Down on the Farm: A Protestant in Cooperstown
My first childhood baseball hero Bert Blyleven was enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. last Sunday.
I couldn't bring myself to watch or care.
Nothing against Bert. I am still a fan. The man could pitch. And pitch. Deep into every game. He completed sixty shutouts in his twenty-two year career.
Blyleven's curveball, many say, was the best ever thrown.
If anybody deserves the baseball equivalent of sainthood, it is Bert. His statue belongs along side the baseball greats.
But that's the problem. I was raised Protestant, the sort of Protestant that doesn't think much of saints or statues.
It all goes back to the Middle Ages, before the Protestant Reformation.
The medieval church had gotten a bit carried away with saints, icons and relics. Con-artists created a lucrative market in pieces of the original cross, hair of John the Baptist, fingernails of St. Francis of Assisi, that sort of thing. Holy peddlers would come through town promising to knock a few years of your time in purgatory if you either bought a relic, or paid to see one. One creative priest in pre-Reformation England built a huge cathedral with funds raised selling people the right to eat butter during Lent.
Martin Luther and several other reformers thought this was a bit much. Attention to statues and relics distracted one from truly important spiritual matters, they argued.
After several years of hullabaloo, Luther started the Lutheran Church in protest. He was one of the original protesters, or "protestants."
The freshly-minted Lutherans still indulged in some pomp, ceremony, candles, stained glass and robes, but other Protestants decided to purify themselves altogether of extraneous symbols.
Puritan Oliver Cromwell and his Roundheads in England saw fit to destroy the icons of the old churches -- as many as they could reach, anyway.
Cromwell and his extreme Puritan Protestants were "iconoclasts." That is, they showed a contempt for external religious symbols and signs and attempted to purify England of them.
In a stroke of good luck for modern tourists and historians, gargoyles and stone saints on the upper levels of English churches remain untouched.
In the New World, the various Protestant sects built their churches from the ground up, most of them completely barren of statues, candles, carvings, paintings, even large musical instruments. Instead of concentrating upon external idols and signs, parishioners were to concentrate upon their inner spiritual condition.
It was in this iconoclastic protestant tradition that I was raised. Without paintings, statues and robes to mesmerize me, I spent childhood Sundays counting the cinder blocks on the wall behind the preacher in various high school gyms.
Over the years, my philosophy has loosened. Today, I can be charmed by a Lutheran or Catholic service where they light things up, chant liturgy and march around in robes.
But some of the early lessons still come back: Statues, saints, relics and icons are pagan, my gut tells me, as are pilgrimages to see the same.
So, when I went on a baseball tour a few years ago which included a pilgrimage to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, I didn't look forward to that day.
I walked in, read a few of the plaques and glanced at statues of saints such as Rod Carew. I took a peek at some of the relics. Babe Ruth's bat. Satchel Paige's uniform. Home run balls hit by Roger Maris. Brooks Robinson's magical glove.
I knew Cooperstown was supposed to be a sacred site, a religious experience,the baseball equivalent of the St. Peter's Square. I waited to be entranced.
But the baseball shrine with its statues and relics left me flat. And who are humans to think they can determine who is a baseball saint and who isn't, anyway? I thought.
While the rest of the tour group wandered the marble halls in reverent silence, I rushed through the exhibits and snuck out the back door.
With three hours still left on our tour, I walked down the Main Street of tiny Cooperstown and found the beautiful lakefront. No more statues, relics and icons for me.
In a park near the lake, I found a nice park bench in the shade.
In a Cromwellian act of rebellion and sacrilege, I took a two hour nap within a stone's throw of a statue of Ty Cobb.
Just like a typical Protestant.