PART II: Baseball as a Cultural Religion

The discussion of religion above focused on three important elements: beliefs, practices, and institutions. Therefore, in order to make the argument that baseball represents a form of cultural religion in the United States, this paper will argue that baseball must include those three elements.

History

Americans have historically institutionalized sport and recreation as an embodiment of national values. Baseball is no exception. Consider the influence of religion on sports during the development of the nation.

The obvious influence on sports in American society is the Protestant ethic, which emphasizes rational labor, goal-directed behavior and competitive achievement. Before 1850 most Protestant groups condemned sports because they diverted attention and consumed energy that could have been spent in the exercise of faith. Simply, sports and leisure deflected attention away from possible service to god. But when society became dissatisfied with a Victorian culture focused on domesticity and threatened by physical decline in sedentary office jobs, American men in the late nineteenth century sought masculine company in fraternal lodges and engaged in exercise to invigorate their bodies. This form of this new manly culture, developed out of the Protestant churches, was known as muscular Christianity (Ladd & Mathiesen).

As this movement flourished, it gained national attention as well. Theodore Roosevelt pushed for the "strenuous life" as a means of imposing self-discipline and reasserting the culture and interests of Protestants in America and abroad. The YMCA movement, which began in the late 19th century, was part of a larger strain in American Protestantism, which promulgated a connection between physical health and salvation. They promoted organized sports and outdoor activities like camping to build bodies able to evangelize and effect social reform.

Clifford Putney explains, "Protestant acceptance of sport occurred in a number of stages. First, there was the split between liberal and conservative denominations. Liberal denominations such as the Congregationalists accepted sports much earlier than the Southern Methodists" (Putney). Still there was a deep division between participatory sports and spectator sports. The movement faded in the 1920s, but its basic organizations persisted. Religious institutions have used sports leagues and games to expand their evangelical outreach and to solicit acceptance by other groups.

In the 20th Century, spectator sports became more popular. Putney writes that "the YMCA, which was the first Protestant organization to push for sports in a major way, argued that since lots of people weren't working on the farm any more, they needed to exercise artificially". The YMCA said a lot in opposition to professional sports in the first quarter of the 20th-century" (Putney). And now, at the beginning of the 21st Century, Joseph Price explains, "there is abundant evidence of the convergence and confusion that have emerged between sports and religion in America" The blending has become enmeshed in everyday consciousness as the testimonies, rituals, and affiliations of players and fans have been portrayed in popular media, religious publications, and scholarly tomes" (Price, Sabbath 16).

Beliefs

Perhaps the most important element of religion is that of belief. Establishing an element of belief in sports, and baseball in particular, is among the most difficult of the linkages to establish.

"Sports are religious in the sense that they are organized institutions, disciplines, and liturgies; and also in the sense that they teach religious qualities of heart and soul," (Novak 21) writes Michael Novak. In the most literal of ways, words like sacred, devotion, faith, ritual, immortality, and love, which figure prominently in the structure of belief in religion, are also among those found in the language of the national pastime. Harry Edwards, a former Sociology professor at the University of California, once identified thirteen other areas where there is overlap as well. They include:

  • "Sports also has its "saints" -- those departed souls who in their lives exemplified and made manifest the prescription of the dogma of the sport;"

  • "Sport also has its ruling patriarchs, a prestigious group of coaches, managers, and sportsmen who exercise controlling influence over national sports organizations;"

  • "Sport has its "gods" -- star and superstar athletes who, though powerless to alter their own situations, wield great influence and charisma over the masses of fans;"

  • "Sport has it high councils, controlled or greatly influenced by patriarchs who make and interpret the rules of sports involvement;"

  • "Sport has its scribes -- the hundreds of sports reports, sports telecasters, and sports broadcasters whose primary duties are to record the ongoing history of sports and to disseminate its dogma;"

  • "Sport has its "symbols of faith" -- trophies; game balls, the bats, gloves, baseballs, and so forth that 'won' this or that game; the clothing, shoes, headgear or socks of immortal personages of sports;"

  • "Sport has its "seekers of the kingdom" its true believers, devotees, and converts" (Higgs 18)

Still, all of these -- the Commissioner of Major League Baseball and the individual owners of teams, the World Series MVP trophies and balls used in the pitching of a no-hitter, and even the athletes who are enshrined in the Hall of Fame or whose accomplishments are designated for eternal praise are all literal objects. For these elements to reach a religious level, the followers must believe in the importance of their existence. A commonly used example is a communion wafer, which is regarded as an ordinary piece of bread by a non-believer, but regarded as special and treated differently from ordinary bread by Christian worshippers.

