If you are in the Harrisburg-Mechanicsburg, PA area on November 1, 2018, and you are a sports fan, you are not going to want to miss this lecture by Paul Putz:
If you are in the Harrisburg-Mechanicsburg, PA area on November 1, 2018, and you are a sports fan, you are not going to want to miss this lecture by Paul Putz:
What do Tim Tebow and Colin Kaepernick have in common? Besides being NFL quarterbacks, they’re both famous kneelers. Yet their actions have been interpreted by sports fans and American Christians in very different ways. In today’s episode, we explore the deep historical connections between sports and Christianity. Host John Fea looks into what colonial New England’s Puritans thought about sports. They are joined by Messiah College historian Paul Putz (@p_emory), who discusses his work on the unique melding of sports and religion, “sportianity.”
On the day that the Philadelphia Eagles were supposed to visit the White House, Yoni Appelbaum of The Atlantic writes about the first time a championship sports team visited the White House. It happened in the Johnson Administration–that’s Andrew Johnson.
Here is a taste of his piece:
Here’s the thing about the pilgrimages that championship sports teams make to the White House each year. It’s a tradition rooted in efforts to achieve national unity. Like the broader American project, at their best these visits promote an expansive vision of America, a diverse society finding commonality in shared symbols and common rituals.
But the first such visit was rooted in a very different vision of American society—uniting white Americans by excluding blacks from sports, from civic rituals, and from political equality. As President Trump disinvited the Philadelphia Eagles from the White House on Monday, he loudly insisted that he still wished “to honor our great country” and “celebrate America.” His statement did not specify, though, which version of America he intended to celebrate.
In 1865, the United States was engaged in the project of Reconstruction, building a new society in the wake of the Civil War. It was also engaged in playing ball. Union soldiers brought home with them a passion for the American game, and fans flocked to ballfields to enjoy the pleasures of peacetime.
Read the rest here.
If you are a New York Mets fan, a general baseball fan, a poet (it’s National Poetry Month), or a student of the African-American experience you must read Gettysburg College historian Tim Shannon‘s recent Penn Live (Harrisburg Patriot-News) piece on Ed Charles. (I should also add that Shannon will be our guest on Episode 36 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast. It drops tonight).
I was too young to see Ed Charles play third base for the Mets (1967-69), but I have fond memories watching him play in the “Miracle Mets” highlight footage that WWOR (Channel 9) used to show during Mets rain delays in the 1970s.
Tim Shannon is one of the few writers who can connect Ed Charles’s poetry to Phillis Wheatley and the Atlantic slave trade.
Here is a taste of his op-ed:
Ed Charles, the third baseman for the “Miracle Mets” team of 1969, died last month at the age of 84.
When the New York Times ran his obituary, it included several photos, including two shots of Charles on the field. One showed him diving for a ball with the agility that earned him his nickname, “The Glider.”
Another showed him leaping with joy along with pitcher Jerry Koosman and catcher Jerry Grote after the Mets recorded the final out of the ’69 World Series.
These two shots of Charles in action on the diamond were accompanied by a very different one of him taken in the Shea Stadium locker room in 1967, not long after he had been traded to the Mets by the Kansas City A’s.
Charles sits on stool by his locker, dressed in his uniform, with a pad of paper on his knee and a pen in his hand He looks away from the camera, his eyes raised above the horizon. The photographer, it would seem, has caught “The Glider” in a different kind of action.
Rather than being in mid-air, he is in mid-thought.
Charles was a locker room poet.
Read the entire piece here. Here is Charles the poet:
I am a sucker for anything written about the old American Basketball Association. I lived through the entire duration of the league, although I did not become a fan until the last few years. As a kid growing up in the New York metropolitan area, I was a diehard New York Nets fan. My favorite player, of course, was Julius Erving, but I also loved watching Super John Williamson, Billy Paultz (“The Whopper”), and Larry Kenon. I will thrilled when the Nets moved to the NBA after the ABA folded, but was heartbroken that Dr. J left for Philadelphia.
I have heard the story about the ABA-NBA merger and the television deal that went with it, but I always enjoy reading about it again. Here is a nice piece at Sports History Weekly about the Spirits of St. Louis, one of the teams that did not join the NBA but made, and continue to make, some serious cash as a result of the merger.
The ABA was popular with fans but struggled financially due to lack of TV contracts. Investors were able to pick up a squad at half the cost of an NBA franchise with hopes that a merger would raise the value of their assets.
In 1974, brothers Ozzie and Dan Silna, flush with cash from the sale of their textile business, bought the ABA’s failing Carolina Cougars for $1 million and moved them to Saint Louis.
