This week I turned from my stack of Jewish books to the pile of books about my other religion: Baseball.
No, it’s not a different faith; and yes, still only one God. But baseball holds so many other significant components of religion that I wonder if it isn’t more than mere comparison, transcending metaphor. After reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Wait Till Next Year, I think she might agree.
Goodwin was one of those interviewed in Ken Burns’ magnum opus documentary on baseball, and noted a common experience among her fellow commentators: “The enthusiastic intensity of their recollections revealed that they were remembering not simply the history of a team or a group of athletes but their own history, and especially their youthful days.” (p. 9) It’s why she decided to write this memoir through the lens of baseball.
My own personal and baseball memories are similarly intertwined. My dad teaching me how to keep score in the stands. Ozzie Smith backflipping into place at shortstop. Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” blasting over the school loudspeaker when the Cardinals won the World Series. Talking with my parents on the phone as we watched, in different states, the home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. These are memories rivaled only by family Seders, Rosh Hashanah services, and Chanukah celebrations in terms of power and impact.
Sacred texts not only teach us stories, they teach us how to tell them. The Torah gives us the bare bones of a story, and then each reader, through midrash and commentary, fills in the gaps and fleshes it out. But the story is always rooted in the text — just like a game comes to life from its scorecard. “See,” Goodwin’s father tells her, pointing to her scorebook, “it’s all here. While Robinson was dancing off second, he rattled the pitcher so badly that the next two guys walked to load the bases. That’s the impact Robinson makes, game after game. Isn’t he something?” (pp. 16-17)
It’s why it can take hours to cover both a single folio of Talmud or a newspaper page of box scores — not because of the relatively short text itself, but because of the endless commentary it can spark in our minds.
I remember the first time I entered KKBE’s glorious sanctuary. The first time I saw the Kotel in Jerusalem; the view of the whole city from the Tayelet. And I remember the first time I saw the field of a major league ballpark. Goodwin writes of seeing a game at Ebbets Field for the first time: “As we started through a tunneled ramp into the stadium, my father told me that I was about to see the most beautiful sight in the world. Just as he finished speaking, there it was: the reddish-brown diamond, the impossibly green grass, the stands so tightly packed with people that not a single empty seat could be seen.” (p. 48)
The sight of the “impossibly green grass” and perfectly sculpted pitcher’s mound and base paths still takes my breath away. Every. Single. Time.
Baseball, like all religions, is chock full of rituals and they govern every aspect of a game, before, during, and after. We often draw comparisons in Judaism between the Bar’chu and The Star Spangled Banner; standing for the Aleinu (which typically and conveniently comes after the sermon) and the Seventh Inning Stretch; and kippot/tallit and uniforms (sometimes they’re even one and the same).
This description Goodwin shares of savoring a victory, of holding onto the feeling of joy for as long as possible, feels so very familiar: “I experienced that night what I have experienced many times since: the absolute pleasure that comes from prolonging the winning feeling by reliving the game, first with the scorebook, then with the wrap-up on the radio, and finally, once I learned about printed box scores, with the newspaper accounts the next day.” (p. 51) Substitute ESPN highlights for the radio wrap-up and I often do the exact same things.
It reminds me of the Jewish ritual of Havdalah, of using the lingering sweet smell of spices and the brightness of a multi-wicked candle to try and savor the joy of Shabbat for as long as possible. When something makes your soul soar, you don’t want to let it go.
Come on, every religious community has these, right? Which is the better matzah ball — sinkers or floaters? Which Israeli city should you spend more time in — Jerusalem or Tel Aviv? Who gave the right legal opinion about, well, anything — Hillel or Shammai? We know the debates well, and we each take a side. Baseball has them, too.
Exhibit A — Goodwin writing about her childhood as a Dodgers fan: “We spent hours arguing about whether Duke Snider, Willie Mays, or Mickey Mantle was the best center fielder. … Who was the best catcher: Roy Campanella, steady behind the plate, unequaled in calling pitches, but a streaky hitter, or the short-armed swarthy Yogi Berra, the most dangerous hitter in baseball in late innings? Was Pee Wee Reese, the “Little Colonel,” who held the Dodgers together, a better shortstop than Phil Rizzuto, who led the American League in fielding?” (p. 66)
Exhibit B — Dr. Anthony Fauci (yes, that Dr. Fauci) reminiscing in a recent New Yorker article about his childhood as a Yankees fan: “We spent our days arguing who was better: Duke Snider verses Micky Mantle; Roy Campanella versus Yogi Berra; Pee Wee Reese versus Phil Rizzuto and on and on. Those were the days, my friend.”
The debates are eternal and you have take a side. It’s the rule.
Every religion has a superstitious side, as well. I mean, what’s the value of religious practice if it can’t make an impact on our surrounding world? Some superstitions impact things for the better. Gil Hodges, the struggling Dodgers hitter, made a visit to a local sporting goods store during Goodwin’s childhood, and she went, bearing a special gift for the baseball star: a St. Christopher medal, patron saint of travel, that had been blessed by the Pope. “St. Christopher would watch over his swing so that he could return home safely each time he went to bat,” she reasoned. “[Hodges] accepted the medal with great solemnity. He told me that he, too, had once had a St. Christopher medal blessed by the Pope. But he had given it to his father, a coal miner in Indiana. Mining was a dangerous business, he explained, and his father had broken his back, lost an eye, and severed three toes in a series of accidents, so he thought his father needed the medal more than he did. He was thrilled, he said, to receive a medal of his own.” And immediately, on a road trip that began the very next day, Hodges began to hit. “Sportswriters attributed his miraculous resurrection to his ability to sleep soundly since leaving his [newborn] infant at home. But I knew better,” Goodwin says. (p. 139)
Some superstitions do harm. After trading the autograph of one player for another (the terms of which you can read about in the book, but suffice it to say left Goodwin feeling guilty), “the very next day, Clem Labine” — whose autograph she had traded away — “Clem Labine’s star began to wane. In the first inning of his fifth major-league start, he lost control of his curveball and loaded the bases. … The next batter hit a grand slam.” (p. 147) There is perhaps nothing worse than knowing you’ve done something, or failed to do something, that cost your team a game (…she types as she inspects her “Cardinals shrine” to make sure none of the bobble heads or other collected memorabilia are out of place).
But perhaps it all boils down to this: If baseball fandom is not a separate religious identity, it is at least on par with one. “My life had been held fast to a web of familiar places and familiar people,” Goodwin writes, “my family, my block, my church, my team, my town, my country. They were part of the way I defined myself. I was not only Doris Helen Kearns, but a Catholic, a resident of Southard Avenue, a Dodgers fan, a Rockville Centre girl. Everything was wonderfully in order.”
Same here! Except substitute Cardinals for the Dodgers. And Jewish for Catholic. And… well, most everything else would need to be changed, too. But don’t worry about it —- because really those are the only two that matter.