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Dave Ogden
Dave Ogden. photo by Tim Fitzgerald

Ticket to Cooperstown

by Kevin Warneke

January 2005

Dave Ogden couldn't hit a lick. His throwing arm was suspect, as was his fielding. He made the freshman baseball team at his high school in Illinois - but just barely. "They gave me an old uniform, let me practice and sat me on the bench," he recalled. "I didn't play an inning."

So ended Ogden's short baseball career. Not, however, his passion for the game.

These days, Ogden, assistant professor in UNO's School of Communication, is making a name for himself among baseball researchers. He's discovered that a 500 home-run career isn't the only way to get to Cooperstown.

Ogden has presented his research findings seven times at the Cooperstown Conference in Baseball and Culture, sponsored annually by the Baseball Hall of Fame and State University in New York at Oneonta. Each visit to baseball's hallowed grounds reinforces Ogden's decision to pursue a sport he couldn't play, but could certainly analyze.

Ogden's love for baseball developed as a youngster growing up in Lewistown, Ill. He describes his roots in baseball terms: Lewistown is 100 miles northeast of St. Louis; 150 miles south of Chicago.

"Call it a demilitarized zone. You were either a Cubs fan or a Cardinal fan. There was no in between."

His mother followed the Cubs; his father was a Cardinal fan. Ogden, naturally, developed a passion for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

"I liked Clemente," he says of Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente, who led the Pirates to victory in the 1960 and 1971 World Series.

Ogden then begins to recite Pirate lore, possibly as a way to justify the choices he has made or, more likely, because he simply can't help himself.

"Groat at short, Hoak at third. Mazeroski at second. Clemente, Virdon . . ." He would go on, if not stopped.

Move ahead 30 years, and Ogden was leading the University of Nebraska Medical Center public relations department, but yearning to teach.

He left the medical center in 1988 and returned to UNO, where he had received his undergraduate degree, to earn his master's degree in communication. As a graduate assistant, he taught public relations courses.

Midway through his program, he approached his instructors and mentors, Drs. Hugh Cowdin and Bob Carlson, with his plan to write his thesis about baseball and audience demographics. He expected to whiff on his proposal, but they agreed, and Ogden headed to Rosenblatt Stadium to get to know Omaha Royals fans.

"The 'aha' in my research findings was that women not only attend as many games as men, but they listen to games on the radio as often. The older these women were, the more often they attended and listened."

Degree in hand, Ogden headed to Wayne State College to teach in its Communication Arts Department and advise the campus radio station.

His department chair at Wayne State approached him one day with a brochure about a conference being held in Cooperstown-for baseball researchers and writers. Ogden thought he was kidding.

His proposal described how baseball broadcasters focus on the game, but have disdain for any discussion about the business aspect. The review committee accepted his proposal, and Ogden was headed to Cooperstown.

Ogden's adventure only gets better. He learned that attendees have free reign at the hall during the conference.

He saw his idol's World Series ring and his locker room chair, and the batting circle, taken from old Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. He tried to imagine Clemente waiting in the on-deck circle.

"That circle contained cleat marks of all the guys I followed. I couldn't move for 10 minutes."

Ogden is making a name for himself among baseball researchers and writers, said Bruce Markusen, former program manager for the Hall of Fame.

"Over the past several years as I have gotten to know David, I've noticed he's a very thorough researcher-someone who has enthusiasm for his interests in baseball."

Baseball writers and researchers are an interesting bunch, Ogden said. About a dozen are regulars at these conferences. Others come and go.

The hard-core researchers know the game, he said. While some focus on such mainstream topics as the business of baseball, the dead-ball era and the Negro Leagues, others have chosen more obscure approaches.

One researcher focuses on umpires. "He can tell you who umped what game, any game."

Another focuses on players who have died while in action. "One player died after he was bitten by a poisonous snake."

When this crew gets together during conferences, talk turns to the obscure. They'll name their all-fish teams-Steve Trout, Tim Salmon and Benji Gil. Or the all-meat teams-Bob Veal, Wally Berger and Rob Deer.

Ogden's research now focuses on the dwindling number of African-American youth who are playing baseball. He first noticed the problem while watching his son play in baseball tournaments as a youngster. Most teams field rosters made up entirely of Caucasian players.

The answer, he said, comes from the elimination of routines built around baseball.

He once read how Negro Leagues legend Buck O'Neill would reminisce about when the Kansas City Monarchs would play in Chicago. Churches with African-American congregations dismissed early so baseball fans could attend the games.

"Baseball no longer is the center of attention in these youngsters' lives," he said. "The routines no longer are about baseball. They may be about football or basketball, but they aren't about baseball."

His research also is examining what he labels as ineffective efforts by Major League Baseball to reverse this trend. Major League Baseball created a program, R.B.I (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities), that has proven to be ineffective—even if baseball won't admit it, he said.

"You have to get kids to start early," he said. "R.B.I focuses on youth who are much older. You're not going to begin playing baseball when you're in junior high school."

Other baseball research Ogden has conducted focuses on how:

• The media made a scapegoat out of Steve Bartman in Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series. Bartman was blamed for interfering with a Cubs player trying to catch a foul ball in the Wrigley Field stands. Ogden's research showed that the media already was looking for someone or something to blame for the Cubs' demise before the game even was played.

• Why baseball players chew spit tobacco when they know it can cause oral cancer. His preliminary findings indicate "scare tactics" used by anti-tobacco organizations are not effective. Ballplayers use spit tobacco, his research indicates, to help them relax, not because they believe it will help their performance.

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