In “Safe at Home: A Memoir of God, Baseball, and Family,” Marc A. Jolley presents a highly personal account of his life as it has revolved around these three poles.
The book is a new addition to the “Sports and Religion” Series begun by Mercer University Press in 2004. It is written to Jolley’s sons and begins by recounting his days of playing baseball in Little League and in the back yard with his brothers.
Jolley, director of Mercer University Press, grew up in Cleveland, Tenn., and one of the undercurrents of the book is the sense of displacement experienced by baseball fans in the South.
He is a New York Yankees fan first, because he had formed this bond before baseball came to the South when the Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966. This cultural earthquake is described in his sixth chapter, “God Went Down to Georgia.”
Its meaning was magnified many times over because the Braves best player was Henry Aaron, and the Braves’ journey from Milwaukee to Atlanta took place at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.
From the beginning, Jolley’s own experience of playing baseball on the Little League Yankees paralleled the big Yankees in new York. He vividly describes the pre-ESPN days of following baseball through box scores in the newspaper.
One of the earliest memories he recounts is getting a single in the last inning of 9-0 loss to break up a no-hitter by the opposing pitcher. When one line about this feat appeared the next day in a story in the Cleveland Daily Banner, Jolley recalls an 8-year-old’s thought, “I wondered if Mickey Mantle had seen the paper.”
Baseball became intertwined with religion for Jolley as fear and “fire and brimstone” preaching drove him to salvation during a summer revival meeting. Once saved and assured that he “was going to heaven as sure as Mickey mantle was headed for the hall of fame,” his fear of Jesus’ immanent return was replaced by the regret that the Second Coming would put an end to his baseball career.
Baseball became part of Jolley’s social consciousness when a kind act by his mother toward an African-American man caused him to notice skin color for the first time.
That night his ritual of looking through his cherished baseball card collection changed. He noticed the color of Hank Aaron and Willie Mays as he chose their cards to be the two he would place under his pillow while he slept.
“From that day forward, my monotheism of Mantle turned into a trinity. If mom treated black people as equals, then they were. If Mr. Jones could ride in my car then Aaron and Mays had a place in my life.”
Baseball, religion and family continue to wind around each other as Jolley recalls learning to respect his baseball opponents, even in the midst of fierce opposition.
“Somehow I never learned to respect enemies at church. I learned a lot about hate and divisiveness at church.… Playing baseball…, I got a head start on what church was supposed to be.”
Baseball also served as the primary connection between Jolley and his father. The highlight of the Yankees’ return to prominence in the major leagues, Reggie Jackson’s three home run game in October of 1977, was also the night of his most poignant, religious conversation with his father.
His father tearfully recalled his own conversion as a boy, which he never told anyone about. So, he had never been recognized and baptized by the church. In the middle of that most memorable of baseball games, “He stood up and said good night, baptized by his own tears.”
As I read that story, I was instantly reminded of some of Will Campbell’s stories about baptism, so I was not at all surprised to see a reference to Doops Momber in The Glad River on the next page.
Jolley’s memoir continues into adulthood, his search for vocation, and the development of his own family, including stories of taking his son to Yankee Stadium.
His experience of the Southern Baptist controversy of the 1980’s brings painful recognition to those of us whose lives were also affected by it.
Some healing arrives, however, with his thoughtful chapter on the movie, “Field of Dreams.” More than 15 years and many, many viewings later when I see this film while scanning the channels my fingers freeze on the remote control and I can not look away.
It is no small feat for a Chicago Cubs fan, like myself, to read a book about baseball written by a Yankees fan. I was forced to explore more seriously my thoughts and feelings about Ernie Banks, Ron Santo and all of those losing seasons.
Jolley’s book demonstrates that for a kid growing up in the South, thoughts and feelings about baseball, religion, race and self identity can not be separated easily. The value of Safe at Home is far more than just the hearing of someone else’s story, but the challenge to continue to ponder our own.
Mark McEntire is assistant professor of religion at Belmont University.
Order Safe at Home from Amazon.com.