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Community Corner: Baseball and where we are now
by Dennis Shields
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In case you were wondering what a chancellor does with some leisure time, I offer the following with, hopefully, a point.

In late December, the MLB Network reran a Ken Burns documentary series that was originally run on PBS. You may be familiar with Burns’ other documentary series on the Civil War. The Burns baseball documentary is a wonderful recapturing of the rich history of baseball, starting with its roots in the 1800s and running through 1994, when the documentary was produced. It describes the stories of the characters that were instrumental in causing baseball to grow from a local phenomenon to town team competitions to its corporate presence today. It is a great story of how baseball came to be known as America’s National Pastime.

The documentary’s producers explored the history, memories and myths of baseball. For me, the series made clear that baseball was more than America’s National Pastime; it was a metaphor for the American Story, including the story of immigration, race, labor and management struggles, the role of women and class and wealth, and more.

With its recounting not only of the unending array of players, entrepreneurs, managers and hangers-on who played for or developed the teams and leagues but also of public figures like judges and mayors, the documentary revealed that baseball’s past and present cast of characters included personalities that ranged from scalawags and ne’er-do-wells to heroes of that uniquely American sort.

The players were gifted athletes who possessed all the greatness and flaws of our 21st century athletes. The owners were, at times, skinflints and union-busters, and at other times pragmatists and innovators. The fans were loyal and often unruly and raucous. The fortunes of the teams caused great joy in victory and poignant sorrow in defeat. Fans experienced moments or periods of winning and/or long seasons of losing with year after year of futility (something I know well as a longstanding Cubs fan). It also spoke of the angst felt in communities like Brooklyn when franchises moved to other environs.

Burns’ documentary gives an overarching, comprehensive look at the history of baseball in the context of the times, through financial calamities, world wars, and social upheavals.

I was particularly moved as I watched the retelling of the story of Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey and how these two remarkable men desegregated major league baseball. The series romanticized the story of baseball but also reflected on its flaws, including social injustice, making clear that the journey was not and is not all good or all bad. It just was what it was and is what it is, in the context of American history.

So what is my point? My point is that as we reflect on the past and look forward to the future, we need to keep a keen sense of perspective. We Americans have faced daunting challenges in the past and overcome them. Taking a broader view, the challenges that lie before us now, while similar to the challenges of the past, are unique to this period of time in our history. As such, our responses will need to be, in some ways, similar to our responses in the past, but with a different twist.

Slowly, our country and state are climbing out of an economic crisis that has impacted each of us individually, our local economy and our university. This crisis has challenged us and for many, continues to present difficulties. Through our own efforts, we have survived in decent shape. We have evolved and moved forward, hopefully with a vision for better things in the future.

For the university, we have done this by growing. We acknowledge that this growth has presented challenges to our community and our university. By working together as a university community with the Platteville community and its leadership, I believe we are in a better place as we move forward. As this year begins and I reflect on the past few years and look forward to the next ones, I see the opportunity for more good things to happen.

I know we have gotten to this good place through the combined efforts of everyone in this community. We have disagreed at times and, like in the history of baseball, there have been some bumpy times. We have, however, made great progress in the last decade. I am thankful to all university faculty and staff members for their hard work and positive attitudes. I am grateful for the leadership of past chancellors. I am also thankful for the leadership shown by the Common Council and other community leaders during these times. I am convinced that these same good traits will lead to good outcomes for our community in the future.

Let’s continue to make every day a great day to be a Pioneer.