Unlike most of my friends, I didn’t grow up playing baseball and I didn’t grow up watching it either. My father, being from a country that played cricket, never understood the appeal of America’s pastime. “Why would you sit around all day watching someone try to hit a round ball with a round bat?” he asked during the one major league game we ever attended together. His boredom evolved into disdain. “If they didn’t sell beer no one would be here,” he concluded.
Despite my parentage, it’s difficult to not be a baseball fan in Chicago these day with the Cubs in the World Series after a 71 year drought. As I’ve been watching the games—the first baseball I’ve consumed on television in years—my father’s voice has been echoing in my head. He was right. A baseball game is drudgery punctuated by moments of drama, and any sport that can be played while consuming a tobacco product will likely never be fast-paced. Despite that I’ve also been reminded of what makes baseball so unique and even necessary in our culture.
The slowness of baseball allows for observations impossible in more action-packed games. The personalities of the players and their feelings are discernible. Javier Baez has time to joke with the Indian’s player on second base. Cleveland batter Trevor Bauer applauds the remarkable off the wall catch by Cubs’ right fielder Jason Heyward. You can see a player’s class. You can also recognize their arrogance. Baseball fans don’t have to wait for the post-game locker room interviews to know what the players think or how they feel. With no clock counting down and no face masks to hide behind, the men on the field are always on full display and over time so is the content of their character. Baseball’s plodding pace, which annoyed my father, is precisely what allows both players and fans to be present.
That brings me to James “Deacon” White—a baseball player even most diehard fans have never heard of. White played at the very dawn of professional baseball. In fact, on May 4, 1871, James White had the very first hit, in the first game, of the first professional baseball league. It was a double. He was the first catcher to use a mask and the first pitcher to go into a wind-up before throwing the ball. He was also one of the early stars of the game.
Over his 20 year career, White played for teams in Cincinnati, Buffalo, Detroit, Boston, Pittsburgh, and when the National League formed a new team in Chicago in 1876 he moved there to join the club that became the Cubs. Because of his contributions to the game, and his unmatched skills on the field, James White is the oldest player in the Baseball Hall of Fame. It’s not an exaggeration to say that White helped create the game of baseball we know today.
The inscription on White’s plaque in the hall of fame, however, doesn’t begin with the words “19th century star of baseball,” or “premier catcher of his era,” or “led teams to six championships,” although all three phrases are there. The first words on the plaque are “Consummate gentleman.” At a time when professional athletes were seen as unsavory, hard-drinking, womanizers, James White earned the nickname “Deacon” for his commitment to Christian faith and virtue which were evident to everyone who saw him play.
In 1886, the Detroit Free Press wrote:
“No one ever yet heard Deacon White say dammit; no one ever saw him spike or trample upon an opponent; no one ever saw him hurl his bat towards the bench when he struck out; no one ever heard him wish the umpire were where the wicked never cease from troubling and the weary never give us a rest. And think of it! Nineteen years of provocation! Will anybody deny that Deacon White is a great and good man, as well as a first-class ball player.”
That description reveals both what was different about Deacon White and what’s different about baseball. The quick pace of most sports rewards first-class athletes for their skill, but the content of their character is usually veiled. It is only known off the field away from the cameras and fans permitting a comfortable separation of the player’s public image and personal integrity (or lack there of). Baseball’s slowness allows no separation. A man standing in a field for hours with thousands of people watching him has no where to hide. The long pauses between pitches and hits affords time for character to be revealed and a more integrated vision of a player to be seen. In White’s case, it permitted other players, spectators, and even umpires to see what he was really made of.
For example, in 1878, the Indianapolis Journal reported that an umpire actually consulted with White, a player on the field, about whether the base runner was out. When the opponent complained, the ump declared, “When White says a thing is so it is so, and that is the end of it.”
James “Deacon” White played the game with an integrity that was as rare in the 19th century as it is today, and I have to believe it was celebrated in part because the slow, even boring pace of baseball allowed the character of a man like White to be recognized in a way that would be impossible in basketball or football. Jesus compared a person’s character to the fruit of a tree. It takes time for a tree to produce fruit—sometimes years, but it lasts. “You recognize a tree by its fruit,” Jesus said, but it’s difficult to identify that fruit with a 24-second shot clock. Baseball, unlike faster sports, puts more than a man’s skill on display. It also displays his soul.
In our light-speed culture of instant everything, baseball is a throwback to an earlier, slower age that celebrated more than accomplishment; an era when people were valued and not just their performances. It was a time when we were more present with one another, rather than rushing to the next task, tweet, or text. Baseball is a parable, a reminder that most of our days are uneventful and only briefly punctuated with excitement, and it’s in the slow monotony of life that our character is formed and revealed. It is in the stillness between the pitches that we discover a “James” is really a “Deacon.”
You may be wondering how a kid who grew up around more books than balls, with a father who played cricket, and who was generally indifferent toward baseball came to admire a player most dedicated fans don’t know about. I didn’t stumble upon Deacon White’s story in a history book or in a Ken Burns’ documentary. Instead, I discovered that the slow, present faithfulness of Deacon White shaped more than the early years of professional baseball. It also shaped a family, and 60 years after White died it turns out I married his great-great granddaughter. As I said, the fruit of a person’s character is revealed slowly, but it lasts. By God it lasts.