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This is a follow-on to Jon Pott’s elegantly written piece about his boyhood memories at Comiskey Park in Chicago. I am sorry to note, however, that my old friend no longer follows baseball closely. He is missing out on what I call my harmless alternate religion. He begins his essay by quoting John Updike, in an essay that Jon rightly calls the best essay ever written about baseball.
Updike wrote “Fenway Park, in Boston, is a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark. Everything is painted green and seems in curiously sharp focus, like the inside of an old-fashioned peeping-type Easter egg. It was built in 1912, rebuilt in 1934, and offers, as do most Boston artifacts, a compromise between Man’s Euclidean determinations and Nature’s beguiling irregularities.”
Jon tells of Williams’ last day of his career when he hit a long home run in his last at bat. I was not there on that day, but I was present about a week before, when he hit a similar home run. It was just like what Updike described, and it made a powerful impression on me, that I had truly seen my first evidence of transcendence. Updike’s rendering is, to me, like holy writ.
If there be a Vatican in this alternate religion, it is Fenway Park. I was born about a mile from Fenway Park, in a small hospital now part of the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, not far from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. My home was a little over two miles away, in Brookline.
In my early years we never took much notice of Fenway Park or the team that played there. I was a Boston Braves fan, and was a member of the youth club, called “The Knothole Gang,” with ID card and all, that allowed us admission for a quarter to afternoon games. Braves field, now Boston University Field (where I was to graduate from college some years later), was about a mile from my home. A few times, we kids in the Knothole Gang were walked to the field by a Mom or older brothers, and we saw the games from the bleachers, where there weren’t too many patrons to see our often-hapless teams. My Dad, my brother and I walked down to a night game once, and I got to see the incomparable Jackie Robinson play. Wow. Talk about transcendence!
When I was twelve years old, and in the sixth grade, two major events happened in my life: I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church, and affirmed for myself what the baptism liturgy said, that I was Christ’s own forever; the Boston Braves left for Milwaukee. I couldn’t believe it, nor could I easily deal with the sense of betrayal. Milwaukee could give them money and a new stadium. All my friends and I could give was love and devotion.
During the winter of 1952-53, I was disconsolate. My brother, four years older, was someone I looked up to in nearly all things, had, with some of his friends, become a Red Sox fan. He consoled and counseled me at that time, noting that Ted Williams had come home from service in the Korean War and was going to lead the Red Sox again. He invited me to join him in giving the Red Sox a try. In the late spring of 1953, my life was to change forever.
When I first saw the field of Fenway Park from the bleachers (all we could afford) my eyes saw something that far exceeded anything I’d ever seen in dingy old Braves field. Fenway was indeed, as Updike was later to write, “a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark.”
I was hooked then, and forever. While my confirmation in the church was a different category of being, in the mind of a twelve-year-old, (in words I was to later learn in the Heidelberg Catechism) I belong to God, but, in a different way, I belong to the Red Sox Nation too. As Malcolm Muggeridge observed about his conversion to Catholicism late in life, there is no one more zealous than a convert. I was a convert and forever a zealot.
There was never another player quite like Ted Williams, but there were many thrills given by, e.g., Carl Yastrzemski, Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez and, above all, David “Big Papi” Ortiz. Even now, not a day during the season passes without me trying to see or hear the game, or at least to check in on the score, or later, the box score. Someone once argumentatively asked what I believed in. I tried to diffuse the situation by facetiously replying “I believe in God, the Boston Red Sox and orange marmalade.” The last item will have to be the subject of another essay, though I doubt RJ readers would be interested.
Not only is baseball my game, it is also America’s game. It guided us from our rural heritage to our urban present, from traditional to modern. As historian Richard Hofstadter famously observed. “America grew up on the farm and moved to the city.” Baseball guided our people in that move. It is a pastoral game played only in clement weather, on grass (pity the newer “turf” in some desecrated places). It is played on a diamond where the action goes around in a cycle; a successful player ends where he began, in a place called “home” (T. S. Eliot fans take note).
It is, like all religions, timeless. No one knows how long a game will last. Theoretically, it could last forever, because a weak team could not get the last out (unlike football, where one “runs out the clock”). Spatially too, there is an openness unknown to other American sports. A fair ball cannot be hit too far. The foul lines radiate out to infinity (unlike the linear football field). Baseball invites us into a spiritual realm that no other sports do. At the same time baseball is the most statistical and quantifiable sport, thereby allowing us to be modern as we sit in our seats by the grass and watch the boys of summer.
This is written on the afternoon in early October when the dreaded, and feared, Yankees were headed to Fenway Park to begin the playoffs.* I will end here, because I must get to my seat for the religious activities of the evening. Dear boys of Fenway: Dominus Vobiscum, so to speak.
*Editor’s Note: The Red Sox defeated the Yankees, 6-2, that day, to advance in the playoffs to face the Tampa Bay Rays.