Play Ball! On Christianity and Baseball in American History

Play Ball! On Christianity and Baseball in American History March 29, 2018

It feels very strange to have major league baseball’s Opening Day land on Maundy Thursday. But while a March 29th start marks a stark break with century-plus-old tradition — in one of the few American pastimes that really emphasizes continuity with the past — that timing may serve as a reminder that Christianity and baseball have often intertwined in American history. For example, last summer I used an Anxious Bench post to explore the religious history of the Negro Leagues.

So for your Holy Week/Opening Day reading pleasure, let me recommend a few other posts, articles, and essays on Christianity and baseball:

• Last year our friend Paul Putz not only reviewed recent spiritual biographies of Jackie Robinson for Christianity Today, but blogged about Felipe Alou, a convert from Catholicism to evangelicalism who was one of the first Latinos featured by Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

• Earlier Paul and sports historian Art Remillard had included Billy Sunday, Bob Feller, and Christy Mathewson among their “proto-Sportians” in American religious history. (Paul has also reviewed a book about Mathewson’s faith for the Sport in American History blog. I once wrote about baseball’s “Christian Gentleman” as part of a post on muscular Christianity.)

• One of the many reasons to continue lamenting the end of Books & Culture is that that Christian review so regularly featured essays about baseball. Fortunately, many of those articles are still available online. For a time Michael R. Stevens compiled an annual season preview, and contributed occasional pieces like this one on Roger Kahn’s book about the end of the color line. I also appreciate historian Eric Miller’s essay on baseball as (more than?) business:

Yet our abiding, sentimental faith that market-driven enterprise can safeguard and nurture our most necessary ideals, practices, and institutions persists. Haven’t we endured enough history by now to know better? If neither education nor government nor church nor the family nor health nor the sky nor even finance itself is safe in the market’s hands—despite the vigilance of good men and women striving to make the system work for us, not merely for itself—why should we give baseball over to it?

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• In 2016 Baptist minister Susan Sparks shared some “Easter lessons” from baseball, including this: “…there is always a jeering crowd. We all know this from Good Friday. We also know it in our own lives. There will always be people in this world who prefer jealousy over joy, people who would rather tear us down than build us up, and people who would rather destroy than delight in something great.”

• For Scott Carney, Carlton Fisk’s iconic home run in game six of the 1975 World Series has come to exemplify his longing for heaven.

• And one Milwaukee Brewers fan had to admit that the 2016 Chicago Cubs served as an illustration of the truism that “in baseball as in the Christian life, there is no goodness without struggle.”

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• Not everyone has celebrated the relationship between sports and religion. Ten years ago, the proliferation of so-called “Faith Nights” at major league ballparks led New York Times columnist Murray Chass to call for the “separation of church and baseball.”

• Baseball has no shortage of prominently Christian superstars (plus Tim Tebow), but just how religious are MLB players? A psychologist investigated that question last year for Baseball Prospectus.

• Finally, my own blog has featured several posts on the religious history of baseball, ranging from an Eastertide reflection on John Updike’s famous essay about Ted Williams’ final at bat to a piece on the Amish love of America’s national pastime.

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I’m sure I’m just scratching the surface here. Please use the comments section to share links to your favorite writing about Christianity and baseball.

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