Baseball is huge in the United States. Major League Baseball stadiums welcomed more than 73 million fans to ballparks in 2016. 11.5 million players of all ages enjoy the game in neighborhoods. Though attendance is down dramatically over last year, still 2 million young people played the All-American Sport. Baseball remains the fourth-most-popular team sport, trailing only basketball, soccer and softball. With $8 billion revenue, its big business, too. But baseball has always been the favored sport of Americans. Did you ever wonder why?
Baseball Nation- Baseball's history began in 1849 between a New York and a New Jersey team. The history of a nation was wrapped around the sport like a baseball's 216 stitches. "The first clubs adopted names with patriotic associations, such as Young America, Eagle, Empire, National, or Continental," according to historian George Kirsch (Baseball in Blue and Gray: The National Pastime During the Civil War, p ix). Abraham Lincoln played baseball, along with the rest of the nation. Beginning in 1909, even the United States Congress played the game. What was the nation paying attention to during the formative years of baseball?
The economy of the Industrial Revolution offered unprecedented growth in the 1800's, and a case can be made that slavery played a critical role in that economic development. Average per capita income was up, but only for those with privilege. The nation became increasingly divided over slavery and its inhumanity, one race above all others.
The 1860 census reported that 13% of the nation was enslaved, numbering 3,950,528 human beings. At its end, more than 700,000 human beings were dead, exceeding the total number of dead from every war since. Baseball's diamonds became a place for community sabbath, a place of rest.
Somehow, the practice of baseball succeeded in bringing communities together with a shared experience where the practice of faith failed. Let’s consider an example from the Presbyterian tribe, of which I am a minister member.
According the The Presbyterian General Assembly Minutes from the 1860 national meeting in Philadelphia, the assembled commissioners of ministers and elders spent more time discussing the internal political relationship between the church and its mission boards (inward-focused behavior) than on speaking justice to power and proposing a resolution to the slavery question and ending the practice of the slavery of human beings (outward-focused behavior).
In 1861, the first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America met in Augusta, Georgia and as secessionists, and defended the acceptance and legislated new church doctrine with an accomodation to slavery. All other national religious denominations divided over slavery, too, like the Presbyterians. This was a tragically missed opportunity.
(In hindsight, we may at first not want to be too critical of Presbyterians in mid-19th century America from the vantage point of our 21st Century sensibilities and experience. But think again. While the Presbyterian tribe in the United States was rent in two like the the nation itself, the Presbyterian tribe in Scotland and Great Britain successfully worked to irradiate the practice of slavery there thanks to the leadership of many Presbyterians such as the Rev. Dr. Thomas Chalmers.)
Both Union and Confederate armies recognized the value baseball offered and established wartime baseball diamonds for frontline troops as soon as the war began. Perhaps surprising, it took a year or more for the first military chaplains to appear on the battlefield. Baseball increasingly provided a way for people on and off the battlefield to enjoy the relatively safe interaction of social and community life and the values of fair play and the mystery of a game without time-limits where the game's goal is to reach home.
Communities experience varying cycles of health and wellness, and there's lots of success stories of individuals who succeed. We celebrate each individual's victory, but who is championing the right of entire communities to be safe and prosperous? The church should be that champion. What will it take for our city to be a place where our boys and girls fill the public parks, laughing and playing—a good city to grow up in (Zechariah 5:8). What is the church doing to correct persistent systems of injustice, power, privilege, and racism that continue to take its toll on communities and congregations all across America? Historically, many communities of faith defied injustice, and systems of oppression and racism. Though baseball teams were often as segregated as the communities each team called home, unfortunately, communities of faith also failed in being agents of transformation and positive change and settled on mirroring the values of their context.
As the nation healed, baseball helped put the country back together again. Baseball’s popularity continued to grow after the war, while national church attendance declined. The nation’s trauma was generally understood to be ill-served by divided faith communities. The toll of war rolled across the nation in waves of hopelessness and despair. While it took Americans almost 100 years to establish civil rights laws to protect citizens (and we still have a great deal of work to do), it took Presbyterians even longer to play ball.
In 1983, meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, the Presbytyerian Church United States and the United Presbytyerian Church USA at last reunited. (For an excellent analysis of the decades that led to the reunion see James Smiley’s article in the Presbyterian Outlook commemorating its 25th anniversary.)
In an interview with the United Church Observer (Canada), co-author of the book Baseball as a Road to God, Peter Swartz said, “But I think baseball is different. It’s timeless; there’s no clock ticking down — a game could last into infinity. The field dimensions stretch forever. And the game has patterns. A full count in the seventh inning of a game in May means something completely different in September or October.” (I recommend the book if you’re interested in exploring the spiritual dimensions in sports.)
Faith communities need to demonstrate, not just articulate, our solidarity with those who suffer. Being present in the public square is not only an obligation every churche should fulfill, it is an mandate to earn once again the right to be heard which many churches have taken for granted in communities all across America. We speak, but we are not heard. We pray, but we are not present. We act, but we have little impact.
Through the lens of baseball, we can learn a lot about ourselves, about how we should treat one another in our communities and the world’s nations whether their citizen’s are abroad or across the street. For some in our communities, it feels like the final stretch. Maybe baseball can teach churches a few things on the road to God.
(For more on how baseball can improve your life’s mission, read other articles at www.reciprocalrevo.com, and see my article in the magazine, The Presbyterian Resource Guide for Ministry.1)
1 Publication date, March 2015. Louisville, KY: Presbyterians Today (Vol 105, Issue 2 (March 2, 2015).