Brideshead and Baseball (Revisited)

It isn’t often that we reprint what we think is a classic from our files. But this column by our esteemed colleague Joseph Wood touches on the magisterial when it comes to the connection, noted by deep thinkers like Joseph Pieper and others, between play and eternity. We bring it back for its timeliness and timelessness – and your edification and enjoyment. – Robert Royal

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 [April 1 in 2013], 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!”


Dr. Joseph R. Wood serves in the School of Philosophy and Theology of the University of Notre Dame Australia, and is a Fellow at Cana Academy.