Thursday, May 21, 2009

Sports and the Religious Instinct

UCH’s Baseball Connection

Monday night, in the championship game of the World Baseball Classic, Japan defeated Korea by a score of 5 to 3 in 10 innings. The setting was Los Angeles’s Dodger Stadium. The U. S. team made it to the semi-finals, but lost to Korea.

The Classic isn’t a big event for most American sports fans. Major League Baseball takes precedence by a wide margin. The Classic doesn’t use the best American players, who opt out for a variety of reasons. And it takes place early in March, during Spring Training, so the American athletes aren’t close to mid season form.

However, the Classic is large for other world teams. Cuba, since its revolution, has fielded teams perennially at the top of the world game. (Fidel Castro was not only an accomplished ball player, he champions the Cuban teams for nationalistic reasons.) South American countries love the sport and send hosts of players to the American big leagues. This year Venezuela and the Dominican Republic fielded quality teams. Even the Dutch had a moment of glory early in this year’s series. And of course the two Asian countries of Korea and Japan proved their respective teams’ international mettle with a well-played and close game before 54,846 boisterous fans, many of Korean and Japanese ancestry. (Los Angeles has a large Korean population.)

Japan played a thoroughly team game of what’s been come to be called “small ball.” The Japanese players hit mostly singles, 74 singles out of total 92 hits. They stole bases, bunted, sacrificed to outscore their opponents by a lopsided 50-16 runs.

So what, many of you are probably thinking.

As I followed the course of the Japanese team to the championship, I felt a certain proprietary pride. And here’s why.

Fred Merrifield—a handsome man as this clipping shows, for a couple of years in the 1930s, was minister of this Church. He was a turn-of-the-century graduate from the University of Chicago, who had started out a Baptist but became a Unitarian. George Rutherford, for whom the Rutherford Room is co-named, said of Merrifield, “No matter how liberal his sermons, he always sounds like a Baptist Evangelist.”

Merrifield was also an All American baseball player in 1899 under the tutelage of the famous Amos Alonzo Stagg, long time manager of the University of Chicago Maroons baseball team in addition to the football team. Merrifield briefly served a Michigan Baptist church, but found his calling in 1904 as a missionary to Japan. While there he coached Japanese students in the game of baseball. He is credited with being one of the founders of baseball in Japan. In this regard, Merrifield was a pioneering field worker in an ongoing globalization of sports that began in the 20th century and is exploding in this first decade of the 20th century.

When Merrifield returned to Chicago he managed the Maroons 1921 team, while finding time to research and write. In 1925 Scribner’s published his well received Modern Religious Verse and Prose. In 1929 he published a book titled The Rediscovery of Jesus. He came to the ministry of this Hinsdale congregation in 1933.

I wonder if he made much of the conjunction of baseball and religion. (I’d like to imagine that he was the liberal counterpart to the famous ballplayer turned evangelist of that era, Billy Sunday.) Did Fred Merrfield All American and Unitarian minister mingle baseball/sports illustrations in his sermons?

The Green Fields of the Mind

There are some fine contemporary literary pieces that tease out metaphors of meaning—associating baseball with life’s larger meanings. In my estimation the best of the lot is a piece called "The Green Fields of the Mind" by A. Bartlett Giammati, a renowned Yale professor of literature and authority on Renaissance poets, Yale University President, who became for a brief few days Commissioner of Major League Baseball. His appointment was a high tide grace and class following the Pete Rose gambling scandal. Giammati brokered the agreement by which Rose left the sport.

I hope you agree with me that "The Green Fields of the Mind" is one of the finest modern essays, as pure writing but also for its insight. His sudden death served to make his remarks about “Mutability” all the more meaningful.

“It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops. Today, October 2, a Sunday of rain and broken branches and leaf-clogged drains and slick streets, it stopped, and summer was gone. …

“Somehow, the summer seemed to slip by faster this time. Maybe it wasn't this summer, but all the summers that, in this my fortieth summer, slipped by so fast. There comes a time when every summer will have something of autumn about it. Whatever the reason, it seemed to me that I was investing more and more in baseball, making the game do more of the work that keeps time fat and slow and lazy. I was counting on the game's deep patterns, three strikes, three outs, three times three innings, and its deepest impulse, to go out and back, to leave and to return home, to set the order of the day and to organize the daylight. I wrote a few things this last summer, this summer that did not last, nothing grand but some things, and yet that work was just camouflage. The real activity was done with the radio--not the all-seeing, all-falsifying television--and was the playing of the game in the only place it will last, the enclosed green field of the mind. There, in that warm, bright place, what the old poet called Mutability does not so quickly come. …”

Mr. Giammati next offered a lyrical, bordering on the heroic, description of moments in the decisive last game of the season. And being a Boston Red Sox game of the 1980s during their long drought without a championship, the game ends in disappointment.

“Briles threw, Rice swung, and it was over. One pitch, a fly to center, and it stopped. Summer died in New England and like rain sliding off a roof, the crowd slipped out of Fenway, quickly, with only a steady murmur of concern for the drive ahead remaining of the roar. Mutability had turned the seasons and translated hope to memory once again. And, once again, she had used baseball, our best invention to stay change, to bring change on.

“That is why it breaks my heart, that game--not because in New York they could win because Boston lost; in that, there is a rough justice, and a reminder to the Yankees of how slight and fragile are the circumstances that exalt one group of human beings over another. It breaks my heart because it was meant to, because it was meant to foster in me again the illusion that there was something abiding, some pattern and some impulse that could come together to make a reality that would resist the corrosion; and because, after it had fostered again that most hungered-for illusion, the game was meant to stop, and betray precisely what it promised.