Earlier, the two had tried but failed to purchase the Detroit Pistons. When the merger was later announced, the Spirits were also shut out from the expanded league. But as fortune had it, the Silnas would avenge their frustration and anger with the sports deal of a lifetime.
Exhausted from waging bidding wars for players and fans, the NBA finally relented to a merger in 1976. Of the seven ABA clubs still competing, only four were allowed in: New York Nets, Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, and San Antonio Spurs.
One team, the Virginia Squires, had recently folded and the other two, the Kentucky Colonels and Saint Louis Spirits, were offered buyouts to disband. The owner of the Colonels accepted a $3 million takeout, but the Silnas held out for more.
The Spirits had accumulated a talent pool that leveraged their bargaining power. On the court, they employed All-Stars like Moses Malone, Marvin Barnes and Maurice Lucas. Their local play-by-play announcer was the young Bob Costas.
Since only 4 of 7 ABA franchises were accepted, the Silnas negotiated $2 million up front, plus a portion of TV broadcast revenues equal to 1/7 of the amount received by those 4 selected teams.
The kicker? The tenor of the contract would be “for as long as the NBA or its successors continues in its existence”- basically, in perpetuity.
Since TV earnings were insignificant at the time and all the relevant parties were anxious to launch the new league, the agreement was signed off in heat and haste.
But nobody, including Ozzie and Dan Silna, expected the NBA to explode as it did in the 1980’s and 1990’s, ushering in the modern era of lucrative TV contracts.
Read the entire piece here.
Host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling return to a beloved subject, sports culture. While they have previously discussed baseball, the Olympics, and soccer, in this episode they turn their attention to global hockey. John discusses his short history as an aspiring goalie. They are joined by Bruce Berglund, who offers a peek into his new project on the spread and evolution of global hockey cultures.
The NFL season began last night. That means it’s time for Christianity Today and other religious publications to start publishing pieces on Christianity and football. This year is no exception. Check out this piece by Paul Putz and Hunter Hampton, two emerging scholars of religion and sport.
Here is a taste of “God and the Gridiron Game“:
Some Protestants, especially “muscular Christians” like Yale graduate and University of Chicago football coach Amos Alonzo Stagg, saw nothing wrong with the physicality of the sport. Indeed, football’s defenders often cited the prevalence of pious “praying” players as evidence of the game’s compatibility with Christian morality. But many Protestant leaders denounced football’s brutality. Charles Blanchard, president of Wheaton College from 1882 until 1925, took this view. He placed football in the same category as gambling and hard liquor, and viewed the sport not as a heroic, manly game, but a savage sport inhibiting students’ development into productive and civilized men.
In the 1890s and early 1900s, football’s leaders responded to critics like Blanchard by instituting a series of reforms (such as the legalization of the forward pass and the elimination of mass plays) to open up the game. Over time the rule changes helped to protect football from charges of brutality.
The passion that the game inspired in participants and spectators protected football as well. Presbyterian theologian J. Gresham Machen was one of many to fall under its spell. “When I see a vacant field on one of these autumn days,” Machen wrote to a friend while in Europe in 1905, “my mind is filled with wonder at this benighted people which does not seem to hear the voice of nature when she commands every human being to play football or watch it being played.”
Read the entire piece here. In their next piece, I would like to see Hampton and Putz historicize this story. How much longer can Christian colleges continue to field football teams and keep their moral integrity?
Baylor University graduate student Paul Putz has started a blog on sports and American Christianity.
Here is how he describes “Sportianity“:
Let’s start with the name. “Sportianity” is a term coined by legendary sportswriter Frank Deford. He used it in a 1976 Sports Illustrated series on religion in sport (read more about that series here). Deford used it in a mostly negative sense, implying that Sportianity was a corruption of true Christianity; it was a religion “more devoted to exploiting sport than to serving it.”
I do not use it in the negative sense implied by Deford. Rather “Sportianity” is meant as a descriptive term for the unique cultural world that stands at the intersection of sports and (mostly evangelical Protestant) Christianity. It is inhabited by institutions like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Athletes in Action, and others. It is championed by media/publications like Sports Spectrum. And it is represented by celebrity athletes like Tim Tebow, Stephen Curry, and Maya Moore.
Over the coming months I will focus on two types of content. First, book reviews/summaries. There are hundreds of books that take up the topic of sports and Christianity. Some are written from a critical perspective, others are intended to inspire true believers. Still others are biographies or autobiographies that focus on the faith of famous athlete and coaches. I will use this space to discuss some of those books, both new and old.
