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Sermon on the Mound : Professor of Religion Holds Baseball Memories as Sacred; His Academic Essays Associate Sport With Ancient Myths

July 30, 1987|DICK WAGNER | Times Staff Writer

Growing up in a Baptist preacher's home in Mississippi, Joe Price embraced baseball with such fervor that his mother facetiously accused him of loving the Yankees first, God second and his family third.

"That's probably not far off," Price said. Although now an assistant professor of religion at Whittier College, he still cherishes old magazines with cover photos of Mickey Mantle, faded souvenirs from trips to major league stadiums, and foul balls he caught at Cubs and White Sox games while a divinity student in Chicago.

"I cried when Bill Skowron would strike out," Price recalled of the time as a 7-year-old when radio familiarized him with Skowron and other New York players.

His love for baseball, dry-eyed now but otherwise undiminished at age 38, still beckons him to Dodger Stadium, or to his back porch to listen to games after supper while reliving with friends the sport's inexhaustible supply of memories.

He even included baseball in his academic specialty--the relationship of religion with culture.

"I always knew there was an inordinate lure of baseball, much like that of the power of religion," said Price, who lives with his wife and two sons in Whittier.

Thus the essay, "The Pitcher's Mound as Cosmic Mountain: Baseball and Mythology," has joined, among others, "The Liberality of the Liberal Arts" and "Attitudes of Kentucky Baptists Toward World War II" on Price's list of published articles.

A bearded man whose office wall holds a picture not of a famous theologian but of Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson, Price sees baseball differently than most rabid fans.

Like many religions, Price points out in his essay, baseball has a binding creed (rules), temples (stadiums), shrines (the Hall of Fame), sacred texts (the Sporting News) and true believers (fans).

Similar to Religion

Price wrote: "In addition to a kind of religious devotion evinced through attendance statistics, the trappings of major league baseball bear remarkable similarities to the idiosyncrasies of personal reverence and to the public ceremonies of established religions."

He wrote from firsthand experience. As a boy, Price's love for Mantle had bordered on worship. He holds sacred the memory of the summer day in 1961 when his father took him to a Yankees-White Sox game in Chicago, in which Mantle hit a home run.

His reverence for the Yankees continued when his family moved to Virginia, not too far from where the Washington Senators played. During an interview last week, Price looked at his markings on an old Senators score card and winced at the memory of a Yankee defeat.

Price, who began making connections between baseball and religion in an academic way in the early 1980s, said his paper was different from other lectures about baseball and religion in that it "associates the game with ancient myths, and shows the structure of the myths is quite similar to rituals of the game."

That association was revealed to him while watching a game at Dodger Stadium. From the perspective of the highest deck, he saw the baseball field as a cosmos, with the bases the four corners of the world and the foul poles the sun and moon.

Cosmic Dualism

The pitcher's mound, Price said, corresponded to the cosmic mountain from which creation of the world/game begins. Atop the mound the pitcher stood as a high priest.

Within the mythic structure, Price saw a cosmic dualism: the confrontation of the pitcher (agent of creation) and the batter (the destructive force).

And he saw the groundskeepers, armed for rain delays with their tarpaulin, as protectors of the field from the "destructive waters of the mythic flood."

The grounds crew, Price explained in the essay, also conducts a large part of the pregame "consecration ritual," placing the "freshly whitened, pure and undefiled bases at the corners of the infield."

The national anthem, he said, completes the consecration. It also brings back a special memory to Price.

Allowed to Fulfill a Dream

A semiprofessional singer while attending graduate school in Chicago, Price wrote to the White Sox, asking if they would let him fulfill a dream of singing the anthem at a major-league game. And so Price, in his bass baritone, sang it before 49,952 fans at Comiskey Park in August of 1977.

"The highlight of my baseball career," he said.

Price, though, met rejection from three religious journals when he first tried to get his essay published.

"One thought it was too popular, one regarded it as satire and sophomoric and one said it was too academic," Price said. "But each said, 'We're fascinated by it, can we keep a copy?' "

It eventually appeared last March in the Journal Times, a publication of the California Assn. for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance.

The other night, as Price watched a game on TV, his theory of cosmic dualism kept creeping from the back of his mind. The Dodgers were in white, the Giants in gray. Good vs. evil.

And when Franklin Stubbs finally knocked the ball out of the world in the 12th inning, all the true believers, including Price, went to bed happy.

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