Academic journal article Nine

The American Church of Baseball and the National Baseball Hall of Fame

Academic journal article Nine

The American Church of Baseball and the National Baseball Hall of Fame

Article excerpt

It has been noted that Americans, residents of the great secular state, are among the most religious people in the world. However, by design, the United States, home of the devout, has no official state religion. There is no Church of America. What, then, takes the place of a national religion, a monolithic church with a single unifying doctrine? In this country, where the secular is frequently imbued with religious significance, baseball, the national pastime, may be said to serve as the American religion. Indeed, our vocabulary is filled with references likening baseball and the places it is played to religion and religious practice. Discredited for its epic inaccuracies, Alfred Goodwill Spalding's Base Ball: America's National Game is nevertheless advertised as "baseball's first Bible," and its author as "the baseball messiah." (1) The great, old ballparks, both those still standing and the mythic homes of long departed teams, are spoken of with the awe generally reserved for the great cathedrals of Europe . They are our Green Cathedrals. The modern, luxurious retro-stadiums, and even the domed monstrosities of the 1970s, with their artificial turf and football seating, are thought of as temples to the sport. And they are not alone. Every Minor League stadium, every little league diamond, serves as somebody's place of worship.

But if ballparks are our churches, where is our Vatican, our Salt Lake City, our Canterbury Cathedral? It is possible to suggest that the offices of Major League Baseball, the professional sport's governing body, are the administrative center of the American religion, and the commissioner, the Pope? But to take this stance is to suggest that the spiritual center of our religion is not open to the average worshiper. Though Major League Baseball, as an organization, may dictate doctrine, its offices do not serve as a large-scale sacred space. In this respect, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown is baseball's Vatican, baseball's Canterbury Cathedral, baseball's Mormon Tabernacle, a central place, open equally to every worshiper, no matter what his or her local affiliation may be, where all of baseball's devout are on equal ground. And just as droves of pilgrims flock to the holy sites of their religions, so too do they flock to Cooperstown, to observe the relics of baseball's saints and martyrs.

Simply stating that baseball is our American religion and Cooperstown is its spiritual center is one thing; calling baseball truly sacred is another. Unlike virtually every author on the subject, I will not invoke Bull Durham's Annie Savoy's opening soliloquy as proof that baseball is a bona fide religion. Instead, I will refer to an article by Frank Hall, which states that the analogy between baseball and religion is limited. While baseball, with all its rituals and ceremonies, certainly mirrors religion, it lacks a metaphysics. It may have saints and heroes, but baseball has no real sense of the divine. (2) In order for baseball to be a religion, Hall suggests, it must include in its cosmology a concept of the afterlife. However, there are other ways to look at it. As early as 1919, hardly a banner year for professional baseball, the French theologian and philosopher Morris Raphael Cohen noted that the sport offers us, as Americans, "redemption from the limitations of our petty lives and the mystic unity w ith a larger life of which we are a part." (3) Of the group worship that leads to this redemption and mystic unity, A. Bartlett Giamatti, a Renaissance scholar well versed in the European theological tradition, as well as having been one of our more esteemed popes, writes, "Here we are led to America's moral hunger for egalitarian collectivity which impels us as individuals to aggregate and invest the aggregation with numinous meaning, over and over again, as if for the first time every time." (4) This statement may be said to serve as an example of the theory suggested by social scientist W. …

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