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American Studies Scholar Receives Research Grants

Daniel Nathan
Award-winning author Daniel Nathan, an assistant professor of American Studies at Skidmore, has received two fellowships to support research projects during the 2005-06 academic year. The projects—on Finnish Olympian Paavo Nurmi, and the Baltimore Black Sox of the American Negro League—use sports to examine specific aspects of American culture and history. One fellowship is from the USA Track and Field organization for a project titled "The Flying Finn Comes to America: Paavo Nurmi and the Golden Age of Sports." The other is from the National Endowment for the Humanities for a study about the 1929 Baltimore Black Sox.

Both projects focus on events that happened in America during the 1920s. More important for Nathan, both allow him to use sports to explore aspects of American life. At the heart of his work is how people used such events to make meaning, to say or reveal something significant about the cultural moment.

Sports as a vehicle for cultural discovery is a method Nathan employed successfully in his book Saying It's So: A Cultural History of the Black Sox Scandal (University of Illinois, 2003). The book is an interdisciplinary examination of how a major event in baseball history—the reported fixing of the 1919 World Series—has been represented and remembered by journalists, historians, novelists, filmmakers, and fans over the past 80 years. In 2004, Saying It's So became the first book to win "Book of the Year" honors from both the North American Society for Sport History and the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport.

  “To be a serious baseball fan is in some ways to be a historian ... I'm trying to show how something ordinary and 'everyday' can tell us a great deal about many things, when treated with respect and put into context.”
—Dan Nathan

Although Nathan resists being identified as a baseball writer, he will again use the game as a springboard for his NEH-funded project: a study of the 1929 Baltimore Black Sox, the only pennant-winning team in the one-year history of American Negro League. He acknowledged the irony surrounding the baseball teams he has studied. "On the one hand, there's a major-league team, the so-called Black Sox, consisting of a bunch of guys who deliberately lost and are remembered. Then there's the Baltimore Black Sox, a group of brilliant baseball players who won a pennant, and almost no one remembers them. My book is about how an event is represented and remembered, and my new project is about how and why an event is forgotten. I see this new project as a companion piece to Saying It's So."

Nathan believes that baseball is a useful mechanism for his work. "To be a serious baseball fan is in some ways to be a historian," he said. "Baseball gives you an opportunity to talk about a lot of things. I'm trying to show how something ordinary and 'everyday' can tell us a great deal about many things, when treated with respect and put into context."

At the heart of his work are historical concerns. Nathan said that whether he is working with students or on his own research, he's always looking for more information about the past. He shared the questions that guide him: "How do we know what we know, or think we know? And what is at stake if we forget?" In his view, a careful analysis of the commonplace can increase historical and cultural understanding.

For his research on Paavo Nurmi, Nathan was awarded the Ken Doherty Memorial Fellowship from USA Track and Field to help defray travel costs to and from the Amateur Athletic Foundation Sports Library in Los Angeles.

The fellowship, presented annually by USA Track and Field, is named for former decathlon champion, coach, track and field meet director and writer Ken Doherty, and promotes the study of track and field.

Nathan believes that a critical look at Nurmi, his achievements and Americans' responses to them during his 1925 exhibition tour of the U.S., will increase understanding of such topics as athletic training methods, racial and national identity formation, and amateurism and sportsmanship. Nathan became interested in Nurmi while in Finland as a Fulbright Scholar during 2001-02. Said Nathan, "Nurmi is a mythic, iconic figure in Finland—one of the most accomplished Finns in the history of the country—who helped to create a Finnish national identity." Nurmi remains the most famous athlete in Finnish history. He set dozens of world track records and won nine gold and three silver medals during an Olympic career that included all three Olympiads of the 1920s.

During the five months Nurmi was here in 1925, he won dozens of races—in some cases, he literally "lapped" the competition. Nathan's research shows that Nurmi's tour was "widely thought to be phenomenal, awe-inspiring."

He added, "When I read (about his tour), I began to wonder what Nurmi thought about America and what Americans thought of him." Through his research, Nathan hopes to learn more about how Americans articulated and argued over cultural values via sports heroes and athletic events.

Creative Thought Matters.
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