John P. Rossi ’60M.A. had just started presenting his first “academic” baseball paper at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991 when he noticed an older man enter the room. Baseball scholarship began in 1960 when Harold Seymour published the first serious history of the game, and Rossi was continuing that scholarly tradition with his Cooperstown talk. In “A Glorified Game of Rounders,” Rossi was focusing on the British origins of the “American” game.
Afterward, the man Rossi had spied congratulated him on his talk. “It was Seymour!” says Rossi. “If I had have known it was him, I’d have been a wreck. There I was, talking like I know something, and here’s the dean of the field.”
Since then, Rossi, an emeritus professor of history at La Salle University in his native Philadelphia, also has become a dean of baseball scholarship. The 81-year-old recently finished his fourth scholarly baseball book and has published many mainstream articles on the topic.
His passion for baseball did not have a promising start. His uncle took him to Shibe Park to see the Phillies when he was 8, and Rossi asked to leave early. The same scenario happened when he was 9. But in 1946, when he was 10, his attitude changed.
“It was overcast, and we didn't know if the game would be played, and it was very humid. My uncle and I got there early, and [the weather] started to clear, and something clicked,” Rossi says. “It was a doubleheader, and I think the Phillies won both games. Maybe it was seeing the homers the Phillies hit. After that, we went to ballgames all the time.”
Rossi began buying and saving baseball books and magazines, and collecting autographs. His uncle had season tickets near the visiting team's dugout, and Rossi would peer inside and ask for players to sign either a baseball or a collector's book.
He once approached one player, who asked him, “Who am I?”
“You're Clyde Shoun, and you once threw a no-hitter,” the young Rossi said. Shoun signed the baseball.
Rossi’s baseball knowledge only continued to grow, and in the 1980s he taught his first collegiate course in baseball history.
“The country grew up with baseball, and baseball grew up with the country,” says Rossi. “Almost everything that happened in American history is reflected in baseball from one time or another. Baseball was also a way for immigrants to assimilate in society: first were the Irish, then the Germans, by the end of the 19th century the Poles and even American Indians were playing.”
The years from 1946 to ’60 — which were the basis of his first book, A Whole New Game — were crucial for the sport, as owners and players dealt with issues the country was facing: integration, westward expansion, television.
Although New York sports writers called that era baseball's golden age, because their state's Yankees, Dodgers and Giants dominated baseball then, Rossi says it was anything but golden for all the other teams. Attendance from 1948 to 1953, he says, dropped from about 19 million to 12 million, the largest decline in the game's history.
While Rossi’s second book, The National Game, offers a general overview of baseball’s evolution to the 1990s, his third book, The 1964 Phillies: The Story of Baseball’s Most Memorable Collapse, zeroes in on his hometown team. The team had a 6.5 game lead, then lost 10 straight and the pennant.
“In sports, it’s the most painful thing I remember,” he says. “Does it still hurt? Hell, yeah!”
For his fourth book, due out this January from Rowman & Littlefield, Rossi leaves that personally heartbreaking time and returns to an overview of the sport, covering it from the 1990s to the present. That means it covers a time when Rossi began to fear for the game’s survival.
“I always believed baseball would survive and prosper because its roots were so deep in our history,” he says. “In the 1990s when labor militancy, owner stupidity and designer drugs met, I was worried for the first time.” Today, however, the baseball fan and scholar appreciates the place the game occupies. “The quality of baseball is better than it ever was,” he says.
Jon Caroulis lives in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, and frequently writes about baseball.