stu­dents observe the disparity between what is professed and what is prac­ticed, between the paeans accorded learning and what is really honored, between the ideals preached and the squalid tactics employed. (On second thought, perhaps in a perverse way the experience does have educational value, in that it helps prepare them for the kind of society they will enter!)

In recent years the onus of corruption in college sports has attached largely to football and basketball. Baseball escaped most of it, but not out of any intrinsic moral superiority. The record of college baseball in the latter half of the nineteenth century, when it was the leading intercollegi­ate team sport, shows an accumula­tion of similar abuses. Except for more sophisticated methods now used and the immensely larger stakes involved, the corrupt practices of the two eras are hardly distinguishable. In the nineteenth century pro­fessional baseball coaches were brought into colleges to replace stu­dent captains and charged with pro­ducing winning teams “or else.” Mon­ey and other inducements were soon offered to recruit good players from prep schools, and colleges raided each other’s players. Ringers and what were called trampathletes pass­ed for bona fide students. A story is told of a tobacco-chewing player ob­viously above college age warming up before a college baseball game. Sus­picious, the opposing captain asked him whether he was a student. An­swer: “Yeh.” “What course are you taking?” Pronouncing the name of his pretended major with the ch as in chest, he answered, “Chemistry”!

The burden of abuses gradually shifted from baseball to football and basketball for several reasons. First, the professional football and basket­ball leagues and especially the advent of television greatly increased interest in these sports. Football and basket­ball took place while the colleges were in session and regardless of weather, whereas baseball was lim­ited to short seasons, especially in the colder parts of the country. When television entered the picture—or ra­ther created it for masses of people—and dangled rich contracts before the colleges, they snapped at the bait.

Another important factor played a part in the trend. A country-wide network of professional minor league baseball teams already served to develop and feed players to the major league baseball clubs; pro football and basketball, lacking these farms, turned to the colleges for tal­ent. Realizing this, high schoolers who envisioned lucrative careers in pro football and basketball became keen to serve their apprenticeships on college teams, so buyers and sellers met, and the scramble to deal be­came ever more frantic. Smoothed over with genuflections to education, character-building, and sportsman­ship, corruption in the colleges be­came rife.

Fortunately, the college athletic scene has a brighter side. Some col­leges succeed in keeping the athletic tail from wagging the academic dog. Some have done so from the day they opened, for example my alma mater, Drew University in Madison, New Jer­sey, where I played a prominent part in the establishment of varsity baseball on a genuinely amateur basis.

The university began as a Method­ist Episcopal seminary founded in 1866 with money provided by Daniel Drew, whose bequest demonstrates (to vary an observation of Samuel Johnson’s) that philanthropy can be the last refuge of a scoundrel. One of the most disreputable figures in American finance, Drew began his career as a drover, and his trick of increasing his cattle’s weight by hav­ing the animals lick salt on the way to market and then filling them with water just before selling them in­spired the term “watered stock.” In the post-Civil War era Drew became one of the infamous robber barons who corrupted legislatures, bought judges, broke laws, and swindled the public and each other.

During the seminary era, sports at what was to become Drew University were limited to informal football games among the young theologians. They played anywhere they could find a suitable place on the 300-acre campus. With the opening of a gym­nasium in 1910 they also engaged in intramural basketball. Intercollegi­ate competition appeared only after the founding of the liberal arts college in 1928.

Varsity baseball at Drew University dates from fall 1930, when I entered as a student. That summer, when I applied for admission to the arts col­lege (then called Brothers College, in honor of the founding Baldwin broth­ers), I was interviewed by Dean Wil­liam P. Tolley. During the interview I asked if there would be a varsity baseball team. He replied—for all I know, on the spur of the moment—that there would be, and that a fac­ulty member, Dr. Sherman Plato Young, would handle it. I wondered how a guy with that middle name could run a ball team, but I kept my thoughts to myself.

