Author and historian Tygiel dies at 59
Best known for his book on Robinson breaking color barrier
Perhaps Jules Tygiel wasn't the most authoritative source on "black baseball," but if other people did have greater intellectual impact in mining the rich history of segregated baseball, they'd still have to pay their proper respects to Tygiel and his seminal work.
For no academician raised research into that area of baseball to serious scholarship the way Tygiel did. His 1983 classic, "Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy" might be, as somebody put it recently, "one of the most definitive books in baseball history on Jackie Robinson."
From the day his book on Robinson hit bookshelves, Tygiel, a history professor at San Francisco State University, became a much-sought source for any topic related to Robinson and the Negro Leagues.
His pioneering research on black baseball, and its ties to American history, will be missed. On Tuesday, Tygiel died of cancer. He was 59.
"His book gave people a better understanding of what the Negro Leagues represented," said Bob Kendrick, marketing director of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. "[One thing] we try to do here at the Museum is to counter that whole aspect of vaudeville, buffoonish and the things that so often had been linked to black baseball."
Here comes Robinson, Kendrick said, to defy those images. Here comes Tygiel, Kendrick said, to write an account of that period in a literary voice tuned with an intellectual's mind. Scholarship was at the heart of who Tygiel was.
"He was an excellent scholar and teacher, and very, very giving of his time to people," said Adrian Burgos, a history professor at the University of Illinois and author of "Playing America's Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line."
Tygiel, who mentored Burgos, earned his doctorate at the University of California-Los Angeles in 1977, and he taught at the University of Tennessee and the University of Virginia before joining the history faculty at San Francisco State in 1978.
Educated as a classical historian, Tygiel, like a handful of his academic peers, found parallels between the changing social and cultural fabric of America in the early 1900s and sports.
As unyielding practices of Jim Crow stood as the barrier to full participation of blacks in the experience, organized baseball had its own unyielding practices, Tygiel said. The sport built an invisible wall, rigid as granite in all respects, in the late 1800s that blocked men with dark skin from passing through it.
Those men had no choice, if pursuing baseball was their quest, but to find an alternative for their passion.
They did. They formed leagues of their own.
"The realm of black baseball was a vibrant and colorful one," Tygiel once wrote. "It offered a panorama of innovations and enterprise, entertainment and excitement, an unparalleled athletic achievement. It enriched the lives of African Americans, and of other Americans who were fortunate enough to witness its magic."
But his bent toward viewing history through an unclouded lens ensured that Tygiel would find no solace in the existence of two leagues: one black, one white; both separated by the "nation's worst impulses: the cancer of segregation and discrimination ..."
In his writings and teachings, Tygiel captured the resiliency of black men who toiled outside the spotlight of Major League Baseball. He wrote of their struggles; he wrote of their achievements; and he lectured on their leagues and all their shades of glory.
His scholarship proved an inspiration to other historians.
"'Baseball's Great Experiment' is a classic work on baseball integration," Burgos said. "The way that Jules did it was the right way, in that he incorporated the story of the Negro Leagues into the story of baseball integration."
His book didn't just celebrate Robinson; Tygiel stitched together the mosaic that led directly to the breaking of the color barrier.
In doing so, Tygiel left behind a work that will be his enduring legacy. While not the first book on black baseball -- John Holway and Robert Peterson wrote about this storied institution before anybody else - "Baseball's Great Experiment" might have been the best.
"Long before Ken Burns' Baseball (1994) put the Robinson story at the center of baseball history, and 14 years before the immense 50th-anniversary celebrations of Robinson's 1947 debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Tygiel's masterful account provided a sophisticated, at times riveting, tale, deftly combining social and cultural history with first-rate drama," a review in The American Historical Review said of Tygiel's book. "Historians with a special interest in mass culture, or race relations in general, and sports and baseball in particular, have been deeply in his debt for nearly two decades."
Tygiel, however, wrote about more than Robinson.
In his 2001 book "Past Time: Baseball as History," Tygiel penned a collection of essays that, according to a review in The Washington Post, showed that "baseball, far from being a freak show at the periphery of the country's public and important business, has been part and parcel of that business throughout its history."
But like a few others before him, and many after him, Tygiel found that sports in general and baseball specifically dovetailed with the emerging progress whites and blacks have made in bridging the racial divide that U.S. courts had sanctioned.
"With someone like Professor Tygiel, who wrote this wonderful account, he gave people a better understanding and a better appreciation of what the Negro Leagues represented," Kendrick said.
Justice B. Hill is a senior writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.