Beyond Baseball

Columnist George Will and NYU President John Sexton Discuss “Baseball, Tradition and God” at Straus Center Event

A rapt audience of 200 filled the seats of Yeshiva University’s Shenk Community Shul on Wednesday, December 17, to hear Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist George Will and New York University President John Sexton discuss baseball and its relationship to religion and democracy. The event, titled “Baseball Tradition, and God,” was the latest in a series of “Great Conversations” presented by YU’s Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought.

George Will, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik and John Sexton discuss "Baseball, Tradition, and God."
George Will, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik and John Sexton discuss “Baseball, Tradition, and God” at December 17 Straus Center event.

Introducing Will and Sexton as “two extraordinary athletes of the mind,” Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik, director of the Straus Center and moderator of the talk, opened his remarks by asking if baseball is simply a game or does it also teach us about the virtues of love, loyalty, fidelity and faith. He also connected the discussion to Chanukah, citing the clash of Hellenistic and Jewish culture.

Will, a Chicago Cubs fan, said he appreciates baseball for the game itself but asked why we, as a society, care so much. “We attach ourselves to a team and acquire a tribal identity.”

Rabbi Soloveichik said that Cubs fans accept “their fate with good cheer” and that it builds strong character—even if you try hard and long enough you’ll still lose.

Will said that as a child, he lived between Chicago and St. Louis and had to choose between the Cubs and the Cardinals. He pointed out that Cardinals fans are cheerful and liberal whereas Cub fans are gloomy and conservative.  He referenced studies that protracted disappointment shapes the brain circuitry.

Sexton, originally a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers, “converted” to the Yankees later on in life.  He called baseball the “axis mundi,” the connection between heaven and earth, saying that there “is a capacity in almost every human… if appreciated enough, to see the sacred” and that “baseball has all the aspects.” He added that the more you learn about baseball, the deeper you get into it, the more intricate you see it is.

Rabbi Soloveichik sprinkled the conversation with references to movies, sports anecdotes and quotes from “the greatest theologian of our age” Yogi Berra who said that baseball is “90 percent mental and the other half physical.”

In discussing the Brooklyn Dodgers, Will said that attendance at Dodgers games in Brooklyn was low and that team owner Walter O’Malley was justified in moving the team to Los Angeles since [it] “supplied a demand. People lost a team because they didn’t go to the games.”

“It was still moral turpitude,” argued Sexton. Fans “listened on the radios, it was an uber community;” the team “bound it together,” he said, but noting that part of the human condition is committing moral turpitude.

Both touted their recent books, Will’s third book on baseball, A Nice Little Place on the Northside: Wrigley Field at One Hundred and Sexton’s Baseball as a Road to God.

Rabbi Soloveichik summed up the conversation saying that baseball connects to democracy in that it is a hopeful game and that both baseball and America will continue for years to come. Will concurred that baseball is good for democracy and equality. “It is a severe meritocracy;” after 162 games, he said, “you may be sure the best team won. Inequalities of earned excellence bring balance to our egalitarian country.”

Stern College for Women sophomore Esti Hirt, a lifelong baseball fan and a Straus Center Fellow, said that the event “gave me more to think about next time I watch at home or go to a game.”

The Straus Center is named in honor of Moshael J. Straus, an investment executive, alumnus and member of YU’s Board of Trustees, and his wife Zahava, a graduate of YU’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. The Center’s mission is to help develop Jewish thinkers and wisdom-seeking Jews by deepening their education in the best of the Jewish tradition, by exposing them to the richness of human knowledge and insight from across the ages, and by confronting them with the great moral, philosophical, and theological questions of our age.