US History

Using Baseball as a History Fair Topic – Instilling Changes

Baseball and history tend to go together. This blog is no different. As a practicing teacher whose students participate in the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency’s Student Historian Program (aka History Fair) and National History Day, I steer some reluctant kids towards baseball topics. It has worked and has changed lives. One of my most successful students did three baseball exhibits, two research papers, and one hockey exhibit over six years in route to six superior ribbons at the state history fair. He is now a sophomore in the honors program at Northern Illinois University and his work as a junior in high school can be read here. SAM_0643He spoke at a conference with me last fall and talked about how doing these projects made him a better student.

Choosing a baseball topic for a history fair project has many advantages. First, the use of newspapers and interviews as primary sources are great tools for any historian. Learning how to find information through these early accounts are exactly what historians do in researching any topic. Second, it teaches verb usage. Most of these accounts use verbs in the active tense. This creates a text that is more exciting, easy to read, and most importantly, makes the subject and writing come alive.

A third reason for using baseball as a history fair topic is that it teaches structure. Students learn how to organize information. They can organize their paper, board, website, or document chronologically, thematically, and statistically. With the plethora of sports statistic sites like Baseball Reference, Baseball Almanac, and Fan Graphs, it is easy for the student to acquire information and data to help prove their thesis. Whether it is numeric data, hitting charts, or hitting zones, the images can be  to cover a year, career, and any significant data stream the user requires or inputs.

The fourth, and maybe the most important, reason for choosing a baseball related topic is that the player or event showcases a change in American society that is reflected on the diamond. From the use of defense and pitching with Tinkers to Evers to Chance to the cheating and gambling industry of the White Sox Scandal to the creation of the Negro Leagues by Rube Foster, the history of baseball in Illinois shows the history of change in Illinois. One of the key aspects of grading any history fair project is can the student(s) show how their topic changed history. A baseball topic clearly does that using evidence over time.

Fifth, and most importantly for the student, it is fun. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I saw a student get excited about learning history by doing their history fair project about a baseball topic. Once that happens, the student is hooked and puts all their efforts into creating a product of which they are proud.

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1937 Construction of the Wrigley Field Scoreboard

As a teacher who is retiring in the next 5-8 years, when I look back at all the successful baseball projects my students created, I get a little misty because the topics were monumental events or personalities in the game. Students assembled projects on Mordecai Three Finger Brown, Albert Spalding, Tinkers to Evers to Chance, the 1906 World Series, Rube Foster, Baseball in Rockford in the 1800s, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Ron Santo, Bill Veeck, Margaret Donahue, 1937 Wrigley Field Changes, the 1907 – 1908 Cubs, The Rockford Peaches, The Chicago American Giants, Curt Flood and the Reserve Clause, and the first All-Star Game put together by Arch Ward.

With this year’s topics already selected, several students chose baseball topics for their websites or papers with Margaret Donahue being the most popular. The regional history fair is not until February 28, 2015. However, I have already started to cull some new topics and information for 2016 and will introduce a couple of new baseball topics.

First will be how baseball stadiums influence their teams. The focus will be on the old West Side Grounds and its mammoth 500 feet to center field design, the 1937 Wrigley Field changes, the old Comiskey Park, the Cell, and the new changes to Wrigley Field. It will be interesting to see if any student picks the topic or even just focuses in on one stadium (I would recommend the West Side Grounds). In fact, I might prefer they pick just one stadium so they can  go more in detail.

Old Hoss Radbourn

Old Hoss Radbourn

The second topic is a little more adult. Charles Radbourn was a pitcher for the Providence Grays in the 1880s. In 1884, he won 59 games as a starting pitcher. His prodigious events and life are chronicled in the spectacular book Fifty-Nine in ‘84 – Old Hoss Radbourn and Bare-Handed Baseball & the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had by Edward Achorn. I was also able to find some newspaper articles supplied by the Bloomington Pentagraph, Radbourn’s hometown in central Illinois. Combined with some PDF journal articles and the afore-mentioned websites, a student will not have any trouble finding information.

