Dr. Ross: Historian of Sport

When did you become a fan of Dr. Brian Ross? When he was enlightening you on the Gadsden Purchase? Maybe when he was discussing Jack Johnson’s battles in and out the ring? Upper School history teacher Dr. Brian Ross has been teaching Collegiate students for over a decade about history and sports and how they are tied together. 

Ross is Boston born. He is a Celtics fan; he wrote a book on the Boston Braves. He’s pretty much our Matt Damon. He attended the University of Michigan, where he played rugby. He received a PhD in history, with a focus on philanthropy and charity in the Progressive Era, on which he is an expert.

He taught history and coached the basketball team at Good Hope Country Day School, an independent school in Saint Croix, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands, during the 1980s. He describes Good Hope as being “a lot like Collegiate,” though the island school was more diverse. He says the students at Good Hope would often speak in the Crucian dialect to annoy him and hold secret conversations. He became tired of this tactic and made it a sprint-worthy offense on the basketball team.

Talking to Ross, one realizes the connections he sees that give him his aptitude for history. We discussed the nature of Caribbean culture and economy. St. Croix, being an island, faced many of the same problems as the rest of the Caribbean during the 1980s. The island would appear developed in some areas and be in the process of modernizing in others. That is the nature of a community so close to the United States, yet without the economy to develop its infrastructure to its potential. Ross noted how the United States had also managed to transplant its own problems into the island, and violent crime became a problem for the island. It was hard to escape the violence in such a small area, and a fellow faculty member at Good Hope was shot during his time there.

Ross came to Collegiate in 2005. His first impression was that it was a friendly place. He has spent his time teaching history, and four years he ago created a history elective based on his passion of sports history. Race, Culture, and Sport is a semester-long elective available for tenth through twelfth graders.

His serious interest in sports history began in 1997, when he ran a history conference for the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in major league sports. Larry Doby, the first black player in the American League, was in attendance. Ross says the experience opened his eyes to “deeper sides than just the game.”

Ross’s 2014 book. Image credit: amazon.com.

His first book, Baseball’s Greatest Comeback: The Miracle Braves of 1914, was part of the inspiration for the Race, Culture, and Sport course. The book required years of research and reading. Ross scoured every New York Times and Boston Globe article from 1914 for information about the Braves. He traveled to archives across the Northeast. The book documents the Boston Braves’ worst-to-first “miracle” season and relates their journey to the Progressive Era in which it took place. 

Ross informed me that he is working on a another book on 1970s-era football that ties in with another of his electives about the culture of the 1970s. The book is about the culture of the time, including drug culture, and how football reflected that culture. The sport’s history ties in with the history of the era in much of the same way his first book connected the Boston Braves’ 1914 season to the Progressive Era. With the domination of the Steelers defense, the innovations of the Cowboys, and the antics of John Madden’s Raiders (in an era before the NFL’s personal conduct policy), I am sure it will be a page-turner.

Lastly, I had to ask our resident sports history expert a few opinion questions.

  • Best defense in NFL history: “1976 Steelers.”
  • Tyson vs. Dempsey: “Tyson, but Ali could have beaten them both.”
  • ’72 Knicks vs. ’67 Celtics: “I’m from Boston, so I default to the Celtics. Bill Russell was the greatest player of all time.”

This post has been updated. 

About the author

Michael Romer enjoys long walks and the beach, separately.