That fall, as a freshman I joined others interested in baseball in a scrub game on a rough meadow just behind the gym. After the game Doc Young, as he was known, called every­one together and spoke briefly of plans for a team. When he finished he asked if there were any questions; there were none except mine. Having grown up under the influence of the professional code of going all-out to win, I entertained some fear that our games might be looked upon as an opportunity for “good fun” and “fellowship.” Besides the lingering semi­nary influence I was aware that some of the candidates for the baseball team were pre-ministerial students and that Doc Young, who taught Lat­in and Greek, was also an ordained minister. So I asked right out whether we were going to play to win. Doc looked a bit quizzical but assured me that such was his intention. I was satisfied, but as things turned out my fears were not entirely unfounded.

The following spring, 1931, what passed for practice began in the small gym and then, as soon as weather permitted, moved outside. Just before the start of the season Doc was sud­denly stricken with appendicitis and carried off to a Morristown hospital. A gym teacher from Madison High School showed up, apparently to re­place Doc as coach, but he knew as much about baseball as an organ grinder does about playing an organ. After only a couple of practices he either quit or was fired by Dean Tolley.

Next somebody suggested that the players select one of their own to take charge of the team until Doc’s return. At any rate, the players held an even­ing meeting in one of the college classrooms and, knowing something of my baseball background, un­animously chose me for the post.

I knew a good deal about the game, not only the techniques of play and “inside baseball” strategy but also how to teach them. Since boyhood I had played ball on the Brooklyn sand­lots and had read everything I could find on baseball techniques, such as Christy Mathewson’s Pitching in a Pinch. I had obtained my first uni­form by playing for a couple of years on the Fenimore Street Methodist Episcopal Church team in Brooklyn, New York; the pastor there was instrumental in my matriculation at Drew. Later, in high school, I had played two years of varsity baseball and had received hon­orable mention for New York City’s All-Scholastic PSAL team.

In addition, I was already in my fourth season of coaching and field managing a boys’ team I had or­ganized in Brooklyn in 1927; al­though nominally amateurs, we play­ed for a side bet and a National or American League ball. (Actually, outside of scholastic and college ball, the leader of the team was called the manager, as in professional ball; the term “coach” was scorned.) I was in fact to continue to manage such ama­teur and even semipro teams for six more years, the last one, the Crestons, entering the Brooklyn Amateur League in 1936 for the first time and winning the championship.

The dessert in this early baseball feast consisted of three summers I worked as batboy at Ebbets Field, two of them for the visiting National League teams and one for the Brooklyn Dodgers, then called the Robins after Uncle Robbie, their bumbling, colorful manager. Those were the days of players like Hornsby, Traynor, Alexander, Wheat, Vance, and of course McGraw. There I learned more about the game and a lot about the atmosphere of a big ­league bench and clubhouse by listening and asking questions of the players. But that is another story.

With only a tiny student body of few­er than fifty to draw from that first season of Drew baseball, we had barely enough players to field a team, let alone provide bench strength. Apart from a few decent hitters and a pas­sable outfield, the squad was woe­fully weak. We had no pitching to speak of, infielders who couldn’t stop a pig coming down a gangway, and a general lack of speed. The catcher, one of two or three older pre­-theological students in the lineup, once waved weakly at a throw to the plate, allowing a sliding runner to score. When I angrily asked what the hell was the matter with him, he replied that he could not afford to get hurt! In short, we were what big ­leaguers called a humpty-dumpty team.

To make matters worse, we played a schedule that an interested stu­dent, our “student manager,” improvised as best he could without his having any idea of the caliber of the opposition. As a result we suffered a string of defeats, some of them “laugh­ers” that provided the opposition with little more than batting practice and a workout running the bases. After each game I grimly sent a less than cheerful written report to Doc, and I also visited him in the hospital a number of times. Dean Tolley had called the birth of the college “an adventure in excellence”; the birth of the ball team was anything but that.

Later in the season Doc returned, leaning on a cane. I assumed he would take over the team and would have been glad of it, but when I im­mediately said as much he replied, “No, just continue as you are doing.” So he sat on the bench and acted as cheerleader while I continued to handle the team. In effect, therefore, I was the coach—Drew’s first base­ball coach—though officially I was called Drew’s first captain.

