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Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 6.2 (2003) 63-83
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Believing in Baseball
The Religious Power of Our National Pastime
Thomas F. Dailey, O.S.F.S.
BASEBALL HAS ALWAYS ENJOYED a special appeal in our land. Its legendary lore is played out with every season. Its cultural ideology remains on public display in scholarly studies and seminars, in literary creations and Hollywood productions, and in the historical icons that draw people again and again to the Baseball Hall of Fame in a quaint village in upstate New York.
In 2001, baseball demonstrated an even more profound connection to the American psyche. The season came to a temporary halt due to the tragic acts of terrorism inflicted on our country on September 11. When the games resumed, playing fields became places of civic pride, featuring patriotic ceremonies, prayerful silence before the first pitch, and heartfelt chants of "God Bless America" during the seventh-inning stretch. But the emotions displayed before and during games run much deeper than ceremonies and chants. Baseball makes us reach down to the very core of who we are as spiritual beings.
As Roger Angell noted in his reflections on the momentous events of that season's end, our national pastime can have mystifying power: [End Page 63]
Baseball as melodrama, with the winning or tying runs arriving in sudden reversal in the bottom of the ninth inning, is the way children or non-fans expect the games to go, but when it happened three times in this World Series, including the finale, it was the hardened fans and the players and coaches, and even the writers, who were dumbfounded, exchanging excited glances and shaking their heads after the latest stroke of the unlikely.1
Yet baseball's widespread appeal is not found simply in the drama that takes place on the field during particular games or even a specific series. The charm that baseball holds in our social consciousness is not accidental, in the quirks of fate that affect a ball club, nor circumstantial, in the heroic exploits of all-star caliber plays and players. Rather, baseball exhibits a fundamentally religious power, the force of which can restore the character of our American culture.
How does baseball manage to hold sway over our individual lives and our collective character? Exploring the link between baseball and American life first requires an understanding of what "culture" is. In an address to the United Nations, Pope John Paul II calmly but boldly claimed that all culture "is an effort to ponder the mystery of the world and, in particular, of the human person: it is a way of giving expression to the transcendent dimension of human life. The heart of every culture is its approach to the greatest mystery: the mystery of God."2 If that is the case, how does baseball approach God? Can a mere sport, even one as sublime as this, approximate the divine?
Many authors have already weighed in on these other-worldly questions, expressing a diversity of viewpoints on the connection between religion and sport.3 But, as Joseph Price concludes, the question of God remains virtually unanswered:
Although religions do not necessarily involve the worship of "God" or "gods," they do orient their followers toward an ultimate [End Page 64] force or pantheon of powers, whether personalized as "gods" or whether identified in abstracted ways. . . . One of the primary challenges for religious studies scholars who undertake theological analysis of sports is to identify within sports a source of ultimate powers for evoking and inspiring radical transformation among participants and spectators.4
This essay seeks to take up the challenge, at least in a preliminary way. First, we will peruse several connections between religion and baseball, as suggested by other scholars. Then we will consider a paradox that constitutes what may be the essence of the religious power of baseball. Finally, we will suggest some implications about how belief in the power of baseball impacts our American culture, particularly in light of the...