SSTN Interviews Steven Wisensale
SSTN: Today we are here with Steven Wisensale, Professor Emeritus of Public Policy in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences at the University of Connecticut where he taught a course, “Baseball and Society: Politics, Economics, Race and Gender.” He went to Japan as a Fulbright Scholar in 2017 where he taught a course, “Baseball Diplomacy in Japan-US Relations,” at two universities. A leading authority in baseball circles, he was recently published in SABR’s Spring 2021 Baseball Research Journal.
He also published a chapter in SABR’s recently published book, Jackie: Perspectives on 42. The chapter’s title, “The Black Knight: A Political Portrait of Jackie Robinson,” explores Robinson’s politics and social activism.
Thank you Steven for coming to Start Spreading the News. It is great to have this discussion with you.
You are welcome Paul. I love the topics you cover and am very impressed with the people you have invited to participate.in your programs so far. Thank you for inviting me too, as I look forward to what I think will be a stimulating discussion.
As you know I am an educator, like you, who also has a love of baseball. I love that you are able to use baseball as a starting off point for scholarly research and discussion. Please tell us a little about your collegiate baseball courses.
Since 2012 I have designed and taught two baseball courses at the university level. The first course,” Baseball and Society: Politics, Economics, Race and Gender,” was offered at the University of Connecticut. Cross-listed with several departments, including American Studies, Women’s Studies, and African-American Studies, it was presented as an historical overview that captured the intersection of baseball and American culture. Topics I covered included labor relations, racism, baseball during wartime, women in baseball, steroids, and various other topics.
My second course, “Baseball Diplomacy in Japan-U.S. Relations” was taught at two universities in Japan – one in Tokyo and the other in Yokohama- in 2017. That course tried to capture how both Japan and the U.S. have used baseball to build close relations. It was taught chronologically, beginning with the introduction of baseball in in Japan in 1872 and continuing to the present day with the arrival of Shohei Ohtani. Most of the course was devoted to baseball tours, beginning in 1905 when a college baseball team from Japan come to the U.S. and continuing to the present day. Students learned about the famous 1934 tour to Japan that included All-Stars like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmy Foxx, Moe Berg and others. Designed to ease rising tensions between the two nations as war clouds gathered, the tour ultimately failed to prevent war as Connie Mack had predicted. However, the post-war tours, beginning with Lefty O’Doul bringing his San Francisco Seals to Japan in 1949 began to establish once again good U.S.-Japanese relations. Soon thereafter we witnessed American ballplayers going to Japan and, more slowly, Japanese ballplayers coming to the U.S. This kind of interaction between these two countries with baseball being the intermediary, is a good example of what diplomatic scholars refer to as “soft power.”
If your followers would like to see a condensed version of what my course in Japan was about, I suggest they visit this website: Babe Ruth in a kimono: How baseball diplomacy has fortified Japan-US relations (theconversation.com).
You recently published an article on your baseball related travels to Japan. Can you please share an overview of that experience? (I am going to ask about a special statue in the next question.)
Well yes, in 2017 I was fortunate enough to be named a Fulbright Scholar, which is another example of soft power. It is an exchange program between U.S. academics (mostly) and academics in other countries. I went to Japan to teach two courses at two universities. One, was the baseball diplomacy course that I just described, and the other course was “Family Policy in Aging Societies.” As you know, public policy is my specialty and both aging policy and family policy are my sub-specialties. Japan, as you may also know, is one of the “oldest nations” in the world and with a declining birth rate, combined with an increase in longevity, much pressure is placed on families to care for elderly relatives. More important is the challenge of finding a way to pay for services needed by an aging population. If you don’t mind, I would like to offer this factoid: During my stay there I learned that the Japanese were buying more diapers for people over 65 than for children under 5. That little factoid pretty much captures the challenge facing Japan today.
Anyway, during my stay there, I decided to visit each one of Japan’s major league ballparks. So, over a three-month period I road Japanese bullet trans north to south, east to west, until I got to see every ballpark. Of course. what my travels also did was to give me a broader perspective on Japanese culture. Baseball was my vehicle for doing so. And I should also add that I was very fortunate to get tickets to Koshien, the phenomenal high school baseball tournament held each August. For 16 days Koshien stadium is filled with 50,000 fans cheering on high school kids who dream of becoming national champions. And for those who cannot attend the games in person, every single game is covered on national television. It is quite amazing, and it really speaks to the love the Japanese have for baseball. Just recently, that tournament celebrated its 100th anniversary.