None of us realized it at the time, but this arrangement was a throwback to the system followed by the first college teams of the nine­teenth century, when the players chose a captain who took full charge of the team. For this position the squad usually elected the best and most knowledgeable player, who laid down training rules, selected the play­ers, ran the practice, chose the line­up, and determined strategy during games. So the captain in those days was what we would now call the coach.

Somehow we managed to win the last game of the season, a road game. I drove in what turned out to be the winning run, but the outcome re­mained in doubt until the final out; New Haven Teachers College had the potential tying and winning runs on base with two out in the ninth when as first baseman I caught a high pop fly to end the game. I can still see Doc yelling and waving his cane in exulta­tion as he limped out from the bench. He also sent a telegram to the college dean in Latin paraphrasing Caesar’s famous message: “We came. We saw. We conquered.”

During my first year at college I doubled as reporter, writing up Drew baseball and some basketball, about which I understood little, for the col­lege newspaper, the Acorn, and for the local Madison Eagle. I also re­commended one of the players whom I had taught on my Brooklyn team, Bill Lohrman, a pitcher, to the St. Louis Cardinals, who signed him af­ter watching him pitch batting practice. His only baseball experience and instruction had been with my club. When Warren Giles, then Branch Rick­ey’s righthand man, first saw Lohr­man pitch, he said to me, “Well, your boy knows how to stand on the mound”—intended as high praise, since most rookies were just throw­ers. Lohrman eventually made the major leagues. As a result of recommending him I became an un­official scout (“bird-dog”) for the Cardinals; later I did the same for the Boston Red Sox.

In my second year of college I spent Easter vacation at the spring training camp of the Rochester Red Wings, a Cardinal farm team, in Greensboro, North Carolina. There I had the opportunity of discussing the fine points of baseball with the team’s playing manager, George “Specs” Toporcer, a former Cardinal who had been the first big-league infielder to wear glasses and who was a fount of technical baseball knowledge.

In our second year of Drew base­ball we began winning because of the added experience of the holdovers on the squad, the departure of some of the poorer players of the first sea­son, and the addition of some new recruits, especially batterymen, from the incoming freshman class. Our fielding improved, too, as a result of a new second-base combination and third baseman and also because of Doc’s daily fungo hitting to the out­fielders during batting practice and to the infield after it—something I could not do the previous season, of course, and still play my position. Finally, Doc’s careful scheduling of teams more in our class made us genuinely competitive, and during my last three years at Drew we en­joyed winning seasons. Each year Doc quietly appointed me field captain, but at the end of each season he also named as “honorary captain” one of the three players who had formed the nucleus of that first Drew ball team and who continued to be varsity regulars.

A statement in a recent book by an alumnus begins by pointing out that no sport at Drew surpassed the excellence of baseball, and goes on to say that “This stemmed from Sher­man Plato Young … who coached baseball with a combination of vim, meticulous attention to detail, and spirited locker room rhetoric.” All this was correct except for the “me­ticulous attention to detail.”

To be sure, Doc was a baseball enthusiast, had played some high­ school ball and had seen big leaguers play, but his knowledge of the game was superficial. In the four seasons I played at Drew he never held “skull practice” to teach team play and tac­tics or instructed individuals in bat­ting or in how to play their positions. Nor did he go over the mistakes of individual players after each game, as I did with my own teams.

During my career at Drew, Doc Young in effect acknowledged that I knew more baseball than he did. At indoor spring practice Doc would take me aside and ask such questions as, “How would you show them how to throw the curve?” “How would you show them sliding?” Or he would have me illustrate how to bunt. At crucial stages in the game Doc would consult me on tactics: “Would you let him hit or have him bunt?” etc., and he invariably followed my advice. I also gave him a sign from the field when I thought our pitcher was los­ing his stuff; it was then up to Doc to decide whether to yank him.

As already mentioned, Doc’s work during practice consisted of hitting fungoes to infielders and outfielders, the kind of drill our players badly needed. In games, we played “straight baseball,” employing very little strategy. We had only two signs, bunt and steal, which Doc rarely gave, partly because he conducted a conservative game and partly because we had only a few players who had the speed or bat control to “execute.” On the eve of our second season Doc sounded me out as to whether he should coach at third base instead of from the bench. Apparently he want­ed to, but hesitated because, I sus­pected, he was afraid that being so conspicuous might appear unseemly in the eyes of some of his colleagues. When I encouraged him to go ahead, he did so, and thereafter always took up his position at third.

