Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Bleacher democracy ... and worship?

Baseball as a National Religion

I found this wonderful essay tucked away in my files, where it had lain untouched for nearly three decades. I am pleased to share it with you now, on the chance that it is unfamiliar. Philosopher Morris R. Cohen published it in The Dial, Vol. 67, p. 57 (July 26, 1919).

IN THE WORLD'S HISTORY baseball is a new game: hence new to song and story and uncelebrated in the fine arts of painting, sculpture, and music. Now, as Ruskin has pointed out, people generally do not see beauty or majesty except when it has been first revealed to them in pictures or other works of art. This is peculiarly true of the people who call themselves educated. No one who prides himself on being familiar with Greek and Roman architecture and the classic masters of painting would for a moment admit that there could be any beauty in a modern skyscraper. Yet when two thousand years hence some Antarctic scholar comes to describe our civilization, he will mention as our distinctive contribution to art our beautiful office buildings, and perhaps offer in support of his thesis colored plates of some of the ruins of those temples of commerce. And when he comes to speak of America's contribution to religion, will he not mention baseball? Do not be shocked, gentle or learned reader! I know full well that baseball is a boy's game, and a professional sport, and that a properly cultured, serious person always feels like apologizing for attending a baseball game instead of a Strauss concert or a lecture on the customs of the Fiji Islanders. But I still maintain that, by all the canons of our modern books on comparative religion, baseball is a religion, and the only one that is not sectarian but national.

The essence of religious experience, so we are told, is the "redemption from the limitations of our petty individual lives and the mystic unity with a larger life of which we are a part." And is not this precisely what the baseball devotee or fanatic, if you please, experiences when he watches the team representing his city battling with another? Is there any other experience in modern life in which multitudes of men so completely and intensely lose their individual selves in the larger life which they call their city? Careful students of Greek civilization do not hesitate to speak of the religious value of the Greek drama. When the auditor identifies himself with the action on the stage--Aristotle tells us--his feelings of fear and pity undergo a kind of purification (catharsis). But in baseball the identification has even more of the religious quality, since we are absorbed not only in the action of the visible actors but more deeply in the fate of the mystic unities which we call the contending cities. To be sure, there may be people who go to a baseball game to see some particular star, just as there are people who go to church to hear a particular minister preach; but these are phenomena in the circumference of the religious life. There are also blasé persons who do not care who wins so long as they can see what they call a good game--just as there are people who go to mass because they admire the vestments or intoning of the priest--but this only illustrates the pathology of the religious life. The truly religious devotee has his soul directed to the final outcome; and every one of the extraordinarily rich multiplicity of movements of the baseball game acquires its significance because of its bearing on that outcome. Instead of purifying only fear and pity, baseball exercises and purifies all of our emotions, cultivating hope and courage when we are behind, resignation when we are beaten, fairness for the other team when we are ahead, charity for the umpire, and above all the zest for combat and conquest.

When my revered friend and teacher William James wrote an essay on "A Moral Equivalent for War," I suggested to him that baseball already embodied all the moral value of war, so far as war had any moral value. He listened sympathetically and was amused, but he did not take me seriously enough. All great men have their limitations, and William James's were due to the fact that he lived in Cambridge, a city which, in spite of the fact that it has a population of 100,000 souls (including the professors), is not represented in any baseball league that can be detected without a microscope.

Imagine what will happen to the martial spirit in Germany if baseball is introduced there--if any Social Democrat can ask any Herr von Somebody, "What's the score?" Suppose that in an exciting ninth-inning rally, when the home team ties the score, Captain Schmidt punches Captain Miller or breaks his helmet. Will the latter challenge him to a duel? He will not. Rather will he hug him frenziedly or pummel him joyfully at the next moment when the winning run comes across the home plate. And after the game, what need of further strife? When Jones of Philadelphia meets Brown of New York there may be a slight touch of condescension on one side, or a hidden strain of envy on the other side, but they take each other's arm in fraternal fashion, for they have settled their differences in an open, regulated combat on a fair field. And if one of us has some sore regrets over an unfortunate error which lost the game, there is always the consolation that we have had our inning, and though we have lost there is another game or season coming. And what more can a reasonable man expect in this imperfect world than an open chance to do his best in a free and fair fight?

