The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant

How about that local sports team?

So, the Red Sox made history last night. Sports history, anyway. And since this weblog is about history, I guess it’s OK for me to talk about it.

Yes, I jumped on the bandwagon. I know I’m one of those October fans that real Sox diehards despise: last to get on the wagon, first to get off. When you consider the exquisite agony of being a true Sox fan, the dues paid in long years of suffering and heartbreak, I probably have no right to cheer them on at all. Watching the game last night, I kept expecting some nice Catholic boyos from Southie to kick down my door, pound the crap out of me, and then change my TV over to Smallville or Lost. But what a series, what a comeback, what a story! And if I get a second-hand contact high from the rest of the city’s excitement, is that really so wrong?

I’m also a little blue about it, though, because the Sox’s triumph gets me thinking about one particular fan. I may not have known Johnny Damon from Pokey Reese before last week, but I do and did know a fair chunk of baseball history, thanks primarily to Bill Gienapp. Professor Gienapp was one of my very favorite professors in the Harvard history department. He wasn’t on my committee; his area of expertise was antebellum political history and the U.S. Civil War. I did get the opportunity to teach with him a couple of times, though, and I just thought the world of him. And he was a true Red Sox fan, one of unshakable loyalty and nobility.

Professor Gienapp was hugely popular with Harvard undergraduates. It didn’t matter that he was probably the toughest grader in the history department; they beat down the doors to get into his two big classes, on Baseball in U.S. History and on the Civil War. He was even more popular with his grad students. I have friends who started grad school with no particular interest in the Civil War, who changed the whole direction of their careers in order to work with him. Teaching with Prof. Gienapp was great. He loved to talk about history, and he hated to talk about course policy and sectioning and administration trivia—and that is rare, let me tell you. He seemed to me absolutely immune to the kind of red tape and fussiness that just infects academia, and I admire that more than I can say.

This may sound goofy, but the way I usually described Prof. Gienapp to those who didn’t know him was to say he reminded me of Jed Bartlett, the president on The West Wing. I’m not saying he looked like Martin Sheen, or saying anything about his politics—I’m just describing his manner. He was both gruff and sweet, he was a great spinner of stories but had no tolerance for bullshit, he was smart and upright and kind and had a twinkle in his eye.

Tangent: Even when I wasn’t teaching for Prof. Gienapp, I felt his impact, since every year I’d end up reading one or two junior or senior papers on baseball history by a student who caught the bug in Gienapp’s class. I’d sometimes plead for equal time for other sports. The history of football! It raises all sorts of cool issues around class and Gilded Age manliness and class. Basketball! Come on, race and commerce and urban America. Hockey! … Well, I can’t think of anything, but I’m sure there’s some great hockey history yet to be written. But it was never any use. All anybody ever wanted to write about was baseball. Partly this was because baseball’s history seems close to the surface in a way that football or basketball’s doesn’t. (Watch a 21st-century NFL game and it seems inconceivable this sport even existed before television. Watch a Red Sox game and if you squint right you can easily imagine it’s 1918.) But mostly, this was because Professor Gienapp had cast his spell on them.

Bill Gienapp died almost exactly a year ago, way too young, after a long fight with cancer. The department was gutted. I was gutted, and I’d just taught a few classes with him. I can’t imagine how all those closer to him felt.

There were a lot of Civil War touches at his funeral. A Lincoln impersonator that knew Professor Gienapp came, in full beard and stovepipe hat, and stood at the back. That sounds funny, I know, but it wasn’t. It seemed eminently reasonable to me that Honest Abe should come pay his respects to the man who wrote Origins of the Republican Party and This Fiery Trial. And when we sang the Battle Hymn of the Republic, there was not a dry eye in the house. Not mine, that’s for sure.

I don’t think there was much if any Red Sox talk at the funeral. The Sox had just lost the ALCS to the Yankees and really, who wanted to think about baseball at a time like that?

But now, a year later, the Red Sox have made baseball history, returning from the very brink to defeat the Damnyankees in a comeback so improbable as to make the Bad News Bears hoot in derision. And the Sox are off to the World Series, but it almost seems like an afterthought. How could any series be more dramatic or cathartic than that seven-game slugfest against the hated Yankees?

I expect that every real Sox fan out there has a father or a grandfather or an uncle or an aunt or a whole family tree of them that should have been around to see last night’s game. (Edit: Yes, they all do, and here’s eloquent confirmation from Sports Guy Bill Simmons that none of what I’ve written here is original in the slightest.) But me, I’m thinking about Professor Gienapp, and his wife and his sons, and how it’s just wrong that he wasn’t there to see this series with them.

Here’s to Red Sox Nation, and here’s to the torches we all carry and to the different things we all choose to make us happy, and here’s to the people that impress us and make a difference in our lives, and here’s to Bill Gienapp.

Go Sox.