Nor did Doc know the rules as tho­roughly as a coach should. On a num­ber of occasions the Drew team lost out when the umpire, ignorant of the rules, called a play against us and Doc, not knowing them either, not only failed to dispute him but kept me from doing so.

Once an umpire’s ignorance help­ed us. On an attempted suicide­ squeeze play with me at bat, the only time we ever tried it, I missed the pitch, so I tried to protect the runner coming in from third by “acciden­tally” getting in the way of the catcher; then, trying to get out of his way, I “accidentally” got tangled up with him, allowing our runner to slide in ahead of the tag. The plate umpire was not fooled and called me out for interference—but allowed the run to score! As the man remarked when he threw a stone at a dog and hit his mother-in-law instead, “Al­though the intention miscarried, the effort was not entirely wasted.” The tactics used remind me of Roy Cam­panella’s fumble of his closing homily on a radio program on which I was his guest: “And now, boys, remember—it’s not how you play the game, but whether you win or lose”!

After my years at Drew, baseball there continued to grow in strength and competence. As enrollments in­creased, more ballplayers appeared, especially from the junior college in nearby Morristown. Two young men who learned baseball on my Brooklyn teams entered Drew and played key parts in later Drew diamond success. One of them, Joe Mele, a southpaw and good hitter, pitched Drew to a signal victory over Yale. In the course of Doc’s tenure as coach, Drew baseball teams won more than 70 percent of their games.

My close relationship with Doc Young did not fade away when my years at Drew were over. After I grad­uated he gave me a gold baseball for my watch chain, inscribed “Drew’s First Captain.” In 1940 Drew named me as first baseman on the All-Star Team for Drew’s first baseball dec­ade, a squad apparently selected by Doc. My record included batting over .300 in each of the four seasons-in two of them over.SOO, for a combined average of .425.

Doc and I continued to keep in touch, mostly by mail. Many years passed before he apparently felt se­cure enough to admit, even in private, my contribution to Drew’s baseball beginnings. On the occasion of his retirement he wrote to thank me for my telegram:

You were the principal factor in giving direction and quality to Drew sports. You were always so decent to me. You knew much more baseball than I did but you always kept perspective and never embarrassed me. In time I learned a lot­—much of it from you—and Drew de­veloped a true tradition of sports.[fn]Young to Seymour, May 30, 1954.[/fn]

Later he put it even more frankly:

When you first knew me at Drew I knew nothing about baseball. By long, serious study I mastered tactics and I could get men to hustle. After 30 years I realize how little I know about the game.[fn]Young to Seymour, August 6, 1959.[/fn]

Doc Young was far more than a baseball coach. In the afterlight it is clear that his real importance lay in his contribution as a teacher. He used baseball as a vehicle through which he exerted a significant influence on young men-ballplayers and non­players alike, as students and after graduation as well. My own case ex­emplified the others. His interest in my future began in my freshman year when he invited me to lunch at the Ridgedale Inn, a fine old establish­ment in Madison where I lived in my senior year and that alas is no more. There we discussed not baseball but Oxford University, where he had spent a term and which he envisioned my attending one day. How proud he was when Oxford University Press became my publisher! Doc was in­strumental in my going on to gradu­ate work at Cornell, and in later years I often sought his counsel and advice. His encouragement and guidance never failed.

Doc’s primary position as full-fledged member of the arts faculty and his interest in lifting the intellec­tual sights of all his students, not just the ballplayers, harmonized with the college’s policy of subordinating ath­letics to the pursuit of learning. From the very outset, classroom and library took precedence at Drew University over gymnasium and playing field, although the latter two were by no means neglected. Put another way, intercollegiate sports stood on a par with such other extra classroom ac­tivities as dramatics, debate, and clubs, and like them existed only for whatever educational and rec­reational value they might afford.

