e-mail us

Cover story

Baseball is linked to history, religion, professor asserts

NCR Staff

It was a redemptive, celebratory moment, a return to innocence, wiping clean for one joyous moment our nation’s slate of sins: the tawdriness of this season’s politics, the competition, divisions, xenophobia and greed that mar our national experience. When St. Louis Cardinal Mark McGwire’s 62nd home run streaked over the left field wall, it was liturgy erupting into euphoria, the sometimes interminable drone of baseball lifting us into epiphanies of joy.

The redheaded folk hero with the Irish name veritably levitated around the field and, during an 11-minute spontaneous party in the park, hoisted Sammy Sosa, competitor for the home run title, off the ground in exuberant embrace.

For Robert Elias, the excitement and symbols of this season will add gloss to a semester-long program at the University of San Francisco, where he teaches American politics.

With enviable foresight, Professor Elias had proposed baseball as the topic of the prestigious annual Davies Forum focusing on values and leadership in American life. To his surprise, “The committee liked it,” he said. He’s calling the series “The National Pastime and the American Dream: Baseball as Cultural Mirror.”

“Baseball allows us to examine important aspects of American life and culture,” said Elias, who grew up in the 1950s heyday of New York baseball, “Exciting times,” he said, when the Yankees, the Dodgers and the Giants were all part of the scene. Baseball, he said, “reflects things such as labor-management struggles, how we organize our economy ... race relations.”

Even more, “For a lot of people, baseball is a kind of religion,” he said. Like faith, it is passed from generation to generation and tends to breed fanatics, he said. Elias is collecting quotes comparing baseball and religion (see box, page 3) and keeping track of religious references by the players themselves.

During his forum, plays, movies, panel discussions, and talks by sportscasters, former managers and players will examine the parallels between baseball’s history and our own.

The parallels include:

  • Periodic power struggles between owners and players, reflecting labor’s battles nationally. Among victories for players was the death of the “reserve clause” in 1976, allowing free agency for players and ending virtual “wage slavery,” Elias said. The latest chapter in those struggles was the strike that cut short the 1994 season.
  • The crack in the major league color barrier in 1947, with the signing of Jackie Robinson, grandson of a slave, to the Brooklyn Dodgers. The breakthrough -- accompanied by Robinson’s promise to ignore racial epithets -- is widely regarded as the most significant event marking the progress of racial equality between the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
  • The westward and southward geographical movement of baseball during the 1950s and ’60s, reflecting shifts in the broader population.
  • A change in the nature of the game from early in the century, when scratch-it-out scores were valued over the home run hit, which was seen “as kind of grotesque,” Elias said, to a new admiration for spectacle and power. Elias speculates that the change reflects our 20th-century aspirations to transcend national borders, even to conquer space.
  • A shift in our favored heroic type from the aggressive and ill-tempered Ty Cobb, a virulent racist who slept with a revolver, to the ebullient Babe Ruth, renowned as a boozer and philanderer, to the sensitive and fitness-conscious McGwire, “gentle giant” of the ’90s.

McGwire and Sosa’s emotional embrace will linger for many as a memorable snapshot, a triumph of friendship and good will over the me-first spirit that cynics associate with the American way of life. Sosa, right fielder for the Chicago Cubs, is a former shoeshine boy from San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic, notable for producing more major league players per capita than any city in the world. Sosa’s role in the season’s excitement boosts not only the image of baseball but, some suggest, may serve to boost the image of American Hispanics nationally. Though well represented in baseball, Spanish-speaking Americans remain, like African-Americans, on the sidelines of American life.

It isn’t hard to wax theological about baseball in a nation so historically inclined to intertwine theology with national myth. Surely those wild 11 post-home run minutes on Sept. 8 -- exultant images beamed by satellite to more than 100 nations -- fulfilled, however briefly, the Puritan fathers’ dream of a city on a hill, a light to the nations.

How grand for us -- could it even have been divinely inspired -- that McGwire’s record-breaking moment came in one of our darkest hours as a nation, turning disillusionment to faith and offering respite from the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky debacle, international terrorism and skittering global economics.

Much about this season has been redemptive for the sport itself, reconciling teams and fans after the past four post-strike seasons of declining attendance and gloomy predictions for baseball’s future.

