Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Things I Wrote in 2017

Time for my annual end-of-the-year writing recap! I started doing these in 2014, at the end of my first full year in Baylor's history PhD program. It's crazy to think that my time at Baylor is almost over. I'll be defending my dissertation this spring, and by the end of next year I'll be somewhere that is not Waco, Texas.

As for where I'll be, I have no idea right now. I'll either land a history professor job or a postdoc somewhere, or else I'll embark on the mysterious "alt-ac" career path. Either way, I'd do the past 4.5 years all over again. Working towards a PhD has been incredibly difficult, to be sure, but it has also been incredibly rewarding. Shoutout to the excellent Baylor history departmentprofessors, administrators, graduate student colleaguesfor making the lonely road to the PhD a little less lonely for me and my family.

But enough with the reflections. There will be time enough for that when I, you know, actually finish and defend my dissertation. On to the writing recap! 


That would be my dissertation. Right now it's titled "God, Country, and Big-Time Sports: The Creation of 'Sportianity' and the Transformation of American Protestantism, 1920-1980." I started writing the thing in April and have since completed five chapters totaling 293 pages. I've got one more chapter to finish up before I send it off to my dissertation committee (and then binge watch Netflix for a week). 


Sunday, February 19, 2017

Amos Alonzo Stagg and Japanese American Internment

Last year I received a Platzman Fellowship from the University of Chicago Library, which allowed me to spend some time over the summer in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Papers. Stagg was a leading figure in the "muscular Christianity" movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He first earned fame as a baseball pitcher and football end while playing for Yale in the 1880s. Thanks to his celebrity, Stagg attracted eager audiences in the Northeast as he lectured on the importance of faith and the blending of Christianity and athletics.

After his college days Stagg embarked on a coaching career, most notably with the University of Chicago. He coached the Chicago Maroons for forty years from 1892 until 1932, all while continuing to espouse the Christian values that he claimed could be imparted through the game of football. Because Stagg will be a crucial figure in my dissertation (which explores how particular forms of Christianity were embedded within the world of big-time sports in the United States), it was incredibly helpful to spend time with his papers in Chicago. 

During my research, I came across a few really fascinating sources. Most of them will make their way into my dissertation one way or another. But I could not resist the desire to make at least one set of sources public before the dissertation is complete. That set of sources -- including letters, telegrams, and newspapers clippings -- details Stagg's role in defending the rights of Japanese Americans in early 1945, near the end of World War II.

As far as I know, no other scholar has written about Stagg's campaign on behalf of interned Japanese Americans. But the good folks at the Sport in American History blog allowed me to share what I had learned about Stagg. After that story was published, one of my favorite radio shows, Only A Game, asked me to talk about my story with them as well. They produced a great 12 minute segment about Stagg that was featured on their February 17 show. 

If you haven't had a chance to read or listen yet, feel free to check them out:

Amos Alonzo Stagg and Trump’s America (Sport in American History)

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Recapping 2016: Things I Wrote, Read, and Listened To

I love to make end-of-the-year lists of my favorite books and music. Back when I was a high school teacher, I usually had time in late December to compile them and write up a short synopsis. Now that I'm working on my PhD, however, time is limited. I'm able to make the lists, but I don't quite have the time to provide any commentary. With that in mind, I bring you these old tweets to represent the 2016 version of my end-of-the-year book and music lists.

Although there were plenty of other very good books that I read in 2016, at the time of that tweet I felt comfortable with those six standing as my favorites. In the time since December 11, however, I've read another book that I would add to the list: Andrea Turpin's A New Moral Vision: Gender, Religion, and the Changing Purposes of American Higher Education, 1837-1917 (Cornell University Press). Perhaps I'm a bit biased -- Turpin is one of my professors at Baylor, and she will be serving on my dissertation committee -- but I think that the book deserves to get a good bit of scholarly buzz among historians in 2017 (it always takes academics a year or two to get caught up on new books, so maybe 2018 is the year of the buzz).

This list still holds up. Margo Price's album Midwest Farmer's Daughter is the only addition I would make.

