I know few songs by heart. Even ones I would call my favorites cannot be recalled on the spot. But somehow, though I have not sung them in twenty years, the Baptist hymns of my youth remain with me. Play the first bar of any of these and I can sing every word. I even know the sign language version of some, which comes in handy for all those emergency situations where I am rendered mute, but must still communicate “for the bible tells me so.”
One of the only secular songs I can sing without hesitation is a hymn of a different kind. In the opening voiceover of the movie Bull Durham (1988), Annie Savoy, played by Susan Sarandon, states that she has tried “all of the major religions and most of the minor ones…but the only church that truly feeds the soul day in and day out, is the church of baseball.” I too have abandoned organized religion and found myself most blessed by America’s game. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that in my mind, alongside “Nearer My God to Thee” and “Blessed Assurance,” rests “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
My reasons for loving baseball are the same reasons held by many, and I won’t bore you with most of them. If you’re reading this, you probably already share them. If you don’t, reading them won’t be enough to turn your head. In this way, my baseball faith is not an evangelical one. I hope nonbelievers one day discover baseball, but I believe that discovery is a private journey. This personal relationship with baseball equates roughly with what the Baptists would call “the walk,” which is code for the private relationship a person has with God. I think this phrase is particular to evangelicals because they recognize that the showbiz of their religion can seduce a person so that their worship has nothing to do with God and everything to do with the laser light shows. “How’s your walk?” means, “Are you praying on your own? Or are you just showing-up for the free food and babysitting? In the still, quiet dark of an evening, are you and the Lord copacetic?”
The same can happen with baseball. A person can love going to a baseball game, but not actually enjoy the game itself. A day spent in the sun drinking beer and eating hotdogs and nachos is a pretty great day. In fact, Phillip Wrigley intentionally courted these non-baseball fan consumers, selling a day at Wrigley as “fun and healthfulness … sunshine and relaxation.” This campaign has brought Wrigley Field, if not the Cubs themselves, tremendous success, much in the way that the laser light shows and rock music have brought evangelicals success, but left them lacking gravitas on the world stage.
Unlike the devoutly religious, however, I do not begrudge the social baseball fan their worship. I cheer anyone who wants to cheer the game. My walk with baseball is strong, but I also enjoy drinking beer and eating nitrates in the sunshine. And I must admit that while listening to a game or watching one in my home has its pleasures, I always leave a live game tingling with the jubilation of the freshly anointed.
My response, however, is not about the beer and sunshine. I have sat sober in stadiums on cold, rainy days and felt the same. It is also less about the smells and sounds and other sensory experiences of a live game, though this certainly enlivens the experience. But even more than all of this, my religious ecstasy arrives for the three minutes in the seventh inning when the entire stadium celebrates the joy we all feel for being lucky enough to be at a game. This celebration occurs by standing and lifting our voices together to sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
While many American sporting events begin with the national anthem, to my knowledge, there is no other sport where the fans take a break part-way through a game and all, no matter the heated rivalry, sing a song celebrating sheer love of the game itself. I have stood in Busch stadium wearing full Cubs gear and we all smiled and shouted “1, 2, 3, strikes you’re out!” before returning to our seats and continuing to hurl abuse.
The Seventh Inning Stretch is perhaps the most powerful reason I keep lifting the name of baseball on high. Too often, the world seems polarized. People search for what separates us more than what binds. Sports, including baseball, often serve as a symbolic representation of these divisions, and people (including me) react accordingly, imbuing “the other” of the other team’s fans with qualities they see as, at best, inferior and, at worst, evil. Property is destroyed, people are assaulted, people die, as representatives of a team of people they have more than likely never met, even though this makes about as much sense as people losing property, blood, or life as a result of liking Pepsi instead of Coke.
But in baseball, even if a full riot breaks out afterwards, there are still a few minutes of each game where baseball fans are reminded that we share a mutual love for the game itself. For a few minutes, gender, race, economic status, education, age, ethnicity, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, physical appearance, physical ability, marital status, political affiliation, Coke or Pepsi—none of it matters. In the seventh inning of each game, we stand together, tens of thousands of us, in cathedrals from Oakland to Boston to Japan, and we lift our voices in praise of what binds us. In the face of so much that divides, we must all find moments when we are united. I once found this connection by rising from musty pews and singing “Amazing Grace” with tabernacle choirs. These days, like the fictional Annie, I find it by rising and singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”