The Catholic Thing
Brideshead and Baseball Print E-mail
By Joseph Wood   
Saturday, 31 March 2012

In his novel Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh places us in the midst of a breakfast conversation at Brideshead manor between Father Phipps, of an English monastery, who has come to say Sunday Mass, and Sebastian Flyte and Charles Ryder, two of the book’s main characters. Ryder tells us that the priest displayed “an interest in county cricket which he obstinately believed us to share.” Sebastian, fearing a lengthy discourse on the subject, tells Father Phipps, “You know, Father, Charles and I simply don’t know about cricket.” The cleric is undeterred. 

“I wish I’d seen Tennyson make that fifty-eight last Thursday. That must have been an innings. . . . Did you see him against the South Africans?”
“I have never seen him.”
“Neither have I. I haven’t seen a first-class match for years – not since Father Graves took me when we were passing through Leeds, after we’d been to the induction of the Abbott at Ampleforth. . . . You seldom go to see cricket?”
“Never,” I said, and he looked at me with the expression I have seen since in the religious, of innocent wonder that those who expose themselves to the dangers of the world should avail themselves so little of its varied solace. 

The analogous solace on this side of the Atlantic is, of course, baseball. Like a less innocent Father Phipps, I wonder at those who do not avail themselves of baseball’s licit pleasures in this world dominated by dark principalities. 

        The English take the field, led by captain Lionel Tennyson, center

Baseball shares certain essential features with cricket: a batter faces a pitcher or bowler to hit a small, hard-thrown ball; runs are scored or prevented as the ball is fielded; subtle details matter and decide the outcome; and a rich green field, redolent of renewed creation, provides the venue for the best of the matches. 

Most importantly, neither game is played against a clock. Matches unfold over a series of innings that can take an afternoon or evening, a whole day, or more. 

This absence of a time constraint gives baseball a gentle, less hurried rhythm that other sports lack and that drives baseball-haters crazy. Lyrical writers have remarked that this out-of-time aspect of the game provides a sense of the eternal, a sense that delights baseball fans – especially the many Catholic devotees, but also traditionalists of all stripes – while maddening the game’s modernist detractors.

These poor souls discern in baseball no hint of the blessed eternity of Paradiso, but a different kind of endlessness in another volume of Dante’s comedy.

Both baseball and cricket developed in predominantly Protestant cultures that have secularized, succumbed to materialism, and, not coincidently I suspect, left the sports behind as national pastimes. Baseball at the major league level has tried to hold popularity with an intensified “bread and circuses” program of louder music and bigger promotions (and, this year, another expansion of post-season play), while attempting to keep the essence of the game intact for purists. It is a hard line to walk, calling to mind disputes about the Novus Ordo Mass.

For my money, the best of baseball tradition is preserved in the minor leagues. Stadiums are smaller and more human in scale, and ticket prices are reasonable ($15 or less will get you field level behind home plate in many places, and $5 will get you into any grandstand). Both the players and the crowd reflect an authentic diversity of skill, background, and income. A minor league team is a central community fixture for many small and medium-sized towns, the between-innings entertainment is simpler and less noisy, and the scene is friendly to families.

                The Yankees’ Roger Peckinpaugh and the Giants’ Dave Bancroft with umps, 1921    

Spring training baseball for the major leagues in Florida and Arizona bridges the gap between the majors and minors. For a month each year as the nation crosses into spring, fans fleeing colder climes and the locals mix to watch veterans and new prospects prepare for the regular season. 

And aside from Disneyworld and Phoenix, there is interesting tourism between the games. A trip to Florida this year gave me the chance to visit the oldest parish in America and the beautiful Cathedral Basilica in St Augustine; the nearby memorial to the 1565 Nombre de Dios mission with its Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche and Prince of Peace Votive Church (where I found Adoration underway one morning); and several Catholic outposts on Florida’s east coast such as Holy Name of Jesus in Indiatlantic, where a small but devoted group gathers for morning and evening prayer, and the daily Mass is anchored by a large retiree population joined by others of all ages.

This year, the official opening day of the major league season is April 5, within a week of Easter. Such a convergence of the temporal and ecclesial calendars is a sign of a well-ordered year, perhaps the closest we’ll come in this life, outside of Mass, to an alignment of the city of man and the city of God. Even a presidential election cannot spoil that week.

In a worldly culture fraught with dangers that were all too obvious in the interwar years of Brideshead, and whose subsequent advance would have horrified Waugh’s Father Phipps, baseball can still provide the solace that village cricket offered in England in an earlier era. One wonders whether, as Charles Ryder prays his “ancient, newly learned form of words” near the tabernacle candle at the end of Brideshead Revisited, he has developed a fondness for cricket.

