How Good Home Is

As I was preparing to preach on the 75th anniversary of the dedication and opening of the congregation’s new building on Michigan Avenue in Chicago in May 1914, I thought it would be interesting to introduce the sermon by recounting what else was going on on Chicago at that time. I made an amazing discovery, a true gift from God, what James Forbes calls an occasional “fax from heaven”. Wrigley Field, where the Chicago Cubs play their home games first opened for business around the same time the new church building did. So I told the gathered congregation on Sunday morning that 75 years ago a wonderful, new, iconic structure on the north side of Chicago opened its doors for the first time. Since that day countless thousands of people have walked through its portals bringing with them their love, their disappointments and joys, their anxieties, grief and despair but also their fierce and relentless hope. They sat down together for the experience that would follow. They rose to sing together, joining their voices in praise and adoration. The ate together, passing food and drink  to one another, and they gave of their treasure to keep the enterprise going into the future. 75 years ago this month Wrigley Field opened for the first time. It was a great moment.

People laughed of course and then settled in to think together about their church. The best part was the senior management at the Chicago Tribune, which owned the Cubs at the time, somehow heard about the sermon and I was invited to throw out the first ceremonial pitch for the game on July 4 which I did. (High and inside, but respectable.)

I have followed baseball for 66 years. My first experience of the game was sitting on the front porch in the evening with my father, listening on the radio to Rosie Roswell and Bob Prince describing a game at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. Baseball announcers are interesting characters themselves, many of them loved as much as the star players they describe: Vin Scully- Dodgers, Ernie Harwell -Detroit Tigers, Mel Allen – Yankees, Jack Buck – Cardinals and Harry Caray who ended his long career with the Cubs and who is credited with starting the now universal custom of singing Take me out to the Ball Game in the middle of the 7th inning. Rosie Roswell’s signature was a whistle he blew whenever a Pirate hit a home run. ” Open the window Aunt Minnie, here she comes!” he cried, to my delight. The Pirates were not very good in those years but they did have a league-leading home run hitter in Ralph Kiner and so Rosie got to blow his whistle a lot.

I followed the fortunes of the Pirates until I left Pennsylvania for Chicago in 1959 just in time for the White Sox’s first American League pennant and World Series appearance in decades. I transferred my loyalty to the Cubs during my first two pastorates in Indiana when the long reach of WGN brought Cubs game into our home daily. We lived in Columbus during the halcyon days of the Cincinnati Reds “Big Red Machine”. Coming full circle, it was the Cubs again when we moved to the North Side of Chicago. The Pirates of course remain deep in my heart and I am in a near existential crisis when they play the Cubs. However the game turns out I will both win and lose, rejoice and lament.

The Pirates have won three World Series Championships during my lifetime, most memorably in 1960 when Pittsburgh upset the talented and heavily favored New York Yankees. Pirates second baseman Bill Mazeroski hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth to break a 9-9 tie and win the series for the Pirates. It was a moment I have never forgotten. The Cubs, on the other hand, have not won the World Series since 1908, and during more than a century have created for their followers decades of frustration and despair, high hopes inevitably crushed, only to be renewed again in the Spring. A game on May 21 was a prototype, the Pirates versus the Cubs. The Cubs were off to a dreadful start but this year but were recently showing signs of life. Cubs starting pitcher, Matt Garza, just back from an injury, performed masterfully for five innings and the Cubs were leading 3-0 when he was removed for a relief pitcher. I was thoroughly enjoying the game but suddenly overwhelmed with dread. Like watching a Shakespearean tragedy, I knew something terrible was about to happen and it did. The Cub bullpen promptly walked in a run and gave up a grand slam home run: game over: 5-3 Pirates.

I sometimes wonder why I care about this after all these years. John Sexton’s new book, Baseball as a Road to God; Seeing Beyond the Game, comforted me and reinforced my life long interest, commitment and enthusiasm. He is President of NYU, a distinguished scholar of American Religious History and knows historical and contemporary theology. Sexton says that parents want to give their children something to love, something bigger themselves to be part of. It Is often a religion and it is often baseball and a team. Mine, thanks be to God, gave me both.

Sexton says that baseball, the only game without a clock, requires concentrated attention and teaches us to ” live slow and notice”. Near the end of the book he cites another academic, the late Bart Giamatti, President of Yale and briefly Commissioner of Major League Baseball: “Baseball is about homecoming. It is a journey, by strength, guile and speed…around the bases..It is about going home, and how hard it is to get there. It tells us how good home is”.

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