Baseball as Gospel Truth

October 8, 2000
JAN VICKERY KNOST
THE FIRST PARISH IN NORWELL


It is the test of a good religion as to whether you can joke about it.
-G.K.Chesterton

The headline of Saturday’s Boston Globe (10/7/00) said it all. “For Sale: Olde Towne Team”. The story told of the announcement made by CEO John Harrington’s decision to put the Boston Red Sox on the market for sale. For many, the news portended a season of change and uncertainty until a new owner or owners could be named. So fans today, having assumed the Red Sox would be New England based for all time, are now saying, “Where will it all end?”

David R. Carlin writes a column for Commonweal magazine. In one he wrote about running for the Rhode Island Senate. He did this every two years. The job is thankless, paying $300 per year for a session that lasts from January to June. Carlin claimed remarkable success with his campaign because he tied his political concerns to the Rhode Island voters’ preoccupation with the triumphs and pitfalls of the Boston Red Sox. Only incidentally did they seemed preoccupied with the arms race, the national debt or any of the continuing mid-East crises.

“Such is the nature of American politics” as House Speaker Tip O’Neill advised, and went on to say that “All politics is local politics.” Baseball, then, for many, is a way of life that has the stuff of religion about it.

It was in reading that article that I decided to attempt a sermon on baseball. After all, many of my colleagues due it. In fact, one whole issue of a denominational quarterly was dedicated to the topic.

Tradition has it that in 1839, one Abner Doubleday laid out the first baseball diamond in Elihu Phinney’s pasture in Cooperstown, New York. There, with a cloth-stuffed, stitched leather sphere, he conducted the first baseball game ever played. The players were cadets of the military preparatory school where Doubleday was stationed as an instructor. Obviously, opinions about the beginning of the sport vary. But if you were to play a word association game, I assure you that if someone were to say the word “Cooperstown”, the immediate response would be “Baseball” - which indicates something of the ubiquitous nature of our national pastime.

Each year the annual rites involve this odyssey of sport. Seldom equaled in any other sporting event, it is called “The World Series of Baseball for the Championship of the World.” It is time, then, given the present struggle among the Atlanta Braves, the New York Mets, the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, to speak of baseball.

One of my favorite movies is titled “Bull Durham”. A major premise of that film - a film actually of a charming love story - is that some people will live under any conditions in order to play professional ball. But the same holds true for amateurs. It was so of myself as a boy in southern Alabama.

Susan Sarandon plays the narrative figure in the movie. She is a baseball devotee. At the beginning, as she lights the candles in her little shrine to baseball she says, “There are 108 beads on a rosary and 108 stitches in a baseball...and the only `church’ that really feeds the soul, day in and day out, is the Church of Baseball.”

In some respects her statement is true. There are dimensions to baseball that make it a reflection of life. It is difficult to avoid making the comparison. There is a fluidity to the game - like the motion of a month gone by - or a day spent at leisure in the mountains. There is a pattern to it - batting, throwing, running the bases. They converge in the same sense as do the ancient celebrations of birth, coming-of-age, marriage and death. The dimension of time moves differently in a ballpark. Time is not marked by a clock, but by innings.

Uniquely, then, baseball presents a kind of seamless and invisible mode. A single game is a neatly-contained world which moves exactly as each of its predecessors. Metaphorically, it resembles, then, the continuance of a human life from parent to child to grandchild.

Baseball is played in much the same way today as it was in the days of our youth. Somehow those were slower times. Life was simpler - or so it seemed. And, since any game is measured in outs all one had to do to succeed was to keep hitting, keep the rally alive. Success and victory were attained. And so, in such a way one defeats time, if only for the blur of a moment.

Realizing some of you may wonder at the seemingly “irreligious” nature of what I am saying, I would like to defend myself. Let me take you on a journey of remembrance. Depart the “here and now” and allow yourselves some simple reveries. You may not have played the sport at all but that doesn’t matter. For baseball is just a euphemism. It is another way of nourishing the human soul. We call it “play”.

In an exceptional essay titled “Why Time Begins On Opening Day”, a modern author with the well-known name of Thomas Boswell wrote:

“Baseball isn’t necessarily an escape from reality, though it can be; it’s merely one of our many refuges within the real where we try to create a sense of order on our own terms....”

In other words, when we engage in any kind of play, competitive or non-competitive, we set up a kind of separate cosmos. Two things occur. We observe definite rules and we suspend time. We do this by leaving the commonplace; that world of fear, pain, the serious world. Time becomes an interval or an inning...or an out. Space...is the playing area. But space is circumscribed. All round it are those who support the concept called “play” and they are the spectators. And...unlike the tedious nature of the everyday, play ends. But one is never sure when or at what time or under what circumstances. For after all, it was the immortal Yogi Berra, a virtual legend in his own time who said that “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over!”

