We know that spring is here when baseball begins. This week the National and American Leagues began to play regular season baseball, a rite of spring that is generally regarded as an event of cultural significance. It is, after all, our national pastime. Thus the French scholar Jacques Barzun wrote, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball” [quoted by Christopher H. Evans and William R. Herzog II, The Faith of Fifty Million: Baseball, Religion, and American Culture, Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002, p. 10]. But some have suggested that baseball has even deeper significance—that it relates in some way to ultimate reality. Hence the title of Thomas Boswell’s well known book, Why Time Begins on Opening Day.
Baseball resounds with echoes from Eden. It is played in a park—if you will, a garden. I can still remember my first glimpse of Wrigley Field in Chicago. My father and I climbed the ramp to the upper deck, walked through the tunnel, and stood blinking in the sunlight, dazzled by the golden diamond shimmering in a field of emerald. I was only five years old, yet I felt like I was coming home.
Like the Garden of Eden, baseball was created good. At least that’s what some people say. The man who codified the rules of the game was Henry Chadwick, and he claimed that baseball was “the one absolutely honest professional sport on earth.” When Chadwick died, his obituary noted that he had devoted his life to “keeping the game he loved pure and free from evil.”
This was not so simple. Even if baseball was created good, it soon fell into sin. I first realized this towards the end of the 1970s, when the New York Yankees began buying up every free agent in sight. I sensed that something was wrong, even if I was too young to know that avarice was one of the seven deadly sins.
Some would say that baseball has never been anything but fallen, that it was never in a state of created innocence. They say that the myth of the game’s pristine origin is actually a lie: Abner Doubleday didn’t invent baseball at all, but stole it from the British. But any doubts as to whether baseball was fallen were abolished in 1919, when the infamous Black Sox threw the World Series. As Christopher Evans and William Herzog write in their recent book, The Faith of Fifty Million, “The immensely popular game attracted gamblers from the very beginning. They were always the snakes in the idyllic garden threatening the Edenic innocence of the game and, in time, when they saw their opportunity, would precipitate its fall” [Evans and Herzog, Faith of Fifty Million, p. 2].
It has not proven any easier to keep baseball free from evil than any other aspect of human life. Owners have taken financial advantage of their players. Players have gone on strike and betrayed the trust of their fans. There has been gambling, drug use, and violence. The green grass of godliness has been torn up and replaced with the Astroturf of sin.
For the game’s first 70 years the most obvious sin was racism, as African-American players were banished to the Negro Leagues. But there was always the possibility that baseball could be redeemed, as it was when Jackie Robinson broke the color line—surely the most significant event in American sports history.
Branch Rickey, the general manager who brought Robinson to the big leagues, was motivated by Christian principles. When asked why he did it, Rickey said, “I couldn’t face my God much longer knowing that His black creatures are held separate and distinct from His white creatures in the game that has given me all I own” [quoted by Fred Glennon, “Baseball’s Surprising Moral Example: Branch Rickey, Jackie Robinson, and the Racial Integration of America,” in Evans and Herzog, Faith of Fifty Million, p. 151]. To help Robinson prepare for all the discrimination and abuse he would face in the big leagues, Rickey gave him a book on the life of Christ. When he was finished, Robinson returned it and said, “Mr. Rickey, I’ve got two cheeks. That it?” [quoted by Glennon in Evans and Herzog, Faith of Fifty Million, p. 151]. That was it. Like Jesus, Robinson needed to “turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5:39).
To this day, the baseball diamond has been redeemed as a place where people from every ethnic background can belong to the same community. Besides reconciliation, there are other virtues that baseball cultivates. There is the hope that springs eternal on opening day, even in cities like Philadelphia. There is the sense of teamwork and fair play that it promotes. And there is the longsuffering that baseball fans in Chicago and Boston learn through suffering.
My point in saying all this is not to suggest that there is any unique spiritual significance to baseball. However, like everything else that human beings do, baseball has spiritual implications. It is part of life in God’s world, and as such, it has the same creative integrity, the same tragic depravity, and the same redemptive possibility as any other legitimate human enterprise.
One reason I think of baseball in spiritual terms is that I had my first eschatological experience on a baseball field. (I mean this in all seriousness). It was on a warm afternoon in late spring or early summer. I was about four years old, maybe five. Out of a simple game of backyard catch grew a baseball game for the whole neighborhood. Skippy’s garage served as the backstop. Over the fence into Robbie’s yard was a homer. But the game itself was played in my very own back yard. Everyone joined the game: big kids and little kids, boys and girls, moms and dads. And everyone got to play—even me, the littlest kid there.
I remember it now as one of the happiest moments of my childhood, a moment when everything connected and everyone came together. I wished that the game would never end. It was only baseball, of course, but in a fallen world, even baseball whispers rumors of eternity. People sometimes complain that baseball takes too long. In fact, the opposite is the case. Nine innings are over long before the game’s full potential can be reached.
I have often wondered whether there is baseball in heaven. If not, then there must be something better. But maybe there’s just baseball. In his vision of the New Jerusalem, the prophet Zechariah saw “the city streets filled with boys and girls playing there” (Zech. 8:5). Now I could be wrong about this, but I have always imagined them playing stickball. Then again, maybe not. Maybe heaven is big enough for them to play baseball.
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