Please tell us about the special statue you went in search for in Japan and why it is so significant.
Several years ago I was reading an article and the author casually mentioned that there was a statue of Babe Ruth in a Japanese zoo but said nothing more beyond that. Just that short statement in an obscure article aroused my curiosity. Therefore, when I went to Japan, I decided to find the zoo that had Babe Ruth’s statue in it, take a phot of myself standing with the Babe, and then write a story about it. I accomplished my goal.
As it turns out, the statue is in Sendai, which is in northern Japan and home to the Rakuten Golden Eagles of Japan’s professional baseball league. For your Yankee fans, it is from that team that Tanaka came to the Yankees and it is now the team he pitches for back in Japan. But the reason Babe Ruth’s statue is in the Sendai zoo is very interesting. As it turns out, on that spot was once a ballpark, and it was in that ballpark in 1934 while on tour with the American All-Stars, that Babe Ruth hit his very first home run in Japan. And it is on the very sport where that first home run ball landed in 1934 that Babe Ruth’s statue stands today. You see, after the war the ballpark was dismantled and replaced by a zoo. However, the landing spot for Babe Ruth’s first home run was considered sacred ground. Therefore, his statue was placed there – right next to a rhinoceros in his pen. Again, this shows the passion and respect the Japanese have for American baseball and Babe Ruth in particular.
So just to add something else, when I returned to the U.S. I did indeed write an article about my journey to find Babe Ruth’s statue in a Japanese Zoo and I am happy to say that the article was published this past spring in SABR’s Baseball Research Journal.
I went to Japan once and had an amazing time. I hope to go back one day. If I do, I will also go in search of that Babe Ruth statue. Do you travel as much in the USA visiting baseball stadiums? If so, which current stadium is your favorite?
I have been to many of the MLB ballparks here in the U.S. and also to a fair number of minor league parks. My favorite ballpark is Camden Yards in Baltimore, partly because I am an avid Orioles fan, but I think my second favorite park is in Pittsburgh. It’s really nice and it is so very special to walk across the Clemente bridge to the ballpark. I also like Fenway and Wrigley a lot and I must confess that I like Dodger Stadium, now the 3rd oldest park in existence, but I have never been to Dodger Stadium. My dream is that some day I spend a summer visiting each MLB ballpark and every presidential library all in one trip. That would be lots of fun I think. I just need a 14 year-old computer whiz to design the most efficient trip for me that meets my goal.
But I must tell you that your question is very timely because I am currently reading Paul Goldberger’s Ballpark. As you probably know, Goldberger is the former architecture critic of the New York Times and won the Pulitzer Prize for his outstanding work. In his book he discusses the role of baseball parks in the development of cities and the ballpark’s importance in integrating diverse populations. Of course he also talks about how the designs of ballparks have changed over the years and he is particularly pleased with recent ballparks being designed to embrace the city and the neighborhoods in which they are constructed. I strongly suggest that your followers read Goldberger’s Ballpark. It is as much about urban history as it is about baseball parks.
How closely do you follow the game today?
I follow it pretty closely, I think. I subscribe to mlb.com which means I can capture any ballgame I wish. I usually watch Orioles’ games, but you and your followers may be happy to know that I watch many, many Yankees’ games on the YES Network. I really like their entire broadcast crew that includes Michael Kay, David Cone, Paul O’Neil, Kenny Singleton, and others. They also have really good people doing pre-game and post-game shows.
I reside in Connecticut which is a state that is divided right down the middle with respect to Yankee and Red Sox fans. Interestingly, the town where I reside is almost equidistant from New York and Boston so I can almost taste the tension that exists between the two fan bases.. But as an Orioles fan I am pretty lonely here.
There’s a lot of talk about baseball needing to be “fixed.” Is baseball broken? If you were the Commissioner of Baseball what change(s) if any would you make to the current game?
