Professor Baseball: Edwin Amenta [People Issue 2019]

Edwin Amenta is at home on the field. Photo by Francesca Polletta

Edwin Amenta loves baseball. He loves watching it, reading about it, writing about it, railing against it and especially playing its bastard cousin, softball. He blogs about baseball and has written articles and a book on the sport (with another on the way); the nation’s pastime has even entered his research and course offerings as a UC Irvine sociology professor.

An article in an American Sociological Society publication, “Softball and the Social Scientist”—which was excerpted from Amenta’s book Professor Baseball: Searching for Redemption and the Perfect Lineup on the Softball Diamonds of Central Park (University of Chicago Press, 2007)—includes an editor’s note that describes the author as an “aging and undersized sociologist” who “was placed in charge of his doormat New York City softball team.”

Born in Chicago, he rooted for the Cubs and White Sox, although harder for the Sox despite having seen far more Cubbies games because he lived near Wrigley Field. Amenta began playing at a very young age. “When I was growing up, there was all manner of pickup games,” he says. “I played more with the neighborhood kids than in organized ball. In organized ball, I had the distinction of literally going a season with no hits.”

He quit playing hardball by high school and joined softball teams; having filled out by then, he discovered he could actually play. Professor Baseball colorfully chronicles his dirtbagger “career,” and his passion is reflected in the collection of T-shirts from adult league teams he has toiled with across the country.

After getting his undergraduate and master’s degrees at Indiana University and his doctorate at the University of Chicago, Amenta went to New York University for his first academic position. He and his wife and fellow sociology professor, Francesca Polletta, found the Big Apple invigorating—until their twins, Gregory and Louisa, arrived 15 years ago. A brutally cold month in New York, during which the young family could only go outside four times, convinced the couple to jump at dual offers from UC Irvine.

They moved here in 2005, which was the same year the White Sox won their third World Series. Chicago’s previous championships had been in 1917 and 1906. “Everyone I had known in New York had been razzing me for a decade,” Amenta recalls. “I could finally say, ‘In your face,’ but I was meeting all new people in Irvine [who had] no idea about the White Sox’s struggles.”

One UCI class he teaches is Baseball in Society, which marries sociological theory with the history of the game. Because the class fulfills an upper-division writing requirement, it is popular with students, including Anteater baseball players. “They are good to have in class because, otherwise, there will often be kids with no idea what baseball is,” Amenta says. “The players are very good at explaining the inside aspects of baseball. They are very conscientious students. It’s funny; there was a kid in my office one day talking about his outline. The next day, he was signing a six-figure bonus.”

The working title for Amenta’s next book is How Moneyball Broke Baseball, which argues the statistics-heavy approach to building lineups ultimately screws Major League Baseball fans, players and the game he loves. (Read more about it on his blog: “There are longer and longer games that are less exciting because there is less action. Players are not putting pitches in play. Strikeouts have skyrocketed. Home runs are up, but runs haven’t increased. Players just trot the bases because of the emphasis on the home run. More players are beer-gutted; they look like they are in an adult softball league rather than the athletes of other sports such as football, soccer and basketball.” Worst of all: “tanking,” or teams losing on purpose. “They put out inferior teams and lose a lot of games because they can actually make money if they lower the payroll enough.”

No such payroll issues face Fast Fatigables, Amenta’s softball team formed by UCI biomechanical engineers. While in New York for a sabbatical fellowship, he walked on to join Team King Kong of the Broadway-show league. But, he vows, “I will come back to Irvine triumphant at the end of June in my King Kong shirt.”

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