As a hardcore baseball fan, I was intrigued by “Baseball As A Road To God: Seeing Beyond The Game” by John Sexton, President of New York University. As a skeptic and non-religious person, I was also slightly wary of the implication and meaning behind the title. The book, which Sexton co-wrote with former Forbes columnist Peter J. Schwartz and best-selling author Thomas Oliphant, is an expansion of Sexton’s NYU lecture of the same name, which started in 1999 – Schwartz was the first registered student. While I may have issues with the title, I nevertheless enjoyed the book. In the end it is not about religion; rather it is about America’s pastime, it’s history and even philosophy.
Although the Almighty is part of book’s title, Sexton notes in several instances that his work should not serve as the road to God, or even a road. Rather, he stresses that an intent love of the game (or any secular activity for that matter) can lead to a spiritual awakening. One can define that however they please. On that note I agree. I myself can get quite intense when watching a Blue Jays game. Sexton relates a humorous story of how he reacted when his beloved Dodgers finally won the World Series; I can only my reaction when the Jays finally win again (2013?).
Each chapter focuses on a different, religious theme that can also be related to baseball. Such themes include faith, doubt, nostalgia, Saints & Sinners, among others. There are stories about the venerable Christy Mathewson – one of the most loved players on and off the field – to Ty Cobb, one of the most hated. Both are in the Hall of Fame (and both were among the first five elected). In talking about the Hall of Fame, the authors also start discussion about ethics and its limits – another issue that could be related to the Bible. The scoundrel Ty Cobb is in the Hall, but gambler Pete Rose is banned from the ballot, even after he “repented”. One can be an asshole in life, but the baseball writers seem to draw to the line at gambling. I guess it is considered a sin, and not coveting is one of the basic tenets outlined in the Ten Commandments. Another gambler, whose continued banishment holds far less Holy water is that of Shoeless Joe Jackson of the infamous 1919 Chicago White Sox (or Black Sox). While Shoeless Joe attended some of the meetings, there is no evidence he kept up with his end of the bargain or kept any of his money – he was the star of the World Series, hitting above .300. Teammate Buck Weaver is also in the same boat.
At any rate, whatever your religious convictions and whatever your feelings about baseball, “Baseball As A Road To God” is definitely a book that will at least start a conversation (much like a debate about Hall of Fame candidacy). Many of us go through life searching for inner peace – Maslow liked to call it enlightenment – and Sexton that baseball can lead us there. While I enjoyed the book, I still disagree with Sexton on two points: a) I could never be a “religious” person and b) I will never be a convert to those “Damn Yankees”.
“Baseball As A Road To God: Seeing Beyond The Game” was published by Gotham Books in March 2013. It features a forward written by Doris Kearns Goodwin.