Baseball scandals will come and go, big contracts will boggle the mind, players will rise and decline. But it’s spring, and let’s be grateful that we’re hearing once again, “Play Ball!”

Joseph R. Wood is a former White House official who worked on foreign policy, including Vatican affairs.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (15)Add Comment
written by Frank, March 31, 2012
Life begins on opening day! long as there are little boys, an open field, a stick and a ball, there will ALWAYS be baseball! It is as Red Smith wrote, "ninety feet of perfection!"
written by Louise, March 31, 2012
My professor of Cartography thought that the most sublime figure in all creation was the baseball diamond, and the first "map" that every student learned to draw was the baseball diamond. When my map was drawn, I almost had to agree with him.

Baseball tickets at Fenway Park were always beyond our means, but being the lucky recipients of unused tickets on one Sunday afternoon, we sat in the third row, right next to third base. I wonder whether passing through the gates of heaven will be like waking into Fenway Park, facing that wide green meadow, leaving behind the traffic, the noise, the milling crowds, the vendors. That was many years ago. Who knows what has happened to it since then. At least we can count on heaven's being the same.
written by Dave, March 31, 2012
What a happy column, a wonderful way to beginning the weekend, and a blessed relief from the dreariness of the news upon which we customarily comment here. Thanks so much, Joe Woods!
written by Tony Esolen, March 31, 2012
Thanks for the smile before Opening Day!

I am a die-hard fan of the St. Louis Cardinals, and have been since I was a little boy. Last October showed how glorious baseball is. The team that has the ball is on defense, not offense, so they can't sit on it and do nothing, and they can't wait for the clock to run out. You actually have to get all 27 outs -- as poor Nolan Ryan well knows! And a single instant can change everything utterly -- you can go from losing to winning ... The wild variety of things that can happen on the field, too -- only football can come close to matching that variety.
written by Randall, March 31, 2012
I will always, ALWAYS, remember going to my first major league baseball game. Milwaukee County Stadium, 1982, I was 13 years old. Oh yes, seeing that "wide green meadow" as Louise puts it was magical! The Brewers lost that game 4-2 but one of my boyhood heros, Gorman Thomas, hit a home run and it was all worth it.

Regarding Mr Woods comments about minor league baseball - I totally agree. It's a much cosier atmosphere. I sat directly behind homeplate for $12 only 4 summers ago.

George Weigel wrote somewhere that in heaven the angels play baseball. I think so too.
written by Tom, March 31, 2012
About the nicest thing I've read concerning an activity that is as interesting as watching paint dry. It is truly sad to see the decline of all the major sports into money grubbing and scandal pastimes.
written by Grump, March 31, 2012
My dad took me to Babe Ruth Day at Yankee Stadium in the late 40's and then caught a foul ball off the bat of Tommy Henrich and gave it to me. I cherish that moment to this day as I near my 70th year.

However, nostalgia fails to overcome my dislike of Major League Baseball today, fraught as it is with drug scandals, cheating, greed and overpaid/under-performing players who have no allegiance to their teams or fans.

Today's game sadly bears little resemblance to those happy days of my youth when a day at the park was truly joyful.

Last summer I went to one game at Milwaukee's Miller Park and was surrounded by foul-mouthed, bear-swilling "fans" who spoiled what should have been a wonderful experience. I left before the 7th inning and vowed never to go back.
written by jy, March 31, 2012
Hear hear, as long as the likes of such east-coast teams as the Red Sox, Yankees, and Phillies are excluded. Every bit of the argument made in favor of the minor league experience versus the (simply-defined) "Major League" experience can be made for the rest of the Major League teams against the east coast giants, which have payrolls over $160 millions. The Red Sox' starting infield, for instance, makes more money than the entire franchises of the Royals or Indians, from top to bottom.

And here's to Opening Day not being on Good Friday this year (as it was in 2007). I think they actually rescheduled it to avoid the conflict.
written by Randall, March 31, 2012
As I waxed nostalgic in my previous post, I forgot to remark on baseball being played on Good Friday. For some clubs, their opening day is Good Friday this year. This bothers me. For example, the Texas Rangers will start play shortly after 2 pm local time, which means the game will be in progress at 3 o'clock on Good Friday. Am I the only one to have a problem with this? I'd like to read some responses to this.
written by Dave, March 31, 2012

My wife and I have season tickets to our local AAA team. Their home season begins on Holy Thursday.

Yes, they are playing on Good Friday.

Yes, they are playing on Holy Saturday.

Yes, they are playing on Easter Sunday.

We chose not to attend.

A blessed Easter to you and yours.
written by Lee Gilbert, March 31, 2012
For my money sports, and particularly televised sports, are a plague upon the Church. If “The battle of Waterloo was won upon the playing fields of Eton" as the Duke of Wellington famously said, the battle for the souls of Catholic fathers and their families is being lost in front of the TV set as they watch, endlessly watch, baseball, football, basketball.

