When James Carothers was growing up in St. Louis, he remembers walking home and on every stoop there would be a group of men drinking beer and listening to the Cardinals game on the radio.
“I could walk all those blocks home and never miss a pitch,” Carothers said.
Baseball was an important part of his world. He played it in school yards and youth leagues and followed the fortunes of the Cardinals in the sports pages.
“It was one of the unifying experiences of not just my childhood but a whole generation,” he said.
In post-World War II America, pro football and basketball hadn’t caught on yet. No ESPN. No extreme sports. Baseball was king.
Years later, when Carothers was teaching English at Kansas University, he got the idea for a course on baseball in literature when he and a colleague joked about writing a dissertation with no footnotes.
Carothers' top baseball books
• "The Mac Millan Baseball Encyclopedia"
• "The Glory of Their Times" by Lawrence Ritter
• "The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract" by Bill James
• "The Universal Baseball Association, Inc. J. Henry Waugh, Prop.," by Robert Coover
• "The Southpaw" by Mark Harris
• "The Celebrant" by Eric Rolfe Greenberg
• "Babe: The Legend Comes to Life "by Robert Creamer
When Carothers first pitched his idea, the administration wasn’t thrilled.
But making the connections between baseball and popular culture seemed like a natural field of study. The game itself produced a tension, sometimes idyllic, but sometimes a reflection of an ever-changing and turbulent society. And baseball had its heroes just as great literature did.
“Baseball lent itself to discussion and analysis and opened people up to a lot of different voices,” Carothers said. And baseball is prominent in the works of some of the great writers, such as Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. In “The Old Man and the Sea” by Hemingway, the fisherman thinks often about how New York Yankees star Joe DiMaggio is doing. “Baseball shows up everywhere,” Carothers said.
Since 1974, Carothers has been teaching the class off and on. Sometimes, he had 150 to 175 students. “It became a sociological event,” he said.
“I have never claimed to have had the first literature baseball course,” he said, but adds, “I was certainly among the first.”
The course has included works of fiction, journalism, history and statistics.
Bill James, the nationally known baseball writer, executive and statistician, has known Carothers for about 40 years.
He described Carothers’ work as having raised the study of baseball in literature into an art form itself.
“Jim finds in baseball what others find in literature,” James said.
“There is a long tradition in baseball of morphing baseball stars into characters and archetypes, which are based on the real persons but which are greater than the real persons because they have been simplified in a way that makes it possible to project them on a grander scale,” James said. “Baseball players are — and have always been — a source of myth and legend. Their stories have a little bit of the quality of epics.”
James said television has nearly destroyed the oral tradition of swapping stories about archetypes, “but a little bit of it lives on in baseball. Jim has tried to elevate that tradition to the level of literature,” James said.
Phillip Wedge was a sophomore at KU when he took Carothers’ baseball and literature class in 1975.
“That was the second time he taught it,” Wedge recalled. “He was just amazing. He had such a knowledge of baseball.”
Wedge said some students thought the class would be an easy A, but Carothers was serious about his subject and there were no easy grades.
Wedge said then “there were very few cases on sports literature anywhere. There were even some within the KU English Department who scoffed at it.”
Wedge later went on to become senior lecturer in the KU English Department, and is now teaching sports in literature and sports in film. “He paved the way for people like me,” he said.
Carothers has lectured around the country on baseball including the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., and even at the University of Mumbai in India.
In 2010, at the annual Baseball in Literature and Culture Conference, Carothers gave the keynote address and was introduced as “a true ground breaker.”
Tom Strawman, who is chairman of the English Department at Middle Tennessee State University where the conference is held, said when he was a master’s student at KU in the 1970s he took a teaching composition course from Carothers. “He was a great teacher full of anecdote and dry wit at every turn of the course,” Strawman said.
Strawman had recommended Carothers speak at the Baseball in Literature and Culture Conference because he was one of the first in the nation to teach baseball in literature at the college level.
Thomas Mulinazzi, a civil engineering professor at KU, knows Carothers outside the field of literature.
In the 1980s, Mulinazzi played with Carothers on the Plymouth Congregational Church team, the Plymouth Rocks.
“He could really hit the ball,” Mulinazzi said of Carothers. He said Carothers, a left-handed batter, would salivate at the short right-field fence in Broken Arrow Park. The team won a church league state title in 1981.
And Mulinazzi said he, Mulinazzi, “is the only guy that Jim Carothers ever pinch-ran for.”
The two also participate in a weekly decades-long game called Ball Park Baseball, an intricate baseball board game. Most of the players are affiliated with KU, but no one ever talks about work, Mulinazzi said. “It’s the ultimate escape,” he said. They talk about, what else? Baseball.
Carothers has served on the KU English Department faculty since 1970, also teaching courses in Shakespeare, Faulkner, Hemingway and the Modern American Novel.
If he had to pick a favorite baseball novel, Carothers said it would be “The Universal Baseball Association, Inc. J. Henry Waugh, Prop.” by Robert Coover. It’s about a man who creates an imaginary baseball league. Carothers said the book shows how compelling and seductive baseball can be.
Carothers said he is still a Cardinals fan, still collects baseball cards, and follows the Kansas City Royals, but acknowledges baseball must now share the public’s attention with football, basketball and other sports.
But he said that last year’s dramatic World Series, which the Cardinals won in seven games over the Texas Rangers after an historic comeback in Game 6, was “about as good a stretch as baseball is likely to have.”