Historian and author saw U.S. culture reflected in baseball

Times Staff Writer

Jules Tygiel, a baseball historian and author who used the sport to illuminate larger issues of American culture and society, died of cancer Tuesday at his home in San Francisco. He was 59.

“Jules . . . was able to pull off the double play of combining his two loves -- history and baseball -- to become the foremost baseball historian in the United States today,” said John Gemello, provost of San Francisco State, where Tygiel taught for 31 years.

Tygiel’s 1983 book, “Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy,” is regarded as one of the best about the man who altered the course of history when he became major league baseball’s first African American player in 1947, with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The book, which earned Tygiel a Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, examines the integration of baseball as “both a symbol of imminent racial challenge and a direct agent of social change.”


“Baseball was one of the first institutions in modern society to accept blacks on a relatively equal basis,” Tygiel wrote in the book. “The ‘noble experiment’ thus reflects more than a saga of sport. It offers an opportunity to analyze the integration process in American life.

“An examination of the forces that led to Robinson’s hiring, the reactions among blacks and whites, the institutional response of the baseball establishment, and the resulting decline of the Jim Crow leagues reveals much about the United States in the 1940s and 1950s.”

The New York Times called Tygiel’s book a “rich, intelligent cultural history” and Sports Illustrated listed it as one of the top 100 sports books of all time.

Tygiel’s writings demonstrated “how central understanding sports [is] to understanding American culture more generally,” said Barbara Loomis, chairwoman of the history department at San Francisco State.

Taught with wit and passion, Tygiel’s history courses at San Francisco State covered California, the United States from 1916 to 1945 and baseball.

“His students remember that he had high expectations . . . and was, at the same time, easygoing and kind with a delightful sense of humor,” wrote Robert Cherny, a history professor and dean of undergraduate studies.

Tygiel also wrote the well-reviewed book “The Great Los Angeles Swindle: Oil, Stocks, and Scandal in the Roaring Twenties,” which was published in 1994. Other works he wrote or edited include “Ronald Reagan and the Rise of American Conservatism” (2004), “Extra Bases: Reflections on Jackie Robinson, Race, & Baseball History” (2002), “Past Time: Baseball as History” (2000) and “The Jackie Robinson Reader” (1997).

Born March 9, 1949, in Brooklyn, N.Y., Tygiel was surrounded by sports while growing up. He played stickball and street football, and he watched the Dodgers and later the Mets, Jets and Giants.


“So much of my time revolved around sports that it was a perfectly natural process to want to study and teach it and to see it was a major phenomenon,” he wrote in “Baseball’s Great Experiment.”

Tygiel earned a bachelor’s degree in history at Brooklyn College in 1969. At UCLA, he earned a master’s degree in 1973 and four years later a doctorate, both in history.

While working on his dissertation at UCLA, Tygiel chanced upon a 1947 issue of Time magazine that included an article about Jackie Robinson. The article rekindled interest in his childhood hero and set him on a path to becoming a baseball scholar.

Tygiel married Luise Custer in 1983 and the couple had two children, Charles and Samuel. In addition to his wife and sons, Tygiel is survived by his mother, a sister and a brother.


Tygiel and his wife helped establish Camphill Communities California, a residential care community for adults with developmental disabilities, where their son Charles lives.

A public remembrance is expected to be scheduled at San Francisco State.