The Ultimate Ballfield

Major League Baseball has retired the number 42, in honor of Jackie Robinson, the man who broke the color line and opened up that institution to all Americans.  Justly has the league set aside the anniversary of this event as Jackie Robinson Day, when all players on all teams wear his number.

Much has been written about Jackie’s courage, enduring insults in the more southern cities of Saint Louis and Cincinnati, though I doubt he had it a lot better in places like Philadelphia or Boston. And there were the indignities of segregated hotels, lavatories, and pools; the constant struggle against stupidities and injustice. It drove Jackie’s talented teammate, the pitcher Don Newcombe, to drink—and only a threat of divorce from Newk’s wife, and his swearing an oath on his small son’s head, turned his life around.  It was too late to save his career, but in time to save his marriage and his integrity as a man.

The colored players dealt with the troubles in various ways.  Many are the gifts of grace, but many too are the failings of frail mankind.  We who will not encounter every day such bald and self-satisfied prejudice must be slow to judge; still, it’s obvious that some men fought more successfully than others. The hatred of Philadelphians drove Richie Allen, naturally as talented as any player who ever lived and a native of those suburbs to boot, to acts of insubordination that made matters worse and divided the clubhouses he entered.  So he passed from team to team, not really helping any of them. Allen is one of the three or four best hitters who is not in the Hall of Fame and who is probably never going to be. Bob Gibson, native of Omaha and graduate of mostly white and Catholic Creighton, smoldered.  He concentrated all his anger and insecurities and ambition into one objective, to defeat the enemy at the plate. Opponents were so afraid of him that when they were traded to the Cardinals, they learned to their relief that Gibson was actually a friendly fellow—but only to his own. Satchel Paige, too old to care overmuch what anybody thought of him, cultivated his hayseed persona, telling stories and singing bass in the Indians’ barbershop quartet. Vic Power dated white women and patronized “white” restaurants.  “I’m sorry, sir,” said an embarrassed waiter in Syracuse, “but we don’t serve colored people here.”  “That’s all right,” said Power.  “I don’t eat colored people.” After his playing days were over, Power returned to his native Dominican Republic, and built up a large baseball clinic; and now, fifty years later, Dominicans are the most prominent of ethnic groups in Major League Baseball, owing in large part to the determination and foresight of Vic Power.

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How many of these Dominicans were taught by Dominicans—or Franciscans, or Benedictines—I don’t know, though I imagine it’s quite a few. If we have to wait till the sports media tell us about it, though, we might as well wait for a double no-hitter. The reporters and the players do not come from the same place, economically or spiritually. That explains why the most important thing in Jackie Robinson’s life is not common knowledge. Jackie was a devout Christian. That’s why the other devout Christian in the story, the teetotaling Branch Rickey—the Mahatma as he was called late in life—chose him. Rickey needed a man who understood how much courage it would take not to retaliate; to pray for his enemies, to turn his face to buffets and spitting. Rickey knew, and Robinson knew also, that the man chosen to bear years of opprobrium must win the doubters over by his excellence not only as a player, but also as a man, a Christian man.

We don’t know what thorn in the side plagued Saint Paul, but he had a natural eye for athletics; his metaphors taken from wrestling and racing don’t derive from the Old Testament but, it seems, from his own experience or esteem. “I have fought a good fight,” he says, “I have run the race to the finish.” The metaphors are apt; every athlete knows that he cannot excel without askesis, training, the severe self-denial that makes us fit for strenuous labor. So it isn’t mere accident, I believe, that many great athletes were also deeply religious men: not delicate, not always well spoken, but of a rough and hardy saintliness whence our contemporary Church could learn some lessons.

These are stories our young people should hear. Why don’t they?  Christy Mathewson was a Hall of Fame pitcher who grew up a few miles from where I did. The Little League there was named after him, and that’s all I knew of Matty. I didn’t know he was a clean-living Christian, one of the last players who observed the Sabbath by not playing on Sunday—meaning that he’d often pitch on short rest on Saturday instead, not that that affected his success. I didn’t know that he was so honest that umpires sometimes asked him for help if they were out of position to see a close play; nobody doubted Matty’s word. I didn’t know that when everybody else was looking the other way, Matty declared publicly that the Black Sox were throwing the 1919 World Series. I didn’t know that he volunteered to help train soldiers for World War I, and that in those exercises he inhaled the poison gas that destroyed his lungs and led to his early death in 1923. Matty was a Billy Sunday, that ballplayer who became the most famous preacher in America, but he “preached” with his career of courage and grace and generosity.

Why don’t we hear of that? Why do so few people know about the faith of the greatest ballplayer of this generation, Albert Pujols? Albert has endowed the Pujols Family Foundation, for children born with Down Syndrome; he and his wife have adopted two, and have several other children besides. Albert arrived in Kansas City from the Dominican when he was sixteen, and he still speaks with a thick accent, so it’s easy for spindly sophisticates to smirk when he gives thanks to God; but devotion clears the eyes, and Albert sees more than they do, even if he cannot express it in dime-a-dozen English sentences. Stan Musial, who passed away earlier this year, was a churchgoing Catholic from the coal mines of Pennsylvania.  He didn’t marry a famous sexpot, as did Joe DiMaggio, and he didn’t toss obscenities at the fans, as did Ted Williams; all he did was play as well as they did (better, in Joe’s case), and open his heart to all who came his way, especially children. Babe Ruth was a hard drinking and hard living rascal, but then, he was a rare sort of orphan, too. He didn’t lose his mother and father. They lost him: they sent the unruly boy to live in a Catholic orphanage in Baltimore, where he learned baseball from one of the priests. The Bambino best earned his Italianate nickname as he lay dying, when he entered the Roman Catholic Church.

Bill James, statistician and baseball historian, once remarked that Leo Durocher was wrong, that nice guys do not finish last. If you rounded up a team of the greatest players whom everybody would call good and upright men (Mathewson, Pujols, Jackie, Honus Wagner, George Brett, Musial, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente), and another team of the greatest players whom nobody would so denominate (Williams, Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Allen, Rickey Henderson, inter alia), the good men would clean the bad men’s clocks. I’d alter the terms and say that if you took a team of the greatest ballplayers who always darkened the doors of the church on a Sunday, and another team of the greatest ballplayers who never did so, the churchgoers would win, hands down. This should come as no surprise. They who open their hearts to God will open their hearts to their fellow man; not only to the fans, but to their teammates. They will do more than sweat or bleed. They will sweat blood, but without the anger that sours a victory and sets the stage for the next disappointment.

I’m not judging the faith according to the success it brings. Our Lord gives us the ultimate picture of defeat, mocked by the Jews, abandoned by his friends, and despised with a shrug by his Roman tormentors. But surely it is fair to be an umpire of men! Not simply for their goodness or sinfulness as measured on some sliding scale—no such thing exists.  I mean instead that an Albert or a Stan, nourished by the springs of the faith, grows into a different kind of man, almost as if they dwelled at once in this world and in another world, where the fields are green, and the children cheer, and the sky is blue and everlasting.


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