April 5, 2012

Could a university’s football program be supporting its baseball-focused press?


It’s baseball time in America, and one university press is hoping all the enthusiasm for the country’s “most literary” of sports results in higher book sales.

The University of Nebraska Press, and its imprint Bison Books, may only publish eight books per year, but for many baseball-loving readers, that’s enough to last all season long.

Supported by the university’s nonprofit publishing wing, and also by the Society for American Baseball Research, the press, despite working out of a largely football-centric environment, has carved a niche that’s dedicated full-tilt to baseball books. From the NY Times article:

Titles for spring 2012 include Robert K. Fitts‘s “Banzai Babe Ruth,” about the all-star barnstorming tour of Japan in 1934; Chris Lamb‘s “Conspiracy of Silence,” about the role of journalists in the desegregation of the major leagues; and the second volume of Norman L. Macht‘s biographical trilogy of Manager Connie Mack.

“We’re a humanities-based academic press that happens to publish scholarly work about baseball,” said Rob Taylor, the Nebraska press’s interim editor in chief. “People sometimes forget that sports is a vibrant part of American history.”

American history is something many people think book publishing is heading toward. But stories like this show there’s still opportunities to publish books that appeal to smaller audiences through traditional channels. I mean really, it doesn’t get much more old school than a nonprofit university press issuing scholarly books about baseball, OUT OF NEBRASKA, for god’s sake.

It’s enough make you want to stand up and pledge allegiance.

But before we go rousing good old Ted from his temporary slumber, we should ask ourselves one question. How much of this press’ bill is footed by the Cornhusker’s football program?

It goes without saying that a university’s robust and lucrative football program would help support its smaller, less-funded programs. But in this case, it’s kind of funny to think that so many rabid football fans might actually be helping a niche baseball publishing outfit stay in business.

That’s not to diminish the press’ accomplishments, though. Clearly they don’t lack publishing acumen:

In the early 1990s, [former editor-in-chief] Daniel Ross began buying the rights to overlooked older gems that trade publishers were dropping. Through Bison Books, Ross resuscitated Eric Rolfe Greenberg’s cult novel “The Celebrant” and Mark Harris‘s fiction oeuvre, including “The Southpaw” and “Bang the Drum Slowly.”

Bison republished two compendiums by the New Yorker essayist Roger Angell (“The Summer Game” and “Five Seasons”) and books by the “Boys of Summer” author, Roger Kahn, in addition to Christy Mathewson‘s “Pitching in a Pinch” and Sol White‘s “History of Colored Baseball.”

Ross “gave new life to classic books,” Taylor said. “All of that baseball history was in danger of disappearing from bookshelves.”

But it might just be a football program that’s helping to keep them there.

In any event,  anybody publishing Banzai Babe Ruth and getting away with it deserves as much support, and applause, as they can get.


Kevin Murphy is the digital media marketing manager of Melville House.