God in the Line-up

How baseball and religion intersect

By James Breig

When Major League Baseball debuted its 24-7 cable channel, MLB Network, in January, the schedule included “Cathedrals of the Game,” chronicling the history of classic stadiums. The channel is new, but the idea of connecting America’s favorite pastime with faith is not. For a century and a half, the sport and spirituality have worked together.

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The proof can be found at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., where the research library includes files on religion and baseball. They are filled with newspaper and magazine clippings, photographs, and books. The files are a random collection over time of items that show how people have seen in baseball something more than just a box score.

Take the “old” Yankee Stadium in the Bronx as a prime example. Opened in 1923, it was the original “cathedral of baseball,” home to Babe Ruth and a host of other greats, and holding more World Championship banners than any other professional team. Closed just last fall, it stands today strangely empty across the street from the new Yankee Stadium that cannot inherit the honors of “the house that Ruth built.”

The new stadium also has a religious heritage to live up to. The old ballpark, on some occasions, put bats and gloves aside to take on the appearance of a church to host papal Masses celebrated by Paul VI, John Paul II and, just last year, Benedict XVI. Pope John Paul’s homily was waggishly dubbed by New York tabloids as the “Sermon on the Mound.”

Knights of Columbus Connection

In Monument Park, located beyond the outfield of old Yankee Stadium, plaques were hung to honor outstanding players, including Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Mickey Mantle. Plaques donated by the Knights of Columbus also memorialized the first two popes to offer Mass there. A similar plaque for Benedict’s Mass on April 20, 2008, is scheduled to be placed in the new stadium. It’s fitting that such religious moments be remembered on the old field: the stadium stands on land that was once owned by the Knights of Columbus.

Another “baseball cathedral” is Wrigley Field in Chicago, where the hapless Cubs play. It, too, has a religious link: The park was built on the site of the Chicago Lutheran Theological Seminary. The seminary left the area when it became too urbanized as the 20th century began and the population rose, mostly with Catholics.

The new Washington Nationals Stadium got a proper “baptism” last year when Pope Benedict XVI celebrated Mass there during his first visit to the United States as Holy Father. Not referring specifically to the Nationals fans, who have suffered through a string of losing seasons since 2005, the pope said that “Americans have always been a people of hope. … Those who have hope must live different lives!”

Calling baseball parks “cathedrals” is not the only link between the game and God. Sportscasters often refer to outstanding plays as “miracles,” to leading athletes as “gods” and to the Sporting News as “the bible of baseball.”

Many players through the years have turned to prayer on the field, doffing their caps and lifting their eyes to the heavens, or drawing crosses in the dirt with their bats. Joe Torre, now manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, was often seen in the dugout during his previous stint as Yankees manager, making a quick Sign of the Cross under the bill of his cap, either in supplication during a crucial moment and or in thanksgiving after a win.

Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron

The ties between Catholicism and baseball are strong, and the legendary Babe Ruth is an outstanding example. He was taught to play baseball by Brother Matthias Boutlier when the Babe was an incorrigible child placed in the care of the religious order that ran St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys in Baltimore.

The Babe’s long-standing record of 60 homers in the 1927 season would be surpassed by another Catholic Yankee, Roger Maris, who slugged 61 in 1961. And when the Bambino’s career homer mark of 714 was bested in 1974, it was by yet another Catholic: Hank Aaron of the Atlanta Braves.

The line that connects Catholics to the “old ball game” runs in both directions. While players bless themselves in the batter’s box, one bishop made sure to recognize the game in a unique way. A few decades ago, when it came time for Bishop Stanley Ott of Baton Rouge to design his coat of arms, he included a baseball among the traditional symbols of a cross, St. Peter’s key, the color blue for the Blessed Virgin and a Latin motto. The reason for the stitched ball was simple: He was related to Mel Ott, an outfielder for 22 seasons with the New York Giants and the first National Leaguer to whack 500 career homers.

Nuns in the Ballpark

Women religious have held a long fascination with baseball -- and vice versa. For years, the Boston Red Sox hosted an annual Nuns’ Day at Fenway Park. In 1963, 1,000 sisters turned out. A couple of female players on baseball teams when women’s leagues flourished in the 1940s even became sisters after their careers ended, trading their caps for wimples.

While all players get their faces on baseball cards, many people don’t know that a nun has also achieved that status. Sister Mary Assumpta Zabas, a rabid fan of the Cleveland Indians, was honored by Upper Deck card manufacturers for her many years of devotion -- there’s another religious term -- to the Tribe. The nun even appears in a crowd scene in “Major League,” the comedy film about the Indians.

And Willie Stargell, the Pittsburgh Pirates stalwart, had a nun to thank for getting back the baseball he hit for his 400th home run: She caught it and returned it to him.

Cardinals Speak Out

While baseball and Catholics have many positive common memories, there has been some contention, too, notably over the scheduling of games.

In 1998, for example, Cardinal John O’Connor of New York objected to games being played on Good Friday. In earlier decades, religious leaders, including bishops, opposed contests on Sundays that would tempt families away from obligatory services. On the other hand, many teams have adopted chaplains, including Catholic priests, who serve as spiritual guides in the clubhouse.

“Most religious leaders will probably say to you categorically that God has more important things to do than worry about who wins or loses a sporting event,” Christopher Evans, co-author of The Faith of Fifty Million: Baseball, Religion and American Culture, has been quoted as saying. But, he continued, “religious leaders are fans …. When a bishop or cardinal shows up for a game, it can take on new meaning, as if somehow the event is being sanctified or blessed.”

Blessings indeed were long ago bestowed on baseball by one of America’s most outstanding religious leaders: Cardinal James Gibbons, archbishop of Baltimore and the second American to become a cardinal.

Speaking in 1896, he said: “I favor baseball as an amusement for the greatest pleasure-loving people in the world …. Baseball is a clean sport. It is an innocent amusement …. It is a healthy sport, and since the people of the country generally demand some sporting event for their amusement, I would single this out as the one best to be patronized and heartily approve of it as a popular pastime.”

Amen to that!

James Breig is former editor of The Evangelist, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Albany, N.Y.