Monday, May 15, 2006

Baseball, Faith and the Coal Region: When The Sun Only Came out on Sunday

My Grandmother would tell me the stories.

Miners given wages of pennies a day and charged for the equipment they used. They were in debt to the company at the end of an eighty hour work week. Famlies dreded the Black Maria, the horse drawen coach that heralded the death of a miner. Famlies would wait in the streets watching to see where the Black Maria would stop. They would wait to see whose body was being brought home.

My great grandfathers would get up before the sun had risen and go home after it set. This was their life saturday-saturday. But not on Sunday.

She would tell me, "The sun came up on Sunday."

And what did they do? On this one day, when they could take the small moments to remember the dead and celebrate the living...what did they do?

They went to Church as a family.
They had a long meal as a family.
They played baseball as a family.

The sun was out, and the Son was with them.

William Kashatus says, in his excellent book Diamonds in the Coalfields:

"After morning church services people would walk home to eat their dinner and then make their way slowly to the nearest ballfield to watch two of the local semi-professional teams play ball."
The games were underway by 2pm. These Anthracite Leagues existed well into the 1940's. Faith, family and fun. All on the one day. The holy day. The week revolved around this day, and the lessons of keeping the sabbath holy were clear.

My grandmother would tell me stories of these games. There was very little pitching until late in the game. Kashatus verifies this in his book. Scores of 20-19 were common.

But what did it mean, these Sunday games. Kashatus again echos my grandmother and her mother before her:

"For the old men, "Greenhorns" who were the earliest of the european immigrants, Sunday baseball was the highlight of their entire week. "Who ve going to play dis noon." They would ask in broken english. When they were satisfied that their afternoon plans remained intact the would encourage the young men of their congregation to, "Play hart and vin because ve going to voot for you gut today." It wasn't that these old greehorns loved baseball. In fact, they would spend most of the afternoon along the sidelines playing cards and trying to understand what was going on in the game. These immigrants attended Sunday afternoon baseball for the same reason they tried to speak english, it helped to identify their Americaness, thier sense of belonging to this country."

Or as my grandmother put it, "They played baseball because that's what they had together as Americans. They worked together from different countries and had God, baseball and the mines in common."

Two Great-Grandfathers, 14 uncles and great-uncles and dozens of cousins died in the mines and my father worked there all of his life. When I was 11 dad had a minor heart attack. He drove me to my baseball game, then went to work. He worked for a few hours and had a larger heart attack. He told me, years later when I asked, that he did that because if he had the heart attack at work then we would have the money to go to college.

That was how they all were.

I asked my grandmother once what they prayed for in Church and why they did all of that hard work. She said they prayed that their children and children's children could be free to worship as they wanted and not have to be miners. And that's why they worked hard.

Men and women who I have never met suffered and died for the hope of a better life for people they would never meet. Because of that, it has never been hard for me to understand that a man 2000 years ago, who was God come to us, did the same for us all.

When I was a kid, I practiced for little league on the same field that my Grandmother and Grandfather's parents had played on during those Sunday games. Down the way from the mine and a block away from the church. We didn't live in that town anymore, we lived a town over, but we practiced there.

I went to college. I Got an education. I Worship how I choose. And I played baseball more than one day a week.

And for me, the sun was out every single God given day.

My life, is a prayer answered. A prayer offered on the day the week revolved around.

God's day.

A day for Church, family and baseball in the coal region of Pennsylvania.

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