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by Mikhail Horowitz
Discussed in this essay: Religion and Sports by Rebecca T. Alpert. 2015, Columbia University Press, 209 pages.
SOME YEARS AGO, North Atlantic Books published a very unorthodox anthology, The Dreamlife of Johnny Baseball, which featured a piece by David Rosenbloom titled “Elijah Named Manager of the Saints.” A tongue-in-cheek take on the religious intensity that many of us bring to our engagement with baseball, the mock interview discussed lineup changes for the (fictitious) Savannah Saints and the team’s prospects for the new season. Said prospects were pretty good, considering that Savannah’s batting order was John the Baptist, Joan of Arc, Jesus Christ, Gautama Buddha, Teresa of Avila, Martin Luther, the Baal Shem Tov, the Virgin Mary, and the starting pitcher, Lao “No Pitch” Tse.
Notwithstanding the manifestation of actual saints and deities on the diamond — or the gridiron, soccer field, or Olympic track — sports and religion have had a very long, very fraught relationship, at least as long and fraught as that between church and state. In her new book, a compendium of diverse case studies intended as a primary or ancillary text for college courses in sports and religion, Rebecca T. Alpert examines fifteen instances where “these two central facets of contemporary life” connect and/or collide, often with repercussions that reach far beyond the playing field.
Alpert, a Reconstructionist rabbi and professor of religion at Temple University whose Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball was reviewed in Jewish Currents in 2011, does not view her subject from the safe remove of an ivory tower. In her introduction, she relates a recent incident in her own life that reaffirmed the transcendent power and glory of sports. A devoted Phillies fan, Alpert was awakened one night by a text from her daughter, informing her in dramatic fashion that one of her favorite players, John Mayberry Jr., had just hit a walk-off grand slam in the 11th inning — this, after tying the game with a solo shot the previous inning. “I sat up in bed,” Alpert writes, “roused out of my sleep, with tears in my eyes and a profound feeling of joy and well-being that would, by some, be labeled religious.”
This moment of rapture recounted, the introduction then proceeds for thirty-six pages, including a four-page bibliography of source materials; there seems to be no book, journal, magazine article, or academic paper on the subject that has eluded Alpert’s ken, from the usual suspects (Mircea Eliade, Paul Tillich, Alfred North Whitehead) to scores of her fellow scholars. Alpert’s research is rigorous and her writing is happily untainted by academic jargon; still, lay readers should bear in mind that Religion and Sports is primarily designed as a textbook, with several pages at the end of each section devoted to activities, resources, questions, and suggestions for “extra credit.” That noted, the case studies she has assembled are well chosen (and in several instances, very timely), dealing with thorny issues and asking difficult questions, always provoking further conversation.
TWO STUDIES may be of particular interest to readers of Jewish Currents — case six, which treats the imposition of Sunday “Baseball Chapel” Christian prayer services on Jewish players and umpires, and case seven, which examines the actions taken (and not taken) by sports organizations and by individual Jewish athletes in regard to a proposed American boycott of the 1936 summer Olympics, which took place in Berlin as a showcase for the racist doctrines of the Third Reich.
Although Sunday clubhouse services have been common since the 1960s, “the relationship of Baseball Chapel to professional baseball is unique,” Alpert writes. The creation of Watson “Waddy” Spoelstra, a sportswriter who got religion after his daughter made a miraculous recovery from a brain hemorrhage, Baseball Chapel received official permission in the 1970s to set up shop with every Major League team. Today, the Chapel has expanded to include the minor league affiliates of those teams, along with many teams in the Latin American winter leagues — all of which has brought joy to the true believers in the clubhouse, and oy to those players who are nonbelievers or Jews. The latter have been subject, on occasion, to ostracism by and open hostility from Christian teammates. Sportswriters (notably Murray Chass, in the New York Times) and several rabbis have publicly taken issue with the evangelical nature of the prayer services, which encourage the faithful to proselytize to Jewish players and to remind them that, no matter how many dingers they hit, they are headed for hell.