At NCR’s press time, among numerous 1998 highlights firing up the fans, Sosa remained a challenger to McGwire’s new title, the Yankees were closing in on the record of 116 wins in a single season, set by the Chicago Cubs in 1906, and the Cubs, characteristically bottom feeders by this time in the season, were contending for a wild card spot in the playoffs.

Elias is in good company, of course, when he raises baseball to the level of mythic Americana. In 1994, producer Ken Burns, best known for the epic television series “The Civil War,” delivered an 18-hour documentary on baseball, calling it “a window on the American soul.”

For author Tom Boswell, baseball is a metaphor for nothing less than the cycle of life itself, a secular triduum. In his book Why Time Begins on Opening Day, he proclaimed that life begins anew, not with a glimpse of a robin on the lawn, not with the vernal equinox, but with the season’s first pitch.

Similarly, for Jonathan Yardley of The Washington Post, “the void” is not the overwhelming sense of divine mystery of which the mystics sometimes speak, but the time between the last pitch of the World Series and the next season’s opening day.

There’s the stuff of legend, too, a death-to-resurrection myth, in the 34-year-old McGwire’s personal history. According to a profile in the August issue of Sport magazine, fellow players thought his career was over, washed up, in 1991 when he was 27.

“I’ll never forget them trying to trade him,” said former teammate Dave Stewart, now pitching coach for the San Diego Padres. “They couldn’t give him away.”

McGwire had physical problems -- terrible eyesight (20-500 vision), heel injuries and back pain, personal problems related to a much-publicized divorce and unresolved psychological issues deriving from what he said was lack of self-knowledge. After a promising start in the major leagues -- 49 home runs in his first season in Oakland in 1987 -- his numbers plummeted by 1991 to 22 homers and a low .201 average.

Contact lenses, counseling and an interlude for healing brought liberation.

The forced opportunity to watch rather than play helped him understand both himself and the game better, he told writer Barry M. Bloom of Sport magazine. “I didn’t know what I liked, disliked,” he said. “I didn’t know much about me. ... I don’t know if I was confused. I just didn’t think. I didn’t confront things.”

Then, in 1996, demoralized by another foot injury, he thought about retirement. Needless to say, he’s glad he stayed with the game and glad, too, for the friends who talked him out of giving up. “Not quitting,” he said, was “the best move I’ve ever made.”

No wonder, then, in light of all that went before, that McGwire, in summing up the season that made him a national hero, gives credit to “a great script written by the man upstairs.”

No wonder, too, given the frequency with which McGwire alludes to a divine plan, that Elias is taking note this year not only of mythic overtones but of players’ references to religion on the field.

McGwire, for example, has alluded to the afterlife and to his expectation that he will someday meet his predecessors, those great sluggers of old. Meanwhile, those men are like empowering spirits. Two hours before his history-making home run, McGwire held Roger Maris’ bat to his heart -- and knew, then, he said, with a certainty born of faith, that the torch was being passed.

Elias also notes that many players, including Sosa, cross themselves when they go to bat.

Stretching the religious connections a little more, Elias finds it possible even to link Catholicism to soaring hits. Is there something about being nurtured by the ancient faith that makes it possible for a guy to smack the hell out of a ball?

Look at the facts. Babe Ruth, single-season record-setter with 60 home runs in 1927, was reared in a Catholic orphanage. Roger Maris, going Ruth one better in 1961, was a devout Catholic who indulged autograph-seekers even at Mass. McGwire is a graduate of Damien Catholic High School in La Verne, Calif., a private all-boys school reputed for excellence in both academics and sports.

There was something in the season for the socially conscious Catholic, too. McGwire, whose latest contract guarantees him $28.5 million over three years, has promised $1 million annually for victims of child abuse.

Then, as home run fever reached unprecedented heights in early September, an anonymous donor offered to pay $1 million to the fan who caught the season’s record-breaking ball. According to news reports, his motive was to publicize the murder of the three nuns and a laywoman in El Salvador in 1980 and the continuing search for justice.

As it turned out, Edenic innocence, selfless generosity in an era noted for shameless self-aggrandizement, held the day in Busch Stadium. Tim Forneris, 22, -- himself a graduate of Althoff Catholic High School in Belleville, Ill., and the Jesuit-run St. Louis University -- retrieved the ball and gave it to McGwire, who turned it over to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Schaeffer, a native of St. Louis and former reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, is a lifelong Cardinals fan.

National Catholic Reporter, September 18, 1998