Along with recapping music and book consumption, for the past couple years I've taken some time to summarize my writing output at the end of each year. Here's the list of my written work in 2016. I expect/hope that 2017 will have far fewer entries, but a far more important one: a completed (or nearly completed) dissertation.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

On the Omahawks, Omaha's First Big-League Basketball Team

In the next issue of Nebraska History I have an article that details the brief history of the Omahawks, a professional basketball team that existed for a few weeks in 1947. Although mostly forgotten by Omaha residents today, it was Omaha's first major professional sports franchise.

I sent an advance copy of the piece to one of my favorite sports writers, Dirk Chatelain of the Omaha World-Herald. After he expressed interest in the topic, I wrote a short summary piece about the Omahawks that Chatelain published at his Mad Chatter blog last week. You can check out the blog here.  After the piece ran, I was contacted by The Bottom Line, a sports and news talk show hosted by Mike'l Severe for the Omaha World-Herald. Back when I lived in Omaha, Severe and Kevin Kugler co-hosted a radio show called Unsportsmanlike Conduct. I have yet to find a sports talk show that I enjoy more than Unsportsmanlike Conduct (in fact, I've pretty much given up on trying). So it was a thrill to talk about the Omahawks with Severe.

If you'd like to check out my interview on The Bottom Line, you can go here. Below, you can also read my short piece on the Omahawks that originally ran at the Mad Chatter blog. And for even more on the Omahawks, check out the next issue of Nebraska History.

Omaha World-Herald, Nov. 12, 1947

Friday, July 22, 2016

Writing Roundup: Religion and Sports

I finally settled on my dissertation topic a little less than a year ago: a cultural history of the "Christian athlete" in the modern U.S., with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes as the main focus. Since most of my research and reading these days is related to my dissertation, my online writing has followed suit. If you would like to check out some of those pieces, I've listed them below. I plan to keep this page updated if/when I write anything new related to the sports and religion theme (usually the "religion" that I write about is Christianity, but not always).

Monday, February 1, 2016

African Americans and Omaha: A Reading List

Recently I reviewed Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson's Free Radical: Ernest Chambers, Black Power, and the Politics of Race (Texas Tech University Press, 2012), for an academic journal. Although I made a few critiques, I think that Johnson's biography of Chambers is incredibly important. Because Chambers has toiled in Nebraska his entire life, serving since 1970 (with one brief hiatus) as the legislative representative for Nebraska eleventh district, he has not received as much attention on the national level as his talent, charisma, and penchant for controversy deserves. Love him or hate him, Chambers is one of the most fascinating political leaders in Nebraska history. Johnson's biography should be read by anyone interested in the history of the U.S. black freedom struggle or in Midwest, Nebraska, or Omaha history (for more on Chambers, I've written briefly on him elsewhere, focusing on his starring role in the acclaimed documentary A Time for Burning).

In national histories of the long civil rights movement, Omaha often gets mentioned for two things: it was the birthplace of Malcolm X, whose parents served as leaders of Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association in the city during the 1920s, and it was the scene of the horrific riots and mob murder in 1919 of Will Brown, whose assailants posed smiling for the camera as his body burned.

But thanks to Johnson's biography of Chambers, and also to a recent influx of books documenting Omaha's rich history of African American leadership and civil rights protest, readers can now get a much better sense of the struggle and vitality of African American life in Omaha. I've listed three recently-published books that would make great companions to Free Radical below. All of these books tend towards an emphasis on the heroic. That is, while they do not ignore the segregation, mob violence, and police brutality inflicted upon Omaha's African American residents over the past century, they tend to highlight more the resilience of those fighting for justice. I can only hope that over the next few years we'll see even more work of this quality on the history of African American life in Omaha.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Things I Wrote in 2015

In the past year I devoted most of my time to finishing up my PhD coursework and studying for my comprehensive exams (ok, ok, and also to reorganizing my fantasy basketball league into an auction draft format). I also wrote a few things for various online and offline outlets. Continuing with the practice I started last year, here is a brief summary of my non-coursework public writing for the year, organized thematically.