Second, biographical vignettes. I’m currently finishing up a dissertation on the history of Sportianity. In my research I often come across the names of famous athletes from the past who were public about their faith. Many of those athletes will not make it into my dissertation, so I will post brief historical snippets about some of them here.
Good luck with the new blog, Paul! We will be reading.
For previous posts in this series click here.
We began Day 9 in Middletown, Ohio and ended it back in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. It was an amazing trip and I was blessed to have experienced it with my wife Joy and my youngest daughter Caroline. We spent a lot of time in the car on the drive home to the Harrisburg area discussing all that we learned.
Thanks to Todd Allen and the staff of Common Ground Project for all of their work in making this tour a success. I am also happy to report that Messiah College will be the new base of operation for the Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights Tour. Todd will be joining us in the Fall as a professor in the Department of Communications and special assistant to the president for diversity affairs.
Our only stop on Day 9 was the historic Clearview Golf Club in Canton, Ohio. The golf course was designed and constructed in 1946 by William “Bill” Powell. When Powell returned to Minerva, Ohio after serving in the Air Force during World War II he was banned from all-white golf courses and could not obtain a bank loan to build his own course. (Powell learned the game as a boy from working at a golf club in Canton. He went on to captain the golf team at Wilberforce University). He eventually found two doctors willing to help him buy a piece of farmland in East Canton and went to work on building Clearview Golf Club. He worked on the course during the day and, in order so support his family, worked as a security guard from 3-11pm. In 1948 Clearview opened as an integrated course–the only course in the United States designed, constructed, owned, and operated by an African American. Here is a USGA video on Powell and Clearview:
Our host at Clearview was Powell’s daughter Renee Powell, the club professional. Renee spent thirteen years (1967-1980) on the LPGA tour and was the second black golfer to play on the tour. (Althea Gibson was the first). Since then she has been an ambassador for golf around the world.
Here are some more pics:
In my opinion it does not get any better than Al Michaels and Ken Dryden on February 22, 1980. (It happened on George Washington’s birthday). There was a time during my teenage years when I had Michaels’s call of the final minute of this game memorized. I can still recite some of it. One of the overlooked parts of this call was legendary Montreal Canadian goalie Ken Dryden, a Canadian, saying “unbelievable” as the game ended. He was clearly shocked by what he had just witnessed. (Dryden is also know for saying “the U.S. team is relying a little too much on [goalie] Jim Craig, he’s making too many good saves” seconds before Michael’s interrupted to call what turned out to be the game-winning goal: “ERUZIONE, MIKE ERUZIONE!!!!“)
Hank Aaron hit his 715th career home run on April 8, 1974, breaking Babe Ruth’s longstanding record. The reporter in the white trench coat celebrating with the team at home plate is Craig Sager. RIP
When the Chicago Cubs finally ended the “Curse of the Billy Goat,” they demonstrated just how historic “America’s Pastime” truly is. When Michael Phelps won his 28th Olympic medal in Rio de Janeiro, he furthered his case for being known as the greatest Olympian history has ever known. Host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling once again tackle the history of sports, and are joined by Emmy award-winning sports historian, Amy Bass (@bassab1).
If you’re like me, you know the name Vernon L. Parrington from your graduate-level course in American historiography. Parrington won the Pulitzer Prize in History in 1928 for his book Main Currents of American Thought. Post-war students of intellectual history got to know Parrington through Richard Hofstadter’s 1968 work The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington.
But did you know that Parrington was also responsible for bringing college football to Oklahoma?
Here is a taste of Andrew McGregor’s post at Sport in American History:
Football morphed into a formalized campus institution following the arrival of Vernon Louis Parringtonat the University of Oklahoma in 1897. Hired to develop a department of English for the young university, he took on the added unpaid roles of football coach and athletic director. The extra duties were no bother to Parrington, who, like many of the leading Progressive thinkers of the day, viewed sport as an important part of training complete men. Football also played an important role in establishing a university culture. Parrington was intimately tied to both at Oklahoma.
Parrington, who is perhaps best remembered as one of the founders of American Studies, winner of the 1927 Pulitzer Prize for History, and one of Richard Hofstadter’s “Progressive Historians,” embodied Theodore Roosevelt’s “Strenuous Life.” He modeled a form of robust yet genteel masculinity, representing the ideal well-rounded man at the heart of intercollegiate athletics. Oklahoma could choose no better symbol to found their athletic programs.
Like Harts, Parrington came to Oklahoma from Kansas, where he was a professor of English at the College of Emporia. Parrington also coached the “Fighting Presbies” football and baseball teams. His interest in athletics first developed, however, while a youth playing baseball in rural Kansas. Parrington excelled at baseball and nurtured this interest while a prep student at the College of Emporia, likely helping to organize its first baseball team.
