Monday, October 12, 2009

Baseball trilogy (3rd of 3): religion — “God invented baseball”

[UPDATE — March 12, 2013: In keeping with this post’s themes, the stimulating new book by John Sexton, Thomas Oliphant, and Peter J. Schwartz, Baseball as a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game (2013) upholds that “Baseball evokes in the life of its faithful features we associate with the spiritual life: faith and doubt, conversion, blessings and curses, miracles, and so on. For some, baseball really is a road to God.”]

[UPDATE — July 24, 2010:  For a marvelous and marveling read, see David B. Hart, “A Perfect Game: The Metaphysical Meaning of Baseball,” First Things, Aug/Sept 2010.  It considers baseball a game of “immense spiritual horizons” and “oddly desolate beauty” whose “philosophical grammar truly is Platonist” and whose “possibilities of religious interpretation are numberless.”]

[UPDATE — June 1, 2010:  See the compilation of quotations in the article, "Baseball is religion without the mischief," National Catholic Reporter, Sept. 18, 1998.  Also see the book by Gary Graf, And God Said "Play Ball!": Amusing and Thought-Provoking Parallels Between the Bible and Baseball (2006).]

[UPDATE — March 6, 2010: Uh-oh, there's an interesting article in Christianity Today by Mark Galli supposing that "God created football." Fortunately, I see nothing in it to surpass the idea that "God created baseball."]

Suddenly it’s October, the playoffs are underway, and my favorite teams are still in the fray. Now seems like a good moment to complete my trilogy of blog posts on baseball. The first was about tribalism, the second about strategy. Here is the third, on the most sensitive matter of all: religion.

* * *

A few years ago, as I was turning into a baseball fan, a friend informed me that “God invented baseball.” Aha! I had already sensed that baseball was not just another mundane sport. But I hadn’t dared to look that deeply into its soul.

For a while I thought my friend was the source of this revelation. But no, it traces back to Michael Olesker, writing in the Baltimore Sun in 1983: “There are days when you know that God invented baseball to give us all a sense of eternity . . .” And the insight has been handed down ever since, but without much clarification.

So, I’ve been wondering, what are the ways in which the nature of baseball may reflect the nature of God? Here’s what I’ve discerned so far:

First and foremost, baseball does indeed symbolize eternity — in both time and space. Theoretically, a game could go on forever; it is not ruled by a clock. The outfield extends forever as well. Sure, there’s usually a fence or a wall out there, but its location is man-made. A soaring ball is never out of bounds; it points to the heavens.

Moreover, baseball stadiums constitute houses of worship — cathedrals of sport. Their fields are not the simple rectangles or ovals of other sports, but inspirational diamonds. They have a center of worship: the pitcher’s mound. They have a central axis, almost like a nave: the path the ball travels from the pitcher’s mound to home plate. Beyond that, they have inner and outer zones, and invite the congregation to peer out into eternity. In baseball, a stadium’s majesty stems from its asymmetry and open-endedness. Other sports have stadiums and arenas that are numbingly symmetrical and enclosing.

There is even a “miracle” built into the layout, as someone stated in the Ken Burns series on baseball. It’s the 90-foot distance from home plate to first base. A couple more feet in either direction, and the game would be very different, far less balanced between offense and defense. And like a true miracle, it has stood the test of time, having everlasting value despite the game’s physical and technological advances.

Then, notice that once a game begins, the players must go one by one. They are virtually born (at home plate), and if all goes well, each gets to visit a holy trinity (first, second, and third base), be saved (by being called “safe”), and finally be reborn (by returning to home plate). Along the way, they must stay on the paths of righteousness (the base paths), lest they stray outside and violate the law.

Thus, baseball is a spiritual as well as physical endeavor, for individuals as well as teams. But while the battle often goes to the stronger, the outcome is never certain. Sometimes, something so impossible occurs — like fumbling an easy catch — that it seems an “act of God” has entered into a game.

Isn’t that all quite theological? In God's image? Showing the Way? Even many of the Ten Commandments seem to be in effect:
  • Consider the ones about having no other god, worshipping no false idols. In baseball, only the game itself is worshipped. If a player indulges in a hubristic display of narcissistic egoism, as so often seen in man-made sports, he is cast off the field, perhaps out of the garden. Some plays are even meant as sacrifices for the team, setting aside the self for the sake of a higher good.
  • Recall the Commandment to observe the Sabbath as a day of rest? Well, baseball features a seventh-inning stretch, when people may reverently sing “God bless America.” A pretty clear parallel.
  • Honor thy father and thy mother? Baseball is renowned among sports for being handed down through the generations — especially for sons recalling their fathers taking them to ballgames.
  • Thou shalt not murder? Baseball’s culture is averse to winners running up disrespectful “killer scores” — they’re immoral in baseball.
  • Thou shalt not steal? Okay, base stealing does occur, to great delight and dismay. But it occurs openly, in plain view, subject to the rules, and does not involve bearing false witness.
To enforce all this, there is a god-like agent on the field: the umpire. But while all must respect and obey him, no one worships him; he is no false idol. And paradoxically, his judgment may be the greatest source of human error on the field — like when he gets a call wrong. Is this not evidence that God works in mysterious ways?

Finally, notice that baseball’s origins remain shrouded in mystery. No longer is it believed that baseball was invented by Abner Doubleday, as a spin-off from English cricket or rounders. Recent evidence points in other directions. But it all remains so obscure and indeterminate that surely a Higher Power is involved? How else to explain that a sport so simple yet profound has come to grace our American land?

For all these reasons, I choose to accept that God invented baseball and bequeathed it to us. And in doing so, I must hope that I have not taken God’s name in vain. Too many people from too many religions are already doing that these days over other matters. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all just studied baseball instead?

* * * * *

Recommended reading: Bradd Shore, Culture in Mind: Cognition, Culture, and the Problem of Meaning (Oxford University Press, 1996) — esp. Ch. 3, titled “Mind Games: Cognitive Baseball,” and Ch. 4, titled “Playing with Rules: Sport at the Borderlands of Time and Space” — for its discussion of space, time, and action orientations in connection with baseball, in one of the few instances where an anthropologist speaks to all three of my “STA” interests.

Acknowledgements: Delightful appreciation to the following for helpful comments on an earlier draft: Bob Bridges, Matt Ronfeldt, and Brian Wilcox. I’m especially grateful to Brian for telling me about the saying in the first place.

Notice: I’m likely to continue editing this piece after it is posted here. I’ll indicate where, if I enter any major changes or updates.

1 comment:

Beth said...

Well, David, I'd say you're onto something big.