Sunday, November 1, 2009

Baseball as Religion in the United States by Ada Tadmor

After a triumphant deciding Game Seven of the 1986 World Series, the preeminent championship in Major League Baseball, New York Mets starting catcher Gary Carter’s first proclamation to news cameras was “My only dream was to give glory and praise to Jesus Christ” (Rotenberg 1988, 181). In a similar fashion, Baltimore Oriole Pat Kelly pointed to the heavens and bellowed “I live to Glorify God!” as he rounded the bases following a three-run home run in the 1979 championships (Rotenberg 1988, 181). It is the omnipresence of this sort of Christian integration into the sport of baseball that has led Lori Rotenberk (1988, 177) to conclude that a “religious revival…gradually is sweeping baseball.” Her article further uses the example of Baseball Chapel, a non-denominational service led by local chaplains or players that is attended by thousands of major and minor league baseball players, coaches, trainers, and managers before every game played on a Sunday (Rotenberk 1988), to demonstrate the prevalence of religious expression in sport.

Yet whether the relationship between religion and sport is limited to the ways that athletes and fans alike incorporate their faith into sports is highly contingent on how religion itself is defined. Under a functionalist framework employed by thinkers like David Chidester and Emile Durkheim, whereby religion is understood as any institution whose primary aim, like that of the Church of Christ, is to provide continuity, conformity, and sacred spaces of home and rituals of time for its followers (Chidester 1996), any sport which satisfies these objectives can be perceived as a religion. Using various theoretical perspectives, this paper addresses the means by which baseball in the United States, and the Boston Red Sox in particular, operates as religion.

In his article “The Church of Baseball, the Fetish of Coca-Cola, and the Potlatch of Rock ‘n’ Roll: Theoretical Models for the Study of Religion in American Popular Culture”, David Chidester (1996) first makes the assertion that there exists a Church of Baseball in the United States on the basis that the sport offers continuity to its devotees. Analogous with the Abrahamic religions, baseball teams like the Boston Red Sox, which officially formed as a club in 1901 (Boston Red Sox 2009), are deeply entrenched in a longstanding history and heritage. Amidst a capricious global climate, these in turn endow followers with stability and an enduring worldview by which they make meaning in their lives as part of a larger tradition.

Similar to those of more conventionally accepted religions, the records and players past of baseball institutionalise “a sacred memory of the past that informs the present” (Chidester 1996, 745), and thus preserve and advance continuity. As James Mathisen (1986, 24) claims, records for a sport like baseball “function not unlike the sacred writings and historical accounts of any religious group, providing a timeless, normative guide by which later disciples’ accomplishments are measured.” These records are further sanctified by being kept in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York, which acts a shrine to the game (Prebish 1993, 91).

Athletes and fans who are committed to baseball as religion further refer back to the so-called saints of the sport, or the players of the past, to preserve values and establish codes of standards for the present day. The Red Sox, for example, have retired the jersey numbers of seven legendary players (Boston Red Sox 2009), such as Ted Williams, who best exemplify the principles of “Development of character, habits of hard work, perseverance, competitive spirit, and teamwork” (Hoffman 1992, 6), that are central to the sport. These numbers are further on permanent display in right field of Fenway Park, the Red Sox’ home stadium, as a constant reminder of what is of the utmost important in the religion of baseball. Like the directives of the Old and New Testaments and the example set by the venerated characters contained within, baseball therefore “consists of a distinctive set of myths values, and beliefs” (Mathisen 1986, 21), that serve as the means by which devotees sustain order in their spiritual experience.

Red Sox baseball is further rich with customs and rituals that sustain the permanence and predictability that are often associated with religion. The customary singing of the Neil Diamond song “Sweet Caroline” during the second half of the 8th inning of every home Red Sox game, for instance, has become something that fans of the team not only have come to expect, but that provides them with consistency in their experience of Red Sox baseball. More notably, however, the deeply embedded traditions that are part of the Red Sox experience further offer distinctions that allow persons to obtain a better understanding of the world around them. For sociologist Emile Durkheim (1915) this worldview comes from the initial distinction in the establishment of a religion between what is sacred and what is profane. “Consequently, we get the impression that we are in relations with two distinct sorts of reality and that a sharply drawn life of demarcation separates them from each other: on the one hand is the world of profane things, on the other, that of sacred things.” (Durkheim 1915, 243) By providing a framework under which individuals can differentiate between those things that are sacred, or holy, and those that are profane, or ordinary, the traditions of baseball gives organisation and a connectedness to a larger and broader framework. Catherine Albanese (1981) corroborates this in her view that rituals in sports like baseball allow followers a system by which they can make meaning in their lives through designating certain activities and objects as sacred, and separating them from those things that are ordinary. A pair of red socks with white stitching, the official logo of the Red Sox, for instance, although an image of a commonplace object, have come to represent an institution and a heritage much larger than themselves by acting as a permanent and sacred symbol.

