Thursday, July 10, 2008

Tribute to Jules Tygiel

For many of us who study race and baseball, Jules Tygiel’s Baseball’s Great Experiment remains one of the most sophisticated treatments of baseball’s integration and its impact on U.S. society. It is one of the most widely read books on Jackie Robinson and baseball integration, and justly so.

Tygiel approached the integration of baseball as more than just a story of the Major Leagues. He interviewed dozens of Negro League players and researched white mainstream and black newspapers to craft a narrative that allowed readers to understand the profound impact that segregation had on the US national pastime and the complicated terrain that integration pioneers traversed as they participated in the process of desegregating organized baseball.

I first read Baseball’s Great Experiment as an undergraduate at Vassar College working on a senior’s thesis on baseball’s introduction to the Caribbean. Reading the stories he wrote on how racial perceptions in communities throughout the United States affected Latinos such as Vic Power, Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal, and Minnie Miñoso as organized baseball underwent its transformation inspired me to chart a new path of research: To study Latinos, baseball, and race as a way to better comprehend the impact of baseball’s color line and gain a fuller appreciation of the story of race in American life.

I first met Jules Tygiel at an annual meeting of the North American Society of Sport Historians where he was to deliver a keynote address. I was a young graduate student at the University of Michigan and extremely excited to meet the man who had crafted such a compelling narrative about baseball integration.

I approached his table with trepidation, hoping to just say hello and thank him for the inspiration. He insisted I sit and that we talk. There began a collegial relationship that evolved into an intellectual collaboration. Indeed, not all senior scholars are eager to entertain young scholars seeking to address what some may perceive as a ‘gap’ in their scholarship.

Jules Tygiel was more than a historian, to me and many other young historians working inside and outside of academe, whether writing on baseball, urban history, or politics. Yes, he was an exemplar as a baseball historian who set a standard for writing baseball history in a scholarly manner yet also accessible to a popular audience. But, he was also very giving of his time, willing to share his wealth of knowledge and information, and offer advice and encouragement.

A number of years ago, when the University of California Press asked me for names of potential reviewers of my book manuscript, his name came immediately to mind—who better to entrust the years of work I invested in this project than the individual who helped inspired it. In the end, Jules read my book manuscript several times and gave thorough and thoughtful criticism. Whatever success my book Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line has enjoyed since its release is a credit to his wonderful, giving spirit and his gracefulness as a senior scholar committed to mentoring the next generation.

Last year’s All-Star Game Week festivities in San Francisco gave me the opportunity to meet Jules again in person. I was in town to do a book signing at the Mission Bay Borders Bookstore across from the Giants ballpark, conduct some interviews, and catch up with a few friends. It was also the first chance I had to personally thank him for his inspiration, guidance, and encouragement through the years after the publication of my book the previous month.

The highlight of my time in San Francisco was talking baseball, history, and about life in academe with Jules, and being given a tour of his beloved San Francisco—a Brooklyn transplant, Jules had long come to grips with rooting for the Giants.

I was hoping to catch up again next month in San Francisco when I attend a friend’s wedding and a Dodgers-Giants game. But the cancer that had been in remission had made an unwelcome comeback.

He will be missed, but his impact will continue through the scholars and historians he mentored and the scholarship they produce.

posted on on July 11, 2008,

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