Johnny Smith knows that when he writes books about sports history or delivers lectures on the subject, he is actually informing his audience about American culture. They are one and the same.
“I often tell my students that sports is that common thread in the fabric of America,” said Smith, who completed a Ph.D. in history at Purdue in 2011 and was honored as a College of Liberal Arts Emerging Voice Award winner on Sept. 7. “It ties people together. Whether you play little league soccer growing up, or T-ball, or you grew up just to be a fan, or you attend a university where they have big-time sports, it touches your life – sometimes in ways that are maybe unrecognizable to you as a consumer and as a fan. But it’s all around us, and it shapes our culture.”
That is why history in general, and sports history in particular, can be such fertile subject matter. On the surface, biographers like Smith and Randy Roberts write books about sports figures like Purdue alumnus John Wooden, Mickey Mantle, or their forthcoming collaboration on Babe Ruth, that explain the life stories of remarkable sports figures. Buried within the vignettes, however, are insights on how American society operates – both then and now.
“Sports I think as a topic, it attracts people, and they’re inherently interested in what you have to say, which makes my job easier when I teach my sports history class,” said Smith, the Julius C. “Bud” Shaw Professor of Sports, Society, and Technology and assistant professor of history at Georgia Tech. “And it makes it fun. Of course in that class, I’m really using sports to teach history, to teach the history of American culture, religion, race, gender, immigration, globalization. All of those things are part of what we’re doing in that class.”
The book on baseball legend Ruth and the city of Boston during the 1918 season will mark the third time Smith has co-written a book with his Purdue mentor, Roberts. The previous two are the well-received biographies A Season in the Sun: The Rise of Mickey Mantle (Basic Books, 2018) and Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X (Basic Books, 2016).
Smith also published The Sons of Westwood: John Wooden, UCLA, and the Dynasty That Changed College Basketball (University of Illinois Press, 2013) and is early in the process of developing a book on the NBA once he and Roberts complete the Ruth project.
The 37-year-old views his ever-expanding publications list as part of the responsibility of carrying a named professorship – a rare honor for an assistant professor.
“I try to hold myself to a high standard,” Smith said. “I try to do that in the classroom. I try to maintain an active publishing record. But it’s pretty remarkable. I never would have imagined when I was at Purdue wrapping up my Ph.D. that, one, I would be at such a good school so early in my career, and two, to hold a professorship. That was beyond my wildest imagination.”
Smith rattled off a list of Purdue history faculty members who supported and challenged him as a doctoral student – a group that includes Nancy Gabin, Jim Farr and Darren Dochuk – but the first name on the list belongs to Roberts. The 150th Anniversary Professor and Distinguished Professor of History’s presence was a key part of what attracted Smith to Purdue in the first place, and his apprenticeship under one of the nation’s leading sports historians paved the way for his own career in the field.
“When I came to Purdue in making that choice, wanting to work with Randy, a lot of it was I wanted to learn to write the way that he did,” Smith said. “I wanted to learn how to examine the history of American sports the way that he did. No one else was writing and asking questions the way that he was, and I wanted to learn how to do that.
“So Purdue has transformed my life because I don’t know how my career would have gone without coming to Purdue, without getting a Ph.D. in the history department, without having Randy as my mentor. My career would probably look very different.”
That is almost certainly the case. Smith relayed a story of how he applied to five or six Ph.D. programs as a graduate student at Western Michigan, with Purdue representing his first choice. As it turned out, Purdue was the only program that accepted him.
His recent trip to West Lafayette to accept the Emerging Voice Award marked the first time in years that Smith had visited the Purdue campus, prompting him to reflect upon the fortuitous circumstances that led him to the prominent place he currently occupies in his profession. His Purdue experience was clearly a driving factor in that ascension.
“As time passes I gain more appreciation for what Purdue means to me. I’m really appreciative of everything that I gained from being here,” Smith said. “I think my story is an example of how it just takes one person, one college, one company, to say yes to you. I remember when I got the acceptance letter from Purdue, I was so thrilled. I never felt so proud. I’m not sure what I would have done if I didn’t get into Purdue. Would I have tried again? Would I be where I am now? It really means everything that I came to Purdue.”