I published one peer-reviewed article in 2015: "From the Pulpit to the Press: Frank Crane’s Omaha, 1892-1896." The article appeared in Nebraska History. You can read an excerpt here or read about the inspiration for the article here at the blog. One unintended consequence of my research: I discovered that a few of Flannery O'Connor's biographers have misidentified her "favorite Protestant theologian."

My favorite piece I wrote in 2015 was published by Religion & Politics as part of their "States of the Union" project. Here's how Religion & Politics explains the project: "We gathered writers from around the country to tell us about where they discovered religion and politics in their states. Both part of a union and cultures unto their own, these states reveal stories of people, places and histories of the American experience." My contribution to the series was titled "Nebraska: A Cornhusker Prays with FCA." Basically, I got to combine all of my favorite things in writing the article: Nebraska, sports, religion. The process of researching and writing that article also played an important role in my decision to change my dissertation topic (but more on that another time, perhaps).

My favorite blog post from 2015: The Rest of Tom Osborne's "Currens Story." For those who don't know, Tom Osborne was Nebraska's legendary head football coach from the 1970s through most of the 1990s. Sometime in the fall, I was taking a break from my prelim reading by doing a bit of dissertation research. As it so happens, my dissertation research involves (among other things) reading about Tom Osborne. While reading, I came across Osborne's familiar story about how a man he identifies as "Rev. Currens" played an inspirational role in his grandfather's life. I decided to do some armchair research to see what I could find out about this Rev. Currens character, and a few hours later I had a Notepad document full of notes and a blog post set to publish. As an added bonus, when I went back home to Nebraska for the holidays, my wife's grandmother told me that she usually doesn't read most of the things I write, but she actually read and enjoyed the Currens post.

Sometimes I get the urge to do completely unnecessary and methodologically amateurish research. My post on Comparing the Religious Affiliation of Omaha's Elites with Omaha's Population, 1910 was one such example. The title of the blog post basically sums up what I was trying to do. It also features a bar graph, if you're into that sort of thing.

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Rest of Tom Osborne's "Currens Story"

Legendary former Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne has long promoted the importance of mentoring. In 1991 he and his wife Nancy launched the TeamMates Mentoring Program, aiming to inspire youth to reach their potential by matching them up with an adult mentor.

Part of Osborne's motivation is personal. As he has often explained, his grandfather, Thomas C. Osborne, grew up on a farm in western Nebraska in the late 1880s/1890s. Thomas's home life was somewhat dysfunctional because his father was an alcoholic. But a traveling preacher named Currens took an interest in Thomas. Currens encouraged him to go to college -- something that was exceedingly rare in the nineteenth century -- and to become a preacher. Thomas did just that, enrolling at Hastings College, captaining the football team, and eventually earning his Presbyterian ordination. "I'm quite certain that if it wasn't for this guy named Currens who was a mentor to my grandfather," Tom Osborne explains, "that my father wouldn't have had the life he had, [and] I would not have had the life I've had."

But who was this "Currens" character in the first place? I have not seen Osborne or anyone else provide many details beyond his last name and occupation. So I decided to see if I could piece together some details about the man who, by Osborne's account at least, unknowingly altered the history of Nebraska football more than a century ago.

From History of Western Nebraska
and its People
I suppose we can start with his name: James B. Currens. Currens was born in Kentucky around 1842. A nineteen-year-old living in a border state when the Civil War broke out, it is unclear if Currens fought for the North or South (or at all) during that conflict. But we do know that he married a woman from Kentucky named Susan, and that he settled in Mattoon, Illinois, sometime after the war. We also know that in 1877 he moved to Chicago to enroll in the Presbyterian Theological Seminary of the Northwest (renamed McCormick Theological Seminary in the 1880s). After receiving his D.D. from the school in 1879, Currens headed west for the plains, leaving Susan behind with friends in Illinois while he tried to establish himself in the new town of Parker (population: 113), in southeast Dakota Territory.

