Unlike some who have been born and raised in the Christian faith, I cannot pinpoint the day Jesus came into my life.
I can recall the exact day baseball did: Aug. 16, 1969. I turned 5 that year, and it was the gift of a glove, baseball and bat that captured my imagination.
Maybe it was the smell of the leather Spalding glove with Rico Petrocelli’s name scrawled across the pocket, the uniform beauty of the red stitches making their odd patterns across the gleaming white baseball, or the heft and feel of the wooden 28-inch Ted Williams Louisville Slugger in the palms of my hands, stamped with the name of the man whom I would learn, with apologies to Ty Cobb and Tony Gwynn, is arguably the greatest pure hitter in the history of baseball.
I didn’t know then that the 1969 Major League baseball season was dramatically different from the the year before. With the creation of divisional playoffs, 1968 saw the last outright winners of the National and American Leagues move directly into the World Series. It also was the last year American League pitchers would hold a bat in their hands during the regular season, the lords of baseball having created something called a D.H., or designated hitter.
In 1968, pitchers dominated the game, most notably Bob Gibson and Denny McClain. That dominance resulted in lowering the pitcher’s mound 5 inches and tightening the strike zone — two changes that sought to even the matchup between pitcher and batter.
The national pastime in 1968 was punctuated not only by Gibson’s devastating fastball and McClain’s 31 pitching victories, but also by a series of cataclysmic social and political events that pulled at the seams of the nation’s social fabric and revealed how far we were from living up to our valued ideals and aspirations.
The season began in April with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, was met midway in June with news of the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in Los Angeles, and closed in late August with the violent response of the police to protest marches during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago over America’s continued involvement in the Vietnam War.
In a wonderful book entitled “Summer of ’68: The Season That Changed Baseball and America Forever,” author Tim Wendel chronicles those tumultuous events through they eyes of those who played the game. Wendel tells the story against the backdrop of the 1968 World Series played between the St. Louis Cardinals, the most racially integrated team in baseball, and the Detroit Tigers, whose hometown was still smoldering in 1968 after devastating racial riots burned entire city blocks the summer before.
The book vividly recalls both a classic seven-game World Series and the political and social events that surrounded it. In baseball’s history, we see how we have fared as a nation when it comes to our ideals and aspirations. There are times when the game not only testifies to moments when we have honored those ideals and aspirations, but also bears witness to periods in our history when we have not.
Perhaps only in America could a game that provides a mirror in which we come face to face with our hypocrisy also provide a social crucible in which we strive, as Abraham Lincoln eloquently put it, to act out of “the better angels of our nature.”
It has been argued that the game of baseball — with its 25-player roster and 162-game schedule — reflects the democratic principle of the sanctity of the common good coupled with the fact that on a given day, in a tight situation, any one of us may be called upon to step up and shoulder the responsibility to advance the common good.
Unlike in basketball and football, when you are down by one, you can’t call a timeout to design an offensive play around the all-star. In that moment, you play with what you’ve got. As legendary manager Earl Weaver once said, “You can’t sit on a lead in baseball; you’ve got to give the other man his chance. That’s why baseball is the greatest game of them all.”
Dr. Brad Thomas, whose first love was the Brooklyn Dodgers, is senior pastor of St. John’s United Methodist Church in Midtown. The church is hosting a summer preaching series called “The Way of Baseball,” at 10:50 a.m. every Sunday from July 8 to Aug. 12. Guest preachers include Dr. Scott Morris, Rev. John Kilzer and Rabbi Micah Greenstein. For more information, please visit http://stjohnsmidtown.org.