Case seven opens with a full-page photograph of a New Yorker reading a notice urging him, and his fellow Americans, to boycott the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Alpert details each step in the labyrinth of negotiations, ploys, and counter-ploys involving a bevy of acronymic entities — the International Olympic Committee (IOC), American Olympic Committee (AOC), Amateur Athletics Union (AAU), German Olympic Committee (GOC), and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Despite growing support from many quarters for an American boycott, Avery Brundage, head of the AOC, insisted that the U.S. team participate. His position was based, in part, upon a visit to Germany, during which he “claimed to have met with Jewish sports leaders, all of whom were satisfied with their treatment.” That his visit was arranged and chaperoned by a Nazi member of both the IOC and GOC, who not only cherry-picked exactly which “Jewish sports leaders” Brundage met with but also provided the translators (!), seems not to have raised his suspicions — any more than the suspicions of Red Cross officials were in any way ruffled by the Nazi promotion of Theresienstadt as a “model ghetto.”
In Alpert’s telling, as elsewhere, Brundage does not come off as the kind of person you’d invite to a seder. Among his other tortured rationalizations for bidding the games to proceed were the supposed “lack of past Jewish athletic participation in the Olympics” (demonstrably false — there had been more than a hundred Jews who took home the gold, silver, or bronze by the time the summer games landed in Berlin), and the ideal that the Olympics be above and beyond any “racial, religious, or political” considerations — as if! To his credit, Alpert observes, Jeremiah Mahoney, president of the AAU, pointed out that the Nazis had themselves politicized the games by denying German Jewish athletes proper training (and, in many cases, their homes, livelihoods, and lives) and hewing to countless other discriminatory practices that were, indeed, racially, religiously, and politically motivated.
Historically, the 1936 Olympics are remembered chiefly for the performance of a black American, Jesse Owens, who effectively put the lie to the myth of Aryan supremacy by winning four gold medals in track. But two Jewish athletes, Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, might have medaled as well, had they not been dropped from the 4x100 relay race in the 11th hour. Only six American Jews chose to compete in Berlin, and Glickman and Stoller were the stars of that small contingent. But while their late replacement in the relay — by Owens and Ralph Metcalfe, another African-American — was officially rationalized as a way to ensure victory for the U.S. team against a German squad that was “stronger than expected,” another, less defensible, reason for the decision was hinted at. “Did Brundage not want to embarrass Hitler any further?” Alpert asks. “It was bad enough that blacks had been so dominant; how much worse if Jews also stood on the medal stand?”
AMONG THE OTHER CONJUNCTIONS of religion and sport that find their way into the wide net cast by Rebecca Alpert are the common practice of witchcraft in African football (soccer, to Americans); the dilemma faced by the Roman Catholic Church in Spain about whether or not to condemn bullfighting; and a discussion on the ethics of a Christian college basketball team’s “running up the score” against its opponents. This writer found the chapter documenting the strange saga of Eugen Herrigel, author of the classic Zen in the Art of Archery (the prototype for everything from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to Zen and the Art of Kvetching), to be particularly fascinating. Turns out that Herrigel, a German philosophy professor with a mystical bent, did not study with a true Zen master, may have based his own “understanding” of Zen on mistranslations, and was a member of the Nazi party from 1933 through the end of the war, a fact that was somehow excluded from his biographies.
With sports today a megabillion-dollar industry, one serving as a de facto religion for millions of people around the world, Alpert’s book could not be more of the moment. It’s a fine introduction to the everyday convergence of those “two central facets of contemporary life,” and the multifarious issues raised by those who play, those who pray, and those who play and pray.
Mikhail Horowitz is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents. His collage-and-caption chapbook, Big League Poets, was published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Press in 1978, and his work as a performance poet and political satirist has been widely recorded, and just as widely vilified.