Here is your warning – Doing “Old Hoss” as a topic is reserved for the more mature student as “Old Hoss” lead quite a saucy life, and that is putting it mildly. I first became aware of the topic because I love baseball and I love Twitter. There is a Twitter account named @OldHossRadbourn, which I find hysterical at times. The account looks at modern day baseball through the eyes of “Old Hoss.” Needless to say, he does find their commitment and achievements lacking and paling in comparison to his. He was baseball’s first Ironman and his endurance, be it out of greed, stupidity, or pure genius, set one baseball record that will most likely never be broken. In reflecting on modern day baseball, Twitter’s @OldHossRadbourn does pinpoint the changes in the game and the changes in American society over the past 130 years. Those changes are essential to what a history fair project can do; it is just seen through the eyes of baseball.

Margaret Donahue: Changing the Business of Baseball

“Someone like Midge is an inspiration. It’s a thrill to learn more about her history.“ – Cubs President Tom Ricketts.[i]


Margaret Donahue is pictured here with season ticket orders in 1929, a concept she came up with.

Margaret Donahue is pictured here with season ticket orders in 1929, a concept she came up with.

For the better part of forty years, Margaret “Midge” Donahue changed the business of baseball through her actions. Miss Donahue was one of Major League’s baseball’s first female executives. Working alongside, William Veeck, Sr., and later the Wrigley family, Margaret transformed the crowd that came to see a game at Wrigley Field. Miss Donahue’s unique perspective on how fans should be able to see a game changed the clientele and business of baseball. Her actions still are effecting how executives run baseball clubs today.

The 1920s were a boom time for the United States economy. New inventions like the radio transformed how people could track their favorite sports teams. Women’s role in society greatly changed to new appliances which made house work easier and created more leisure time for the American family. In the workforce, most women worked in jobs that today would be thought of stereotypes – teacher, secretary, and nurses.

It was into this world that Margaret Donahue entered. Originally from rural Huntley, Margaret worked in a laundry during World War I and lost her job to a man at the war’s conclusion. To get back into the work force, Margaret placed an ad in the Chicago Tribune. She got eighteen offers, but she took the first offer place. She was hired by then Chicago Cubs President, William Veeck, Sr. to be a stenographer.[ii] Margaret said,

“I declined the job (but William Veeck) offered me far more than what I was making (at a laundry supply company) and persuaded me to take it. At the end of the season, I tried to quit again but he countered by making my hours 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and I stayed.”[iii]

Margaret quickly worked her way up the company ladder. She moved from stenographer to handling ticket receipts, checking the receipts against the turnstile counts, and paying visiting clubs.[iv] In the 1920s, baseball had a few women in positions of power.[v] A few were owners who inherited the team from their late husbands or fathers.

In 1926, Veeck shocked the baseball world by appointing Margaret Executive Secretary of the Chicago Cubs. The Board of Directors of the franchise approved her appointment. Veeck said of Margaret’s talents: “We feel that in Miss Donahue we have added a real asset to our club organization.” [vi]

Here is Margaret and William Veeck, Sr. in an ad for Quaker Oats

Here is Margaret and William Veeck, Sr. in an ad for Quaker Oats

In 1929, Margaret transformed the economic landscape of baseball three times. First, she came up with the idea of season tickets. Donahue got the idea after watching people save seats for their friends and families. Her niece later said, ““She was upset because they’d save tickets, people didn’t show up and that was a waste.” The season tickets plan was a huge success! The Cubs lead the National League in attendance in 1929 drawing 1.4 million fans.[vii] Fans rushed to get tickets to fill up the stadium by reserving seats. Today, season tickets are one of the main sources of income along with media revenue for ball clubs.

Margaret continued her unique vision to create a livelier ballpark to attend. She began selling regular game tickets using Western Union. This meant that fans could be assured of a ticket to the game without having to come to the ballpark to be guaranteed of getting a ticket.

