John Sexton, Baseball as a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game (New York: Gotham Books, 2013), 242 pages including photos, index and bibliography.
Sexton, the president of New York University, has written a wonderful book that shares his enthusiasm for baseball while weaving in thoughts drawn from his academic background as a philosopher and student of religion. The book’s chapters are divided into innings, each exploring a particular aspect of faith: “sacred space and time, faith, doubt, conversion, miracles, blessings and curses, saints and sinners, community, and nostalgia (and the myth of the eternal return).” He also throws in three extra chapters focusing on baseball: “the Knot-hole Gang (Brooklyn Dodger’s pregame show), “the seventh inning stretch” and “the clubhouse.” He highlights the parallels between the game and faith, and notes how the small details of a baseball game encourages us to slow down and enjoy life and to find meaning and beauty in small things.
Sexton is a member of the Roman Catholic Church and while he generally writes from a Christian perspective, he also draws on religious teachers from a variety of faiths: Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim. This is not a book about orthodox Christianity, although when he writes about the Christian faith, his theology is orthodox. Having grown up in Brooklyn in the 1950s, he was a Dodger fan. In the 70s, he became a Yankee fan (this is where his orthodoxy breaks down). He felt he needed to give his son a baseball team (by then the Dodgers had long moved to Los Angeles). Discussing team allegiances allows him to explore the meaning and process of conversion.
Baseball is a game that places great hopes on what might happen next year. No one knew this better than the Brooklyn Dodger fans who encouraged one another, year after year, with the saying, “Wait till next year.” Doris Kearns Goodwin, the Presidential historian and another Brooklynite who wrote the introduction to this book, has a memoir that uses this phrase filled with Brooklyn’s hope. Of course, the Dodgers did finally win the World Series just before moving to the West Coast. Baseball, like religion, has its own eschatological vision of the future!
In the chapter of sacred time, Sexton links baseball to religion’s cycles (baseball starts just before Easter and Passover, and the regular season ends around Yom Kippur. Like all religions, baseball has a cycle of life). Drawing on the writing of Marceau Eliade, he shows the importance of specific places and times which ground our religious traditions, Sexton muses also how ballparks serve a similar function. Discussing miracles, he relives Willie Mays’ fabulous 1954 catch that turned around the last World Series played in the Polo Ground as the Giants beat the Indians. But with miracles, there is always some doubt, as he illustrates with the 1951 Giants coming from a 13 ½ game deficit behind the Brooklyn Dodgers with six weeks left in the season. But then the miraculous happened and the Giants were able to catch up and with the “shot heard around the world,” beat the Dodgers to take the pennant. Years later, it was revealed that during the last ten weeks of the season, when the Giants won 80% of their home games, the team was given an advantage with a telescope deep in a clubhouse behind center field. The Giants had been stealing the opposing team’s signals and then quickly relaying them to the batter. This wasn’t against the rule in 1951, but in 1961, it was banned by Major League Baseball. As Sexton notes, sometimes miracles just seem miraculous.
In the chapter on blessings and curses, we relive the curses of the Cub’s “bill goat” and the Red Sox’s suffering revenge for trading a failing pitcher, Babe Ruth, to the New York Yankees. In the chapter on saints and sinners, we travel to the shrine of the “saints” at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Saints also play a major role in religion, from those canonized within Roman Catholic Christianity, to the prophets of Judaism, to the “Friends of Allah” in Islam, to the swami of Hinduism. Of course, as with many saints, parts of their lives are overlooked as it was with Babe Ruth whose monument reads: “A GREAT BALL PLAYER, A GREAT MAN, A GREAT AMERICAN.” As Sexton reminds us, Babe wasn’t always “saintly” off the field. As for sinners, there’s Ty Cobb, who still has many records in the book, and others only broken by another “sinner,” Pete Rose. And don’t forget the Chicago “Black Sox” scandal with its conflicting tales.
If there is one thing that Sexton left out, it was purgatory. As a Protestant, I find such a concept lacking in Scripture and doctrine and it’s not a part of my faith, but as a Pirate fan, I sometimes feel stuck in purgatory. Perhaps Sexton could have added an extra inning for this concept that I find more support for at the ballpark than within doctrines of my faith.
I should also note that his book is primarily about Major League baseball. The minor leagues, little leagues and other leagues are not the focus of Sexton’s work. The is room on the shelf for other books about the religious-like hope of the minor player at making the majors, or the high school standout hoping to catch the eye of a big league scout. And, of course, every little league player and kid on a sandlot has dreamed of one day playing in the world series.
On the last page, Sexton humorously muses that maybe baseball isn’t a road to God after all, but it can help awaken us to what’s important around us while providing an example of how to merge together the life of faith and the mind. The reader has been treated to two hundred pages or baseball stories, mixed in with teachings of the great religions. This book is a delight for any baseball player. For the serious student of world culture, the book might help them learn to pay attention to life and not take things too seriously. I recommend this book, but maybe you’ll want to catch a few games as the season moves into its final stretch toward October. By November, when the ballparks are all shuttered for winter, pull out this book and remember when, or (especially if you’re a Pirate fan), “wait for next season!”