John Sexton

Baseball as a Road to God

VTR Date: March 23, 2013

John Sexton discusses baseball and how it can connect us to the spiritual.


GUEST: John Sexton
AIR DATE: 03/23/2013
VTR: 11/08/2012

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And though we’re recording it in November, 2012, when this program actually makes its public television debut, it will be near that time of year again when The Boys of Spring once more loom large, larger, largest for so many Americans, and when my guest’s new book, “Baseball As A Road To God – Seeing Beyond the Game”, will bring them such ineffable pleasure.

John Sexton is the President of New York University, an old friend who has joined me here many, many times before. And our mutual friend Bill Moyers says that “In the church of baseball, John Sexton is one of the preeminent theologians”.

Well, that’s putting it mildly, of course, for as his publisher, the Penguin Group notes, “Applying to the secular activity of baseball a form of inquiry usually reserved for the study of religion, Sexton reveals a surprising amount of common ground between the game and what we all recognize as religion: sacred places and times, faith and doubt, blessings and curses, and more.”

Yet both you, dear viewers, and my guest John Sexton will forgive me for the sacrilege, I trust, if I tell you that I for one don’t give a damn any more about the national pastime, and haven’t since 1957 when that villainous Walter O’Malley took his Brooklyn Dodgers, the team my Brooklyn-born wife had worshipped since childhood … out to Los Angeles … and co-conspirator Horace Stoneham took his New York Giants – my holier-than-holy team – to San Francisco.

No more ineffable pleasures for us. And John, as I begin I wonder why I came across this word … ineffable … so many times in your new book.

SEXTON: Well, well, there’s a way in which that word … ineffable … is the, is the essence of the book. Because I hope there, there are stories that will remind even stone-souls like yours of the, the great joys of the national pastime and it’s special ability to, to touch so deeply.

So deeply I should point out that, that, that you would react precisely as you’ve just described. That, that, that having, having been disappointed in this, this core area of your being … you, you just … you couldn’t even go near the space anymore.

And I hope there are stories there that, that, that might call forth your soul again. Or at least remind you of how beautiful the game is.

But the real message of the book is around that word “ineffable”. Because my fear is that we, we’ve become a society of quantification, of numerization …

HEFFNER: Three balls, two strikes?

SEXTON: No, no … not so much that. Because the, the essence you see of what goes on as the count moves from two balls and two strikes to three balls and two strikes … is, is a changing of the prism of the observant fan. You know, as we look at the detail of the game and the strategy that it involves … but, but my, my point is … society generally has become susceptible to the measurers.

Now, now I love all that goes on in the production of knowledge and evidence. I, I mean my life, my vocation is dedicated to the university.

And evidence based decision-making is extremely important, but there is danger if we begin to think that all that is important can be measured. That all that is important can be quantified. Indeed, that all that is important can be known in the cognitive sense of knowing and reduction to, to be a dogma or words of description.

And of course “ineffable” is the word we use to describe that which, which can’t be reduced to those cognitive categories. So that the, the thesis of the book, if there’s a thesis, is that there is the known … you know that which the brightest among us and in each of the disciplines the most advanced and the disciplined knows, in this moment, and there is the know-able, but not yet known.

To which those people will lead us as humankind progresses and the important enterprise of advancing science and knowledge generally, but there is the unknowable.

Unknowable in these cognitive terms … that, that … the “ineffable” that which we, no matter how advanced our tools of, of cognition become … we’ll, we’ll not be able to reduce to the categories of cognition.

It’s, it’s the way that you know, after your wonderful decades of being married … that you and Elaine love each other. It’s the way I know that Lisa and I love each other. Elaine didn’t reason you to that, Lisa didn’t reason me to that. We experience it.

And, and by the way that knowledge, as you know, ‘cause in our friendship we’ve shared our marriages and the, the love that each of us have for our spouses. And we’ve shared that time together.

That knowledge is the most important knowledge in our lives, but it’s utterly ineffable.

And, and it’s that which I’m trying to awaken and it’s that to which I’m trying to call my students attention. So I use the device of baseball and the stories of baseball and especially the stories of old men, like us, about the halcyon days of baseball in New York in the forties and fifties … before that …and you’re far too generous … before that man (spits on the floor) O’Malley …

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

SEXTON: … wrenched out the heart of Brooklyn.

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

SEXTON: The loss of the Giants, that was incidental.

HEFFNER: Oh, come on, come on. You’re still thinking about Bobby Thompson.

