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.)
You can purchase the book here.
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.
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.
This being baseball, the origin of the stretch is obscure and the subject of more than a little debate. The term cannot be found in print before 1920; the practice, however, appears to have started much earlier and to have begun because of the nature of seating in the game’s early years. Many people simply stood for the entire game; those who sat occupied plain wooden benches-not the most comfortable resting place for the two or so hours a game consumed. It is not surprising that the folks on the benches would want to stand for a bit (and to avoid blocking views, that they would do it in unison and while there was a break in the action).
As far back as 1869, a letter from a pioneer of the professional game, Harry Wright (a British-born star ballplayer, later manager, and later executive with the original Cincinnati Red Stockings), described what certainly sounds like the seventh-inning stretch. As he wrote: “The spectators all arise between halves of the seventh inning, extend their legs and arms, and sometimes walk about. In so doing, they enjoy the relief afforded by relaxation from a long posture upon hard benches.”
For his playing, innovation, and leadership, in both the development of the professional game and the formation of what became the National League, Wright is in the Hall of Fame—as is his accomplished brother, George, giving baseball its own Wright brothers twenty years before the aviation pioneers (also out of Ohio).
There is little evidence, however, of how widespread the practice of stretching was back then, much less when it became an established ritual. To fill out the picture, another story is worth a mention.
The man who brought baseball to Manhattan College in New York was Brother Jasper of Mary. He was not only the college’s first baseball coach but also its prefect of discipline. Therefore, when on a muggy day in 1882 during the seventh inning of a tense game against a local semipro team, the Metropolitans, he called time and asked the student fans to stand and relax; they listened to him and stood in unison. It is said the New York Giants were so impressed by accounts of the event that they copied the stretch at their own games by the 1890s. Meanwhile at Manhattan College, the good brother is remembered well: The school’s teams are to this day known as the Jaspers.
Even presidents got into the act. On Opening Day in 1910, William Howard Taft attended the game between the Senators and Athletics, his three-hundred-pound frame stuffed in a very small wooden chair down front. By the seventh inning, he was too uncomfortable to stay put, so he rose from his seat; nearly everyone else in the ballpark did, too.
Contrary to the claims of some, this is not the moment the stretch was born, but that day would become famous for another reason. Before the game started, the chief umpire handed Taft a baseball, which the President promptly threw to one of the players near home plate. Since then, every president has thrown out a first ball at least once.
Through the years, the details of the stretch have evolved; and it is not done uniformly across baseball. Various teams use different music to accompany the stretch. And one glorious tune has adorned it for decades. Riding the New York City subway one day in 1908, the writer and vaudevillian Jack Norworth noticed a sign in the car: BASEBALL TODAY—POLO GROUNDS. Inspired, he began writing lyrics about a girl who is asked to a show but who has another idea, as she proclaims: “Take me out to the ball game.” The music was written by another show business figure of the day, Albert Von Tilzer, who would have one more hit song, “I’ll Be with You in Apple Blossom Time.”
If you enjoyed this excerpt, purchase the full book here.
Reprinted by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © John Sexton, 2013.