Saturday, September 6, 2008

There's No Crying - Or God - In Baseball

One of my favorite scenes in all of movies occurs in the 1992 film, A League of Their Own, directed by Penny Marshall. When one of the players on the all-women's baseball team starts to cry after being excoriated for a misplay on the field, Jimmy Dugan, the drunken, gruff and disheveled manager charmingly portrayed by Tom Hanks, looks at her and incredulously exhorts, "You're crying? Are you crying? There's no crying in baseball! (View the scene.)

The Hanks character's derision at the sight of tears on a baseball field is probably something most of us would also feel if we tried to imagine a dejected Derek Jeter sobbing uncontrollably after hitting into a double play costing his team a run at a critical moment. We understand baseball, and we understand crying; but we also understand that little voice inside our head that tells us the two don't mix very well.

Which brings to mind the idea that maybe something else should be left out of baseball as well. In September of 2001 - right after the infamous date of 9-11 to be more precise - the New York Yankees, in a proud display of patriotism, began having the song God Bless America sung during the seventh-inning stretch of all its home games at The Stadium. Its unifying and healing effect on a hurting city was plainly evident. The Irish tenor Ronan Tynan delivered on repeated occasions his masterful rendition of this anthem which Kate Smith made so popular in her glory days. (Watch Ronan Tynan sing God Bless America at Yankee Stadium)

But seven years later, I'm left to wonder: Has this new tradition already outlived its usefulness? The appeal of God Bless America is one of nostalgia. It hearkens us to a time when the country was more a country of Christians than not, when God was right up there with baseball, motherhood and apple pie as signatures of that which we held dear, and many people don't want to see those days go away. The reality, however, is that our doctrine of religious freedom has evolved and matured. It now respects not only the multiplicity of religions practiced in America, but also respects - or at least should - the ranks of us not inclined toward religion at all.

Truthfully, my aim is in no way to see God removed from public life altogether, but more precisely to see religion removed from institutions of government. But the Yankees are not an institution of government, so why my trepidation?

This is a valid question. If the Steinbrenners (owners of the Yankees) want to have God Bless America sung during the seventh-inning stretch, my hunch is that they have every right to do so. One leg I might have to stand on in favor of returning to Take Me Out To The Ball Game may lie in the fact that baseball does, in fact, enjoy a special social status in America, to say nothing of a special legal status (owing to its exemption from antitrust laws). Given that baseball is that unique institution in America whose appeal is so broad it permeates virtually every segment of society, in the course of its business it should refrain from identifying with any constituent that does not share its broad and inclusive philosophy.

Being a Yankee fan, I watch a lot of their games on television, and whenever the seventh-inning stretch of a home game comes around these days, I find myself suddenly in need of a comfort break. This is the same person, mind you, who couldn't tear himself away from this spectacle in the weeks immediately following 9-11. It was strange. I was comforted, not by the singing of God Bless America, but by witnessing the comfort it gave others. I was struck at just how uplifting and healing this song was to so many people, especially when the inspiring sight of a bald eagle flying through the stadium air was employed to even further incite the patriotism already swelling amidst the crowd.

It concerns me that those of us who do not believe in God might be considered less patriotic than those who do, which is, of course, a myth. We're only asking whether or not this one swatch from the fabric of our culture is best left outside such a universally appealing phenomenon as baseball.

It would be foolhardy to dismiss the enormous impact God, faith and religion have had on our culture. But for the sake of their very own survival, it would be wise to refrain from ostentatious displays of God, faith and religion in certain cultural arenas.

In the meantime, we don't need to repeat the spectacle of Yankees manager Billy Martin going to pieces after being fired for the fourth time. It was not a pretty sight.

Some things are best left out of baseball.


  1. First off, I am not a baseball fan. But you are right, this great nation was built on a nation of Christians, but that has since changed. Chrisitians would like you to belive differently, but we are a diverse nation now.

    We are a nation that in my lifetime, I will be a minority. Yeppers, the Anglo will not be top dog. Does that mean I will more easily get government benefits? Only time will tell.(That was tongue in cheek in case you missed it)

    But I agree with you in that it is timeto move on from a time where our nation needed to be pulled together. And let's face it, who could belt it out like Kate Smith?

  2. I agree that many people probably feel comfort when they hear "God Bless America" by Kate Smith, but it also reminds me of hiding in the past rather than facing the future. The song had it's place many years ago, but is now a dinosaur. Let's invent some new songs.