To ensure fulfillment of its policy toward athletics, the college adopted a cluster of specific measures: No athletic scholarships or recruitment of athletes, no lengthy playing sched­ules or extended road trips, no admis­sion charges to games or inordinate publicity for athletics, no special priv­ileges or perquisites for athletes, no snap courses or academic leniency for them. Indeed, if anything we athletes suspected some professors (no doubt wrongly) of grading us a bit more severely than they did the others. Lastly, coaches were tenured mem­bers of the faculty, free from pressure to produce winners, and the college eschewed varsity football completely.

These strictures were designed to help advance the overriding purpose of the college. Rather than turning out narrow, vocationally trained people, it sought to produce liberally educated men—and, beginning with World War Two, women—familiar with, in Matthew Arnold’s words, “the best that has been thought and said in the world,” and possessed of what John Henry Newman called en­largement ofmind.[fn]For an elaboration of this view, see Harold Seymour, “Education for Free Men,” Jour­nal of Higher Education (December 1952), pp. 489-494.[/fn] In brief, the pri­mary task of the college was to prov­ide an education as distinguished from training, which was the func­tion of business and professional schools.

The policy toward athletics and extra class activities in general was complemented by high academic standards; yet no eligibility rules for participation were established. Stu­dents were free to take part or not. If they failed to meet the required stan­dards they simply left or were drop­ped from the college. Because they gained admission as students in the first place, athletes on the whole worked as hard and did as well scholastically as the other students. A fair portion of them made the dean’s list, and at the end of our freshman year it was a ballplayer who won a $300 scholarship for achieving the highest average in the class.

The condition of the campus field on which the baseball team practiced the first year seemed to symbolize the Drew policy. It was in such poor shape that we played nearly all home games on Dodge Field in downtown Madison. Only after a couple of sea­sons did all home games take place on campus, on what is now Young Field, named in Doc’s honor at the request of alumni upon his retire­ment. Even then the campus field was little more than a rough mead­ow, without a cut-out infield; it fea­tured a steep hill in center field, a crude backstop close behind home plate, and a couple of benches set up along the foul lines for the players. Spectators stood behind the backstop and on an embankment along the first-base side of the field. The only groundskeeping, apart from an oc­casional cutting of the grass, was done by the players, who raked some of the infield for fear of losing their teeth trying to field ground balls. Not until years later was the field im­proved, dugouts built for the players, and some wooden seats for fans add­ed on the first-base side. The college also constructed a splendid new gym with swimming pool, but wisely never built a stadium.

Indeed, in those pioneer years of Drew baseball Doc Young and most of the players sensed a coolness and even some hostility toward inter­collegiate competition on the part of some students and faculty. The 1929 Carnegie Report supplied them with ample ammunition. Warnings of “professionalism” and “overempha­sis on sports” together with praise of intramural competition and of the casual attitude toward sports that supposedly prevailed at Oxford and Cambridge circulated about the cam­pus. I recall a meeting of the student “extra classroom activity committee” where, in freshman naivete, I pro­posed a training table for varsity play­ers! To this suggestion the faculty chairman reacted as though I had just proposed blowing up his science lab­oratory. He sternly (and, I came to realize, rightly) squelched the idea. Another professor, the epitome of the stereotype—Harvard Ph.D., goatee, tweeds, knickers, cane, and a second pair of glasses worn over the first when he read a passage in class —volunteered during a classroom lec­ture that faculty members were un­der no obligation to attend athletic contests; he never attended any, either.

On the other hand, a number of faculty members proved sympathetic to baseball. Dean Tolley occasionally caught batting practice—lefthanded and garbed in tennis whites. Others attended games with some fre­quency, and one sometimes asked me afterward to explain a play. Professor Frank Lankard, who succeeded Tol­ley as dean, also showed great inter­est in baseball.

To help dispel any doubts about the legitimacy of our baseball en­terprise and to lift the morale of the players, I took it upon myself before the opening of our second season to obtain some gesture of support from the university’s president, Arlo Brown. Without Doc Young’s or any­one’s prior knowledge I went to Presi­dent Brown’s office and asked him to come over to the field the day before the first game and say a few words to the team. He seemed quite pleased with the idea and readily complied, and much to the satisfaction of Doc and the players he in effect put his imprimatur on our venture.

