Baseball as a Road to God – Review

John Sexton. Baseball as a Road to God. New York: Gotham, 2013. Print.

Trust me, I am not spoiling Baseball as a Road to God for any reader if I tell you that at the end of this book the author, president of New York University, admits that baseball is not the or even a road to God. However, he does say that following baseball “can awaken us to a dimension of life often missing in our contemporary world of hard facts and hard science.” (220) And that is the point of the book.

There are two words that the author uses to present the main thesis: ineffable and hierophany. Things that are ineffable are experienced but cannot be explained. There are moments in baseball like that, he says. They are mysterious cause-effect relationships. There are times when the fan knows why certain things are gong to happen.

The author grew up a Brooklyn Dodgers fan and tells and retells the experience of 1955 when the Dodgers finally won it all. He knew the Dodgers were going to win game 7 in the third inning when it looked like the Yankees were going to score on a hit down the third base line. But the Yankee baserunner slid into the ball and was called out. The tide turned. “The ineffable,” he writes, “is experienced, not defined.” So it is many times with religious experience.

By 2004 the author had become a Yankees fan—he explains his conversion in some detail (I could not help thinking of Darth Vader). As president of NYU, he gets invited to sit in the VIP section for many Yankees games. So he was sitting with New York and Yankee bigwigs in Fenway Park in game four of the American League Championships Series. It was the eighth inning, the Yankees were winning and appeared to have both the game and the championship in the bag. Several of the people in the Yankee VIP seats, including some of the team’s executives, got up to leave. Sexton told one of them, “If you go, you will reverse the curse.” (12) The author knew that was a sign.

Most of us who have followed baseball can relate to experiences like that. Baseball as a Road to God waxes nostalgic about some of the old baseball parks like Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds, Shibe Park, and Forbes Field. At gritty, steel-supported Forbes Field I had a similar experience. It was game 7 of the 1960 World Series. The game went back and forth, but in the eighth inning the Yankees had pulled ahead 7-4. In the home half of the inning, Pirate Bill Virdon hit a ground ball to Yankee shortstop Tony Kubek. It looked like a routine double play with Gino Cimoli on first, but Kubek misplayed the bounce on the hard clay infield and both runners were safe.

From that point on, I knew, as perhaps only a kid can, that Pittsburgh was going to win. I did not know how they would do it, but I knew that the Yankees could not handle Forbes Field. (Pirate broadcaster Bob Prince called the big bounces balls would take on the Forbes Field infield “macadam hops.”)

Some ineffable moments might not be specifically game related. Lou Gehring’s farewell speech or Cal Ripken’s high-fiving trot around the park when he broke Gerhring’s consecutive game record united fans of all teams in a special way. You cannot explain it really but they were or would have been great to experience. Sexton notes that in the film The Pride of the Yankees, which includes Gehring’s farewell speech, does not accurately record the content of the speech, but it is effective drama.

Then there is the term hierophany, which the author defines as a revelation of the sacred. This often is similar to experiences in baseball. People who have little in common recall a great moment or player or team or something, and they realize they are sharing something special. Sometimes underdogs win. We share experiences with the next or previous generation, whether it is going to a game or merely playing catch. I remember seeing the 2005 film Fever Pitch when a group of Red Sox fans are talking to a season ticket holder. One of them asks him if he attended the 1999 All-Star Game and saw Ted Williams come out on his scooter for a last public appearance. When he starts describing it, the other look at him in awe. I was getting misty in the theater.

The book’s approach is that being a fan of baseball is not unlike being a religious believer. If you are either one, you subscribe to a set of beliefs, you engage in rituals, you have your doubts, you have your sacred spaces, you develop traditions. In that sense, the book is very effective in presenting baseball and its appeal. Some of his accounts of baseball are simply lovely.

Sexton fondly recalls Major League Baseball Commissioner Bart Giamatti, who had also served as a university president. (I think it was some school in Connecticut…) He calls Giamatti’s tenure “…the one time we had a commissioner who loved the game more than the business, who emphasized stewardship rather than ownership.” (213) Say no more. Even fans who were not alive when Giamatti was commissioner can understand what is not being said about today’s management.