Every religion has its martyrs; and the greatest of all martyrdoms is to make oneself ridiculous and to be laughed at by the heathen. But whatever the danger, I am ready to urge the claims of international baseball as capable of arousing far more national religious fervor than the more monotonous game of armaments and war. Those who fear "the deadly monotony of a universal reign of peace" can convince themselves of the thrilling and exciting character of baseball by watching the behavior of crowds not only at the games but also at the baseball score-boards miles away. National rivalries and aspirations could find their intensest expression in a close international pennant race, and yet such rivalry would not be incompatible with the establishment of the true Church Universal in which all men would feel their brotherhood in the Infinite Game.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Dear Abner

From "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, April 3, 2008:
Love and baseball are two of life’s enduring mysteries — so predictable, so commonplace, and yet so full of surprises — no matter that there are people who profess to be experts in one or the other (if seldom both; Steve Garvey is a notable exception). What happens after we die has been another eternal conundrum ... until, for those who love baseball, now.

I can’t speak for conditions in the afterlife for those who believe in this religion or that one. But as I write to you, dear fan, on April 1, 2008, I can report on impeccable assurance that there is indeed a baseball heaven (relax, you’re not pitching tomorrow). Abner Doubleday has for reasons known only to him chosen me as his interlocutor to answer your questions on baseball matters past, present, and future.

Although he neglected to invent the game or even take an interest in it in all the days he walked the earth, in death Abner has become rather smitten. Who wouldn’t? All day long he swaps stories upstairs with the Babe, the Mick, Satchel ... and even Alex Cartwright, with whom he has formed a cordial tandem (more so than Abbott and Costello, who are still not speaking to each other).

Delighted as I am to have him indefinitely at my right hand, this column truly depends upon you. While Abner’s ethereal condition provides him with all the answers, it robs him of questions, which is not altogether a good thing; we all know such people. To prime the pump, I have invited members of the Society for American Baseball Research and selected baseball cognoscenti to ask Abner’s advice on aspects of the game they have long found perplexing. If something has been troubling you and you would like to consult Abner or any of his associates in Baseball Heaven, send him an email (yes, the angels were onto this long before Al Gore invented the internet) by commenting below.

"Dear Abner" continues daily at:



Dear Abner,
Tell us, Oh, Dear Abner, gaze into your crystal ball!!! Will this be the year for the Chicago Cubs to go (nearly) all the way? Will they win 134 games, clinch the NL Central in early June, sweep the NL championship in four games — three shutouts and one no-hitter — advance to the World Series and lose the seventh game in the most spectacular way ever? Precisely how will they lose that seventh game — will it be in the bottom of the ninth with two outs, a full count, three men on, and the score 3-2?
May Irwin, Queen of the Royal Rooters

Dear May,
Your bent for hyperbole bespeaks a certain skepticism about my predictive powers, but let’s put that aside for the moment. The Cubs are beloved by God and all his angels, even more than the Red Sox, who are now just another of the cyclically successful clubs. The Cubs will not win 134 games, and they will not lose the final game of the World Series in spectacular fashion. They will not win the National League championship, nor even their own division. They will muddle along in the hunt, continuing to test the faith of their faithful. Such is their glory. I would say that they will win when cubs have wings, but my friend Frank Chance might take offense.

Dear Abner,
What’s up with the fans who keep hating on interleague play? I've never understood why they think it’s a good thing that fans in say, Seattle, never got to see teams such as the Dodgers or Cardinals, or players such as Piazza or Ozzie Smith, unless the teams happened to meet in the World Series (and given that the Mariners have been in the World Series exactly zero times in thirty-one years, that's a long time to wait). Interleague play does mean that teams have different strengths-of-schedule — but unbalanced schedules have that same effect anyway.
Likes Interleague Play

Dear Likes,
Cloud-dwellers like balance, harmony, and order, but we understand your wish for variety, even at the expense of fairness. Indeed, we not only understand mortals’ need to inject jokers into the pack — what’s up, as you might say, with the All-Star Game determining home-field advantage for the World Series? — we applaud it, for what may look like randomness down there is part of the Big Plan up here. Our view of the wild-card innovation and the World Series use of the designated hitter is in the same vein. [As a Seattle fan you should be sure to read this column to the bottom.—jt]

