Gospel on the Mound:

Our National Pastime and the Culture of Religion

Brian Reich
Religion W4540 (Bender)
December 10, 2001

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Introduction

This paper explores one aspect the relationship between religion and popular culture: baseball as a civil religion. In approaching this paper, I tried to combine an analytical study of religion with a structural investigation of sports and its role in American popular culture. This was no easy task.

To establish a foundation for my analysis, I sought to define religion, civil religion, and sacred space. Since no single definition is universally accepted it was important to include the perspectives of a wide range of theologians and sociologists. To help me communicate the essence of the game of baseball, I reviewed the vast collection of commentary about the game. I drew from the works of columnists like Thomas Boswell and George Will, novelists W.P. Kinsella and Roger Angell, as well as the newspaper reports, sports columnists, television highlights and other day-to-day coverage of baseball happenings.

Perhaps the most importantly, I was able to find a small, but significant collection of materials that specifically address the close bond between religion and sports. I poured through dozens of books including "God in the Stadium" by Robert Higgs, "Pray Ball," by Rabbi James Gordon, and the Joy of Sports by Michael Novak, all of which included valuable analysis of the shared language and imagery between baseball and religion. I swapped email messages with Clifford Putney, who studies the concept of Muscular Christianity and the effects of the Protestant ethic on sports, and Stuart Schimler from the Baseball Historical Society; they helped me make the historical links between sports and religion. And, Professors Joseph Price and Peter Carino, who have written extensively on the relationship between baseball and religion, provided their various writings to me and recommended other resources and contacts.

Finally, to help me frame this discussion, I poured through the vast library of popular culture references to this discussion including the movies Bull Durham and Field of Dreams and the memoirs of historian and long-time baseball fan Doris Kearns Goodwin and former Major League Baseball Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti. And of course, there was my own love of baseball and personal experiences studying the game. To some extent, the research for this project began on June 20, 1997, when I embarked on The Great American Baseball Trip -- a nationwide driving tour, during which I attended a game at each Major League Baseball stadium. Throughout my trip, I examined the state of baseball and its relationship with the fans. I watched games from the stands, met with representatives from each team's front office, talked with members of the media, and looked for player insights on the National Pastime. I even ate a pretzel from every stadium and reported on its quality. The website where I chronicled my trip is still active at http://www.stadiummouse.com

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