Yogi Berra . . . (a.k.a. Lawrence Peter Berra) . . . was a baseball player whose major career position was played as a catcher for the New York Yankees. He later became a coach and then team manager. But Yogi was more than this. Not only was he a singularly gifted athlete, he was a man whose career spanned a kind of golden age of excellence in the sport.

Obviously in those days there were problems with the league and with the players - alcohol abuse, greed, gambling, irresponsibility. But when you consider such singular gatherings as the St. Louis Cardinals bunch they called “The Gas House Gang” - then a whimsical chord of humor rings in the memory of all who read of or witnessed the antics of those “boys of summer”:There was little or nothing of player strikes in those days. There were no franchise maneuvering, no steroid doping, no drug scandals or spousal abuse cases. Obviously there was occasional violence on the field and betting on games and in the stands went on all the time. But spitting at umpires and some of the other sad qualities that denote the modern player and team were not there.

Oh, yes, I know about the famous “Black Sox Scandal” of 1919 with the Chicago White Sox. But notwithstanding that brief encounter there seemed a kind of purity in the sport. I remember players such as Casey Stengal, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Stan Musial and Whitey Ford. And I recall especially the Jackie Robinsons, the Don Newcombes and the Willie Mays of baseball.

While serving as Interim Minister of the Santa Fe congregation I came to know 91 year old John Pierce. John played professional baseball before the Depression for the first Negro Professional Baseball League. He had been members of the Santa Fe congregation for many years.

John was on the Indianapolis ABC’s Ball Club and paid his way through college playing as a second baseman. There was a lot of barnstorming in those days, not to mention wild exhibition games played between white major league teams and black professional teams. In John’s day, the ‘Yankees” of the Negro league were the Kansas City Monarchs. He said his team once played against the indomitable New York Yankees (Jimmy Fox, Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth). ...and the Monarchs BEAT the Yankees...handily. According to John the then Commissioner of Baseball, a white man of course, made a rule that “hence forth there would be no exhibition games between white and Negro baseball teams.” John said that in those days gambling went on all the time - but not with the players - in the stands. And if someone made an excellent play, spectators would throw money out onto the field for the hero making the play.

Baseball was a game...it was play that everyone could do...all you needed was a bat and a ball...and we often made our own balls.

Later in his young life during World War II, John Pierce became a member of what became known as the “Tuskeegee Airmen” , the 99th Fighter Squadron of the United States Air Force.

Back to Yogi Berra. Berra, as some of you might have suspected, was a kind of left-handed philosopher. He was once described as a guy who “walked like a yogi”. But it wasn’t his athletic skills so much as it was his linguistic canards that made him, like the immortal Dizzy Dean before him, an exemplary spokesman for the game. Here are but a few examples. In speaking about his new house:

It’s nothing but rooms. Giving directions TO his new home: It’s pretty far, but it doesn’t seem like it. On being told by New York Mayor John Lindsey’s wife that he looked very cool in his summer suit: Thanks. You don’t look so hot yourself.

How about this one? On seeing the movie “Dr. Zhivago”; It sure was cold in Russia in those days...”. People used to poke fun at Yogi for his habit of reading comic books. He once responded with: If it’s so silly, how come every time I put one down, somebody else picks it up?!”

One of my favorites is If the people don’t want to come out to the ball park, nobody’s going to stop them!” His acceptance speech on “Yogi Berra Day” started with these words, I want to thank everybody who made this day necessary.
Yogi did have a way with words, didn’t he? One season he had a roommate who was a medical student. When they were in their hotel room the young man would always be studying. On one occasion as he finished reading a textbook on human anatomy, Yogi looked over at him and said, How did it come out?

What does one say about such verbal versatility? Truly, Yogi was a man for all seasons. And how can I NOT say such a thing. For was it not Yogi who said things like You can observe a lot. . . by watching! Then, this man who grew up on the same street from baseball announcer and former catcher Joe Garagiola, using elementary logic said, “How can that pitcher stay in the majors considering the stuff he keeps striking me out with!”

In many ways, then, baseball was a major portion of my young life. Though I never saw a major league game or stepped into a major league park until well into my teens, for me, the major leagues were a dream world. They existed over the scratchy speaker of our home radio or my crystal radio set I’d listen to under the covers after I was supposed to have gone to bed.

Baseball was something you played. It was carefully hammering tiny wire brads into a split bat, then, even more carefully, wrapping black electricians tape - the old kind, not the smooth plastic stuff - around the handle. Baseball was dusty fields and rocks for bases. It was “Choose ‘em Up” with one getting the “eagle’s clutch” at the top of the bat winning first choice of players.

