December 30th, 2011

Baseball as a National Religion

In 2008while working on Baseball in the Garden of Eden, I found this wonderful essay tucked away in my files. I am pleased to share it with you now, on the chance that it is unfamiliar. Philosopher Morris R. Cohen published it in The Dial,Vol. 67, p. 57 (July 26, 1919). In baseball’s boom decade of the 1910s, highbrow pundits and philosophers marvel at baseball’s democratic blessings. Baseball was second only to death as a leveler,” wrote essayist Allen Sangree for Everybody’s Magazine in 1907, ten years before World War I would level American youth more literally. Even after the carnage, in July 1919, Cohen, whom Bertrand Russell called “the most significant philosopher in the United States,” could still write a glowing paean to the game.

IN THE WORLD’S HISTORY baseball is a new game: hence new to song and story and uncelebrated in the fine arts of painting, sculpture, and music. Now, as Ruskin has pointed out, people generally do not see beauty or majesty except when it has been first revealed to them in pictures or other works of art. This is peculiarly true of the people who call themselves educated. No one who prides himself on being familiar with Greek and Roman architecture and the classic masters of painting would for a moment admit that there could be any beauty in a modern skyscraper. Yet when two thousand years hence some Antarctic scholar comes to describe our civilization, he will mention as our distinctive contribution to art our beautiful office buildings, and perhaps offer in support of his thesis colored plates of some of the ruins of those temples of commerce. And when he comes to speak of America’s contribution to religion, will he not mention baseball? Do not be shocked, gentle or learned reader! I know full well that baseball is a boy’s game, and a professional sport, and that a properly cultured, serious person always feels like apologizing for attending a baseball game instead of a Strauss concert or a lecture on the customs of the Fiji Islanders. But I still maintain that, by all the canons of our modern books on comparative religion, baseball is a religion, and the only one that is not sectarian but national.

The essence of religious experience, so we are told, is the “redemption from the limitations of our petty individual lives and the mystic unity with a larger life of which we are a part.” And is not this precisely what the baseball devotee or fanatic, if you please, experiences when he watches the team representing his city battling with another? Is there any other experience in modern life in which multitudes of men so completely and intensely lose their individual selves in the larger life which they call their city? Careful students of Greek civilization do not hesitate to speak of the religious value of the Greek drama. When the auditor identifies himself with the action on the stage–Aristotle tells us–his feelings of fear and pity undergo a kind of purification (catharsis). But in baseball the identification has even more of the religious quality, since we are absorbed not only in the action of the visible actors but more deeply in the fate of the mystic unities which we call the contending cities. To be sure, there may be people who go to a baseball game to see some particular star, just as there are people who go to church to hear a particular minister preach; but these are phenomena in the circumference of the religious life. There are also blasé persons who do not care who wins so long as they can see what they call a good game–just as there are people who go to mass because they admire the vestments or intoning of the priest–but this only illustrates the pathology of the religious life. The truly religious devotee has his soul directed to the final outcome; and every one of the extraordinarily rich multiplicity of movements of the baseball game acquires its significance because of its bearing on that outcome. Instead of purifying only fear and pity, baseball exercises and purifies all of our emotions, cultivating hope and courage when we are behind, resignation when we are beaten, fairness for the other team when we are ahead, charity for the umpire, and above all the zest for combat and conquest.

When my revered friend and teacher William James wrote an essay on “A Moral Equivalent for War,” I suggested to him that baseball already embodied all the moral value of war, so far as war had any moral value. He listened sympathetically and was amused, but he did not take me seriously enough. All great men have their limitations, and William James’s were due to the fact that he lived in Cambridge, a city which, in spite of the fact that it has a population of 100,000 souls (including the professors), is not represented in any baseball league that can be detected without a microscope.

Imagine what will happen to the martial spirit in Germany if baseball is introduced there–if any Social Democrat can ask any Herr von Somebody, “What’s the score?” Suppose that in an exciting ninth-inning rally, when the home team ties the score, Captain Schmidt punches Captain Miller or breaks his helmet. Will the latter challenge him to a duel? He will not. Rather will he hug him frenziedly or pummel him joyfully at the next moment when the winning run comes across the home plate. And after the game, what need of further strife? When Jones of Philadelphia meets Brown of New York there may be a slight touch of condescension on one side, or a hidden strain of envy on the other side, but they take each other’s arm in fraternal fashion, for they have settled their differences in an open, regulated combat on a fair field. And if one of us has some sore regrets over an unfortunate error which lost the game, there is always the consolation that we have had our inning, and though we have lost there is another game or season coming. And what more can a reasonable man expect in this imperfect world than an open chance to do his best in a free and fair fight?

Every religion has its martyrs; and the greatest of all martyrdoms is to make oneself ridiculous and to be laughed at by the heathen. But whatever the danger, I am ready to urge the claims of international baseball as capable of arousing far more national religious fervor than the more monotonous game of armaments and war. Those who fear “the deadly monotony of a universal reign of peace” can convince themselves of the thrilling and exciting character of baseball by watching the behavior of crowds not only at the games but also at the baseball score-boards miles away. National rivalries and aspirations could find their intensest expression in a close international pennant race, and yet such rivalry would not be incompatible with the establishment of the true Church Universal in which all men would feel their brotherhood in the Infinite Game.

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