Take them out to the ballgame! – MC seniors study baseball

April 18, 2005
Michael Isaacs, Communications Assistant

Twenty-one Maryville College seniors are spending this semester studying the sport known as “America’s favorite pastime,” but the class isn’t a requirement for physical education majors, and the students aren’t spending lots of class time out on the baseball diamond.

Providing views into history, culture and mathematics, Senior Seminar 480: Baseball is teaching students that, as a sport rich in history, “America’s favorite pastime” also offers lessons in race relations, society and the use of different numbers and statistics.

Dr. Jeff Bay, associate professor of statistics, said of his course, “It is definitely interdisciplinary. When people think of baseball, they usually think of two things: history, and obviously, statistics.”

Senior Seminar is a course required of all Maryville College students for graduation. This spring, seniors chose from five different courses with topics that range from the culture and science of food to pandemic disease and human history.

The College’s catalog describes the purpose of a Senior Seminar as “a capstone course that provides the student with the skills and opportunity to integrate across at least two of three modes of inquiry: scientific, artistic, humanistic. The approach is thematic and draws on global perspective.”

Bay said his thoughts about creating the Senior Seminar course on baseball came after reading Michael Lewis’ best-selling account of how the 2002 Oakland A’s competed successfully without the larger player payrolls of other major-league teams.

“One of my initial motivations, after reading ‘Moneyball,’ was to examine baseball stats and business to see how scientific and statistical investigation are used to make decisions,” said Bay. Laying claim that these modes of investigation are valid for almost any discipline or business, Bay thought it would make an interesting Senior Seminar.

But just because the course is about the implications of a sport does not mean that it’s not academically rigorous. Students are assigned readings from more than 13 different texts, including periodicals, printed volumes and Internet sources. Some of the more popular texts include “Brushing Back Jim Crow: The Integration of Minor-League Baseball in the American South” by Bruce Adelson; “Girls of Summer: In Their Own League” by Lois Brown; and Lewis’ “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.”

Students are also expected to show their hand at the statistically driven Fantasy Baseball, a game where students choose their own rosters with Major League Baseball players and students compete by comparing their player’s real life statistical performance. Bay has also planned a trip for the students to attend a Cincinnati Reds game in Ohio.

Student Melinda Stewart, who’s majoring in business and organization management, said she has come to understand more of the inner workings of the game. A Cleveland Indians fan since the 1980s, she signed up for the course because she “absolutely loves baseball.”

“The assignments help me understand a lot more of the current issues – salary caps, steroids, business, etc.,” said Stewart. “I thought one way on them, but now I can see from the perspectives of players and owners.”

Statistical lab assignments are another expectation of the course. These labs are used to introduce new statistics being used in baseball and illustrate how numbers are used to evaluate a player’s worth.

Some students already have a perspective on the sport. Chad Huddleston, a second baseman for the Fighting Scots, said, “It was surprising to see – although maybe not as surprising for me since I play the game – how the typical statistics, like batting averages, are not as good of an indicator for run productivity as is on-base-percentage or slugging percentage.”

Huddleston, a writing/communication major, said that his perspective as a player has been insightful for the class but jokingly added that his contributions on the subject haven’t necessarily helped his grades.

David Rasnake, an English-history double major, played a considerable amount of ball as a little-league catcher. He echoed similar ideas about statistics.

“The class has affected my perspective on the game. Being an avid fan of the sport, I used to put a lot of stock in statistics like batting average,” he said. “But now I see that it has little impact compared to other statistics when it comes to a player’s productivity in scoring runs.”

Aside from statistical analysis, another method for gaining perspective on baseball is through historical analysis – mostly a study of baseball’s impact on race relations.

“It really enlightened me,” said Stewart. “I didn’t know there were professional black teams that long ago; I only knew about the women’s league during the war. The players of the professional black teams were really good, and they didn’t really get [the recognition] they deserved.”

When Jackie Robison broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947, seven years before public schools were desegregated, he was able to help set a national mood, according to Bay. Robinson even won the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1949.

“What strikes me when reading about Jackie Robinson and many of the black ballplayers who followed Jackie is the grace with which they endured racial insults, threats to their health and other forms of abuse,” Bay said. “That grace and sense of control seemed to inspire the civil-rights leaders who followed in the 1950s and 1960s. To me, it is this chapter of baseball’s history that allows the sport to claim it is ‘America’s pastime.’

“For all its weaknesses and all its failings, baseball can point to its leading role in the most important societal change in the past century.”

Most students in the class agree that they feel challenged and that their appreciation of the sport grows with statistical and historical analyses in every class meeting, but, according to Bay, it isn’t all work and no fun.

“After seeing how statistics are used to make decisions, how the game evolves over time and how the game affects the community – then, as anyone who teaches a Senior Seminar course does – I hope students think the learning has been enjoyable.”