Jules Tygiel: Dead at 59 from cancer





Jules Tygiel, a history professor at San Francisco State University, passed away July 1 at age 59 from cancer.

Tygiel wrote two of the best baseball books I've ever read, along with numerous other works. He had a career that I only can dream I would have.

His greatest work was Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy. The book came out in 1983 and has been republished numerous times. It was one of the first academic works examining the career of Robinson as well as the integration of baseball overall. Tygiel was able to interview numerous Negro League players and get invaluable first hand information.

I recall reading this book on airplane sometime in the mid 1990s. And it was one of those books that once I started reading it, I just kept going. A 25th anniversary edition came out this year.

Because Tygiel had a Ph.D. after his name, he became a popular source for media interviews about Jackie Robinson. But he was able to discuss Jackie Robinson and baseball and make it all seem so accessible.

Tygiel also wrote Past Time: Baseball as History, which came out in 2000. That was a collection of essays about baseball history. The best one was about mercurial executive Larry McPhail. Tygiel seemed to expose McPhail's overt racism for all to see. However, he also recognized McPhail's positive contributions, such as bringing night baseball to the majors, as well rejuvenating the moribund Dodgers franchise.

After reading this, I wondered if McPhail deserved his plaque in Cooperstown. So I boldly looked up, Tygiel's email address and asked him. I got an answer right back. Tygiel thought McPhail did belong in Cooperstown. He acknowledged his failings in the area of integration, but he knew that his efforts to promote baseball were more than enough to merit enshrinement. I wish I still had the email around.

A couple years ago, I was giving a talk at the library about baseball literature and I was going to speak about his Robinson book. But I didn't know how to pronounce "Tygiel." So I sent him another email. And he graciously replied that it was "TIE-gehl." As he wrote "it's like the G in Gehrig."

Tygiel's best known book that is not about baseball was The Great Los Angeles Oil Swindle. It was about the Julian Petroleum Corporation, run by C.C. Julian, a man who may have been the opposite of Daniel Plainview. Julian was crooked, charmed people, and then took their money. (But they probably got to keep their milkshakes.) Tygiel told me that he optioned the film rights to the book for a few thousand bucks. It's a great story, but Hollywood's taste for films on oil men may have peaked after P.T. Anderson's film.

But do yourself a favor and read Past Time or Baseball's Great Experiment. You will learn a lot and you will still be entertained. Even with footnotes.

Update with some additional thoughts: As a native of the West Coast, I am often told that I live in a part of the country with no history. People think that somehow Southern California just sprung up fully grown. It likely doesn't help that California's state seal has Minerva on it. But Jules Tygiel, in addition to his work on baseball, showed with his work that California, both Northern and Southern, has a rich and fascinating history.

Here is a link to a lecture he gave to a high school class in Oakland. (Link via Baseball Earlybird)

Related Links

  • LAT Obit
  • NYT Obit
  • Author and historian Tygiel dies at 59 (MLB)


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