What the author says about religion is much less profound except when he quotes others. His “God” appears to be what the former syndicated columnist (now blogger) Nicholas Von Hoffman called the “Mush God.” Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Transcendentalism, Hinduism, Native American peyote rites—it’s all pretty much the same.

He sounds surprised when a saintly Catholic writes about her doubts. Has he never heard the term dark night of the soul? Or read the poetry of John Donne or St. John of the Cross? I was puzzled when he called Norman Vincent Peale a “conservative Christian.” Then I realized he meant politically conservative, not theologically conservative. Actually, the quotation connected with Peale is cute. Peale endorsed Adlai Stevenson over Dwight Eisenhower in an election, basing his decision on something that St. Paul wrote. When asked about this, Stevenson said, “I find Paul appealing and Peale appalling.” (90)

Sexton also takes the romantic or postmodern position that faith is based on emotion: “A leap of faith, after all, is an embrace of feeling over logic.” (37) That is not exactly how Kierkegaard, who coined the term “leap of faith,” meant it. Nor is that how St. Paul defines faith in the tenth chapter of Romans. Later on the book acknowledges that some conversions or “leaps of faith” are “not entirely emotional.” (19) But at best the book comes across “mushily” on faith. Alas, this is typical of the manner in which many people today dismiss religious experience entirely.

Still, there are some good quotations. One I appreciate on C. S. Lewis:

“I did not go to religion to make me happy,” he said. “I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I do not recommend Christianity.” Fans of the Brooklyn Dodgers and Boston Red Sox would murmur amen. (93)

As this quotation shows, the book is really about baseball. Even when Sexton is discussing religion, he has baseball in mind. And when it sticks to that subject it is a work of beauty and grace.

Not everyone will agree with him on baseball, either. One of the book’s appendices contains two lists of baseball records. Sexton makes it clear in the text of the book that he is not vouching either for the accuracy of the records or the observations about the records.

The book also mentions a number of literary works about baseball which deal with universal truths. As would be expected, that includes some things by John Updike, Chaim Potok, and W. P. Kinsella. Most of the religious works listed reflect his theological bias.

The book did surprise this reviewer in one instance. Perhaps it shows how much some things do not matter. When I was young, I owned a couple of baseball cards of Harry “Suitcase” Simpson. I remember when he was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates. I even saw him in person at some Pirates games. Baseball as a Road to God said he was an African American who played in the Negro Leagues. I never realized he was black! I had to look it up in The Baseball Almanac. Yes, he played two seasons with the Philadelphia Stars. Who knew? At least to a boy following baseball in the late fifties and sixties, race in baseball had already become a non-issue.

When writing about hope, Sexton succinctly sums up what others have said about the 1967 Red Sox:

…it only took one season of hope (after the deep doubts built over fifteen years of failure) to change the atmosphere around Fenway Park utterly. (54)

How true that was!

My family moved from Pittsburgh to the Boston area less than two years after that 1960 World Series. I liked baseball. In Pittsburgh the kids in my neighborhood played it every day all summer except when it was raining. The kids where I lived in Massachusetts, did not play it nearly as often, but many were still baseball fans. I went to Red Sox games. I listened to their games on the radio and saw a few on TV. I became familiar with most of the Red Sox players. But my heart was still in Pittsburgh. Sometimes at night I could pull in KDKA on the radio and listen to a few innings of Pirates games.

I rooted for the National League teams in the All Star Games and World Series. Roberto Clemente was my hero, even though nobody in Boston knew much about him. But in 1967, the Red Sox were exciting. Without really being conscious of it, I became a Red Sox fan. Even today I tell people that the Pirates are my National League team and the Red Sox are my American League team.

As I write this, it is the All Star break in 2013. The Pirates and Red Sox have two of the three best records in all of baseball. There are still a lot games left, and both teams do have some recent experience with late-season swoons, but if they were to meet in the World Series, I am not sure what I would do. I think I would just be happy to see them both there.

It would be heavenly.

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