Fly over almost any part of America, New Jersey especially, and some of the most ubiquitous man-made landmarks visible from the air are baseball diamonds. Often several side by side, they dot the country and provide a familiar and pleasing landscape. Many will argue the point – because other sports have more viewers – but there is something special about baseball that makes it the national sport.
Are there spiritual dimensions to baseball? Yes, claims John Sexton, long-time president of NYU, professor of comparative religions and author of “Baseball on the Road to God.” Sexton actually teaches a course at NYU on the spirituality of baseball, and his book – despite its somewhat grandiose title – is an elegant, enjoyable read, written with humility and yet packed with insight into the “values” that one can derive from baseball – its sacred spaces and times, its saints and sinners, its miracles (plays or teams), its reverence for the past. There is something about baseball that links generations in ways that other sports do not, with its traditions, continuity and history. Indeed, no sport honors its past heroes with the reverence that baseball does. There is something about baseball that ingrained it in the American psyche, and that in large part is due to the “religious” patterns that one finds in baseball.
Sexton, a practicing Catholic although married to a Jew, is earnest in his efforts to match aspects of baseball to a variety of religions and religious experiences but shortchanges Judaism, and understandably so. He does write eloquently of the famous dilemmas of Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax who both eschewed playing on Yom Kippur (although neither went to synagogue, contrary to the rumors believed until today). But the book provoked in me this thought: is there any special Jewish resonance to baseball – any similarities or rhythms that link baseball to Judaism? Yes, several, and they might explain why immigrant Jews were taken with the game, why some prominent Rabbis and Roshei Yeshiva have been big baseball fans (all in the right proportion, of course), and why even today there are more Jews playing professional baseball than playing any other sport.
The Rhythms of Life. The baseball season very closely parallels the Jewish holiday season. The first holiday of the Jewish year – Pesach – always falls close to Opening Day (one of several baseball “holidays” during the year); this year, Opening Day coincided with Pesach. And the season – both seasons – end around Sukkot, with the World Series indelibly connected for many people to Yom Kippur, and with the lengthening of the baseball season in the last several decades, now coinciding with Sukkot, the holiday described by the Torah as being celebrated “as the year goes out.”
This association transcends mere calendrical coincidence. Pesach, “the festival of spring,” is synonymous with hope, excitement and new beginnings. The connection of spring to redemption could not be clearer: “The buds have appeared on the grounds, the time for song (i.e., the chirping of birds) has come, and the sound of the turtle-dove can be heard in our land” (Shir Hashirim 2:5), all an allegory to the coming redemption. Springtime is the time for redemption – “in Nisan we were redeemed, in Nisan we will be redeemed” (Rosh Hashana 11a).
L’havdil, but nonetheless, baseball is inherently connected to spring as well. The bitter cold of winter is tempered even knowing that spring training (note the reference to the season; the other major sports do not characterize their practice periods by the season) has started. Sexton quotes the great Rogers Hornsby, he of the highest single season average (.424). Asked how he spends the winter “when there’s no baseball,” Hornsby responded: “I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.” That Pesach and baseball are both fixtures of spring is, of course, a coincidence, but in their own ways, evoke similar feelings of anticipation and exhilaration, erasing the gloom of winter, which, for Jews, contains no Biblical festivals at all.
At the other end of the year, the holidays of Tishrei, especially Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, coincide with the end of the baseball season. They (I mean the Jewish High Holidays, not the World Series!) are times for reflection and introspection – necessary for individuals and the world but also for unsuccessful teams – with the days of reckoning, known as the World Series – looming for the successful ones. There is certain wistfulness and tension – even trepidation – that accompany Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, as we account for our failures and disappointments, and search for areas that require reflection and improvement. That tension, for sure, is mirrored for the participants in the playoffs and World Series, where one pitch or swing can win eternal fame or infamy for the player. And I know not a few rabbis who refer to their High Holiday sermons as the “World Series,” especially in those communities where even the casual fan (i.e., congregant) attends and is attentive, something that doesn’t always occur the rest of the year.
And with the end of the Series – and Sukkot – there is always a feeling of dejection at the approaching winter. Indeed, the winter sports – two of which, basketball and hockey – now end close to summer (spanning almost three seasons!), in America’s relentless drive to drown its citizens in permanent entertainment and distract them from more worthwhile pursuits (the modern version of Juvenal’s “bread and circuses”). Baseball uncannily parallels the rhythms of the Jewish year. The traditional baseball lament – “Wait till next year” – even finds its counterpart, and coincides, with the wistful yet hope-filled conclusion to Yom Kippur – “Next Year in Jerusalem.”
Baseball transcends time. Baseball is famous – irritating to some – for being the only major sport that does not have a clock. A baseball game does not end at a specific time; it ends after nine innings if one team has more runs, and indefinitely until one team outscores the other. There are no game clocks that run for 48, 60, or 90 minutes.
