America's favorite pastime is no longer relegated to steamy July evenings spent lounging in front of the television or cheering in the grandstand section of Fenway or Camden Yards or Busch Stadium. John H. Thompson, professor and director of graduate studies in the history department (and longtime fan of the St. Louis Cardinals), trades bats for books in his latest endeavor, a course that focuses on the cultural impact of baseball.
Supported by a grant from Duke's Institute for Critical U.S. Studies, the course uses the sport of baseball as a means of exploring social, political, and economic history, including business development, legal history, class conflict, racial tensions, and gender relations; it also takes on larger themes of national identity.
Having taught North American history since 1971, Thompson says he was "looking for a hook that would work as a way to connect America to the rest of the globe." Though Americans tend to view the sport as uniquely theirs, Thompson notes that several countries, including Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Japan, have also embraced baseball as part of their national identity. Even so, the same game has different meaning in each nation, sometimes even taking the form of resistance to the U.S.
In his lectures, Thompson tries to convey to students an understanding of how national identities can be "constructed" and national traditions "invented." He cites, for example, the association of baseball with patriotism and "Americanism" evident in the tradition of the presidential first pitch, which was introduced in the late twentieth century, but is now take for granted. Similarly in Japan, baseball became not only a national passion but a way to demonstrate Japanese equality with Americans. All national identities, he explains, are "put together from a constellation of beliefs, proclaiming the uniqueness about a country, and what they can do well."
Students meet three times a week. Wednesdays and Fridays are devoted to lectures, but Mondays are reserved for class discussions and "learning activities" ranging from debates in which students assume the roles of historical baseball managers—to more fully understand what each side is arguing—to screenings of films like Eight Men Out and Mr. Baseball. Thompson assigns research papers on topics that include contemporary American resistance to the internationalization of major leagues, the decline of baseball in inner-city America, and the study of a local industrial team in a North Carolina mill town.
Thompson acknowledges that this kind of interdisciplinary approach to history would not have been possible when he started his career. However, he says, there is now a "greater awareness that windows onto our behavior don't all have to be political, economic, or military."
John H. Thompson majored in history at the University of Winnipeg, earning a B.A. in 1968. He received his Ph.D. from Queen's University in 1975. His primary research interest is nineteenth- and twentieth-century North American history. He is currently working on two books: one about a Baseball Hall of Fame player from North Carolina and another titled Family, Farm and Community: The Rural Northern Plains, 1860-1970. He also teaches courses on the North American West and the relationships among Canada, Mexico, and the U.S.
Approximately 100 pages of reading weekly from books, articles, and primary sources
Weekly "learning activities"
Four short papers on assigned questions shaped around primary sources
One three-hour, online final composed of essay questions.