“Of course, there are those who learn after the first few times. They grow out of sports. And there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun.”

Now that’s some juicy writing—juicy with the stuff of life in varying degrees of poignancy, juxtaposing change with timelessness, mirroring the great cycles of our lives in the flow of generations.

A Cub’s Lament

I have a colleague Emily Gage who for several years was minister at the Universalist Unitarian Church in Joliet and who adores the Chicago Cubs. A couple of years ago she moved to Chicago, in part so she might attend more Cubs games at Wrigley Field. A couple of years ago she attended the final home game of yet another unrequited Cub season. The Cubs lost and the season was over. I’ll not forget her account of riding her bicycle back to her apartment, ruing the 90th-something year without a World Championship, while a cold rain, like bitter tears, began to fall.

Ah, the Cubs. Last year they passed the century mark without that coveted world championship, that fate seems to snatch from their grasp whenever they are good enough to contend. Yet each April hope springs eternal.

A few years ago, thinking about the Cubs curious fate and storied history, I fashioned a lament. A lament is a poem or song of mourning. I was guided by the Old Testament genre of the psalm of which the lament is a mournful song.

I called it “Bittersweet Days of Mellow October” and wove into as much Cub lore as I could:

O, Bittersweet Days of Mellow October,
paint Veeck’s ivy red and gold.
Haunt the gloamin’ with Gabby’s homer
ever-arching into twilight;
Stir memories of heroes whose diamond deeds
hallow honored names:
Tinkers, Evers, and Chance;
Jolly Cholly and Hack;
Santo, Banks, and Williams;
Hawk and Ryno;
And a host of others—
Men playing a boys’ game for the sake
of the youth in us all.

Season heaped upon season—
April sowed October disappointment.
Yet our heroes did not fail us.
Where Waveland and Sheffield meet,
They gave us the timeless summer—
long-shadowed afternoons, each its little eternity.
“Let’s play two!”

O, Bittersweet Days of Mellow October,
sound from brick walls echoes of games-gone-by.
Blend faded cheers with yesterday’s voices—
Jack and Lou and Harry: “Hey, Hey!” and “Holy Cow!”

O, Bittersweet Days, the veil between realities
grows thin and ragged.
Through time’s momentary breach, banish forever the curse
of the Billy Goat.

O, Mellow October, grace the Heartland
with a long-awaited harvest.
Bring a World Series to ivy covered walls.
And when the games have ended and a championship won,
May it be that high atop the scoreboard
a white flag with a blue W snaps to autumn’s cleansing winds,
waving bold and glad and proud against sculling clouds
and grand towers and aching years of unrequited desire.

A Religious Substitute?

Bart Giammati’s celebrated essay touches an aspect of sports that is transcendent, what, as a student of poetry, he knew as Mutability: change in the midst of timelessness. Few have taken the meaning of sports to such a lofty estimation. Sports generally serve more down to earth purposes.

It’s axiomatic that sports fulfill an instinct within the human condition for identity and community. The team outlasts the particular players and loyalty to the team often borders on the fanatic, hence the designation fan. Often the fan is loyal to the home team: “root, root, root for the home team.”

Individual athletes can become heroes and serve archetypal purposes. The mythological constructions that Joseph Campbell identified in his seminal work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, play out game after game, in baseball some 162 episodes during a season, a continuing and cathartic experiences of truly epic proportions for the fan.

We live in a complex world that in scope grows ever more perplexing. Sports, I find, allow an ordinary person to acquire knowledge and to exercise that knowledge with a sense of control. Hence the sports talk shows on television and radio. Hence the predictions for the football draft, or the March Madness basketball brackets, or the Sunday football betting. Hence the fantasy baseball and football, so-called, leagues. To a sense of control add participation.

I find the role of sports in the transformation of American society to be particularly relevant in coming to terms with the American experience. Look at the role of sports relative to Civil Rights movement. The turn of the century, black heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson presaged the racial tensions that would shake American later in the 20th century. The black heavyweight Joe Louis and the black Olympian Jesse Owens furthered their race and pushed back Hitler’s rhetoric of Aryan superiority. Baseball’s pioneering black player Jackie Robinson opened a door for the post World War II civil rights movement. Western Texas’s (now the University of Texas El Paso) with an all black squad in 1966 defeated an all white, bastion of the South, University of Kentucky squad, changing the game of basketball forever.

Similar to the role of sports and race, sports has had a significant impact on gender issues. The second wave of contemporary feminism got a boost from Title IX action in college sports beginning in the 1970s, lifting up female athletics only in college but high school and earlier, too.

And I often muse that sports, particularly baseball, will provide the enduring descriptive for the last decades of the American 20th century, something like the Steroid Era, drawing on the likes of the now-tarnished superstars who broke longstanding records, such as Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and the Cubs own Sammy Sosa with oversized bodies and enlarged heads.

According to Michael Mandelbaum in The Meaning of Sport: “The meaning of sports, the source of their powerful grip on the imagination of Americans, has deep… roots. These games respond to human needs that can be traced back to the earliest human communities, needs to which the dominant responses for most of human history came from organized religion. Sports and organized religion share several important functions. Both address the needs of the spirit and psyche rather than those of the flesh. Neither bears directly on what is necessary for physical survival: food and shelter. Both stand outside the working world. And team sports provide three satisfactions to life to 21st century Americans that before the modern age only religion offered: a welcome relief from the routines of daily life, a model of coherence and clarity; and heroic examples to admire and emulate.”

Sports and organized religion serving the same purposes. Now there’s something to think about.

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