Baseball as religion is further exemplified in its ability to generate conformity, or what Chidester (1996) refers to as a profound sense of community and belonging. Accordingly, Lipsky (1981, 5) asserts that sport “nourishes the bonds of communal solidarity”, while Lever (1983, 15) holds that “Like the effect of a religious celebration, sport fosters a sense of identification with the others who shared the experience”, so that by “accepting that a particular team represents them symbolically, people enjoy a ritual kinship based on that common bond.” Such social cohesion is principally due to the shared goals and values that allow disciples to unite under a common cause and allegiance. Red Sox fans, for instance, are joined together by a collective desire for the team to succeed. This camaraderie felt among those most devoted to the Red Sox is epitomised by the extensiveness of the Red Sox Nation, an official membership consisting of tens of thousands of Red Sox fans from across the globe (Boston Red Sox 2009). Being a part of this institution not only offers a myriad of benefits and a membership card that verifies ones loyalty, but more importantly, a formal confirmation that one belongs to the Red Sox community at large.

Such social cohesion is further solidified in the religion of baseball through the rivalries that exist between teams that are assigned a historical tradition of opposition. These hostilities subsist in such a way that they ultimately serve to reinforce the “shared myths and beliefs” (Hoffman 1992, 23) that unified followers in the first place (Magdalinski and Chandler 2002). The intensity and longevity of the contention between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees, for example, best demonstrates the capacity for rivalry in sport to act as a unifying agent.

Fundamental to religion is the establishment for its disciples of what is known as a scared space of home. The sacred space of home is a familiar, safe and stable place where “the holy has been revealed” (Hoffman 1992, 6) in the form of sacred ritual. The sacred space of home is thought to be sacred by virtue of existing away from the chaos of the outside world, and thus being a place where followers can go to escape the ordinary (Lever 1983). For sport, stadiums such as Fenway Park constitute these houses of worship and are “where million congregate to bear witness to the manifestations of their faith.” (Edwards 1973, 262) In this sense, like a Church, Temple, or Mosque, for instance, stadiums become places where adherents fortify their conformity and engage in the rituals that, as Chidester (1996, 746) claims, “domesticates the sacred and gives it a home”. Additionally, however, the immense symbolic significance of places like Fenway Park make the sacred space of home in baseball function in the same way as Durkheim’s totem does in the most primitive religions.

According to Durkheim (1915, 236), in the earliest stages of a religion a group will establish a totem, or the “flag of the clan”, to serve as the representation of the collective experience, and act as that which binds them together. Durkheim’s totem is a nonhuman entity, generally a plant or animal, which is elected based on its concrete presence in the surrounding area of the initial meeting, and henceforth elicits the extraordinary sentiments of the religious experience. As Durkheim states (1915, 236), “it is not the intrinsic nature of the thing whose name the clan bears that marked it out to become the object of a cult”, but rather the totem is an ordinary entity that is chosen relatively arbitrarily to represent something much larger than itself. As the oldest stadium in Major League Baseball, Fenway Park accordingly embodies more than a location where fans can come to worship the gods of sport that professional players of baseball are revered to be (Prebish 1993), but rather the entire institution that is the Boston Red Sox.

Finally, baseball shares utility with Judeo-Christian religion in providing a sacred space of ritual. This is time that, like the sacred space of home, is sacred because it is differentiated from what is profane or ordinary. Baseball maintains a sacred ritual of time in the way that it combines routine and elation, so that it is a “celebration of repetition”, while simultaneously being “full of exhilaration, excitement, and peace, as though it were more real and more joyous than the activities of everyday life” (Novak 1988, 40). These latter moments of intensified astonishment are the result of baseball’s ability to produce what Durkheim referred to as collective effervescence in his book Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Durkheim (1915) maintains that religious experience generates feelings of a collective effervescence, or powerful and profound energy. He conceives this to emanate from the sense of belonging that is procured by the delirium or trance of such a spiritually intensified experience. “When they are once come together, a sort of electricity is formed by their collecting which quickly transports them to an extraordinary degree of exaltation.” (Durkheim 1915, 247) This “state of exaltation” (Durkheim 1915, 249) is so profound that a follower is raised to a higher and transcendent level of existence, and is the foundation of Elias and Dunning’s (1986) assertion that moments in a sporting event, like a baseball game, can be considered a sacred experience.

Though perhaps in part be due to the decline in formalised religion, it is without a doubt that “the power and influence of sport has increased enormously” (Prebish 1993 90). As Chidester (1996) argues in his essay, the capacity of such an integrated aspect aspect of popular culture, such as baseball, to act as religion in the United States hinges entirely on one’s characterisation of religion. If a religion is to be identified on the basis that it fulfils certain prescribed aims, such as offering continuity, conformity, and sacred spaces of home and sacred rituals of time, it is conceivable to make the claim that baseball acts as religion in the United States.


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