Baseball and Religion

I was unaware that the Los Angeles Angels invited megachurch pastor Rick Warren to deliver a “Sermon on the Mound” on Easter Sunday before delivering the ceremonial first pitch before a game at Anaheim Stadium.

The “Beliefs” section of the Houston Chronicle has a short piece on the relationship between religion and baseball. Here is a taste:

To some, baseball, which F. Scott Fitzgerald famously called “the faith of 50 million people,” is revered as a religion in itself. It follows a seasonal calendar and builds towards a crowning moment. Its players perform priestly rituals, its history abounds with tales of mythic heroes, and its fans study and argue arcana with the intensity of Talmudic scholars.

Or, as Annie Savoy poetically puts it in the 1988 film Bull Durham, “The only church that feeds the soul, day in, and day out, is the church of baseball.”

Shaun Casey, an ethicist at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, doesn’t go that far, but he does teach a class called “Church of Baseball” at Wesley.

His students go to a baseball game, learn to keep score, and read a box score. In addition, they read Robert Bellah’s famous essay on America’s civil religion, watch Ken Burns’ magisterial documentary on baseball, learn about Jackie Robinson’s integration as the first black player in the major leagues, and read how the St. Louis Cardinals beat the vaunted New York Yankees in 1964 by building a team that blended black and white players.

The point of the class, Casey says, besides convincing students of the “divine blessedness” of the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals, is to help seminarians think theologically about pop culture.

Like Casey, Rabbi Rebecca Alpert says baseball — particularly the integration of black players in the 1950s — can teach believers a thing or two about justice, fairness, and how to live in a pluralistic community.

Alpert, who teaches at Temple University in Philadelphia, said she remembers sitting with her mother in the stands at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn and watching Jackie Robinson’s Dodgers. “She would say, ‘This is the team that integrated baseball,”’ making it clear which side to root for, Alpert recalls.

Alpert, who was among the first generation of female rabbis in the U.S., says she sees a connection between those summer days and her current work, which includes a forthcoming book on how Jews helped black baseball players get to the major leagues.

Other scholars say the national pastime is an integral part of the country’s civil religion — the secular events and places Americans invest with spiritual significance. Baseball’s civil rituals include having the president throw out the first pitch, as President Barack Obama did in Washington this year, and singing the national anthem before games, which began during World War II.

How do I enroll in Shaun Casey‘s class?

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