MURFREESBORO – Friday marked the 20th annual Baseball in Literature and Culture Conference, held in the James Union Building on the campus of Middle Tennessee over the past ten years.
This year’s event was headlined by sportswriter Sarah Bunting (tomatonation.com) and by Cincinnati Reds Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Sr.
The conference, an all-day event, offered sessions throughout the day tailored to writers or anyone interested in how baseball affected literature throughout history, and how it has changed our culture over the years.
Bunting began her keynote in the morning, and spoke of the difficulties the media encounters when trying to spread baseball. Bunting questioned the notion of baseball being boring, and even went so much as to say, “Fandom exists in the stories the game creates.”
Bunting closed her remarks discussing the stories she had from her years of covering the sport. Bunting closed with a quote that earned her a vivid round of applause, proclaiming, “That’s the best kind of storytelling, that retelling of our own account.”
After the keynote, patrons were left to choose what sessions they wanted to attend in the nine o’clock hour.
Session A2: Baseball History
Sitting in the Baseball in History session, I heard the excitement from the second speaker when he discussed his graduate work. Josh Howard, a graduate student from MTSU, worked through the university with the Baseball Hall of Fame to produce the Wendell Smith Papers exhibit.
Wendell Smith was one of the most influential baseball players turned sportswriters, and has ties to Jackie Robinson, the first African-American player in Major League history.
Smith wrote for the likes of the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago American, and also worked for WGN during his lifetime.
Howard spoke about the process of producing the exhibit, a 125-page document set given by Smith’s widow to the NBHOF. Howard’s entire process took seven months, including three months of prep and planning.
Howard also discussed the road blocks he encountered while working on the exhibit, finding out that the Hall of Fame had not required any of the rights to the writings, and thus 80 percent of the works could not be used.
Overall, Howard spoke about how proud he was to work on something with a place he described as one’s “dream job”. Howard discussed the valuable lessons he learned in that period, and how anyone can do the same, just keep digging.
Session B3: Baseball in Creative Writing
In one of, if not the most interesting session of the day, the speakers relating to creative writing discussed the different ways in which one finds solace in baseball.
The first speaker, Bob Johnson from Eastern Kentucky University, read a non-fiction piece entitled “Errors”, a story that once you understood the subterfuge, you loved it.
Johnson was followed by autograph collection extraordinaire David Veve, who discussed his rules to collecting autographs, and the lessons he has learned over the years.
Jacob Collins-Wilson closed out the session with original poems about baseball that were about as much of his upbringing as the sport. Collins-Wilson showed passion behind his words, and one could see the genuine legitimacy of his pieces.
Session C1: Dramatic Reading
Following session B, all patrons headed to the Hazlewood room to hear the exciting take on the essay “A Day of Light and Shadows”. The essay, originally written by Jonathan Schwartz in 1978, was turned into a monologue and spoken by Crosby Hunt.
Hunt delved deeper into the story, and it became more believable by the second. The essay spoke of the 1978 one-game playoff between the Yankees and the Red Sox to determine who went to the playoffs.
Schwartz’s essay is masterfully reiterated by Hunt, who by the end had the loudest applause of the afternoon by far, as he turned his slick Red Sox cap back around.
Following the luncheon, Ken Griffey Sr. stepped to the podium of the main room to reminisce with the crowd, and answered those long unanswered questions by die-hard Reds fans that made the trip to hear him.
As soon as Griffey Sr. stepped up, one could feel the anticipation of what he would say. Griffey Sr. began by telling stories of his years in the bigs, from his first days chasing a bird he thought was a ball, to wrestling a bear to keep from working in the reserves.
The audience was mesmerized at the tales of the times, hearing the good times, and the things they did not know. Griffey Sr. jumped to questions without a hitch, and the first name he mentioned was that of Pete Rose.
Griffey Sr. regarded the banned hitter as “one of the greatest people he’d ever met”, and stated that, “He definitely deserved to be in the Hall (of Fame).”
One of Griffey Sr.’s most poignant points, one he discussed briefly with me at lunch, was that teams these days don’t get to know each other.
“Back in those days, we played 10 or 11 years together sometimes, whereas these guys only play two or three years together.” Griffey Sr. went on to say, “They go where the money is, that’s the change in the times.”
Someone asked Griffey Sr. near the end about steroids in baseball to which he had one of the most interesting quotes of the day. Griffey Sr. stated, “You still gotta hit the ball, and you still gotta throw strikes.”
Griffey Sr. went on to inquire, “Who brought attendance back up? (Mark) McGwire and (Sammy) Sosa.”
Griffey Sr. closed out his time thanking everyone for coming out, and went on to sign some books for those fans that stayed around.
Session D1: Baseball & Commodity
The conference closed out with session D, and I sat down back in the Hazlewood room for the Baseball and Commodity talk.
The session began with Andrew Hazucha, professor of English and chair of the Division of Arts and Humanities at Ottawa University, discussing Joe Tinker, and how Jeff Hanson, a resident of Muscotah, Kan., is creating the world’s largest baseball and a museum, out of an old water tower.
Hazucha was followed up by Shawn O’Hare who spoke about Tug McGraw, father of Tim McGraw, an icon on the mound and in the comic strip.
McGraw, a pitcher for the Mets and the Phillies, co-produced Scroogie – a baseball-themed comic strip that delved into some of the world’s most prominent issues.
Post-Conference Talk with Griffey Sr.
After his talk, I spoke with Ken Griffey Sr. for a few minutes to get his thoughts on the book he wrote, his career and his giving back.
Griffey Sr. mentioned that he sat for two or three years pondering his book, titled Big Red, before actually working on it.
“It was more of a motivational thing, about how to handle adversity,” Griffey Sr. said. “A lot of the things I went through, all the changes with the Reds, and the Yankees, I had to deal with that and not get angry.”
Griffey Sr. talked about how important it is to give back, and be a part of events like the conference.
“When you get a chance to do things of this nature, and it helps out people,” Griffey Sr. remarked, “Giving back is important to me.”
Griffey Sr., a fantastic storyteller himself, talked a little bit about his storytelling.
“When I was managing in Bakersfield, every Sunday I would get the team together and tell them a story,” Griffey Sr. joked. “I would ask them if it was true or false, and if they got it wrong they had to run laps.”
Overall, the Baseball in Literature and Culture Conference was a great event to hear about the multiple facets of what baseball influenced in times of now, and of the past. The event prided itself on having speakers from around the country to provide different viewpoints of those facets.
The Conference shifts to Ottawa University in Ottawa, Kan. near Kansas City next year. A return to MTSU is to be determined in the future.
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