Dear Abner,
So just what was the Babe doing on that day in 1932? Was he pointing at me? Or was he really showing us where he meant to hit it?
Charlie Root

Dear “Charlie,”
I address you in quotation because both Charlie and the Babe are up here with me, so this ought to be an easy question to resolve. Alas, both are sticking to the stories they offered in life. Neither Charlie nor Babe is lying (such conduct is not forbidden up here, it is simply impossible) but both have become so hardened in their convictions that the literal truth (inferior, as I more than anyone might acknowledge, to the power of myth) is no longer available to them.

Charlie says that Ruth was pointing to the bench jockeys in the dugout, who were giving him a rough time, signaling to them that despite taking two strikes he still had one strike left. “If he had pointed to center field,” he says, “I woulda stuck the next pitch in his ear.”

Ruth said, “I took two strikes and after each one I held up my finger and said, ‘That’s one’ and ‘that’s two.’ That’s when I waved to the fence. No, I didn’t point to any spot, but as long as I’d called the first two strikes on myself, I hadda go through with it.”

I could weigh in here and tell you precisely what happened, but why spoil such a good ... and in its way true ... story?

Dear Abner,
Orel Hershiser has a total of 204 wins as a pitcher, 106 of these after he had reconstructive shoulder surgery in 1990. It has been reported that the surgery made him a better pitcher. With allegations surroundingvarious current players and enhancement substances, should I contact my congressman and have him open an investigation into “Shoulder-gate” and other performance enhancing surgeries?
Wanting to Know in Knoxvegas

Dear Wanting,
Irony is little appreciated in this precinct, but I take your point to reflect on the current steroids question and the eternally vexed matter of cheating. These are subjects addressed in many of the queries I have received, and I will answer you only partway, perhaps in a manner unsatisfactory to you. We look upon aspiration as a positive thing, in fact it is both admirable and tragic, and thus defines the human condition. One may violate the law of the game or the land and still be clear of censure in Baseball Heaven. Are Orel Hershiser and Tommy John brothers under the skin with Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds? In a way, yes — as those who purchased Viagra or opted for Lasik surgery are tacit endorsers of performance enhancement. But there are worthwhile distinctions to be drawn. On another day I will bring Ken Caminiti over to share his views.

Dear Abner,
It seems to me that if we didn’t have all this ridiculous emphasis on statistics we wouldn’t be so upset over steroid record breakers. Then we could enjoy competitive championship baseball games on their own accord. Did you envision that every little nose pick on the field would be counted, historically codified and available at all times to deify or denigrate any player?
Kettle of Fish

Dear Kettle,
Whoa. I didn’t envision anything for baseball, let alone that I would be named its inventor by some spiritualists with an unfathomable agenda. I’m not blaming Al Spalding or Abraham Mills or even Abner Graves, but some others who, to put it delicately, are not available to me at this moment. I’ll get back to you with more on this, later, as the subject of my purported invention has been a popular topic with questioners.

Now, back to your point: statistics came into the game to counter the seeming absurdity of men playing a boys’ game ... as if play were the business of the young and business the play of adults. The current vogue for sabermetrics lends an air of seriousness, even science, to what was, is, and forever will be something bigger than business. You can’t measure joy. And while we don’t worry about anything in Baseball Heaven, it does seem to those of us who have been here awhile — even Henry Chadwick, who more than anyone brought statistics into the game — that numbers have been elevated to a sort of religion, which was a bad idea even in Pythagoras’s time.

Dear Abner,
Who will win this year?

Dear Curious,
Ordinarily I would prefer not to venture into this speculative realm, but having sinned a little bit above, I will say that Providence (a National League club back in my day) smiles upon the following outcomes:
NL: East, Philadelphia; Central, Milwaukee; West, San Diego; Wild Card, Colorado.
AL: East, Boston; Central, Detroit; West, Seattle; Wild Card, Cleveland.
WS: Seattle over San Diego.