My friends were Billy and Bobby, Robert and Sonny and my brother Peter. We also played ball with boys whose nicknames strained human credibility: “Pork” who obviously played catcher; “Lard”, “Simp”, Rascal”, “Toothpick” “Fish and “Tatorhead”. Baseball for us was the act and art of playing whenever we got the chance. For someone to show up with a new ball was heaven. The height of boredom was to stand in the outfield while the pitcher failed, time after time, to get the ball near the batter.

Most of all, however it was John D. Miller Memorial Ball Park, home of the Brewton “Millers” (named after the lumber mill John Miller had owned and which supported the town team.) The “Millers” were a class “D” professional ball team of the Southern Alabama League.

On at least 60 nights during the summer, we kids would work for the concession manager. On summer evenings when the team was in town we would hawk peanuts, popcorn, soda pop and candy to the crowd. And the town came out in droves. After all, next the “the Ritz movie thee - a - ter”, baseball was the only other event in that town of 2500 inhabitants.

The proudest summer of my boyhood was when I was chosen bat boy for the team. I am sure that Larry Cianciola had something to do with that. Larry Cianciola was the left fielder for the team. He had shown up one Sunday at the Universalist Church where my Dad was Minister. The liberal faith appealed to Larry, a lapsed-Catholic from Cleveland. When it came time for he and his fiancé’ Laverne to get married he asked Dad to perform the ceremony.

In the Brewton ball park an actual scene reminiscent of one in the movie “Bull Durham” took place. Larry and Laverne were married at home plate before the beginning of the first play-off game at season’s end. Now I’ve done some pretty unusual wedding scenarios but I suspect I will never equal the singular quality of that evening. There I was in my bat boy’s uniform. Nervously, I watched as my father walked to home plate in his pulpit robe. I heard him over the public address system as he pronounced the solemn vows of matrimony for that young couple.I will also never forget the conclusion of that event. In a kind of slow motion happening, three things seemed to occur simultaneously. Dad pronounced them “husband and wife” and started for the stands; Larry Kissed Laverne, pulled his glove out of his back uniform pocket, gave it a whack and started for his position in the outfield and the umpire turned toward the stands and, almost impatiently, shouted, “Play Ball!”

That was “Baseball as Gospel Truth! - something so rich in human meaning; so filled with honest emotions; so true of the best in rural American life that I will always be able to recall it and celebrate it.

Today, notwithstanding the modernization of the game, it somehow remains the same for me. Baseball is a kind of “inner game or play” one can return to at any time. It has no season. One can play the game of comparisons in an endless procession of baseball greats - Babe Ruth - how would he have batted against Nolan Ryan? Carl Hubbell- could he have bested the bat of Ted Williams? In the mind’s eye it is remembering the graceful lope of Joe DiMaggio hauling in a long fly ball or “Say Hey” Willie Mays catching a ball over his shoulder with his familiar basket catch, falling, rolling and then getting up and throwing the ball to the infield.

When one recalls such feats lit is clear the sport can never be “boring” or “slow”. The game is watched - watched intensely by those who understand it. It forces a kind of focus on even the most uninitiated. And, too, we know there is another side to it all. Someone...one side or the other, is going to fail. Someone is going to have to shoulder the blame; a pitcher hangs a sliding curve ball that is hammered into a home run; a catcher lets a pitch get by and a run scores; a fielder boots an easy grounder or fly permitting a base runner. Someone...will surely end up the loser even if it’s the whole team that fails to get a hit.

In a baseball game, tension can become so real that as failure is avoided again and again we sit in relief. Then, something happens. We rise and cry out. Inevitable, irresistible, spontaneous, almost a universal cry for life.

So you see, my friends, baseball can be seen as the purity of the gifted athlete; crouched, ready to go back on a hard grounder or charging in on a surprise bunt; it is watching the arc of a base hit AND watching the coach at the same time gauging the speed of the runner and the throw from the outfielder. Baseball is total joy in seeing a home run lifted so high and far angels seem to sing. It is the dark, black depression of that last inning double play to end a rally and plunge your team to defeat.

In Peter Berber’s fine book, A Rumor of Angels, he suggests theologians and religious writers ought to seek out what he calls “signals of transcendence” within human experience. He suggests that the reader try to find things and experiences in the natural world that actually point beyond themselves. In reflecting on these everyday events, we come to the conclusion that, by their very nature, they raise themselves above the ordinary but need not be compared with anything “supernatural”.

I believe baseball has that enigma about it. It confronts us with the reality of natural law and inevitable consequences. When a pitcher cheats on the hitter by trying to use a spitball, and he’s caught, the law of the game intervenes. When tension is released in the completion of a play, it takes on a transcendence that is timeless. Baseball, like a mirror, reflects not only dreams come true, but the law of consequences. You can play the “what if” game all you want but the figures in the record book still stand.