Currens spent his first summer in Parker building an eighteen-by-twenty-foot house, made of boards and paper. He also tried to establish connections with "widely-scattered Christians" in the area, but the work was hard and discouraging. "Covetousness, Sabbath-breaking, and intemperance are here before us, and meet us on every hand, undisguised, bold, and defiant," he wrote. The settlers were so busy building their homes and tending to their farms that Currens found it nearly impossible to "induce them to stop and think of religion." But Currens soldiered on, laboring in sparsely populated McCook and Turner counties for the next six years. One settler from the time recalled that Currens pastored seven churches and routinely preached in three different towns every Sunday. By 1883 Currens was reuinited with Susan, and the two earned reputations as local champions of the temperance cause.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Flannery O'Connor's Favorite Protestant Theologian

I did a double take when I saw this passage:

"She never missed Dr. Frank Crane, an advice columnist....Appearing on the same page as the comics in the Atlanta Constitution, he was a prophet of positive thinking, regularly reporting success stories of people who smile and compliment others. O'connor jokingly called him her 'favorite Protestant theologian.'"

The passage comes from Jonathan Rogers's 2012 book, The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O'Connor (Thomas Nelson). It probably didn't startle others the same way it startled me. But as a wannabe historian, this passage had the potential to make my research relevant. Here was Flannery O'Connor, a darling of the thoughtful Christian crowd, apparently an avid reader of Frank Crane, the subject of my new Nebraska History article. 

Almost everything seemed to fit. Frank Crane was indeed an apostle of positive thinking and also a syndicated newspaper columnist. Norman Thomas, writing in The Nation in 1924, aptly described Crane's style as something "a Pollyanna might have written after a short course in William James's pragmatism and a shorter and somewhat critical course in Tolstoi's non-violent ethics."

Frank Crane in American Magazine (1922)
There was just one problem: Crane died in 1928. And O'connor was reading "Dr. Frank Crane" in the 1950s. It was at least possible that Frank Crane's columns were being reprinted decades after his death, but it seemed unlikely. So I decided to investigate. I went to the sources cited by Rogers, all of which came from The Habit of Being, an edited collection of O'connor's letters. As the letters showed, O'connor definitely peppered her letters with references to Crane. "Ashley was telling me that you are an admirer of Dr. Frank Crane, my favorite Protestant theologian (salvation by the compliment club)," she wrote to Robie Macauley in 1955. "He is really a combination minister and masseur, don't you think? I like to hear him tell Alma A. that she can keep her husband by losing 75 pounds and just the other day he told a girl who was terrified of toads how not to let this ruin her life -- know the truth & the truth shall make you free."

In another letter to Macauley, she cracked more jokes about Crane: "I'll write Dr. Crane and ask him what is the significance of the short story. He tackles any subject." Elsewhere, she described Crane as an "odd mixture of fundamentalism (against the grape), psychology, business administration and Dale Carnegie. The originator of the Compliment Club."

Monday, August 3, 2015

Summer Book List: The Rise of the National Basketball Association

If you're looking for a book on the history of the NBA that features tables with titles like "Fixed-Effects Regression Equation for NBA Gate Receipts, 1950– 51," then this is your book and David George Surdam (a professor of economics at the University of Northern Iowa) is your author.

To be fair, Surdam's tables, all thirty-three of them, are placed in Appendix B. The main text of the book follows the typical chronological pattern of most descriptive histories. Within that text, though, Surdam offers a unique angle to the NBA's early history that (like the charts on fixed-effects regression equations) could only come from an economics professor. Forget Bill Russell, the owners are the heroes in The Rise of the National Basketball Association. Men like Walter Brown, Fred Zollner, Les Harrison, Eddie Gottlieb, Ned Irish, Ben Kerner, and Maurice Podoloff, should "justly feel proud of their efforts," Surdam writes, because they held the NBA together with "determination" and "a willingness to absorb losses."

To get at the owners' perspective and to explain the choices they made -- from integration, to television contracts, to gate receipt sharing, to league rules, to expansion and franchise relocation -- Surdam relies on a mix of secondary literature, New York Times and other national print media, archival research at the Naismith Hall of Fame, and a 1957 Congressional antitrust hearing on "Organized Professional Team Sports." Numerous NBA owners testified at that hearing, providing documentation on league finances and operating procedures that help Surdam analyze the economic underbelly of the league in a new way.