The third aspect that Margaret always worked hard for was the children. She got Veeck to sell reduced prices for tickets for children.[viii] Earlier in 1919, Veeck had come up with the idea of Ladies Days to increase the attendance of women to the ballpark. Combined with Veeck’s idea, Margaret changed who saw baseball games. Baseball was now more of a family affair. Margaret always said, “I was trained by Mr. Veeck to do my best to make customers leave the ballpark happy, no matter what happens.”[ix] Author Paul Dickson said of the changes, “Teams like the Dodgers are worth $2 billion because people like Midge and the Veecks determined that the ballpark is for families. Before them, baseball parks were filled with men in white shirts.” [x]

In 1929, the Cubs had a great season reaching the World Series before losing 4 games to one to the Philadelphia Athletics. It was also the year of the Stock Market Crash and the beginning of the Great Depression. Despite the hard times, the Cubs thrived in the 1930s thanks in part to the crowds that filled Wrigley Field because of the ticket changes Margaret and Mr. Veeck made. The Cubs would make three more appearances in the World Series in the 1930s.

In 1933, Mr. Veeck passed away suddenly. She helped to run the team after the death of William Veeck, Sr.[xi] Under the Wrigley family she continued her duties.[xii] Chicago Baseball Museum executive director David Fletcher said, “They should have made (Donahue) the club president in the 1930s. If they did that, they (the Cubs) probably would have avoided their downfall.” [xiii] boss

Veeck’s son, William Veeck, Jr., who later would own the Indians and White Sox, learned a lot from Margaret. He said in his autobiography, “(Donahue is) as astute a baseball operator as ever came down the pike. She has forgotten more baseball in her 40 years with the Cubs than most of the so-called magnates will ever know.”[xiv] Before the 1937 season, the Cubs and Veeck, Jr. planted ivy on the outfield wall and built the now iconic bleachers. But on the field, the Cubs started to decline with their play on the field. Margaret said,

“I believe we fell behind the parade because we didn’t go into the farm business soon enough. Late in the ’30s, when others were developing their players, we were still trying to buy them. And we also refused to pay bonuses until recently.”

Now working for the Wrigley family, the Cubs and Margaret worked to continue to provide a great product for fans to come and see. Playing baseball under the lights became popular for many team in the Great Depression. It was one way that fans could work during the day and then attend a night game and not miss any work during the day. So, before World War II, Margaret ad other Cubs executives attended a White Sox night game to see how lights affected the quality of the product baseball.[xv] After the attack at Pearl Harbor, President William Wrigley donated the metal frames for the lights to help the war effort.

Margaret continued working for the Cubs through 1958. When she retired she was given a golden pass to attend any National League Game free of charge. Her greatest accomplishment, according to her nieces, was how she made the ballpark a family place.[xvi] Current Cubs co-owner Laura Ricketts said, “Some of those ideas that came from her made her doubly remarkable. Her story is an inspiration. And the fact that she accomplished what she did almost 100 years ago makes it truly remarkable and impressive.” [xvii]

Margaret Donahue’s life is an inspiration. As a woman, she succeeded in an era when men dominated the business and the sport. Her ideas about season tickets and how the ballpark should be a place for more than just men is still having a huge effect on the business of baseball today. Baseball is now played in stadiums that dwarf those of the 1920s and 1930s. Filling up those stadiums are families. That is how Margaret Donahue saw what baseball could be, a place where the family could have a good time watching a game. She was decades ahead of her time. In the summer of 2014, the Chicago Cubs donated over $1 million to a park to be named in Margaret’s honor.[xviii] Now, her achievements are noticed and put on a display for a whole new generation.

Margaret's Golden Ticket to any National League Game

Margaret’s Golden Ticket to any National League Game

Endnotes

[i] Owens, John. “Pioneering Female Exec Midge Donahue to Be Honored. “ Chicago Tribune. May 2, 2104. Accessed Online, November 30, 2014 at: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/chi-pioneering-cubs-female-exec-midge-donahue-to-be-honored-20140502-story.html.