My concern is that those in power have lost confidence in baseball’s basic appeal to people. Consequently, they are making changes thinking they are correcting the sport and making it better and more appealing to fans. Quite the opposite may be true. Keep in mind that I am a bit of a baseball purist which means I do not like the DH, for example. If I were named MLB Commissioner today, I think I would reverse some of the most recent changes. For example, I would not have eliminated those 40 some minor league teams. That was a big mistake in my mind. I do not want a runner placed on second base in extra innings. And doubleheaders would not be shortened to a seven-inning little league game. I do not like the so-called experiments currently underway at the lower levels – such as moving the mound back a foot (just lower it), nor do I like the use of robotic umpires. I think robotic umpires could and should be used to train umpires – much like airline pilots use flight simulators – but I do not want to see them used in ballgames. And why do bases have to be bigger? Are players missing bases when they run? Regarding shifts, I would not permit the short (softball like) fielder in right field. I think you can move players left or right in the infield, but their feet should be on dirt, not grass. I am ok with five infielders and four outfielders if situations call for such maneuvers.
Without rambling on too much here, let me go back to Japanese baseball and what I like about it. First of all, their players are fundamentally sound. If called upon to put down a sacrifice bunt, put the ball on the ground in a hit and run situation, and hit the cutoff man on throws from the outfield they seem to do it almost flawlessly.. They tend to play more small ball in Japan primarily because they do not have the kind of power hitters we have. You see fewer swings and misses and batters striking out is still stigmatized there, unlike the current situation here in the U.S. Also, the Japanese run the bases extremely well. They take infield practice before every game and they even practice running the bases during batting practice, as it they were in real-game situations. In short, they are disciplined in the fundamentals of the game and it shows. It was so refreshing for me to watch that style of play for a change.
And just one more thing. Since time and the length of games seems to be a major concern here in the U.S., I often think of what I saw at the Koshien high school tournament. To speed up games so that they can play four contests before sunset, picture this scene. As the third out is made and the team comes running off the field, the player who is due to hit first that inning runs directly to home plate where he is greeted by two batboys or batgirls. As he hands over his cap and glove, one batboy hands him a helmet, his batting gloves, maybe a shin and elbow guard, and a bottle of water. The other batboy hands him a fresh towel to wipe himself off with before giving him his bat. Seconds later he is in the batter’s box and the pitcher, who only threw three or four warm-up tosses is ready to go. This might work in the U.S. except it would shorten time for commercial breaks which may affect advertising revenues. But you see, I do not understand why we are so obsessed with time here in the U.S. A clock does not and should not rule a baseball game and God only knows why managers wear watches in the dugout. Do they have an appointment sometime somewhere? And do we really need clocks on scoreboards.? As someone said about visiting museums, you don’t see clocks in museums and true art lovers don’t wear watches when they visit them. What’s the hurry?
In looking at the history of the Yankees, or baseball in general, what person or event would you like to see a book written about?
Well, in responding to this question my answer does not pertain specifically to the Yankees but rather it covers all of baseball. Why don’t we know more about third base coaches? If there are stats kept on them – such as how often a runner sent home is called out – why isn’t such information more visible to fans. And also, now that we have all the high- tech tools to measure velocity off the bat and the speed of an outfielder’s break and the strength of his arm in mph, is such information being used to train third base coaches? For example, is there anyway existing high- tech tools could be employed to better train third base coaches so they make the right decisions in real-game situations. How much does the third base coach know about the opposing fielders when the game begins? I am not sure if there is a book out there that could cover coaching third base (I never saw one) but I remain surprised that third base coaches do not get more attention by the media. Obviously, they are very important team components.
In the book and the movie, The Natural, the main character wants nothing more than to walk down the street and have people say, “There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was.” Who was the best baseball player you ever saw?
For me, I would say it was Willie Mays. He had all 5 tools for sure and he could use each one or a combination of tools to beat you. Whenever I went to a game, and he was playing, I could not take my eyes off him. I would also put Roberto Clemente in that category. I could not take my eyes off Clemente either. In today’s game, Tatis Jr. may fall into this category some day.
