For 12 years now, Curt Hart has had the best teaching gig in town. He's taught "Baseball in America" at the University of Memphis, a course on the greatest sport known to man, and particularly its significance in American history. He took a seventh-inning stretch during preparation for his summer course (it's free and online) to answer a few questions.
What was the original inspiration for the course and how did you convince the U of M that you're the man to teach it?
The original course began in the spring of 2008. It was at the urging of former dean Dr. Dan Lattimore that I develop a class on baseball, including its myths and history. Dr. Lattimore recognized my experience in radio and association with Major League Baseball to utilize this in the classroom setting. Plus, while in radio I covered Baltimore Orioles baseball for years, and numerous Baseball Hall of Fame inductions in Cooperstown, New York. I should note that former Los Angeles Dodger Reggie Williams will be alongside me in this free online course: "Baseball — For the Love of the Game." Reggie and I will be doing five live classes in this as well. (Reggie is a minor league coach with the Cincinnati Reds.)
When the pandemic hit, we were without baseball from spring training to the regular season. It was University of Memphis president Dr. David Rudd, department dean Dr. Richard Irwin, and associate dean Dr. Joanne Gikas who made the suggestion that since we are without baseball, how about a free online course to help create interest in the game. We will discuss the development of the game from its early stages, the formation of the National and American Leagues, the 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal, integration, steroids, the Baseball Hall of Fame, expansion, gambling, and sign-stealing.
Under normal conditions you get as many as 40 students in the classroom for the course. Do they walk into the room baseball fans, or are these students new to the sport and simply curious?
It’s a wide range of students who enroll for the class. These range from very little knowledge, to some facts about a certain team, all the way to the avid fan. Some fans include those who live and die by a particular team to those who have a great dislike for another club.
Do you teach with a chronological format, starting in "the deadball era," or is the structure more random?
The overall course covers the game transitioning from rounds, base and ball, to Town Ball (the most popular), to baseball and the nine-inning game of today. Debunking the Abner Doubleday myth is discussed early in the course. The formation of both leagues must be included, along with Alexander Cartwright turning a square onto a diamond and marking off 90 feet and assigning nine positions. Historian Henry Chadwick then comes onto the scene, who brings us the box score we use to this day. However, following the Deadball Era, Babe Ruth emerges and changes the game. Naturally, much more follows Ruth’s contribution.
Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson, I imagine, are regulars in your lecture lineup. Who else plays a prominent role over the course of a semester?
Alexander Cartwright and Henry Chadwick, both of whom are recognized as co-fathers of the game. Ty Cobb, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Branch Rickey, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Happy Chandler, Rube Foster, Satchel Paige, Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Bud Selig, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, Pete Rose.
Your background is in broadcasting. Do the likes of Mel Allen, Vin Scully, and Jack Buck come up in class?
We discuss when baseball first hit the airwaves with KDKA in 1921. Much talk is devoted to how certain owners “bucked” baseball going to radio for fear of losing fans. However, it reality increased
the fan base and created much more loyalty. Great voices such as Bob Prince, Harry Caray, Marty Brenneman and more are included.
The "baseball is boring" crowd seems to be growing, especially among younger generations. How do you combat such sacrilege?
Fans who say this aren’t paying attention to the game, especially if they’re in the ballpark. These fans aren’t paying attention to the manager, the first- or third-base coaches, action in the bullpen and the dugout. And, they’re certainly not watching all the sign language being passed from one position to the next.
Who was your favorite team growing up? Favorite player? And have they changed over the years?
Growing up near Louisville, Kentucky, my favorite team was the St. Louis Cardinals. It was a long trek then to St. Louis. So the family and friends would head up I-70 to Cincinnati to catch the Cardinals in games against the Reds. These were at old Crosley Field and later Riverfront Stadium.
There were a few players that I followed. Two were Stan Musial and Curt Flood with St. Louis. I witnessed some great hitting and fielding through the years with those two. Another was Mickey Mantle; didn’t care much for the Yankees, but I enjoyed listening to his hitting prowess on the radio. On August 13, 1995, as I was driving to the radio station in Pennsylvania to prep for my sports talk show, a news report aired that Mantle had passed away. I pulled off to the side of the road and cried like a baby. It hit me hard that “The Mick” was gone. Just six years earlier I had a one-on-one interview with Mantle.
Share a central lesson of "Baseball in America" that can help us in these uncertain times.
Baseball has been the sport through the decades that binds us. It links us like family and keeps us close. For the true baseball fan, we breathe it, sleep it, and eat it. We hold this player or a team close to us. It’s a special love and devotion to the game that keeps us going. Even if our team loses a close game, we can look to tomorrow and say “We can play another nine innings and get a win.”