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Tossing a Curve in Class

The surprising connections between baseball, history and business

Chris Beneke

As the winter chill sets in, I am warmly recalling a teaching experience I had at Bentley in spring 2012. That’s when I taught the history of sports for the first time.

My students may have been a little jarred by the experience. Initially enthusiastic, these sports-loving undergrads encountered considerably more history, and completed vastly more reading and writing, than any of them anticipated.

But by the end of the semester, my students also demonstrated an impressive and complex awareness of how sports, history, and business are connected, and how the insights gleaned from one might be applied to the others. As always, I learned as much from their questions and insights as they did from me.

Studying the origins and early evolution of baseball was a special kind of revelation for all of us.

Consider that mysterious dirt strip between home plate and the pitcher’s mound that you can still see at many ballparks. It serves no evident purpose. So why, I asked, do we have it? Probably because early baseball teams played on cricket fields that centered around a “pitch,” at the end of which stood two wickets. “Base ball” (as it was originally spelled) employed bases rather than wickets. But the pitch abided, along with the “pitcher.”

In this and countless other ways, baseball retained some vestigial traits while discarding others. It borrowed lavishly from cricket while vigorously competing with it. But the game’s rough and uneven struggle, we learned, was not unlike the process by which legal codes are built, or new industries mature.

To be sure, when we’re looking at baseball or business, rules generally harden over time, competition usually subsides, and a few people often make a great deal of money.

But I also explain to my students that predicting how things will turn out when a new enterprise emerges is nearly impossible.

The Civil War-era fraternal clubs that cobbled together baseball’s early rules in the open, grassy fields of Brooklyn, New York and Hoboken, New Jersey couldn’t have fathomed modern-day Yankee stadium, the glitzy broadcasts that carry games to tens of millions of viewers, or the diversity of the men who now play the sport for astronomical salaries.

Yet, as the example of the mysterious dirt paths demonstrates, the game’s fundamental structure, with its famous inefficiencies and beloved rituals, has proved resilient. Baseball’s historically shaped, idiosyncratic character is the proverbial “box” in which we now think about it. Some aspects could no doubt be profitably discarded. Yet something intangible, something meaningful, would be lost — and the bottom line might very well suffer as a consequence.

This is a good business lesson to be learned, especially in an era when digitally paced innovation is prized above nearly everything else.

Teaching college-level baseball history, like all rigorous history, helps us understand how new industries, nations, laws, and social formations come into being. And it gives us a new perspective on the long-term impact of conscious decisions; the powerful constraints and profits that result; and the many durable traditions created along the way.

Chris Beneke is associate professor of history at Bentley University.