But just as a side note, I had a “brush with greatness” moment after a spring training game in Phoenix where the San Francisco Giants trained in the early 1960s. To avoid traffic, I left the game early and as I was walking across the parking lot someone went running past me and just gently brushed my shoulder as he went by. It was Willie Mays who also left the game early to avoid traffic – and maybe look for a game of stickball.
Our final question is really just a collection of short answers…
What was your favorite baseball team growing up?
The Baltimore Orioles. I grew up in Hanover, Pennsylvania, just an hour’s drive north of Baltimore. I was nine years old and in my first year of little league when the Orioles moved from St. Louis to Baltimore in 1954. They have been my favorite team ever since.
Your followers may not know this, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s father was Tommy D’Alesandro, Jr., the mayor of Baltimore who is credited for bringing the St. Louis Browns to Baltimore in 1954.
Who was your favorite player?
Brooks Robinson. He played third base and so did I. Several years ago I was in Little Rock, Arkansas for a conference and I located his boyhood home. As a young kid he delivered newspapers to the front porch of Yankee Hall of Fame catcher, Bill Dickey, who lived in Little Rock
What is your most prized collectible?
I have a picture of Roy Campanella in a Baltimore Elite Giants uniform that he signed for me at an autograph show in New Jersey a few years before he passed. I also have a baseball signed by both Bobby Thomson and Ralph Branca – who were at the same autograph show. I recall Branca saying to me that “I will save the sweet spot for Bobby to sign.” That was a first- class gesture on Branca’s part. For the trivia buffs in your audience, Bobby Valentine married Ralph Branca’s daughter and former Met and Oriole, Kenny Singleton, once lived in Ralph Branca’s former house.
Who is your favorite musical group or artist?
For me, it’s hard to beat Spinal Tap. But I have always been a Beatles fan and I have all the albums of the Highwaymen that I play frequently on long trips. My favorite individual artists are Bob Dylan, Same Cooke, Charley Pride and Bill Withers.
What is your favorite food (if it is pizza, what is your favorite pizza restaurant)?
I am a vegetarian. so I really enjoy eating Indian food. I always seek out Indian restaurants in my travels. I also like Mediterranean dishes.
Do you play fantasy baseball?
No, not anymore. I was in a fantasy league for eight years but then I drifted away from it. Actually, what I do now is even more fun. Thanks to Out of the Park Baseball (OOTP) software, I have created my own baseball universe. I created a 12-team fictional league with totally fictitious players, Each player has his own name, personal profile, and baseball stats. I am the GM and field manager of the Bar Harbor (Maine) Sea Monkeys and we play a full 162-game schedule pitch by pitch. I put teams in places like Tombstone, Muscle Shoals, Selma, Harpers Ferry, and Deadwood Gulch to name a few. I oversee two minor league teams of the Sea Monkeys (AAA and AA) but next year the league will add an A ball league and create the Pacific Coast Winter League that is modeled after the Arizona Fall League. I have to prepare for the amateur draft each June and the Rule 5 draft in December. Also, last winter, using OTPB software, I designed and built 12 distinct baseball parks – one for each team. One team plays in a dome, and another has a retractable roof. All the others are outdoors on natural turf. The name of my league is the International Baseball Federation. As of now, my Sea Monkeys are 47 and 51 and in third place in their division. I have the smallest budget and payroll in the league. In short, with my financial situation, I am trying to figure out how the Tampa Bay Rays do so well with what they have. Here is a link to OOTP: OOTP Developments Games (onfastspring.com). Or, for a history and description of the game see Out of the Park Baseball – Wikipedia.
Steven, thank you so much for spending time with me and answering my questions. I have one last question for you. Are you involved in any writing projects at the moment, or will you be working on something in the near future.?
Yes, actually I do. Recently, Rob Fitts asked me to write a chapter for a book he is editing on major league clubs that have toured Japan. I am working on the New York Giants’1953 tour which should be very interesting. They were the first MLB team (not all-stars) to tour Japan after World War II. It followed a horrible 1953 season for the Giants but preceded their 1954 World Series win over the Cleveland Indians. Rob Fitts is one of our leading scholars on the history of Japanese baseball. I think it will be a fun project for all of us involved with it.
Thank you again Paul for inviting me to participate in your blog. I really enjoyed it.
Thank you! This was a great pleasure. Please keep in touch.