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In Praise of Microfilm

Publication Date: October 24, 2000

Eyestrain Worth the Cost

This week we're going to address a task that most Americans consider to be just a bit less fun than tax preparation, but which turns to out to be both fun and rewarding if you do it right. No, I'm not talking about voting in this year's Presidential election -- that really is an odious lesser-of-two(three? four? five?)-evils abomination -- I'm talking about doing research at your local library.

While doing some minor fact-checking recently for the NCBA Conference Standings Archive, I was reminded of just how much fun it can be to wander into the library and spend an hour poring over microfilm of old newspapers. Sitting there between the little old ladies studying census records trying to chase down their genealogy and the lawyers trying to finagle details of long-ago real estate transactions, it's amazing how all that melts away and the connection is there, true and strong, to the players and fans as I read the details of some game from 1935.

I think it's that word -- research -- that gives most of us pause at first. It brings up memories of high school term papers, trying to cram learning just enough about a topic that we cared nothing about into a couple of days so that we could spit it back out, get whatever grade we were aiming for, and move on. So, maybe "research" is the wrong word. Maybe we should call it something else. Let's call it "reading the sports page".

You're reading this. Therefore, on some level or another, you enjoy reading about college baseball. The Internet and the couple of magazines devoted at least partially to it notwithstanding, 99% of what has ever been written about college baseball has been published in daily local newspapers. Forget the intellectual development arguments, this stuff is just plain fun to read, and the more you read and learn, the more patterns you begin to recognize, and the more things get fun. As someone wise once said, history's nothing but a good story told well, and baseball has a long tapestry of good stories to get you through the winter.


To show you the sorts of things I'm talking about, I'll share a couple of things that I ran across in the Birmingham News while researching old conference standings:

Auburn has an excellent outfielder named Mailon Kent. All-SEC a couple of times, hit .342 last year, MVP of their regional in 1999 -- that sort of player. He was drafted by the Cardinals in the 30th round last year, but has apparently decided to return for his senior year. His is a mildly unusual name, so it catches the ear, and it seems like he's been in the lineup for at least eight years at this point.

I was reading through the writeups of the 1963 SEC West pennant race, which Auburn won over Ole Miss on the last weekend of the season. Suddenly, I realized that some of the Auburn heroics of that last weekend were being attributed to Mailon Kent. It all came together as I realized that this guy has actually been playing ball for almost forty years which looking like a normal 20-year-old, which might explain some things.

It turns out that the truth is a bit more prosaic, although still a bit interesting. I looked up his online player biography, thereby pointing out that the Internet doesn't hurt to have around, either, and learned that the current Mailon is actually Mailon Kent III. His father, Mailon Kent, Jr., was a two-sport letterman at Auburn, playing football from 1961-1963 and baseball in 1963. He went on to play professional football for Buffalo and Denver. Since the NCAA hasn't outlawed Ripken-style breeding programs, there's nothing as shady as my imagination could dream up.

Korea and the Deep South

Everybody (for sufficiently-loose values of "everybody") knows that Ted Williams was the second-best hitter of all time, and that he might have been first had he not lost five years to military service during wartime, including the Korean War. Everybody also knows that the SEC didn't win a national championship until 1990. What's not so well known, though, is that the Korean War may have cost the SEC its first national championship in 1956.

Although we think of it as more of a phenomenon of the World War II years, player ranks were somewhat thinned during the Korean War years as well. In 1953, a fairly-average Mississippi team ended up shorthanded during the season, either due to losing players to the war effort during the season or due to the general shorthandedness of the day combined with injury problems. They applied to the SEC office for permission to use three of their freshmen players (freshmen at the time were not allowed to play intercollegiate ball) for the rest of the season on an emergency basis. The permission was granted, they finished the season 9-10, and nobody thought much about it.

Until 1956. College baseball was not really a national game then; it was played nation-wide, but inter-regional play only happened in Omaha, and communication between the NCAA and the conferences usually only took place when the postseason or serious matters of amateurism were involved. Ole Miss put together a really fine season that year, going 24-10, playing really well at the end of the year, and earning a trip to Omaha.

Then, in Omaha, they were told by NCAA officials that the three seniors who had played in 1953 for a few games as subs had used up their eligibility and would not be allowed to compete. They still managed to finish in a tie for third despite losing three of their best players; they could very well have been the first SEC national champion had that not happened.

(This is put together from newspaper accounts of the time by someone who wasn't born until ten years after it happened; I'd love to hear from anyone who has better knowledge of the events.)

Ties to the Real World

Finally, I'd like to point out another reason why reading old sports pages is a good habit to get into. Sports ties into the rest of the world in ways that we can't always imagine at the time. Reading today's sports page today, it's hard to see the connections to the rest of life. Reading about the 1963 pennant race, though, we're reminded that Ole Miss would most likely not have been allowed to participate in the postseason had they won the SEC, because the Mississippi legislature of the early '60's had adopted a policy of not allowing the state's all-white schools to participate in events which allowed segregated schools to play (go read about Mississippi State's 1963 basketball team some time). Just getting to the sports section in a spring 1963 Birmingham newspaper, of course, involves going through a couple of sections about the local civil rights-related violence.

The Korean War is an all-but-forgotten part of American life these days, but it was just as large as a human event can be, and being reminded of small athletic sacrifices can help to remind us of the large sacrifices that were made.

Sport can be enjoyed for itself, of course, both as escape and from the joy of participating and watching, but gaining a bit of perspective is seldom a bad thing. For that, and for a whole lot of fun, get to the library soon and find out what they've got stored up.

Boyd's World-> Breadcrumbs Back to Omaha-> In Praise of Microfilm About the author, Boyd Nation