Once, I dreamed that the day would come when I would be able to play in the major leagues. I had two heroes - the player/manager of the Cleveland Indians, Lou Boudreau, a shortstop, and Ted Williams, “the Kid”, the “Splendid Splinter” and for some the greatest hitter who ever lived. I wanted to hit like Williams, field like Boudreau and to play in Fenway Park. My grandmother Quigley was a Red Sox fan who knew all the current Red Sox statistics. She once sent me a picture of Fenway and that picture caused me, in my fantasy, to adopt that team.

As time went on it became progressively clear I would never play in the majors. But I had this internal narrative that would occur from time to time. So now, in deference to baseball in particular and to sport in general, and to the dream every child has of excelling in some manner of play in their lives, I want to dedicate this closing journey of the mind; this personal stream of consciousness, to them.

Imagine, if you will, a train station. A locomotive comes steaming and chug-chugging into view. Then a public address announcer says,

Your attention please. Train from Pasadena, California leaving for all points east and west.

Year 1934. Baby Jan on board with parents, Richard and Rosalie.

Country in depression but show biz parents ready and waiting (choo - choo)

First stop, Hollywood, then Berkeley and San Jose. Asthma attacks and a look at early death. Country at war; blackouts and victory gardens. Baseball in mothballs.

Attention, next stop, Brew - ton, Alabama. First bat and glove - the major leagues are back in style. Listen on the radio and imagine the game. Time for dreamers and all who play the game:

“Golly, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio. Maybe someday I’ll play shortstop in Fenway Park....

Next stop, college. Time for dreaming to cease. This stop in the fifties. Korean War is on. Ted Williams takes time in jets to defend his country. Now baseball is an everyday reality. Read the papers. See it on television. Bobby Thompson’s homer wins the pennant for the Giants. Still play the game - keep the old glove = dream the old dream....

Time for Graduate School at Oxford. In Europe; Suez Canal crisis and the beginning of the cold war. Back home Senator McCarthy hearings; Brown vs. Board of Education. This stop for students, thinkers, young lovers beginning life. This is the wonderful world of Eisenhower. Graduate...get a job...get ahead...buy insurance...save money...own a car...

Next stop New England. Providence only 45 miles from Fenway. I’m really there! This station for starting a career, falling in love, marrying and beginning a family. Once in a while a trip to actually SEE the Red Sox play....

All aboard for Massachusetts, next stop in the calendar of churches. Trips to black empowerment, Martin Luther King’s leadership and trip to Selma, Alabama; This is the station where our first two kids, Keith and Kristan begin their lives....

Next station, Dedham, Massachusetts, home of the beginnings of Unitarianism; the 1967 pennant, Carl Yastrzemski and the World Series that ended 4 - 3 the wrong way...Stops here at the Peace Movement, LRY, flower children, refugees from Haight Ashbury, runaways, black brothers and sisters, peace marches, prayer vigils and illegal abortion counseling and Roe vs. Wade. Two more passengers join the Knost family train - Jana and Amy Kate...

Next stop Summit, New Jersey, Yankee and Shea Stadium, home of the real Brooklyn Dodgers now gone to California. College begins for kids, worry continues for parents. Growth and change come hard - we’ve reached the age of fifty and even softball is hard to play....

Next stops, San Antonio and Houston Texas. Baseball and Dreams so far from home....

This is a station for later age, for slowing down, thinking about the past, writing poetry and prose, trying to tell life’s story.

Whoa! A siding in hospitals. Near death again with two surgeries. Recovery and a try at retirement. Another chance to work in ministry and a Florida interim. A new way of serving people and the gratitude of feeling validation....

This stop Santa Fa, New Mexico...a place of enchantment and wonder...of mountains and ancient lore...of warm people and a new time of challenge....

Next stop, your spiritual “home” - New England and Norwell - the First Parish - home for centuries to Unitarians and Universalists from near and far. Arrive as strangers to know the genuine warmth of Yankee charm and humor - a blessed place for work and worship with new friends.

Then...finally...someday...the announcer will say,

LAST STOP...END OF THE LINE...END OF LIFE...ALL OUT FOR ALL PASSENGERS THOUGH BODHISATTVAS CAN REMAIN ON BOARD.

(Baseball still a dream...)

Question: What’s a Bodhisattva?

Answer: A descendent from heaven to earth come to assist others...

Question: Can I be a bodhisattva?

Answer: Yes. Anyone can if they so choose.

Question: You mean I can come back to live again?

Answer: Yes, according to Hindu and Buddhist teaching...

maybe...MAYBE.....FENWAY!...FRIENDLY FENWAY!... WOW ! YES! I

STILL MIGHT BE A BALL PLAYER IN FENWAY PARK! “PLAY BALL!” AMEN!