[ii] Dickson, Paul. (2012). “Margaret Donahue: First Lady of the Front Office.” Accessed Online at: http://www.thenationalpastimemuseum.com/article/margaret-donahue-first-lady-front-office. October 15, 2014.

[iii] “New Cubs Secretary.” Chicago Daily Tribune; Dec 14, 1926; pg. 23.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] “Baseball Men Beware! Women Prove They Can Run a Team.” Chicago Daily Tribune; Apr 20, 1941; pg. B3.

[vi] Castle, George. (July 2, 2013). “Cubs’ Donahue far ahead of her time as baseball’s first female executive.” Chicago Baseball Museum. Accessed online November 17, 2014 at: http://www.chicagobaseballmuseum.org/files/CBM-Margaret-Donahue-baseballs-first-female-executive-20130702.pdf.

[vii] Owens, John. “Female Cubs executive left her mark on the big leagues. “ Chicago Tribune. June 22, 2104. Accessed Online, November 30, 2014 at:

http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2013-07-22/news/ct-met-pioneering-cubs-female-executive-donahue-20130722_1_chicago-cubs-baseball-reliquary-laura-ricketts.

[viii] Dickson, Paul. (2012). Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick. Walker and Company: New York. 21.

[ix] Castle, George. (July 2, 2013). “Cubs’ Donahue far ahead of her time as baseball’s first female executive.” Chicago Baseball Museum. Accessed online November 17, 2014 at: http://www.chicagobaseballmuseum.org/files/CBM-Margaret-Donahue-baseballs-first-female-executive-20130702.pdf.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Vaughan, Irving. “CUBS TAKE TIME IN SELECTING NEW PRESIDENT: May Not Decide on Veeck Successor.” Chicago Daily Tribune. Oct 10, 1933; pg. 23.

[xii] “Wrigley, Entire Staff Re-elected at Cub Meeting.” Chicago Daily Tribune; Jan 13, 1938; pg. 19.

[xiii] Owens, John. “Female Cubs executive left her mark on the big leagues. “ Chicago Tribune. June 22, 2104. Accessed Online, November 30, 2014 at:

http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2013-07-22/news/ct-met-pioneering-cubs-female-executive-donahue-20130722_1_chicago-cubs-baseball-reliquary-laura-ricketts.

[xiv] Dickson, Paul. (2012). Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick. Walker and Company: New York. 21.

[xv] Prell, Edward. “Cub Officials See Sox Play Under Lights.” Chicago Daily Tribune; Aug 15, 1939; pg. 15.

[xvi] Castle, George. (2013). Chicago Baseball Museum. Margaret Donahue: Baseball’s First Female Executive. Accessed Online November 23, 2014, at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5CTN1hzZYnQ.

[xvii] Owens, John. “Female Cubs executive left her mark on the big leagues. “ Chicago Tribune. June 22, 2104. Accessed Online, November 30, 2014 at:

http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2013-07-22/news/ct-met-pioneering-cubs-female-executive-donahue-20130722_1_chicago-cubs-baseball-reliquary-laura-ricketts.

[xviii] Owens, John. (2013). “Aunt Midge – A Wrigley Field Innovator.” Accessed Online, November 30, 2014 at: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/chi-pioneering-cubs-female-exec-midge-donahue-to-be-honored-20140502-story.html.

The Art of Getting Bogged Down – Every History Teacher’s Nightmare and Pleasure

Here is the cartoon that starting it all this morning. It is from the magazine Puck and is about John D. Rockefeller's control of the economy in the late 1800s.

Here is the cartoon that starting it all this morning. It is from the magazine Puck and is about John D. Rockefeller’s control of the economy in the late 1800s.