What these similarities prove, according to Novak, is that "sports are organized and dramatized in a religious way." As he explains it, "...the origins of sports, like the origins of drama, lie in religious celebrations...[and] the rituals, vestments, and tremor of anticipation involved in sports events like those of religions" (Novak 19). In addition, he argues that sports "serve a religious function: they feed a deep human hunger, place humans in touch with certain dimly perceived features of human life within this cosmos, and provide an experience of at least a pagan sense of godliness" (Joy of Sports Page 19-20). Baseball is no exception. "Baseball claims the devotion, allegiance, indeed fanaticism of millions of persons and it serves as a center of meaning and hope for many players and fans who look to its order to provide a semblance of significance and order in their perhaps otherwise mundane, unfocused, or disorganized lives" (Novak 65). Seemingly, if an individual believes in the power of baseball, it can develop into a religious devotion.

Practices

The practices -- or rituals -- that make up the game are the second critical element to any understanding of baseball as a form of cultural religion. Religions are organized and structured -- the official ceremonies entail sacred vestments and defined rituals. Customs develop. Actions are highly formalized. Right ways and wrong ways are plainly marked out; acceptable behaviors are distinguished from unacceptable ones. As Novak writes, "the rituals of religion give these powers almost human shape, forms that give these powers visibility and tangible effect" (Novak 30). Baseball has all of the same elements.

The game of baseball is perhaps the most structured of all the professional sports. Everything from the core rules of baseball to the exact makeup of the baseball , are all clearly prescribed in the rules of the game. Uniforms for example are monitored by the league and conform to a single design, differing only in color so as to designate city as well as home and away team. Even the breaks become central components in the action -- the number of warm-up tosses allowed by a pitcher, the distance a player may move around home plate before being considered out of the batter's box, etc.

Columnist George Will argues that those under baseball's tutelage are especially blessed, as baseball's soothing repetition drills an especially valuable virtue. Will writes that, "the crucial baseball skills -- throwing a ball fast and with movement into a small space over a 17-inch wide plate; hitting such a ball with a round bat; catching a batted ball and knowing what to do with it -- require a combination of force and delicacy, strength and precision. To exercise these sills with the consistency demanded by a 162-game season requires a remarkable equilibrium of temperament, a combination of intense concentration and relaxation. To sustain this equilibrium, baseball has developed a set of unwritten and rarely even spoken norms, mores, habits and customs. They make up a silent, almost intuitive, code" (will 194). Susan Sarandon's character in the movie Bull Durham echoes this sentiment in her own way during the opening voice-over monologue in the movie:

"I believe in the church of baseball. I've tried all the major religions and most of the minor ones. I've worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic's rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I learned that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn't work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology. You see, there's no guilt in baseball. And it's never boring. . . . It's a long season and you gotta trust it. I've tried 'em all, I really have, and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the church of baseball."

In short, humans need organizing belief systems, rituals, and places to come together in large groups for purposes of finding safety, security, and meaning. Baseball and more traditional religions help fill that need.

Institutions

In addition to the rules and rituals of the game, the institutions that comprise the game of baseball help qualify the game as a form of cultural religion. In particular, the offices of Major League Baseball which govern the play of the game; the Hall of Fame and similar institutions that recognize that game's history; and the fans and followers that support the teams and the players, provide that element to the sport.

The body that governs major league baseball around the world, just like the highest authorities of a religious group, sets the rules, sanctions the playing of games, and awards the winners for their successes. The two different leagues, which equate to different denominations of a religion, recognize differently elements of the rules of play. For example, the National League allows for the pitcher to bat, while the other employs the use of the designated hitter, just as some denominations honor different deities and celebrate holidays at different times. Within each league are individual teams, which represent different congregations. Each has its own stadium or ballpark (house of worship), a unique color of uniform (vestment), and collection of supporters (devoted followers). While still adhering to the rules prescribed by the highest authorities, they do whatever it takes to represent their respective communities and win on their own.

Fans show their favorite players respect and support by elevating them to a higher level of recognition. Doris Kearns Goodwin, an historian and long time Brooklyn Dodger fan described her favorite players -- Jackie Robinson, Duke Snyder, Roy "Campy" Campanella and Gil Hodges as "a pantheon of gods" (Kearns Goodwin 132). And when their careers come to an end, players' achievements are recognized with records and remembered in baseball's shrines. The awards for most homeruns, the lowest Earned Run Average, and the most Cy-Young Awards make up the liturgy of the game. The thousands of trophy rooms and cases gracing practically every team's headquarters and, of course, the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, represents the game's most sacred of spaces.

