by Sante Matteo
Baseball is biblical. It acts out our desire to make our way back home, to get back to the Garden of Eden. So pointed out literary scholar, then President of Yale University, then Baseball Commissioner, A. Bartlett Giamatti in Take Time for Paradise (1989): “It is the story . . . of going home after having left home, the story of how difficult it is to find the origins one so deeply needs to find” (p. 90).
In an earlier book, from his time as a professor of literature, The Earthly Paradise and the Renaissance Epic (1966), Giamatti pointed out that the word “paradise” derives from a Persian word, pairidaeza, that referred to a royal park enclosed by a wall. In the Greek of the New Testament, it became paradeisos, and subsequently in Late Latin, paradisus, by which time it came to refer to what we now also call Heaven (pp.20-22).
In the middle of of our industrialized cities, surrounded by concrete, metal, and plastic structures, baseball parks enclose a green field, a vestigial “paradise” in the original Persian sense of the word. Within that symbolic space a ritual is routinely performed. Throngs of worshippers (spectators, fans) participate vicariously while members of a revered priestly class (players, coaches, and umpires) re-enact the story of humanity’s exile from Eden and the perennial longing to return there: to make it all the way around back to home base.
Circling the bases—itself an expression redolent of another perennial quixotic human quest: that of squaring the circle; or inversely in this case, circling the square: the bases forming a square, or diamond, that the base runner circles–and reaching home constitutes a journey analogous to the one that Dante undertakes in his Divine Comedy. Finding himself lost in a dark wood, Dante sets off–with Virgil and then Beatrice as his first- and third-base “coaches”–on a voyage that will take him first through the circles of Hell (first base), then the slopes of Purgatory (second base), and then the planetary and starry spheres of Paradise (third base), all the way to the Empyrean (home plate), where the souls that have achieved salvation dwell in the presence of God.
Curiously, Inferno, the first canticle of the poem, like first base, is where people get stranded on the homeward journey. In baseball few of the batters who get on base manage to advance beyond first. Similarly, of those who read the Divine Comedy many read only Inferno. Not all go on to read the second canticle, Purgatorio,and even fewer get to the third, Paradiso.
When Dante reaches his ultimate destination, he likens the dwelling place of the blessed spirits to a “celestial rose.” In the petals he sees all the blessed souls who have earned salvation arranged in rows, ranks, and sections, acording to their gender, the historical period when they lived, and the measure of divine grace granted to each. Dante’s celestial rose resembles a baseball stadium, where all the spectators are also “blessed,” albeit to different degrees, with some seated in the choice seats closer to home plate and others in the more remote cheap seats.
The essential numbers of baseball: 3 (strikes, outs), 4 (bases, balls for a walk), and 9 (positions and players, innings; 90 feet between bases) resonate with Dante’s medieval numerology.
The number 3 represented the triune God (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost): the Divine realm. Dante made it the constitutive unit of the Divine Comedy: 3 Canticles (Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso) comprised of three-lined stanzas linked with each other by a three-pronged rhyme scheme invented by Dante, terza rima (third rhyme), wherein the word of the middle verse in each stanza rhymes with the first and third word of the following stanza: ABA BCB CDC, etc. Every verse consists of 11 syllables so that each stanza contains 33 syllables: the number of years it took to accomplish Jesus Christ’s mission on Earth.
The number 4 represented the realm of the earthly and the human. The physical world was made up of 4 elements: earth, water, air, fire, distributed in 4 geographical directions: north, south, east, west, from which blew the corresponding 4 winds. The year consisted of 4 seasons: spring, summer, autumn, winter. A human life spanned 4 ages: childhood, youth, adulthood, old age. The human body consisted of 4 humors: blood, yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, characterized by 4 opposing attributes: hot or cold, dry or wet. Combinations determined both physical and psychological traits in people: e.g. Blood, hot and wet, caused sanguine personalities; yellow bile, hot and dry, choleric; black bile, cold and dry, melancholic; phlegm, cold and wet, phlegmatic. Similarly when applied to geology: Air, hot and wet, was associated with Spring; fire, hot and dry, with Summer; earth, cold and dry, with Autumn; water, cold and wet, with Winter.
The number 9 stood for miracles, which happen when the Divine (the Trinity) manifests itself in the terrestrial world. In the Vita nuova (New Life) Dante explains why his beloved Beatrice (in Italian the word means: “she who bestows beatitude, who blesses”) was associated with the number 9: “[T]he number three is the root of nine, for without any other number, multiplied by itself it gives nine . . . . Therefore, if three is the sole factor of nine and the sole factor of miracles is three, that is, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, who are three in One, then [something] accompanied by the number nine . . . may be understood [to be] a miracle, whose root, namely of the miracle, is the miraculous Trinity itself” (trans. Mark Musa, 1992, p. 61). Miracles demonstrate that there is a transcendent realm of the spirit and spur and guide humans toward that realm, toward beatitude.
