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Sunday, June 24, 2018

In honor of the official start of the baseball season, Weekend Reader presents Baseball as a Road to God by John Sexton, president of New York University and former chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Published last month in a paperback edition, the bestselling Baseball as a Road to God makes a connection between the culture of America’s beloved pastime and a personal commitment to one’s own faith. For Sexton, baseball was never just a game, but instead a spiritual connection that began for him at a very young age as a fan of the legendary Brooklyn Dodgers. (He is now a New York Yankees fan.)

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It was a typically muggy summer afternoon in the nation’s capital. The visiting, league-leading New York Yankees were thumping the cellar-dwelling Washington Senators as usual. The Yankees had just been retired in the top of the seventh inning on a harmless dribble in front of home plate by Gil McDougald, and were ahead 10-3. At that moment, just before Rocky Bridges of the Senators hit a triple to ignite a mini-rally, the youngest of the late President Gerald Ford’s four children, Susan, was born—to her laboring mother’s considerable relief.

On that day, July 6, 1957, Ford, then a Michigan congressman, had tickets to see the Senators at the old Griffith Stadium and planned on taking his young sons along. The onset of Betty Ford’s labor changed all that, but at the hospital she couldn’t help noticing that her husband, her sons, and even her doctor were distracted by the television images of the game as her labor intensified. Understandably displeased by their very divided attention, she made her feelings known as women in labor are wont to do. But not to worry.

“Susan was very cooperative,” Betty Ford recalled years later. “She was born during the seventh-inning stretch, so we didn’t disturb anybody.” Whether the ordeal is a mother’s labor or a tense ball game or a religious service, emotions and concentration are not infinitely sustainable.

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Anyone who has ever been to a religious service is aware that the level of pious intensity occasionally abates; intensity must be relieved. All religious services therefore include what look (and sometimes feel) like intermissions.

Muslims, for example, are instructed about the when and where of the breaks in the sequence of their daily obligatory prayers.

Jews often separate afternoon and evening services (the Mincha and Ma’ariv) with a brief lesson (the Shiur) from an elder or rabbi that frequently discusses the sacred texts just recited in light of experiences in everyday life. In some Conservative congregations, as the Sabbath nears its completion, there is a longer pause to break bread, a chance not only to reflect but also to bond before continuing the prayers.

And Christians reserve time for choral or musical interludes that provide a few moments between rituals. From Christianity’s earliest moments, there has been an imprecise division, imprecise but no less real, between the preparatory part of the service and the part where believers affirm their central faith or take communion or both. And in some liturgies, this transition is marked by the “kiss of peace” or the “holy kiss.” Whatever it’s called, it is another break in the worship, one that most definitely enhances the feeling of fellowship. But the atmosphere is different from the moments of communion with God. The kiss of peace serves, as do the musical interludes, as a pause—meaningful but different, a break in the intensity of the action.

Baseball fans get this. At the midpoint of every seventh inning, we need no announcement, no request, much less a command. We simply rise from our seats. For some ninety years, this collective move has been accompanied by music in most major league cases a very, very familiar song that dates to the early-twentieth-century days of Tin Pan Alley. The Wave may have come and gone, beach balls have bounced into distant memory, but the seventh-inning stretch lives on in every baseball congregation. Possibly the most famous pause in American culture, it is an occasion to salute the game. And it is a break in the intensity of the action.