A floppy "Revenge on the Umpire Tear-Apart Stress Doll" shares shelf space in Jim Carothers' office with more substantial art works: several Faulkner and Hemingway novels along with baseball books by the likes of writers Roger Angell and Thomas Boswell.
Academics pored over the Faulkner and Hemingway works long before Carothers, associate dean of liberal arts at KU and an English professor, began teaching two decades ago. But Carothers has done his part to bridge the gap between the scholarly world and popular culture by intoducing English 479, the literature of baseball, to KU.
And this acedemic year, the former first baseman is taking a sabbatical to turn his baseball knowledge into a book of his own.
His mix of baseball and academics has not always been fully appreciated. Carothers remembers back in 1974 when, just beginning his career, he proposed his pet course to his peers.
His mouth expands into a smile as his eyes narrow in recollection. Carothers hangs his legs over a flat desk drawer, leaning back in his chair with just a hint of I-told-you-so.
"They were pretty dubious," he said. "I remember one of my colleagues said, `How can anybody fail a course like that?'"
Carothers left that cold reception planning to teach the course in what then was called the "Free University", in which instructors and students gathered informally and without tuition to share intellectual interests.
But the department quickly changed its mind about the course, impressed that Carothers' presentation linked writers Bernard Malamud and Ring Lardner to baseball literature.
Carothers' first literature of baseball section drew 90 students, and the course, taught about every two years, has grown at each offering.
"Over time, people became convinced that it was not a pud course," Carothers said.
Also over time, scholars have embraced popular culture as a worthwile area of study, he said, pointing to KU's Science Fiction Institute as proof of that change in attitude.
Carothers' second sabbatical his first focused on William Faulkner will result in a book of analysis, reminiscence and fiction.
Much of the value of baseball literature stems from its reflection of our society, he said.
Consider Baseball Tonight on cable television's ESPN.
"What they're doing on any given day is identifying the heroes, creating the scapegoats and pointing out the comedy," Carothers said.
At the same time, he said, stories about baseball are snapshots of people expected to perform in isolation at a critical moment.
"It's one of the few places where knowing what to do, knowing how to do it and doing it all have to happen at the same time," he said.
Carothers' baseball book will join countless others. He points out that Lawrence Public Library commits about 20 shelf-feet of space to the topic, but still he cannot fully explain a recent explosion in baseball writing.
Commercial successes by statistics whiz and Kansas native Bill James, as well as novelists Angell and Boswell explain why more and more baseball books are getting into print. Carothers hopes to better understand why more and more people read them.
"I'm a little puzzled about it," he said. "How do you explain the popularity of Gothic novels, with all the heaving breasts? I don't know. If it sells, it's published."