Sports History Icon Publishes Memoir, Closes Chapter at Manhattan College

History professor George Kirsch publishes his book "Six Guys From Hackensack: Coming of Age in the Real New Jersey" and prepares to retire after 40 years teaching at Manhattan.

George KirschRenowned writer and history professor George B. Kirsch, Ph.D., has dedicated four decades of his life to teaching American, European and sports history at Manhattan College, including serving as department chair for 17 years.

Now, for the first time, he’s returning to his roots by writing about and teaching his own history, starting at the beginning.

Kirsch recently published Six Guys From Hackensack: Coming of Age in the Real New Jersey, a personal memoir about friendship and growing up in post-World War II America, set against the changing social climate of Hackensack, N.J.

Written in a very different style than his other works (Golf in America, 2009; Baseball in Blue and Gray: The National Pastime During the Civil War, 2003; Encyclopedia of Ethnicity and Sports in the United States, 2000; Baseball and Cricket: The Creation of American Team Sports, 1989), Six Guys From Hackensack began as a therapeutic exercise when Kirsch’s wife was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) — Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

“I thought writing about my life would give it some perspective. It’s not about who wins the World Series,” says Kirsch, a Boston Red Sox fan with a soft spot for underdog stories. “But it’s about who’s in love, who’s sick, who dies. If you capture life like you remember it as kids, then it matters.”

Born in the Northeast Bronx in 1945, Kirsch moved to Hackensack as a child and met the five friends whom the plotline follows through school, Little League, dating and life at college.

These memories and anecdotes are analyzed in the stirring social context of Hackensack in the 1950s and 60s — when shopping malls threatened Main Street businesses such as Kirsch’s father’s dress shop, when schools were on the cusp of integration, and when the country entered the Vietnam War.

Kirsch says the experiences he had growing up in a suburban Jewish household surrounded by Hackensack’s diverse African-American, Italian and Polish neighborhoods have shaped his views on inclusion and ethics — ideals he also encountered at Manhattan College.

George uses sports as a way to understand the American dream. His approach to teaching is to let the history speak for itself. His inspiration is his trust in the judgment of his students, to allow them to make sense of things in their own way and time.

“The Lasallian tradition for me meant exploring ethical and moral issues in history,” Kirsch says, noting that he’s valued the support of the Brothers throughout his career, especially their respect for academic and religious freedom.

After graduating from Cornell, Kirsch chose graduate school at Columbia over Harvard Law School. In 1972, he accepted a position at Manhattan College, having just finished his dissertation — a biography of Jeremy Belknap, a Revolutionary War patriot preacher.

In the 1980s, he began teaching one of his favorite pastimes and passions: sports history, which at the time, held a dubious reputation in academia. But Kirsch took the opportunity to launch the department to the front of the sports history movement.

“George uses sports as a way to understand the American dream,” says Jeff Horn, Ph.D., professor and current chair of the history department. “His approach to teaching is to let the history speak for itself. His inspiration is his trust in the judgment of his students, to allow them to make sense of things in their own way and time.”

Connecting sports with history has proven to be a successful model for Kirsch, who has published numerous books in the field, including his most popular Baseball in Blue and Gray: The National Pastime During the Civil War (2003), which sold nearly 10,000 copies. He has also contributed to the “Disunion” blog, a Civil War-themed section of The New York Times’ Opinionator column. 

Early in his career at Manhattan, Kirsch founded the American studies program. After become chair of the History department in 1984, he oversaw the Robert Christen Program in Early American History and Culture and supervised the hiring of new full-time faculty members. He also took an active interest in Jasper sports, and was instrumental in lobbying for the women’s basketball team to receive varsity status in 1978.

“Given the enormous demands of teaching and serving as chair for 17 years, George has raised a family, he has written many books, he is a model of how younger scholars in every field can carve out the time to continue to have an intellectual life,” Horn says. “And he’s done it with such an understated grace and a genuine generosity of spirit.”

Three years ago, Kirsch set up the George B. and Susan Kirsch Scholarship, which honors his wife, who passed away in 2008, and is awarded to the most outstanding history major enrolled in the school of arts’ junior class.

Kirsch plans on teaching at the College for another year, before starting a new life chapter — focusing on a few writing projects and catching up with the five guys from Hackensack.

“But I am most proud of my teaching,” Kirsch concludes, admitting he will miss the classroom. “The preparation, fairness, and consistent commitment to being a good teacher.”

Listen to audio excerpts from an interview with George Kirsch that ran on WFDU-FM.