The Game of Baseball and Life’s Pilgrimage

COMMENTARY: America’s national pastime is richly suggestive of the universe set in the context of eternity.

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Former baseball owner Bill Veeck is probably best known for sending a dwarf up to the plate as a pinch hitter, much to the wrath of the commissioner. Veeck was an eccentric promoter of the game, but he did have a clear sense of baseball’s metaphysical significance.

One poetic line he penned endears him to me forever:

“That’s the true harbinger of spring, not crocuses or swallows returning to Capistrano, but the sound of a bat on a ball.”

There was the “Big Bang” that set the universe in motion. And then there was the crack of the bat that set the baseball season in motion and sent millions of kids running off to baseball fields.

George F. Will, better known as a Pulitzer Prize-winning political journalist, also understood and wrote about the transcendent importance of baseball. He was a serious candidate for commissioner of Major League Baseball and has written two bestselling books on the game. For him, along with Veeck and innumerable others, the crack of the bat echoes the sound of creation.

Consider the following sample of Will’s eloquent prose, which appeared in a 1986 article entitled, “Louisville Slugger Sure Sign of a Higher Power.” A medieval philosopher could not have said it better:

“When Thomas Aquinas was ginning up proofs of God’s existence, he neglected to mention the ash tree. It is the source of the Louisville Slugger, and hence is conclusive evidence that a kindly mind superintends the universe. The Big Bang got the universe rolling and produced among the celestial clutter one planet, Earth, enveloped in an atmosphere that causes rain to patter on Pennsylvania ridgetops where ash trees grow. They grow surrounded by other trees that protect the ash trees from wind and force them to grow straight toward sunlight. The result is wood with the perfect strength required for the musical ‘crack’ that is the sound the cosmos makes each spring when it clears its throat and says, ‘We made it.’”

In baseball jargon, “big bang” is a synonym for a home run. As a footnote, Bernard Malamud, whose baseball novel The Natural was adapted into a movie starring Robert Redford, asserted, “The whole history of baseball has the quality of my theology.”

As Will suggests in his paean to America’s pastime, baseball’s relationship with the universe is intriguing. Unlike in any other sport, foul balls are in play unless they land in the stands. If there were no stands, the field of play would extend through 360 degrees without limit. And a tie game, theoretically, could last forever. Baseball is richly suggestive of the universe set in the context of eternity. Baseball is indeed man’s favorite past-time as well as his favorite pastime. Its vectors reach out in every direction.

Hall of Fame great Rogers Hornsby may be forgiven for his overestimation of baseball’s importance. When asked what he did in the winter when there was no baseball, he responded by saying, “I stare out the window and wait for spring.”

Baseball can get into a person’s blood. Babe Ruth called it “the only game.” Excessive praise, however, does not diminish baseball’s true importance.

“Baseball is something more than a game to an American boy,” said former commissioner Judge Kenesaw Landis, “it is his training field for life work.” And President Herbert Hoover maintained, “Next to religion, baseball has furnished a greater impact on American life than any other institution.”

If a youngster cannot fulfill his ambition of being a Major League Baseball player, he might have to settle for being president of the United States. When he was a young lad in Kansas, Dwight David Eisenhower and a friend went fishing together and shared their dreams. The former hoped to become a major-league ballplayer, while the latter confessed his dream of becoming president of the United States. Neither of them got their wish.

Baseball sets the context for a pilgrimage. It is rightly called “base-ball” because it represents a progression from one base to another. Hence, the order of first, second and third base. Would that our lives could develop in accord with the right order. But, significantly, there is no fourth base. After third, there is “home,” where the progress of the pilgrim is completed.

Home is suggestive of heaven, the reward for a faithful advance in virtue. The great sin in the game of baseball is to “die” on third. It is not good enough to be close, but only to complete the circuit. Reaching third does not count on the score board. Reaching home is all that counts.

This distinctive nomenclature raises the question: Where is the batter before he reaches first base? He is not “home” as yet, since he did not complete his journey around the bases. He stands at the plate, like all of us, as an exile. He is really no place. His initial aspiration is to get on base. He is the pilgrim who wants to progress and fears that his failure will dispatch him to the dugout, a kind of Hades for failures.

Symbolically, baseball is a reenactment of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The great poet begins as an exile and has to pass through the Inferno and Purgatory before he can reach Paradise.

“In the midway at this our mortal life, I found me in a gloomy wood, astray, gone from the path direct” (Cary translation). This is how Dante finds himself, speaking for all of mankind, at the beginning of his masterpiece. And so, we find the pilgrim at the plate eager to find his direction and to continue a journey that will give his existence meaning.

Baseball, of course, is not exactly the same as life, but it symbolizes it. Its essential importance is to remind us of what life should be: a pilgrimage according to a prescribed order that requires a host of virtues, including faith, courage, loyalty, discipline, hard work and a commitment to fair play.

Donald DeMarco, Ph.D., is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University, and an adjunct professor of philosophy at Holy Apostles College and Seminary.