Book Review: Baseball as a Road to God

John Sexton, president of New York University, has written an excellent book on how baseball captures both the individual's imagination, and it's impact as a socially binding force. It's the rare baseball book that dares to think a little deeper than a rote retelling of history. Most impressively, it's not a dull read.

Let me first be clear: this book is not intended to convert. When the author says baseball can be a way to God, he doesn't mean to use it to convince you to follow his God, nor that there even is a deity. As he says in the opening passages, and at the end, this book isn't mean to show The Way but merely A Way.

It's a book that compares baseball not to the major religions explicitly, but the various religious and spiritual actions and feelings that exist in life. It's natural for humans to search for patterns and attach meaning to things where it doesn't belong. And in this, we can almost uniquely, compared to animals, attach meanings to time and space.

Much of religion can be seen as rituals that memorialize time (events) and space (the location of events). This is probably a more modern view, however, which transform religions from a moral, and some argue xenophobic1, struggle to a more transcendentalist approach. My own Judaism had more baser roots as a farming and sacrificial religion that evolved over time to move from external practices, to the more internal use of prayer and study.

The spiritual aspects of baseball should be then be evident. We hold to a calendar, observing our faith in predictable and regular intervals. Baseball, unlike the other major American sports, is with you virtually every day throughout the spring, summer, and the first blush of fall. It surrounds you and rises and falls with the seasons, and the major events of Spring Training, Opening Day, the All-Star Break, and the World Series are followed with the regularity of ritual.

Baseball, not unique in this regard, also has the spiritual claim to its space. It demands a journey, like other pilgrimages made around the world.

These are some of the themes that John Sexton covers in his book, and the NYU seminar that inspired it. Amongst others include sacrifice, faith and doubt, saints and sinners, and the concepts of miracles. He approaches it as a study of comparative religion, and injects the pages with a healthy amount of interesting baseball trivia and anecdotes. Some of it will likely be familiar, especially if you've read more than one book on the Golden Age of Baseball that Sexton grew up in.

Sexton writes very much from a New Yorker's perspective, as he both grew up in the city but also has been with NYU for quite some time. Although the "Brooklyn Dodgers fan lost at sea" story has been a well-worn path for Baby Boomer writers, his story adds in interesting dimension in that he eventually converted to Yankees fandom because he wanted to give his son, born in 1969, a local to root for. His viewpoint might seem quaint now, in that it is incredibly easy to follow non-local teams, but it's one I sympathy with and have asked myself in the event I ever move from Arizona.

Baseball as a Road to God is both a personal account of a fan's faith within the game, but also a survey of how baseball fits into American society as part of the our civil religion2. I wouldn't call it an exhausting look at the subject, but he gives the building blocks for the reader to think of it on their own, and determine what pieces they've experiences that might also fit.

Overall it's a fine baseball book that is interesting most because it examines baseball in a manner more critical than most. The average baseball book is no better than a collection of trivia, a fairly straightforward historical story, or hagiography of some beloved player. Sexton is willing to look beyond these basic approaches, and brings a refreshing set of references.

If I have a criticism it's that I wish it were longer and deeper. It's a slim volume, not even clocking 250 pages. Although it never feels shallow, it certainly left me wanting more. He touches only briefly on the important religious concept of it being a chain throughout history, something that connects people through out time and across space. The idea of a chain of history in religion is an important concept, and can be crucial in understanding the various inter-sectional conflicts that occur within religions.

Verdict: Recommended.

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1. Corey Fincher of the University of New Mexico has argued that early religions may have been a way for humans to fight against disease, in that they encouraged insular behavior that could fight off outsider's germs. Note that he doesn't believe it is the sole reason for the existence of religion, merely one possible reason amongst many.

2. Sexton doesn't claim to invent the idea of an American civil religion, citing Robert Bellah's work on the subject, and utilizing it within a baseball context.

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