What makes baseball most similar to religion, though, is the devotion shown by its fans, the game's 'congregation' if you will. Michael Novak explains that, "in sports cities around the nation, millions of lives are affected by whether in the days of their youth they were privileged to cheer for winners or, good-naturedly, groaningly, grew up with perennial losers" (Novak 151). This is a feeling shared by Doris Kearns Goodwin, who writes in her memoirs that, "a sense of camaraderie grew among Dodger fans that made the experience of going to Ebbets Field unforgettable" (Kearns Goodwin 49). Later, she explains she "felt part of the invisible community of Dodger fans, linked by shared emotions and experience to thousands of strangers who, for a few hours, were not strangers at all" (Kearns Goodwin 133). Though it is a fictional account, W.P. Kinsella's novel Shoeless Joe, offered a similar analogy. Ray, the story's protagonist remarked about the character of the baseball crowd and the virtues of the sport: "We're not just ordinary people, we're a congregation. Baseball is a ceremony, a ritual, as surely as sacrificing a goat beneath a full moon is a ritual. The only difference is that most of us realized that it is a game" (Kinsella 72).

For Kearns Goodwin and many others, baseball was not just a spectator sport; it was a crucial catalyst for important life lessons. As Kearns Goodwin explains, through baseball, she discovered the power of a well-told story and the virtue of losing gracefully. Baseball highlighted both the ugliness of racism and the beauty of camaraderie and sportsmanship. And on one unforgettable October afternoon in 1955, when the Dodgers finally captured a World Championship (after years of disappointment), baseball revealed to twelve-year-old Doris Kearns the simple, sweet thrill of a long-awaited victory. Those lessons, she claims, still influence her way of thinking. For Billy Crystal, a longtime baseball fan, "... Baseball fanatics often use the sport to supply the sacred family experiences [that] religion once provided. Instead of a bar mitzvah or confirmation, seeing Mickey Mantle bat or playing catch with Dad became the seminal experiences of life." (City Slickers)

Ballparks as American Sacred Space

"Players, managers, broadcasters, memories. All are essential to baseball... [and] so too are distinctive ballparks." These words by famed sportscaster Bob Costas in the foreword to Curt Smith's Storied Stadiums, makes it clear that the discussion about baseball as a form of religion is not complete without an investigation of the game's sacred spaces. Among the defining characteristics of religious organizations are the churches, synagogues, mosques, and similar gathering places, which serve as a place for worship and a sacred space. In baseball, stadiums and ballparks serve as "houses of worship spread across the land where millions of congregates come to bear witness to the manifestation of their faith" (Higgs 18).

A ballpark or stadium, as the field on which the game is played, is a site for repeated gatherings of spiritual significance, a place of worship; a cathedral of sorts. The cathedral metaphor for ballparks appears in Shoeless Joe as well. The story follows Ray Kinsella, who plows under a field of Iowa corn to build a baseball diamond. During a late-night visit to Metropolitan Stadium in Minneapolis, Ray queries his traveling companions, J.D. Salinger and Archie "Moonlight" Graham, "have either of you spent any time in an empty ballpark? There's something both eerie and holy about it... A ballpark at night is more like a church than a church" (Kinsella 135). Philip Lowry, agrees, writing in the introduction to his celebration of 273 ballparks in the Major Leagues and former Negro Leagues, entitled Green Cathedrals, that "the more I studied [ballparks and stadiums], the more they have begun to resemble mosques, or synagogues, or churches, or similar such places of reverent worship." (Lowry 1-2).

Ballparks and stadiums offer a connection to the spirit of the past for many fans. Bruce Weber notes in his column in a New York Times, "perhaps, more than any other kind of public structure -- more than a theater, where one production is divorced from the next, or a government chamber, where witnesses to events of import are few -- a ballpark is a conduit to history. It is a place, after all, where the past always shadows the present and where public events melt into our memories, tagging our lifelines with pay-attention-to-this-asterisks" (Weber). Peter Carino writes that ballparks promise "a spiritual solace that balances the urban and pastoral, links the present and past, and provides a place for a transcendent celebration of cultural identity in the temporary innocence of leisure" (Carino 2). In both regards, ballparks and stadiums become sacred sites where memories of the game's most heroic moments and the individuals who perpetrated them, take tangible shape. For fans, it is a place where they can find sanctuary for their spirits.