In the College of Emporia’s student newspaper, according to historian James T. Colwell, Parrington “urged western colleges to concentrate more on ‘the laurels of the arena’ and less on those of the forum; on athletics rather than oratory.” He focused on both while a student in Emporia, and continued to pursue athletics when he transferred east to Harvard University. Parrington played some baseball while at Harvard, but football caught his eye. “The first [organized] football [game] I ever saw was in Cambridge,” he later remembered. The Crimson were routinely one of the nation’s best teams, providing Parrington the chance to learn the game from the best. While sources disagree on whether Parrington actually played football at Harvard, he certainly studied their methods, bringing them with him back to Emporia.
Read the entire post here.
Bill Russell, Tommy Heinsohn, KC Jones, Bob Cousy, Oscar Robertson, Jerry Lucas, Bob Petit, and Hank Gola.
It was the team that played 19 games in Poland, Romania, Egypt, and Yugoslavia as part of the United States State Department goodwill tour in 1964. The team was coached by Red Auerbach.
Robertson tells the story of this “Dream Team” at The Undefeated. Here is a taste:
A State Department official who knew Red asked him to put together a team to tour Russia, Yugoslavia, Poland, Romania and Egypt following the 1964 NBA season. The Russians took a look at the roster Red had put together and decided not to admit us into the Soviet Union.
In the other four countries, we were welcomed with open arms. For one thing, they knew our games were likely to sell out, and the gate receipts would help build their local basketball federations.
Read the entire piece here.
Rebecca T. Alpert is Senior Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at Temple University. This interview is based on the forthcoming paperback release of her 2011 book Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball (Oxford University Press).
JF: What led you to write Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball?
RA: I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, an avid Brooklyn Dodgers fan. My mother taught me that the Dodgers were “Jewish” because they were responsible for breaking baseball’s color line, and racial equality is a fundamental Jewish value. As I began to do some research many years later, I discovered that my mother was not the only one who held that belief; many liberal Jews, like other ethnic groups in Brooklyn, believed that their support of Jackie Robinson integrating baseball was a big reason why that happened. (They weren’t entirely wrong; Branch Rickey could never have succeeded at his “Great Experiment” in St. Louis where he worked for many years; in fact, he never even tried.) I wrote an article about that topic entitled “Jackie Robinson: Jewish Icon.” But then I started to wonder, where were the Jews when baseball was segregated? Did they play any role in the Negro Leagues?
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball?
RA: In Out of Left Field I argue that Jews made a unique contribution to mid twentieth century black baseball, in three ways. They played ball–a community of black Jews in Virginia, known as Temple Beth El, had their own team that played against the Negro League teams when they barnstormed through the South; they owned teams—several second generation Eastern European Jews were instrumental in the operation of the Negro Leagues; and they fought to integrate baseball—the Jewish sportswriters at the communist newspaper, The Daily Worker, both reported on Negro League games when other white newspapers ignored them, and led efforts to end segregation as early as the mid-1930s, working alongside the black press.
JF: Why do we need to read Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball?
RA: The book opens up a new perspective on the old question of the relationship between Jews and African Americans. It shows quite pointedly that there is some kernel of truth to the myth of the Black-Jewish alliance in the post-World War II era, but that the story is much more complicated, as illustrated through these case studies of black Jews, Jewish businessmen, and Jewish communists that took place before and during the war.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
RA: I actually don’t identify as an American historian; I’m a religious studies scholar who works primarily in the area of American Judaism. My interest in American Jewish history began when, as a religion major in college, I decided to spend my junior year in Israel to learn more about my Jewish identity. What I quickly discovered there was that I’m really an American Jew, and so when I went to graduate school I focused my studies on American Judaism. From there I quickly learned I couldn’t understand American Judaism without learning about American religion, and ultimately that I needed to understand American history to really comprehend American religion.
JF: What is your next project?
RA: I am continuing to work in the area of religion and sports, co-editing an anthology, Gods, Games, and Globalization: New Perspectives on Religion and Sports. It will include articles about religious groups of all shapes and sizes that have used sports as a vehicle for inclusion into the mainstream, as a recruitment device, or for developing spiritual and physical fitness. And beyond the “holy trinity” of American sports—baseball, basketball, and football—one finds the traces of transcendence in everything from mixed martial arts to soccer. All told, this collection will reveal the variety of religious experiences within sports on the global stage.
JF: Thanks, Rebecca!
It happened 40 years ago today. (Thanks for Keith Beutler for bringing this to my attention via Facebook).