Thus, no baseball team can ever run out the clock. Every pitch and every swing – even in a game that is otherwise a hopeless mismatch – counts. A hit is a hit is a hit, and the pitcher cannot hold the ball waiting for time to run out. This was illustrated just a few years ago in the World Series when the Cardinals twice faced elimination in the World Series – they down to their proverbial last strike, and twice (!) – and rallied to win the Series against the Texas Rangers. Life is the same way; every day carries obligations. One cannot simply retire from Torah and abstain from divine service. The obligations are constant and G-d decrees when the “game” ends.
Notice how tefila b’tzibur is analogous to baseball. Prayer is not guided by the clock (although there are certain times when different prayers are mandated – beginning and end times for Kri’at Sh’ma, shacharit, mincha, Maariv, etc.), notwithstanding the many minyanim, especially weekday morning, in which people insist on being finished by a certain time. Tefila, inherently, is the part of the day in which time is irrelevant. We don’t even have a clock in our main Sanctuary (not that that stops people from knowing what time it is); it is just that as the place for prayer is a holy space carved out from a profane world, so too the time for prayer is a holy moment carved out from our mundane day. As we know, there are baseball game played in two hours that are dull, and games that take more than three hours (think some of the Yankee-Red Sox classics of the 2000’s) that are riveting and filled with tension. I would imagine that the same could be true of davening.
Not to force the analogy too much, but one can easily discern the nine inning framework of baseball in the average Shabbat morning service. There are the early innings (Psukei D’Zimra and Shacharit) during which people are finding their way and getting into the service; the middle innings – the weekly Torah reading in which the tone of the service as a formative learning experience is set (isn’t hagbaha the seventh inning stretch? Aren’t gabbaim the coaching staff?); and Musaf, the final tefila, usually reserved for the better baal tefila (the closer?) who is entrusted with presenting the participants with a rousing and inspirational finale. (I haven’t yet figured out how the Rabbi’s sermon fits into this pattern – perhaps the manager’s trips to the mound, sometimes overdone? I assume he has some stirring message to share with his players as the fate of the game is at stake. Maybe not.)
Notice as well that, how, similar to baseball’s efforts to speed up the game (it has gotten much longer in the last two decades, by almost 20-30 minutes, and more than an hour longer than the average game in the 1950’s), there are incessant efforts to speed up the Shabbat service as well, cutting here, pruning there, with some congregations even regulating when different aspects of the service will start according to the ubiquitous and omnipotent clock.
Well, even conceding that good things can also sometimes go on for too long, the over-emphasis on the clock detracts from the tefila – and that’s essentially football or basketball, not baseball. When the congregation tunes out the customary prayers after Musaf, it is essentially running out the clock, and that is most unfortunate. (Better to leave early – a baseball tradition in parts of the country – than to stay and become disruptive!) But there is a pace to davening (and to baseball), one that is not artificially regimented by a clock and that should be maintained. Sometimes the davening can flow smoothly and the service takes two hours or less; other times, there are delays, unforeseen celebrations, additional prayers (construe that as constant pitching changes or runners on base) or a more leisurely tempo that stretches the time to 2.5 hours (hopefully, never longer).
What is most important is that people depart with a sense of satisfaction and contentment, having touched an aspect of existence beyond themselves and come closer to the Source of truth (that’s only tefila, not baseball).
The contemplated life. Baseball’s pace, unlike the frenzied action in other sports, is geared to enable people to look around, absorb the surroundings, enjoy G-d’s creation of the natural order, talk to other human beings and revel in each interaction. Sometimes our lives move so quickly that we are left gasping to enjoy it. We live in a rush to do whatever and then to do the next thing, and we are scarcely able to derive the full benefit or pleasure from having done even one of them.
There is something about baseball’s pastoral nature that also speaks to the Jewish soul, as opposed to, say, the inherent and brutish violence of football. (George Will once noted that football possesses some of the more execrable aspects of American life – brief spurts of violent interaction, each followed by a committee meeting.) Even the successes in each sport are measured differently: in football one strives to reach the “end zone,” which should be enough to frighten away any sensible person (it has certainty frightened away Jets and Giants for several years now). But in baseball, one who scores comes “home,” to be welcomed by the loving embrace of family and the applause of friends. There is a lyrical quality to the experience. One sets out on a journey, helps others and is reliant on others to help him, and is rewarded by coming home. Rav Soloveitchik envisioned repentance as a similar process – of embarking on an annual journey, being challenged and inspired along the way, and arriving home at year’s end to assess one’s progress.
Certainly one can make too much of this, but Sexton’s book is replete with analyses of human nature and man’s spiritual yearnings that will resonate with the spiritually sensitive, and perhaps even deepen our understanding of faith itself. In his words, “inside the game, the formative material of spirituality can be found .”
And if not, perhaps at least the umpire’s opening shout “play ball” can be replaced by a klop followed by an impassioned “Nu!”
Then we would really feel at home.