Of course, it is not unusual for ballparks and stadiums occasionally host traditional religious events. Joseph Price highlights "the use of the baseball diamond as a wedding chapel," when utility player Jimmy marries Millie at the pitcher's mound as "one of the vivid scenes in "Bull Durham" (Price, Sabbath 28). Equally compelling is the gathering for Orthodox Jewish fans at the Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore. Each game, after the fifth inning (except the ones on Sabbaths), "thirty men or more, some wearing baseball caps over their yarmulkes, sway back and forth and chant prayers in Hebrew," in a pantry "near Major League baseball's first kosher food stand, which offers bagels and cream cheese, potato knishes, and, of course, the kosher version of ballpark specials, hot dogs." (Price, Sabbath 26). The occasion, Price explains, is the afternoon prayer time known as mincha. And recently, Yankee Stadium in New York, became the congregating point for a memorial service called "A Prayer For America" at which thousands of family members and friends honored the firefighters, police officers, and ordinary citizens killed in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Conclusion

Clearly, sports, and baseball in particular, meet the criteria for cultural religion in America. But the question remains, can sports, and baseball in particular, substitute for "religious" ritual in the public realm?

A wide variety of columnists, academics, and fans have considered this question. "Frank Deford was among the first to identify the kind of religious power that sports exerts on modern Americans. Adapting the critique of Karl Marx, Deford suggested that, if Marx had lived at the end of the twentieth century in the United States rather than in Victorian England, he would have declared that sports is the opiate of the people, anesthetizing them to the struggles of the classes and focusing their hopes on events that project fulfillment through a vicarious form of participation and through an often delayed form of gratification" (Price, Sabbath 34). Cornish Rogers, an editor of the Christian Century remarked that "sports are rapidly becoming the dominant ritualistic expression of the reification of established religion in the United States." (Price, Sabbath 35). Finally, Harry Edwards stated, "if there is a universal popular religion in America, it is to be found within the institution of sport" (Price, Sabbath 35).

But, can the opinions of these media figures, as representative as they may be in their perspectives, constitute definitive proof that baseball can serve as a form of civil religion in America? Not necessarily. There must be another situation in which baseball becomes a cultural religion.

Joseph Price posits that "religion has lost effective control over vast areas of cultural life that were once conducted under its watchful eye" (Price, Sabbath 43). In other words, religion no longer has the monopoly on defining reality and guiding the formation of individual personalities. Rather, traditional culture has been broken up by far-reaching changes in modern thought and life. The secular division of society has redistributed the sources of human meaning and obligation among a variety of institutions and outlooks, some religious and some not. Religion has lost its control over sports, just as many argue it has lost its total control over the sciences and arts, over politics and economics, over health care and social welfare. If you accept this argument, then you subscribe to the belief that "a religion that loses its ability to transcend the given conditions of social and personal existence remains a religion in name only," (Price, Sabbath 43) as Price argues. And if that is the case, then the realm which religion once dominated is open to be considered by other elements of the society, namely baseball.

But how can baseball satisfy the role that religious traditions once did? Thomas Boswell writes that "baseball constitutes a small, but fundamental, province of the American mind, a backwater of our spirit to which we hide when we want a sense of traditional appetites. In our daily cacophony, the national "pastime" is one of those notes we periodically strike in hopes of hearing a hint of middle C" (Boswell, Life 3). He continues, "the game is so appealing because it is so profoundly normal and open and welcoming to us. Baseball is to our everyday experience what poetry often is to common speech -- a slightly elevated and concentrated form" (Boswell, Life 6). For Thomas Boswell, and millions of fans like him, baseball serves as a religious experience because it represents the everyday comfort, guidance, and even entertainment that religion has traditionally provided.

In order to truly accept religion, one must believe that certain things are true, even when they cannot be explained through rationalization or scientific study. For one to believe that baseball is a civil religion, the same criterion applies. Baseball reminds us that there is an element of ritual in all games, and that a ritual is in itself a kind of game, played by a team within a sacred space, with special garb and implements. The outcome of a ritual, however, is not reflected on a scoreboard in hits and runs. The ritual game has a value that is more abstract. Fans are so consumed by the game they devote their lives to their favorite teams, as parishioners do to their congregations. They read the daily sports pages in newspapers, devouring reports and features about their favorites team and players as the devoted read and re-read their holy scripture each day looking for guidance. They learn to speak the language of baseball, to dissect box scores of games, and to re-create narratives of at bats, innings, and series', just as the faithful tell of their religion's triumphs while evangelizing to the masses.

In 21st Century America, baseball indeed fulfills the definition of religion as a system of beliefs and practices by which a group of people struggles with the ultimate problems of human life. "Religion does not have clear-cut physical properties, nor are its characters readily ascertained and agreed upon" (McGuire 6). But the game of baseball does, and it serves as a public reflection of, and a catalyst for, the evolution of American culture and society. People look to baseball for entertainment, a sense of community, a sense of structure, and to live out their dreams. They look to baseball to satisfy the role that traditional religion has played in their lives.

Play Ball!

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