My wife, Anita, and I have 50 years of teaching experience between us. During that span, we taught everything from kindergarten classes to graduate seminars. When we decided to take early retirement and bankrupt the State of Illinois, we thought that, after all those years, we’d likely never go into the classroom again.
All that changed when a Department of Journalism faculty member at University of Pittsburgh asked me to teach a class on the history of sports writing for her Great Modern Journalists honors course. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. I finally had an opportunity to teach a class on the campus of my hometown’s major university, something I’d put on my bucket list, along with seeing the Pirates win another World Series.
The class was on the 35th floor of Pitt’s towering 42-story Cathedral of Learning, constructed back in the 1920s. It’s the second tallest education building in the world next to the one that was constructed at Moscow State University during the Cold War. No matter how well or poorly I taught, this would obviously be the high point, at least in elevation, of my teaching career.
English professors are notorious for their poor sense of direction. On our own, we usually end up traveling in circles. So, over the years, Anita has calmly acted as a navigator when we’ve driven to conferences. After arriving safely on Pitt’s campus, however, even she was rattled when we boarded an ancient-looking elevator that vibrated and wobbled its way up to the 35th floor.
Once we stepped off and our hearts started beating again, we had a great time with the students. We talked about the early days of sports journalism when writers elevated baseball to America’s national pastime by claiming the game had healed the nation’s wounds after the Civil War. To underline the claim, they even concocted the story, more myth than reality, that Abner Doubleday, a Civil War general, had invented the game of baseball while he was growing up in Cooperstown.
We also discussed the role that courageous sports writers played in the integration of baseball. While major sports publications, like The Sporting News, opposed integration, journalists, like Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier, fought hard to create the opportunity for minorities to play in the major leagues. For his efforts, Smith became the first African-American to be selected for the writers’ wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
The last topic we covered was the way that journalism has changed over the years in its coverage of teams and players. For years, sports writers protected the reputation of sports heroes, like Babe Ruth, from scandal. In baseball’s early days, a player’s drinking problem became a reoccurring attack of malaria.
In more recent years, sports writers have become less tolerant of misconduct and scandal, no matter what the reputation of the player or the institution. The students were well aware of the investigative reporting that helped to bring down sports figures as lofty as Mark McGwire, Tiger Woods, Joe Paterno, and Lance Armstrong.
They did express some concern about the future of sports writing in an electronic age plagued by blogs and instant messaging, but there was no doubt in their minds of the need for responsible journalism at a time when too many news outlets seemed to believe that partisanship, not honesty, is the best policy.
By the time the class was over, Anita and I were so impressed by the Pitt students that we had no doubt about the talent and commitment of the next generation of journalists, whether they wrote about sports or pursued other fields of interest.
After we wished them well and headed to the elevator, I thanked Anita for not tapping her watch or kicking me in the shin when the class ran over its time, as she had done in the past. She said she’d was having a good time with the students and was certainly in no hurry to step back into that elevator and take a Thelma-and-Louise plunge down its shaft.
RICHARD “PETE” PETERSON is the author of Growing Up With Clemente and the editor of The St. Louis Baseball Reader. His essays have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and his hometown Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.