Sports Gone Academic?

Published: February 02, 2006 | Read Time: 5 minutes

Jim Vlasich did not start out be a sports historian, but it seems a rather natural consequence given his love for the games, especially baseball. He grew up in southern Illinois, and, though never a fan of the Cardinals, he spent many evenings listening to Harry Caray broadcast their yearly struggles in the 1950s. Of course, Vlasich tried his hand at playing, but was limited to Little League and a Midwestern favorite know as corkball. There were other attempts at football and basketball, but they proved equally daunting for the destined-to-be scholar. Still, he followed the exploits of the University of Illinois, Gillespie High School, various NFL teams and his favorite—the Brooklyn Dodgers. This last bond was so strong, he named his two daughters after the team. He also dedicated his latest book to them, just released this month.

It wasn’t until after Vlasich received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Utah that he began to contemplate an academic investigation of sports. Contemplation, kneaded with his lifelong love of sports, turned into involved and rewarding research, and eventually his first book on sports history, “A Legend for the Legendary: The Origin of the Baseball Hall of Fame.” The release of the book led to Vlasich giving a keynote speech at the first Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture in 1989 and an appearance on the “Today Show with Bryant Gumble.” He’s presented papers on the subject, too, including one at the Popular Culture Association Conference in St. Louis in 1989. Thus began his association with the organization; eight years later, he became its Sports Area Chair—a position which has led to the editing and compilation of his second book on sports issues and history—the just-released “Horsehide, Pigskin, Oval Tracks and Apple Pie: Essays on Sports and American Culture.”

Vlasich explains that as sports have become an established area for research and publication, and courses have developed in the field, too, the number of presentations to the Sports Area of the Popular Culture Association have also increased. The guidelines for submissions are, simply, to make the papers lively and interesting so that they engage the audience, and ground the work in solid research. “And that,” Vlasich states, “is what they all are.” So much so, that they easily inspired Vlasich to continue the editing and compiling of an anthology. The latest manifestation, then, is Vlasich’s edited collection within “Horsehide,” et al.

The research and writing of 16 Popular Culture Association presenters fill this volume. The prose spans a wide variety of sports topics from academic contributors across the country. The pieces look at sports historic and modern, and aspects traditional and innovative. All of them reflect the explosion of sports-history courses that have spread to college campuses around the nation. “What was once deemed unimportant or frivolous by traditional academicians,” Vlasich reveals, “has become a new area of study that students find exciting and relevant, as sports becomes an ever more important segment of American life.”

Vlasich adds, “These papers give new meaning to sports in our culture and demonstrate why these activities reflect the fabric of American society with all of its heroes and flaws.”

All of these articles demonstrate that a new era of research has opened up to scholars over the past two decades. This collection provides slices of the sporting experience and point the way to future research. In fact, Vlasich submits that “they give sports a new meaning in our culture that will expand the interests and curiosity of many.” Students have found a new way to look at American history, and the general reader will be entertained by their efforts.

The titles and authors represented in “Horsehide, Pigskin, Oval Tracks and Apple Pie: Essays on Sports and American Culture,” covering implications from football to racecar driving, from icons like Tiger Woods and Muhammad Ali, to masculinity and social class, include:

“The Fireman and the Mitt: The 1941 New York Yankees—Brooklyn Dodgers World Series”
by Bruce A. Rubenstein;

“Eight Ways of Looking at a Musial” by Joseph Stanton;

“Poosh ‘Em Up, Tony!—Italian Americans and Baseball” by Joseph Dorinson;

“Ichiro, Godzilla, and the American Dream: Japanese Player in Major League Baseball” by Yasue Kuwahara;

“Tiger Woods: Golf’s Modern Catalyst for Change” by Donna J. Barbie;

“The Masters on Trial: Culture Wars Over Women Members at Augusta National Golf Club” by Tom Cook;

“On the Threshold of Broad and Rich Football Pastures: Integrated College Football at UCLA, 1938-1941” by Lane Demas;

“Holy War on the Football Field: Religion and the Florida Sate University Indian Mascot Controversy” by Arthur J. Remillard;

“New Orleans Becomes a Big League City: The NFL-AFL Merger and the Creation of the New Orleans Saints” by Michael S. Martin;

“Weekend Warriors: The Survival and Revival of American Dirt-Track Racing” by Daniel Simone and Kendra Myers;

“Racing’s Roots in Virginia Landscape” by Brian Katen;

“Kickin’ Up Dirt and Puttin’ Down Roots: Keith Simmons and NASCAR’s Dodge Weekly Racing Series in Eastern Iowa” as told to David “Turbo” Thompson;

“The NASCAR Fan as Emotional Stakeholder: Changing the Sport, Changing the Fan Culture” by Barbara S. Hugenberg and Lawrence W. Hugenberg;

“Marketing Multiple Mythologies of Masculinity: Television Advertising and the National Hockey League” by Kimberly Tony Korol;

“Social Class and Fishing: Fly Fishers vs. the Other” by John F. Bratzel
“Ali’s Last Hurrah” by Pete Williams.

“Horsehide,” et al., is Vlasich’s third book. The other two are the aforementioned , “A Legend for the Legendary: The Origin of the Baseball Hall of Fame” and “Pueblo Indian Agriculture.” The latter, the only documented history of the Pueblos spanning four centuries, is being regarded as a groundbreaking history of the Pueblos and reviewed as a vanguard piece on this group of people in American history.

Dr. Vlasich is available for interviews, lectures and presentations on his editing efforts for the production of “Horsehide, Pigskin, Oval Tracks and Apple Pie: Essays on Sports and American Culture.”

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