Despite great growth and vast changes over a half-century, the col­lege has held to the essentials of its intercollegiate athletic policy and ap­pears likely to continue, at least dur­ing the administration of the in­cumbent president, who, prior to coming to Drew, as president of South­ern Methodist University called the attention of the NCAA to violations by members of his own institution. More important, Drew has stuck to its orig­inal educational objectives, in part because it keeps athletics under con­trol. If anything, admission require­ments and academic standards are stiffer, the more noteworthy in these times when colleges commonly offer bonehead English and remedial mathematics.

My experience at Drew was, to use an overworked word, rewarding. Al­though my Drew baseball experience added little to my knowledge of the game, I thoroughly enjoyed playing, and in fact probably devoted too much time to it. More important, some of my teammates and I grad­ually began to understand what the college was trying to get across to us, and what education was all about. With the passing years I learned to view baseball in broader perspective. Much of what we absorbed took place outside the classroom because of close association with a few profes­sors, not on a palsy-walsy, first-name basis but on one of respect and friend­liness between master and appren­tice. Such valuable relationships were common at Drew, where it was not unusual to have dinner at professors’ homes, to attend the theatre, opera, or lectures with them in New York City, as well as Broadway musicals and ballgames with Doc at the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field. Besides Doc, I still have fond memories of close association with other profes­sors, especially Herrman Meier, Grange Wooley, and Jack Benton, Doctors of the Universities of Mar­burg, Paris, and Edinburgh res­pectively, from whom I probably learned as much or more outside the classroom than in it, through no fault of theirs.

Drew University and other colleges have demonstrated that intercollegi­ate athletics can and should play a part in an institution of higher learn­ing, if, as is often piously said, they are properly conducted. That is a very big if. Far too few conduct athletics properly. Their varsity programs, as Professor Francis J. Lodato of Man­hattan College recently wrote function apart from the lifeline of the colleges and universities and contribute noth­ing to the academic environment.[fn]New York Times, April 11, 1982.[/fn] Like pre-1870 Prussia, which was an army with a state, many institutions of higher education are athletic es­tablishments with a college or uni­versity. Long ago Thorstein Veblen put the matter more graphically. Speaking of college-sponsored sports extravaganzas, he said they had about as much relevance to education as bullfighting does to agriculture.

The solution is plain. Let colleges and universities presently engaged in operating sports businesses get out of them and instead embrace and en­force programs like that of Drew Uni­versity. Unfortunately, judging from past experience, the possibility of such major surgery being performed is about as great as of nations con­verting all nuclear arms into sources of energy. Intermittent efforts to tame intercollegiate athletics since early in the century have made little headway. Even if colleges possessed the will and the courage to reform, and it is not clear that they do, the task is more formidable than ever. Too many financial and emotional interests are involved for fundamen­tal change to take place easily. More likely, there will be deploring and hand wringing, promises to elimin­ate abuses, bandaid remedies, and wrist-slapping penalties. Eventually, the hullabaloo will subside and the system will carry on much as before.

Robert M. Hutchins had the cour­age to ban football at the University of Chicago, because, as he said in an­swer to critics, “I’m running a uni­versity, not a circus.” He once wrote:

You may be sure, that the American edu­cational system will be engaged in the cultivation of whatever is honored in the United States. Its weaknesses will be the weaknesses of American ideals.[fn]Robert M. Hutchins, Education for Freedom (Louisiana University Press, 1945), p. 49.[/fn]

Recently, however, Professor Thomas Bender of New York University went beyond Hutchins’ observation, de­claring that:

Unless liberal institutions and universities in particular have courage to stand for something substantive, how can they be defended? A university worth affirming must have an ethos, a sense of its own integrity.[fn]New York Times Book Review, May 23, 1982, p. 20.[/fn] 

Intercollegiate athletics is but one of many serious problems that beset higher educational institutions in these parlous times. Will they rise to the occasion, as good ballplayers do? Grover Cleveland once said, “A good way to begin is to begin.” A good place for colleges and universities to begin is with intercollegiate athletics.

 

Dr. Harold Seymour is the author of Baseball: The Early Years (1960) and Baseball: The Golden Age (1971).

© SABR. All Rights Reserved