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Biography: Chuck Korr


Chuck Korr
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I grew up in Philadelphia and Los Angeles and attended the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) for all three degrees. My Ph.D, in 1969, was in English history and the topic of my dissertation was the foreign policy of Oliver Cromwell. In 1966-67, I was a research student at the University of London’s Institute of Historical Research. During that year, I was lucky enough to be a student of S. T. Bindoff (the author of Tudor England) and Robert Latham ( the editor of the definitive edition of The Diary of Samuel Pepys). They not only trained me as a historian, they also allowed me to develop a deep appreciation for England and to have a very special feeling about London. Since 1970, I have been able to return to London almost once a year and I think of it as a second home. Something that I learned to appreciate during the first year was that football was more than a game to people .

I grew up as a sports fan – playing basketball and I’m still a Phillies baseball fan even though we left Philadelphia in 1953. I have been interested for decades in the connection between sports and American social life and politics. . My father had taken me to see the first game played in Philadelphia by Jackie Robinson, the man who broke the color barrier in major league baseball. In the turmoil of the 1960’s it was clear that a boxer, Muhammed Ali, played an important role and two sprinters, Tommie Smith and John Carlos had become the symbols of the efforts to end racism in this country.

In 1970, I became an assistant professor of history at the University of Missouri, an institution that was only seven years old at that time. My teaching responsibilities included advanced level and M. A. courses in Tudor-Stuart England and 17th century Europe. One of the many advantages of being in a new, and growing, department was the chance to develop new courses and get away from the traditional syllabus. In 1972, I organized a very successful conference dealing with the role that sports played in contemporary American society. Two things about it stand out in my mind – the range of serious non-sports issues that were discussed and that I got to be Jackie Robinson’s host for two days. It’s a great thrill to see that the heroes of one’s youth can be even better people that one imagines. Three years later, I started teaching a social history of sports course, one of the first taught in any department of history at an American university.

As a result of the conference, I tried to do some serious reading about sports (especially football) in English society and was very disappointed to see how little there was at that time. That’s when I decided to see if I could start research of my own on the subject. I was returning to England in the summer, 1973 and wrote the secretaries of all the London League clubs to ask if I could talk with them about a possible subject for my research. I got invitations to visit all but two clubs and I met with the secretaries of seven of them My original plan was to do a social history of football in London after 1945. When I realized that was too big a subject, I decided to focus on one club. Since I wanted a club that had a distinctive, recognizable community, I limited the final choice to West Ham United and Charlton.

It’s no exaggeration to say that my career and my life were changed by an afternoon I spent at Upton Park in July, 1973. I was with Eddie Chapman, the club secretary for a couple of hours. The club had a history that would make it a perfect study for me. Eddie was enthusiastic about the idea and convinced Reg Pratt, the chairman, to help me. I ended up with a historian’s treasure trove. I got free access to all of the club’s financial records and the minute books of meetings from 1895 to 1970. When I began the research in 1974, it was the start of a new career, an involvement for me with both the club and football, and the beginning of friendships that last to this day. I have to emphasize that I did not choose West Ham because I was a fan. The dynamic was just the opposite. I became a fan because I got involved with the club and the people around it. I worked at the club for months over three summers before I saw my first match there in 1976. Over the years, I got to know remarkable people like Eddie, John Lyall, Ron Greenwood, Frank O’Farrell, other former players and a number of long time supporters. I interviewed scores of former players, club officials, and journalists.

Over the years, the club has offered me hospitality and I get to a few matches each autumn. One thrill was to attend the 1980 Cup Final and to be able to buy a ticket for my friend and mentor, S. T. Bindoff. It was his second Cup Final, the first one being in 1923. At that match, I sat behind Jimmy Ruffell, the West Ham winger in 1923.

From the time I got involved with the research in football, I had a couple of things that marked me as unusual in the minds of Englishmen and women who learned of my work – I had no background in football and I had an accent that made clear I was “that Yank who wants to write about West Ham.” I’m sure those peculiarities brought me to the attention of other academics who did research in football and other aspects of British and European sports. When I decided to do all my academic research in the field of sport history, there were very few academics involved in it. Thirty years later, the field has a solid academic base, even though some of the academic snobbery towards “it’s only sports” remains.

My West Ham United book was published in 1986 and went through four editions. I had a wonderful publisher in Colin Haycroft at Duckworth, but he made one small mistake. They let the book go out of print in 1994, the year before the centenary of the club when it was boasting that it was the “club with a special history”. After the book, I continued to be involved with issues in football, but found a different research topic for my main research interest. In 2002, I published a history of the major League Baseball Players Association, the union that won freedom of contract and changed the economic and legal structure of all professional sports in America. The book was based on almost ten years of research. The union allowed me unfettered access to all of their documents (except individual player contracts) for the fifteen years during which they made all the changes in the sport.

In the midst of the baseball research, I wrote a newspaper article that made me feel as good as either of the books. It was about Peter Norman, the Australian sprinter who is the “third man” on the victory stand with Smith and Carlos in Mexico City, 1968. The article helped to bring attention to the courageous stand Norman took in supporting the two American sprinters and reminded people of the principles that were involved in what happened on that victory stand.

Since 1993, my career has taken an even more unexpected change. In that summer, I was a visiting professor at the University of Western Cape in Cape Town. It was an exciting time to be in South Africa, a chance to be there as the nation was emerging from apartheid and moving towards a free and democratic society. I had been involved a bit in the anti-apartheid sports movement and other protests and it was special to be there when change was happening. A colleague showed me a set of archival boxes that contained a collection of documents that seemed almost beyond imagination. They all concerned sports, much of it football. There were thousands of pages of correspondence, match reports, referees reports, minutes of committee meetings, and miscellany. What was amazing is that all of the documents had been written by political prisoners on Robben Island, the place to which the apartheid regime sentenced the most dangerous opponents, a prison famous for its brutality and its mission to destroy the will of men to resist. Even reading the first few of the documents convinced me that the men had created something very special for themselves on the Island and they had used organized sports as the vehicle to retain their dignity and build a community of their own.

It took me a few lengthy research trips to go through the documents and that set me up for the most exciting work I’ve ever done as a historian. I began a series of interviews with the former prisoners. For my other books, I had interviewed world famous footballers, Hall of Fame baseball players, celebrities in a number of fields, and numerous politicians. None of this compared with the feeling of sitting across the kitchen table from a man who had spent more than twenty years on the Island, talking with another who was in exile for fifteen years after being released from the Island, or walking into a room to be greeted by fourteen men who, between them had served more than two hundred forty years on the Island. The product of this research was a film, “More Than Just a Game” which premiered in South Africa in 2007 and will be released in the UK shortly and a book More Than Just a Game, published last year by Collins. It’s the most important subject that I’ve ever work on and I feel proud that the former prisoners have told me that it does justice to their story.

I retired from the University of Missouri – St. Louis in 2003. Retirement allows my wife, Anne, and I to do a lot of traveling and I have the perfect retirement “job”. The FIFA MA program is an advanced degree that combines sports history, business, and law. The student body is international (this year there are twenty eight students from twenty one countries) and each term is taught at a different university – in Leicester, Milan, and Neuchatel. Each autumn, I return to England to teach at De Montfort University and to live in London. What better way to spend “retirement” than lecturing to good students interested in the subject, to live in London to see friends and enjoy the theatre, and to spend days at Upton Park.

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