I am a tactile teacher. I like my students to do things with their hands, mostly by recreating and analyzing history. I like them to create products which analyze the past, compare it to the present, and signify its importance to the development of our political, economic, and social constructs. As with every teacher, I always run into problems. And it is the same problem I run into all the time. I can easily get “bogged down” in a unit. By bogged down I mean I extend the unit and the tactile learning too much. What is supposed to be a three to four week unit ends up six, or even seven. Projects and products filled with pictures, cartoons, graphs, artifacts, and charts fill up my table in the back of my classroom. Added lessons are made up at the drop of a hat – it is a vicious cycle of lesson planning. But it is always a pleasurable one.

I know teachers who spend an entire quarter on the Progressive Era. I, myself, taught an Early America Unit for six weeks because I got stuck in the 1830s and 1840s teaching about Illinois’ role in westward expansion and the problems it faced. “I have to teach about the Black Hawk War for a week” or “These kids have to know about Mormon persecution in Missouri at Hahn’s Mill and at Nauvoo, Illinois” are the kinds of thoughts that run through my mind.

Other teachers I know spend an entire week on Tammany Hall or the cartoons of Puck vs. Nast. Last year, my student teacher took six weeks to do the Civil War. She did an excellent job actually making the kids hard tack, learning the roles of several women, teaching how culture spread across country because of the war, making exhibit boards, and digging into the Emancipation Proclamation in addition to normal things teachers go into detail about the time period. She expressed a concern at one point that she was never going to get out of the Civil War. She did. And, she did a great job teaching the unit!!! But when it came time to plan the next unit, the next unit got shortchanged. And thus is the dilemma of being a history teacher.

Currently I am at the crossroad as I type. At some point in the next week, I have to get into the twentieth century in class. As I sat down this morning, my main goal was immediately sidetracked by Puck cartoons. That’s right, cartoons. I love cartoons because of their tactile and visual nature. Almost immediately, I began scheming lessons about using them as web searches, products, and tools for analysis. I was supposed to teach about Immigration in the late 1800s to start the week and then get into 3 day Teddy Roosevelt extravaganza of the Progressive Era. I still will, but it is unreal how close I came to veering out of control.

I think for every history teacher, it is a guilty pleasure to get bogged down. It is how you become a better teacher. It is how you learn how to teach history. This year, I took five days to do the Battle of Gettysburg. And you know what, I enjoyed it, the kids enjoyed it, and we both learned a lot. However, here’s the thing…I planned to get bogged down!!! At times, getting bogged down is a necessity. That is how you teach detail. “More on less” is the best motto. The issue is that I teach a survey course and I have to cover all of US History in the time frame imposed. It is just not possible in one year to cover EVERYTHING.

I spent an entire lesson about Gettysburg by examining the decisions by Lee and Meade on whether to fight on that third day.

I spent an entire lesson about Gettysburg by examining the decisions by Lee and Meade on whether to fight on that third day. It was all about strategy and high ground. Students had a great time examining documents, the terrain, morale, and the state of their armies.

So, I pick and choose what I get bogged down in. This year, it will be Civil Rights in the 1950s and the Clinton era 1990s. I have no shame in admitting that. But some things do get shortchanged. I know this year it has been Reconstruction, the Wild West (an all-time favorite era of mine to get bogged down in), the Spanish-American War, and the early 1800s (1812-1837) that take the hit for detail’s sake.

I think it is important that if you are going to teach something and have students produce products of their learning, the teacher best enjoy the topic and transmit that joy to the students about the topic. Last year, I never had so much fun teaching about World War II than spending an entire week doing D-Day. Another teacher who read this blog emailed me for the materials and we both had a blast doing the lesson 300 miles apart with me in 8th grade and she in high school. It’s OK to get bogged down, if you do it for the right reasons!!!

So, when I get back to lesson planning here in a few minutes, I will try to avoid the pitfalls of the Progressive Era planning and yearn for the time when I do get to spend extra time teaching the 1930s, D-Day, the 1950s Civil Rights Movement, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the 1990s changes in society. It will be worth getting bogged down. I just have to stick to my plan.