Drew Dyrli Hermeling and I just recorded Episode 7 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home podcast. It is our baseball episode and it will go public on Sunday. Our guest is ESPN’s Paul Lukas, an expert on the history of baseball uniforms. Stay tuned. Better yet, head over to the podcast page and download a few episodes. Even better yet, tell your friends to download a few episodes.
As the baseball season gets underway this week, I have been trying to catch up on the work of sportswriters and commentators who usually use the first week of April to reflect on the meaning of baseball to American life. So far that best thing I have read comes from Chris Gerhz at his blog, The Pietist Schoolman. Here is a taste of “Opening Day: ‘An Indefensible Hope.’“:
For my Twins and most other major league teams, today is Opening Day: the time each year when I’m reminded again that I love baseball far above every other sport — and that it’s hard to explain that love to non-fans. For example, the fact that baseball could inspire a writer as acclaimed as John Updike to do some of his best work speaks volumes about the National Pastime: why I love it, and why others roll their eyes at people like me.
Consider Updike’s 1960 New Yorker essay on Ted Williams’ last game (“Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu“). Within three sentences, Updike has already described Fenway Park as “a compromise between Man’s Euclidean determinations and Nature’s beguiling irregularities.” And he’s exactly right to do so… But that’s just the first classical reference in an essay that goes on to liken Williams to Jason, Achilles, and Nestor.
And to compare him to works by both Donatello and Leonardo.
And to use “Wordsworthian” as an adjective. And to record a joke about Thomas Aquinas.
As you may have heard, baseball is “the thinking man’s game.”
But even if you find such allusions pretentious, stick with Updike’s essay. You’ll eventually come to his riveting account of the 41-year old Williams stepping into the batter’s box in the 8th inning of an otherwise meaningless game:
This was almost certainly his last time to come to the plate in Fenway Park, and instead of merely cheering, as we had at his three previous appearances, we stood, all of us—stood and applauded. Have you ever heard applause in a ballpark? Just applause—no calling, no whistling, just an ocean of handclaps, minute after minute, burst after burst, crowding and running together in continuous succession like the pushes of surf at the edge of the sand. It was a sombre and considered tumult. There was not a boo in it. It seemed to renew itself out of a shifting set of memories as the kid, the Marine, the veteran of feuds and failures and injuries, the friend of children, and the enduring old pro evolved down the bright tunnel of twenty-one summers toward this moment. At last, the umpire signalled for Fisher to pitch; with the other players, he had been frozen in position. Only Williams had moved during the ovation, switching his hat impatiently, ignoring everything except his cherished task. Fisher wound up, and the applause sank into a hush.
As a historian, I appreciate how Updike has all those memories of the past (each hearkening back to earlier sections of the essay) converging in a single moment. That’s a big part of baseball’s appeal for me: everything that happens adds a layer to the archeology of a game that would be recognizable to Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama alike.
Read the entire post here.
I hope you all saw CBS’s piece celebrating the 3oth anniversary of “One Shining Moment.” (It is not up on-line yet).
Since it first premiered in the 1987 national championship game I have been staying up late to listen to this song. After eight years of blogging here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home I now feel comfortable telling everyone that my wife surprised me at our wedding reception by having the band play this song. It was great!
Here is the 2015 version:
Go Nova! If they win I win the Messiah College pool.
I did not play a lot of baseball as a kid; I was more of a basketball player, but there is something about baseball that is so fundamentally woven into our culture. And in some ways, at a time in our lives where everything is a mile a minute and kids are on their phone all the time and there’s just this constant stream of information, there is nothing like going to a ball park and just everything slowing down a little bit, and the rhythm of the game gives you a sense of appreciation about all the blessings we have. It’s still a family game in a way that is really hard to match.
O’Neil ends his piece by bringing attention to ESPN radio personality Dan Lebotard’s take on the recent game between the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Cuban National Team. Here is a taste:
When Le Batard watched the video of a Cuban dissident momentarily seize ESPN’s broadcasting platform in Havana to yell against the human-rights abuses of the Castro regime, before being swiftly and forcefully apprehended and pushed into a car, Le Batard felt no ambiguity. Nor could he muster words. He choked on tears and motioned for a commercial break to his radio broadcast.
Sporting events, like civil religion, can provide pluralistic spaces of resiliency in the face of terror. Many claim baseball did that after 9/11. Obama is a believer in that legacy. But the power of sports to produce heightened emotional states of unity, which scholars call “collective effervescence,” can also give it a shared power with religion to occlude injustice in this world, to bury it in cheap, playful sentiment. Sports, like religion, and like the American Dream, will thus continue to be contested symbolic terrain, where the stakes can prove much more complicated than zero-sum games, and the vexed emotional legacies much longer-lasting than nine innings.