SEXTON: Oh, god … a dagger to my heart (laughter). Will I ever forget that day? Will you ever forget that day?

HEFFNER: Never. Never. Never.

SEXTON: And will you ever recant the victory in light of the subsequent learning that your team was stealing signs from the centerfield.

HEFFNER: What about that, John, what do you think about that? Just between us.

SEXTON: It’s interesting because … the one of the wonderful things that baseball teaches is the wonder of gray …

HEFFNER: Shades … as in shades of …

SEXTON: As in shades of gray. You know baseball was, to situation ethics, long before the theologians got there.


SEXTON: You know I … I have frequently said to people … because, as you know, I grew up in, in, in the Irish Catholic Brooklyn church. Where, where we knew, in black and white, what we had to do to merit salvation and to … you know … if you went to mass on Sunday and you refrained from eating meat on Friday and you never went anywhere near in thought or act anything that had to do with s-e-x … you were pretty well off, you know.

And then along came Pope John the 23rd and the Vatican Council and situation ethics and the gray area and life became very difficult, because we became more responsible.

Well baseball got there long before that. So, I will argue the case that though it is considered intrinsic to the game and quite acceptable … for a runner on second base to try to steal the catcher’s signs and transmit them somehow to the batter, giving the batter that edge or advantage … that to do so with a telescope or binoculars, with a person that’s not on either team … from the center field’s scoreboard and to ring a bell in the dugout to warn the batter what was doing … is beyond that gray area to the darkness of depravity.

And the fact that a man named Branca … a good man named Branca … and Thompson himself was a good man … and as you know, they became friends … but a good man named Ralph Branca had to carry that yoke, that Thompson having been part of what today could be prosecuted under RICO … I say facetiously …

HEFFNER: Yeah, I hope facetiously …

SEXTON: … a conspiracy, having been part of a conspiracy of crooks … for me it goes beyond the pale. Now I know you’ll make the argument “Well, if you can steal signs from second, why not from center field and if a person on the team can do it, why not a fan …”

HEFFNER: No, I don’t have to, you just did. Obviously you’re endowing those arguments with credibility.

SEXTON: No, I’m endowing myself with credibility …

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

SEXTON: … because I’m advancing even the counter-case and I’m willing to rest on the record and your viewers can decide who has the better side of the argument.

HEFFNER: All I know is that I was sick at home that day and Elaine stayed home to take care of me. She didn’t go to work …

SEXTON: Elaine has taken care of you every day …

HEFFNER: … she has for 62 years …

SEXTON: … that’s why she’ll get into heaven on a scholarship.

HEFFNER: … ah … I’ve heard that before, John … and all I can tell you is that nothing made me so well, so quickly …

SEXTON: He stood and he threw his crutches away!

HEFFNER: (Laughter) John, what about that aspect of the game? We’re not just talking about telescopes and a pitch by Ralph Branca and a hit by Bobby Thompson. We’re talking about a considerable amount of hanky-panky in your game. No?

SEXTON: And, and there are areas that aren’t gray. And the use of steroids …


SEXTON: … or gambling on the game have always been considered worthy of opprobrium … at, at least by those of us who love the game. And I’m sickened by what’s going on with steroids. And it, it, it challenges one’s capacity to, to see baseball as “A Road To God” … to have the ineffable experiences.

But, but then you come back to the game in its pure form. And you put aside those sins … and they are sins and they are mortal sins … and, and they are condemnable and should be condemned and I condemn them here.

But there’s still a capacity for the ineffable and the beauty within the game. So, when … when I watch and I’ll grant now that I was mistaken … but, but I watch a Yankee second baseman named Soriano in his rookie year and I see him dangling his hands as he’s hands off … as he’s off … the first time I saw him … in part I’m sure because he was a second baseman … but I said to my son Jed … who has shared the Church of Baseball with me since his birth in, in 1969 … the Mets “miracle year”, where, where I had to make the fundamental choice for him.

Because fathers give to sons in this area and I, I knew the fundamental choice I would give him … was the choice of his baseball team. Even more than the choice of his formal religion … because yes, he was baptized … but later bar mitzvahed. And today he’s Jewish and his family is Jewish. But he’s still a Yankee fan. And I had to make that …

HEFFNER: You want to say that again …

SEXTON: He’s still a Yankee fan.

HEFFNER: And you, John?

SEXTON: And I’m a Yankee fan … but I’ll come back to that … because we, were ripened Yankee fans … by the time this Soriano began to dangle his hands off of first base … you know dangerously threatening to bolt for second.

