By Ashly McGlone
On Monday nights at San Francisco State University, a group of 45 students faithfully gather 'round to hear baseball tales of old.
In February, they discussed the "Black Sox" scandal of 1919. In April, they heard about the New York Giants' 1958 move to San Francisco.
This is a sports-loving group, who also get university credit for gleaning knowledge of baseball history each week.
The students are enrolled in a baseball history course, offered for the first time in five years this semester by professor Mark Sigmon of San Leandro.
First offered in 1988 by acclaimed baseball expert and author Jules Tygiel and English professor Eric Solomon, the class enjoyed a popular 20-year run at the school, university officials said. But after Tygiel died in 2008, ï»¿after a 2ï»¿1/2 year battle with a pancreatic endocrine tumor, the class stopped.
Now Sigmon, equipped with much of Tygiel's reading list and his own lectures and love of the sport, shares baseball lore with his enthusiastic students every Monday from 4 to 7 p.m., many of them donning sports attire and Giants garb.
"It's sort of like I'm a baseball fan and they're a baseball fan, and all the sudden you are an expert and you are teaching a baseball history class," Sigmon said. "They know a lot about baseball, especially about the Giants. ... It's not like you are explaining what a base hit it or an error is."
But even the most well-versed fans are learning from Sigmon, said self-described baseball aficionado Arman Israelyan Jr., 21.
"I'm learning a lot (about) how history affected baseball and how baseball affected history," said the kinesiology major, who uncharacteristically opts to sit in the front row. "It's a lot easier to concentrate. ... We are reading books that are interesting."
On the list is Tygiel's book, "Past Time: Baseball as History," and "Southpaw," by Mark Harris.
The elective class filled up less than a week after registration opened in December, faster than Sigmon's courses in California and U.S. history, Sigmon said.
"I was kind of surprised because they don't have to take this class," said the full-time professor, who happens to be an Oakland Athletics fan.
In a recent class, Sigmon shared story after story of black baseball players who encountered racism in the minor and major leagues, before and after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947.
"It's hard enough to stand up there and hit a 90 mph fastball, or maybe a curveball, but to do it while other players are calling you names that nobody else would be called and not being able to fight back was remarkable," Sigmon said of Robinson's beginning years in the major leagues. "It is good, I think, to point out where baseball has failed and where racism still existed."
While in the minors in 1956, outfielder Leon "Daddy Wags" Wagner was threatened by a man under the stands armed with a shotgun who shouted, "I am going to fill you with shot if you catch one ball out here."
Renowned St. Louis Cardinal center fielder Curt Flood endured "black bastard" chants in the minors leagues, and Giants center fielder Willie Mays nearly lost his bid to buy a new home in 1957 on Miraloma Drive in San Francisco after neighbors voiced fears property values would plummet with his purchase, Sigmon told students.
The players' stories bring the realities of racism to life, said student Jeff Linhares, 22.
"Baseball kind of shows it in a real way, in more ways than just the South, where people focus on," Linhares said, adding players' quotes shared by Sigmon give "insight into people's personalities from the past."
Sigmon earned his doctorate in history from UC Berkeley in 1995 and began teaching the same year at San Francisco State.
Raised most of his life in Alameda, Sigmon said his passion for the game was solidified in the late 1960s when Boston Red Sox player Carl Yastrzemski responded to a letter he wrote him. At the time, Sigmon was living with his family in Norway where his father, who was in the Navy, was stationed.
It was probably a standard response, said Sigmon, who played Little League at the time, but, "It was enough for me to make me a big Red Sox fan."
Back in the East Bay, years later, he became an A's fan during Rickey Henderson's rookie season and bought a house in San Leandro after earning his bachelor's degree from Berkeley. Sigmon said he will continue teaching the class as long as it's popular. "As long as the A's and the Giants are still winning, I think it will be popular."
Ashly McGlone covers San Leandro, San Lorenzo and the Washington Township Health Care District. Contact her at 510-293-2463. Follow her at Twitter.com/ashlyreports.