Course on baseball history is a hit

Western Md. College offers filled-up class during January term

January 29, 2002|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Not a single hint of recognition registered on 24 Western Maryland College students' faces as Dave Seibert began his talk on Adrian Constantine Anson.

Though "Cap" Anson dominated 19th-century baseball as a hard-hitting first baseman and a leading proponent of segregation, he seemed as remote a figure to the baseball fans assembled before Seibert as the Roman emperor Constantine.

That's exactly why Seibert, Western Maryland's baseball coach, teaches a class on the sport's history every January. He hopes to reveal the nuance and color of the game he loves to young minds weaned on Cal Ripken, huge contracts and labor squabbles.

The class, called "America's Game: Baseball," is one of many unusual choices the college offers during its three-week January Term. Other colleges and universities across Maryland, including Johns Hopkins, Morgan State and the University of Maryland, also offer concentrated January course schedules for students ready to restart school before the end of the month. But Western Maryland serves up some of the more creative January selections, ranging from a fishing and diving expedition in Belize to an intensive introduction of the Chinese game mah-jongg.

The baseball course consistently ranks among the most popular offerings, with all 24 seats usually full.

Seibert has been teaching the class for almost a decade. He got the idea from his then-department head, who had wanted to design a course on baseball but never got around to it.

When Seibert began thinking of what to teach, he realized that his knowledge of baseball history was limited, given the huge amount of information available on the game. So the course has been as much a learning experience for him as any of his students, he said.

History brought to life

People such as eccentric former Cleveland, St. Louis and Chicago owner Bill Veeck, who introduced innovative and occasionally oddball marketing to the major leagues, and teams such as the Yankee juggernauts of the 1920s and 1930s have come to life for him as he has studied the game.

Although baseball has become a popular topic for college classes across the country, Seibert, unlike many academics, makes no particular effort to link the game with overall American history or sociology.

He teaches baseball history straight, moving chronologically from the mid-19th century to the present, often in highly specific detail. As one might expect from a coach, he rarely fails to mention a rule change or an innovation in equipment design.

Economics are `distasteful'

His lecture, interspersed with clips from Ken Burns' 1994 documentary on baseball, occasionally touches on the economics of the game, but Seibert tries to minimize talk about the subject because he finds it "distasteful."

The unquestioned highlight of the course, according to Seibert and students, is a trip to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

When asked why he took the course, junior Craig Johnson of Ellicott City grinned and said, "I have to admit, it's because I've never been to Cooperstown, and I've always wanted to go."

Seibert called the Hall of Fame "the Bible when it comes to any information I present on baseball." He said he invariably learns more about the game each trip he makes. The class also visits Williamsport, Pa., home of the Little League World Series.

If the trips don't sound like the typical collegiate academic rigors, that's because they're not, Seibert said. "I want the students to go away knowing more about the history of the game, but most of all, I want the course to be fun."

In that spirit, he ends the course by letting the class elect its version of baseball's All-Century team and vote on the Hall of Fame fate of banned-for-life hit king Pete Rose.

That's not to say there aren't more sobering aspects.

Midterm and final examinations force students to prove they remember something about ancient figures such as Anson, Albert G. Spalding, the early pitching great, team owner and sporting goods magnate, and Honus Wagner, the Pittsburgh star regarded by many as the greatest shortstop. Seibert said he also tries to emphasize the seriousness of Jackie Robinson's quest to integrate baseball.

"I mean, he was good enough to fight a war with whites, but he wasn't good enough to play baseball with them," Seibert said. "That's a pretty terrible thing when you think about it."

Baseball's role in crises

He also emphasizes baseball's historical role in comforting the nation through times of national crisis, using the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 as a fresh example.

For their part, students said they want to learn the details of baseball history.

"I was raised on baseball, but this is a chance to know more about it," said sophomore Jeff Crowe of Ellicott City, who acknowledged that he knew little about early baseball coming in.

"It's just interesting to know where it came from," Johnson said.

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