And I said early in the season to Jed … “He’s the first player in a long time that reminds me of the greatest player of all time … in, in my view … Jackie Robinson”.

Now I think you know that on my academic gown I have a, a small little circle with the number 42, for Jackie. And I’m very proud that Rachel Robinson is a graduate of NYU Nursing School. And I was proud to give her an honorary degree and be with her just a couple of months ago to celebrate her 90th birthday.

But I said he reminds me of Jackie. And then to flash forward into the play-offs and to have Soriano at the plate and, and, and to have had things happened earlier in the game that at a certain moment I turned to my son, the Yankees behind … Soriano at the plate … and I said, “You know, Jed, after watching this game I no longer think he reminds me of Jackie Robinson. I think he is Jackie Robinson”.

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

SEXTON: Almost a reincarnated Robinson. Now I was wrong … okay … I misjudged the man. But Jed turned to me and said, “Dad if he’s Jackie Robinson, he’ll hit a home run here.” Because the Yankee’s desperately needed that to charge them. And on the next pitch … he hit a home run.

And my son and I embraced and kissed each other on the lips. Now, steroids not withstanding, that ineffable moment of love between father and son that impelled us into a plane we hadn’t been in and wouldn’t have been in but for the, the, the gestalt of that moment, that was created by this wonderful game. And, and two people who watched it with great attention.

Now I’m not claiming … notice, the title of the book is not “Baseball As The Road To God”, it’s “Baseball As A Road …” and there are many other. But what we’re losing in our society is the appreciation of the ineffable and the importance of observing with intensity the small things.

HEFFNER: John, you … you teach this seminar at NYU … few University Presidents do that. Is that where the, the book came from?

SEXTON: So, so … there, there was a wonderful event in Florence that I, I and the team at NYU Law School ran in the Fall of 1999. With, with the wonderful generosity of President Clinton and then the First Lady … Hillary Clinton … we had convened for three days in Florence. Seven heads of state for a conference which was attended only by 150 people … each of them got nine others from their delegation … including, for example, the Secretary of State, the Chief of Staff of the White House and so on … so, there were 70 people out of 150 that were … the, the, the … probably the most powerful group of political leaders gathered anywhere in the world because you had President Clinton, you had Tony Blair, you had Jospin of France, Cardozo of Brazil … the 70 … and the other 80 were NYU Law Professors and students and faculty.

And they were talking about the evolution of global civil society. And, and what global civil society could look like. And it was an intense … as you might imagine I was responsible for this and NYU has a villa in Florence and it was this on this 55 acre villa and it was a very intense two and a half days.

And then finally the last head of state left and we got word from the airport “wheels up”, they call it in politics, as you know. “Wheels up” … seven wheels up … so we gave big party in the villa for the 80 people and the people that had worked on the event and a young man came up to me and he said, “I understand you’re a devotee of baseball … he said, I’ve never been able to understand that game. It appears, you know, nearly as slow as cricket, for god’s sake … and I don’t see much excitement in it … let alone any meaning of the sort that people think you see in it.”

So, I invoked … you know … we, on, on other shows have talked about our great teachers and my great teacher was Charlie …

HEFFNER: Good ole Charlie …

SEXTON: Yeah, and I kind of channeled Charlie … Charlie had a phrase … he would sometimes look at us and say “You’re among the unwashed”.

Meaning, you know, you, you don’t … you’re not sufficiently knowledgeable. So I said to this young man, jokingly, literally almost putting my voice at the … I said, “You’re among the unwashed”. I said, “But there’s hope … Charlie would always offer you hope … there’s hope for your soul”.

If you will agree to do a directed research with me next semester, and read 12 books that I assign … and write 12 papers on those books … I guarantee by the time you end the process … you’ll see … and that’s when the phrase came to me that “baseball is a road to God”. You know I was speaking … you know … as Charlie did and frankly, as the book does … it’s, it’s, there is this kind of facetious quality to it as you transpose … you know, things that are usually associated by people with religion into the game of baseball. And it’s deliberate, to try to catalyze a way of looking at the world.

So, he said, “Okay, I’ll take up that challenge”. And we did and we had a great time together. And the next Fall there was a line of students at my door wanting to … for me to do directed research with each of them. Among them was Peter Schwartz, the young man …


SEXTON: … who finally persuaded me to do this book and, and so I said “Well, let’s collectivize this…” and that’s how the seminar was born, it will be …when I teach it this coming Spring … it will be 12 years that I’ve been teaching it. It’s, it’s extremely demanding … the students have to read at least one book a week … sometimes two. They have to write a paper every week. Some of them say it’s the hardest course they, they, they take. But it, it’s an interesting category.

