Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

Covering the bases

Seminar takes on all-American pastime

The game of baseball, says David Fox, is a microcosm.

“There’s a goofy T-shirt that says, ‘Baseball is life’—and there’s some truth in that,” says the Wheaton theatre professor. “Baseball is a lens on the world. And the human stories that come out of it are very, very compelling.”

Last fall, Fox and 18 freshmen explored some of the game’s most memorable stories in a new First-Year Seminar titled “Curses, Cornfields, and Called Shots: Baseball as the Stuff of Myth and Legend.” Fox, a lifelong Red Sox fan, organized the syllabus into “innings” that explored themes such as baseball as romantic fiction, race and gender in baseball, and baseball’s rough side (subtitled “business, bitterness and scandal”).

Boston Globe sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy visited campus to field questions in class and at an evening event in Weber Theatre with Professor David Fox.

The course marked Fox’s first time teaching an FYS in his 22 years at Wheaton. When his department colleagues first suggested the topic, he was skeptical, “but the more I thought about it, the more logical it seemed,” he says. “Ever since I can remember, I have been passionate about two things in life: baseball and theatre. I started to think in terms of the myths and legends and story lines that are attached to the game of ball, and how that correlates with theatre.”

“They’re both live events that involve an audience,” he continues. “You practice and you rehearse, and then you open. And what plays out in front of any given audience is totally spontaneous. Part of the excitement is that anything can happen.”

That unpredictability, and the game’s leisurely pace, make it a sport that gives rise to personal memories and storytelling, says Kelly Welch, a catcher for Wheaton softball. “Baseball’s so much slower than all the other games,” she says. “You can really take it in.”

Welch and others in the class also observed that baseball seems to attract a wider variety of fans, including more families, older people, and women, than does the grittier game of football.

Course materials ranged from George Carlin’s monologue “Baseball vs. Football” to serious reads such as The Natural by Bernard Malamud and Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella, along with its 1989 film adaptation, Field of Dreams. Class discussion also varied, from talk about the daily sports pages to lofty conversations about heroes and anti-heroes in baseball and in literature.

The class read and discussed The Curse of the Bambino by Boston Globe sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy, and in November, Shaughnessy visited the class as a guest speaker.

For Erin Deneen, of Framingham, Mass., baseball is a “huge passion,” and she jumped at the chance to take the course. “I’m a quiet person, especially in a classroom,” says Deneen, who plays second base for Lyons softball. “Because I felt confident about the subject, I knew I’d be able to contribute to the discussions.”

Small-group research presentations were central to the course. Topics included legendary ballplayers, colorful broadcasters, and today’s controversy over steroid use. Fox says his aim was to give the students practice at public speaking and “bringing something to life in front of an audience. I wanted to keep the class as theatrical as I could.”

“We ended up teaching each other a lot through presenting our research,” says Sam Doran, of Lexington, Mass. A local history enthusiast who has edited a collection of essays about Lexington, Doran collaborated on a class presentation on the history of century-old Fenway Park.

In September the class took a field trip to Fenway to see the last home game of 2012. In keeping with their dismal season record (69–93), the Sox lost. But the day had its bright spots: the students met Sox co-owner Larry Lucchino and had a chance to run the bases after the game. The season was over, but the storytelling continued.

Jessica Kuszaj Photos