Seven, the sum of 3 and 4, was the number that stood for completion or fullness (7 days of creation, 7 days of the week). It conjoined the divine and the terrestrial: e.g. the 7 virtues: 3 divine (faith, hope, charity) and 4 earthly (prudence, temperance, fortitude, justice); the 7 deadly sins: 4 of the body (lust, gluttony, greed, sloth) and 3 of the spirit (wrath, envy, pride). Consequently the number 8 represented a new beginning, a resurrection, or rebirth. Baptismal fonts have eight sides, to represent the incarnation of the spirit into a body, the beginning of a new life.
In little league, games last 7 innings. In the big leagues, at the end of 7 innings comes the “seventh-inning stretch,” accompanied by the singing of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” which creates a pause before the game resumes in the 8th inning, the beginning of a last chance.
Does all this mean that Abner Doubleday or whoever invented the game of baseball was inspired by reading Dante? Not necessarily. It is rather to suggest that Dante and Doubleday were mining from the same cultural quarry and coming up with similar materials. Culture—both so-called high culture: e.g. art, literature, classical music, philosophy, and what is called low or popular culture: e.g. folk traditions, religious and festive practices and rituals, crafts, cuisine, forms of entertainment and pastimes, and sports—is an accretion of institutions, ideas, beliefs, practices, and behaviors that furnish our lives with meaning and purpose. Beyond the biological functions of survival and procreation, human activity is aimed at seeking or creating order out of chaos, meaning out of meaninglessness, by detecting or imposing patterns, cycles, structures, and rules in the physical universe and “wild” nature.
This is what games do: establish goals, set rules and limits, dictate procedures, while allowing for both chance and skill to determine outcomes. Along with the poems and stories we write and read, the works of art we produce, and our religious beliefs and rituals, games allow us to keep posing and seeking the answers to such questions as: Why are we here? Where are we going? What are we supposed to be doing, how, and for what, to what end? Without consciously articulating such thoughts, we nonetheless participate in that perennial quest for order and meaning, subliminally, experientially. It’s what causes both the anxiety and the thrill of the game.
The Bible, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and baseball are all parts of a shared cultural patrimony. Our collective cultural memory, the encyclopedia we all carry in our minds, includes a socially transmitted knowledge of many things, including those works of literautre that have become canonical, such as the Divine Comedy, even if we know them only by hearsay. Many people in English-speaking countries know the story of Romeo and Juliet and can recite or recognize lines from Shakespeare’s plays even if they have never watched or read them. People recognize the Colosseum, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Eiffel Tower, Leonardo’s Monna Lisa, Michelangelo’s David, without having seen them in person.
Some ideas and beliefs become integral parts of the cultural patrimony and are disseminated through the world and through time in different ways: through words, images, actions (music, dance, athletics), artifacts (fashion, furniture, tools, ornaments, toys). They become what the sociobiologist Richard Dawkins termed “memes:” self-replicating units of meaning, cultural or ideological viruses that infect and influence our thinking and our social behavior, These self-replicating cultural analogs of biological genes propogate themselves from host to host: among members of a community, from one society to another, from one generation to the next, just as viruses and germs are spread from one body to another (see the last chapter, “Memes: The New Replicators,” in The Selfish Gene, 1976).
Numerology, for example, serves as a memetic vehicle, assigning meanings to numbers and dispersing them to many fields: mathematics, architecture, religious rituals, Pythagorean philosophy, and literature, to poets such as Dante. Powerful memes that permeate and persist in our Western culture include stories of origin (Genesis), of exodus and exile and the attempt to go home again (Homer’s Odyssey), of teleological destiny: foundation stories (Virgil’s Aeneid). And thus it is with our collective nostalgia for a lost garden or paradise: a state of bliss we want to believe once existed and to which we want to return. All are memes we carry in our cultural bagage.
So, if you haven’t gotten around to reading the Divine Comedy yet and haven’t read the Bible as assiduously or as thoroughly as you would like–or as you pretend–don’t worry! Go play or watch a baseball game, and you’ll have all the bases covered.
Sante Matteo was born and spent his childhood in a small agricultural town in southern Italy. He is a retired Professor Emeritus of Italian Studies at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Recent creative writing has appeared in Dime Show Review, Bark, The Chaffin Journal, and The New Southern Fugitives.