And what’s very interesting is that I always teach it in the same classroom, the same … I teach it on Tuesday nights. And it’s always from 6 to 9. And it … I … rarely a week goes by that there aren’t visitors that come back from previous classes to see how the course is going. So they kind of view it as something they cherish.

HEFFNER: I think there are some wonderful, wonderful stories here. To me, as a teacher I guess one of the most interesting is the fact they came back to you at the end of the first seminar … given in the Spring then … and you agreed to go through the summer with them to continue, you said, “Nobody let’s go.”

SEXTON: Well, they, they didn’t … they, they got the idea then … this is 12 years ago … that … they, they said, we have to do a book coming out of this … and they said, “Let’s keep meeting during the summer”. And … they thought during summer they’d write the book. But we just couldn’t …

They wanted the book to be a memoir, they wanted it to be kind of centered on me and that, that … you know, I enjoy telling the stories and trying to evoke a response with students from, from them …but that wasn’t appealing to me.

About five or six years in some friends began to come regularly … usually for the last two classes, because the way the course works … they, they read books on phenomenology of religion, like Eliot and Otto and James and the like. So that gives them the tools of observing religion or, or human activity that we call religious. And then they read baseball novels.

But in the last two weeks we read about baseball in New York in that archetypical period and Doris Kearns Goodwin began to come because we read her great book … Wait ‘Til Next Year and Tom Oliphant began to come because we read his great book Praying for Gil Hodges and Pete Hamil began to come because we read his novel Snow in August.

And then the heavyweights began to press me to write this which finally I agreed to do.

HEFFNER: John, we just have a few minutes left. I’d like to talk about where the road takes us … not about baseball in America, but about that path to God in America. Where is religion … what is religion in our lives as Americans?

SEXTON: Well, I, I think we have to sort things out. First of all, as, as … just as an observation … as an empirical matter … it’s clear that although one can trace a great deal of activity and almost a surge of religious activity among religions, it tends to be non-denominational.

So, the, the … even as American identify as religious, a larger and larger portion of those who identify as religious, do not identity as denominational.

HEFFNER: But there’s a third element here that I wondered about …and that’s God. I don’t mean denominations and I don’t mean …


HEFFNER: … organized religion …

SEXTON: So, so … this, this word “god” is a problematic word because for some people it’s just … it, it just stops the conversation, you know.

And, of course, when, when we were younger, in the 1960’s …

HEFFNER: Speak about yourself, John.

SEXTON: … people, people like Altizer led a movement which was called “The Death of God” movement and I used to teach this. But, even a theologian like Paul Tillich said, “Look, if, if the word ‘God’ is a problem with you … put it aside”. What God is meant to connote … not … certainly not the anthropomorphic God that becomes the, the attack object for people like Richard Dawkins and others in a fairly kind of … in my view … simplistic conversation … but not an anthropomorphic God … you know, not a God who is up there or out there. But Tillich would say, “If you have to put the word God aside altogether, fine, what we’re talking about is that which is ultimate and transcendent in your being. The ground of your being. The essence of your being, that which ultimately gives meaning to you.

Now, that, that’s where this notion that I try to introduce in the book of, of living slow, living intensely becomes important.

So as you know I, I go regularly … this coming summer I will take the oldest of my grandchildren … because she’ll be the first to “come of age” … with my son and daughter and his wife and her fiancé and we will go with a group … we always take a group of 18 people from different parts of our lives … but we’re always the core … down into the Grand Canyon and we will spend 9 days navigating the river and the side canyons and so forth. And in, in the presence of the wonderful two billion year old geological clock and we will, we will heighten our sensitivity to the small things … to noticing. Living slow … you actually get on what the guides call and if you’ve ever done river rafting or canyon hiking … whatever it’s called … “river time”. The whole biology of being on the river is different.

And, and in a way what, what I’m urging is that we … if the students can come or the readers of this book can come to understand that, that there is this category … even as we pay all the attention we should and must to the expansion of knowledge and science and knowledge of all kinds … even as we do that there is this category that is very, very important … the ineffable … that is not knowable in the ways of quantification.

And this is a call to that. And, and when you break through to that plane, you have broken through to a plane … if you want to call it God or not … that’s up to you. Just don’t get caught up in the intellectualized, dogmatic versions that divide us.

HEFFNER: Slowness and I get the signal … over. John Sexton thanks so much for joining me today.

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

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