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PLAY BALL! History professor Craig Hollander teaches history through the prism of America’s pastime.

The arrival of spring means longer days, blooming flowers, and of course, the start of the Major League Baseball season.

TCNJ history professor Craig Hollander’s “Baseball in American History” course uses the game as a lens to examine American history and societal trends with regard to the labor movement, urbanization, immigration, gender equality, and civil rights.

We spoke with Hollander while enjoying some peanuts and Cracker Jacks, to learn more about the evolution of the game and our country.

What prompted you to create this course?

CH: Baseball can serve as an astonishingly clear lens for examining American history because the game evolved during the country’s formative years and then matured alongside sweeping societal changes during the ensuing centuries. We can use the history of baseball to explore those changes.

What are some of the bigger-picture topics you cover through the lens of baseball?

CH: We started by focusing on urbanization, immigration, reform movements, and organized labor. Now we’re using the history of baseball to examine racial, ethnic, and gender prejudice in American society. We read about why women — despite their obvious interest in baseball — were discouraged from playing the game and ultimately relegated to softball. And we seem stuck with that peculiar gender segregation, even as women flourish in other sports, like basketball, tennis, golf, and ice hockey, that were historically reserved for men. Soon we’ll delve into other hot-button topics like drug abuse, labor strife, and baseball’s role as a medium for intercultural exchange between the United States and other countries.

Is it mostly baseball fans taking the course?

CH: There are a couple of hardcore baseball fans, but my sense is that most of the students do not follow the game closely, let alone understand its nuances. And that’s totally fine. This is a serious history course, and the most successful students will treat it like one. We read and write a lot, conduct research, and discuss sensitive topics. Baseball is just a fun means to a serious end.

Recently, the case has been made that football, not baseball, is now America’s Pastime. Your thoughts?

CH: Clearly, football commands the most attention. It’s a great product for television and much easier to follow than baseball because there are fewer games. And, let’s face it, the legalization of gambling has only reinforced football’s popularity. That said, I don’t think baseball and football are in competition with one another. They both have their place. Baseball is still extremely popular. In fact, more kids are playing the game than ever before. I think baseball will maintain its appeal because it’s easier for kids to imagine themselves playing the game at a high level. They look at the pros and realize that — unlike in football and basketball — they don’t need to be exceptionally large and tall to excel.

Do you have any predictions for the 2024 MLB season?

CH: As a historian, I’m more comfortable discussing the past than the future. But I did some scouting a few weeks ago when I went to spring training to visit my brother, Brett Hollander, who is a broadcaster for the Baltimore Orioles. The Orioles looked great. Their lineup is stacked with young, versatile, and athletic players. The Braves also looked formidable. Of course, it’s hard to ignore the Dodgers. And don’t sleep on the Phillies, Astros, Rays, and Rangers, either.

Craig Hollander and family at baseball spring training
Hollander and his family at an Orioles spring training game.

— Luke Sacks