Recently various experts have advocated that parents should watch TV with their kids and explain to them what is going on. At our house the conversation would go something like this:

"Son, before we turn on the TV, isn't this a beautiful evening? You and I could go for a walk and get to know one another better. You could read to me from the McGuffey Reader or we could toss the ball around in the park.

"Instead, let's do the least demanding, the least human thing of all. Let's turn on the TV. It will do our talking and our story telling for us, our thinking and even our exercise.

"For example, here is a televised baseball game. These guys have worked very hard so that you can sit here eating nacho chips. See that guy running around the bases? Get one thing straight in your head- that is not you. He is running, you are sitting. Look son, if you like sports, then play sports. The rest is nonsense..."

Also, I long ago arrived at the conclusion that if- in the selection of bishops- the choice is between a scripture scholar who can talk Scripture and a cleric who can talk baseball the nod will go to the baseball fan. That in itself is almost enough to explain the state of the Church in this country.

Little league, softball leagues, playing catch in the park, great! That is sport, physical recreation and enjoyment of one another's company. The rest is stupefying passivity.

If it were just a question of going to the ball park three or four times a year to watch a game, that would be one thing, but that is not what's happening. What is happening is the emasculation of fathers and the destruction of their families.

Yes, watching televised sports can be done in moderation, but something tells me we're not going to hear a sermon about that anytime soon.

written by will manley, March 31, 2012
Mr. Wood, have you ever played baseball? It is not the elegant game that you wax rhapsodically about. Try standing in the batter's box and having a very hard ball come at you at over 85 mph with spin on it. The men who play baseball and excel at it are typically fearless that they will compromise their bodies with performance enhancing drugs to get an edge. This kind of literary celebrations of the game of baseball is just so much wishful fantasy. In the final analysis baseball is a brutal game. Now golf...there's a divine game!
written by Frank, April 01, 2012
I humbly beg manley's pardon. I did play baseball in my childhood and adult days. I have stood in that batter's box as pitchers hurled em' 80+ mph at me. I've held a runner at first base with left handed batters hitting hot smash grounders at me or line drives. Scary? You bet but there's few things that can compare to fielding the grounder and turning the double play the hard way. As for the line drive, well it's either catch it or your head is coming off. And...don't tell me any different...every little boy EVERY little boy has dreamt at one time or another in their young lives of becoming a major leaguer. As for golf, I play that too...great great game. Both games are ingrained in my soul!
written by Joseph Wood, April 01, 2012
Mr "Manley," Yes, I played baseball (and golf) though not at the professional or near-professional level. You are correct that baseball, especially standing in the batter's box, requires courage, another admirable feature of the sport. But the fact that the best of the men who play baseball are courageous, tough, eager to get dirty when the play demands it, does not mean they are brutal -- those qualities are very different, opposites in fact. "Be not afraid" was not an exhortation to be brutal. You also seem to think "elegant" must mean that courage or physical challenge is not involved, but elegant and effete are very different characteristics. And cheating of any kind, including using prohibited drugs to gain an unfair advantage, reflects not fearlessness but fear -- fear of being unable to compete honorably, within the game and with the others who play it, on their own manly terms. In any game, those who are brutal and who cheat demean the game and themselves. Those who compete intensely, courageously, with excellence, live up to their sport. Not all ball players do so, but that is about their qualities, not about the game. Enjoy your golf.
written by Graham Combs, April 01, 2012
Back in the 1970s, I lived in Detroit not far from the island park Belle Isle (designed by Central Park's landscapist). On weekends you could watch young Jamaicans in white uniforms (often wearing dreadlocks) playing cricket near the island's casino bldg. When I lived in Queens, NY in the 1990s, there were apparently over 500 cricket teams -- making Queens the then capital of US cricket. Here in Michigan I have seen cricket played on the baseball diamond at Chrysler's Auburn Hills Tech Center. And there is a Michigan cricket association. Given the demographic volatility of America, it is not so outrageous to speculate that by mid-century, cricket may well be bigger than soccer (which has yet to take off here, and I played at Catholic school run by a German order in the 1960s). Someone joked recently that God will answer Tim Tebow's prayers after he figures out the rules to cricket. But the game has a strange attraction once you stop to watch it. And it has a timeless sense of time as you say. A few years ago, there was young editorial intern at First Things whose athletic obsession was cricket, so the Fifth Column may be everywhere. Fr. Phipps was right, the attraction of the Church is partly aesthetic and She teaches us the appreciation of beauty in all its forms. Lord Flyte at another point in BRIDESHEAD REVISITED speaks explicity about this allure. And the novel's one covert is a an artist after all.

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