By Jon Berry
IN SEMINARY, STUDENTS LEARN VARIOUS TERMS FOR TAKING A CHANCE ON LIFE. There's Pascal’s Wager, the 17th-century proposition that the rewards of belief are so compelling that even non-believers should give it a try (“fake it ’til you make it” in today’s parlance). Kierkegaard speaks of the leap of faith toward the eternal moment.
For my part, I prefer stories. Lately, with the turn to spring, I’ve been thinking about a great uncle who took a chance on life as it presented itself to him in the early 1900s in the farm country of Indiana. Claude Elzy Berry was a runt of a kid – 5 feet 7 inches tall and 165 pounds – from a nowhere town (Losantville, IN, current population: 257). But he finagled his way into a tryout with a baseball team.
From 1902-1917, Uncle Claude crisscrossed the country playing catcher for professional ballteams from Dallas to Louisville, the Chicago White Sox, and Indianapolis; then Cedar Rapids, Fort Worth, the Philadelphia A’s, Cedar Rapids (again), Williamsport, and Philadelphia (again). He then went west to the Pacific Coast League, playing five seasons for the San Francisco Seals, then going to Portland, OR, before spending his last seasons in Pittsburgh and Kansas City.
By the time he retired at age 37, he’d played for two major league teams – the White Sox and A’s; one of the teams in a controversial, short-lived league that tried to take on the National and American leagues (Pittsburgh of the Federal League); some of the most colorfully named teams in sport (the Dallas Griffins, Cedar Rapids Rabbits, Williamsport Millionaires, and Pittsburgh Rebels, also known as the Stogies, one of the great all-time names), and even got a couple baseball cards (two featured above).
Moreover, he piled up stories that we are still telling a century later. Like the time he bet the legendary Ty Cobb a straw hat that he’d throw Cobb out stealing second. He lost the wager when Cobb, who besides being fast was notoriously dirty, called time out after hitting his way onto first, pulled out a file, sat down on first base, and sharpened his spikes. The thoroughly spooked rookie second baseman was nowhere to be found when the ball and Cobb arrived at second.
Uncle Claude earned a measure of distinction with his game as well. While he never became a standout hitter (in baseball’s Deadball Era, hardly anyone did), he was known for his arm and ironman durability. Uncle Claude caught a staggering 167 games for the 1908 San Francisco Seals – more than most teams play today. He once caught every pitch of a 24-inning 1-0 Seals win over the Oakland Oaks. Both, so far as we know, are records that stand to this day.
Those Seals – known for their guile and wit – also captured a special place in etymological history. The first recorded use of the word “jazz” in print was a 1913 story in the San Francisco Bulletin describing the team as “full of the old ‘jazz.’” The piece went on to define “the ‘jazz’” as, “why…a little of that ‘old life,’ the ‘gin-iker,’ the ‘pep,’ otherwise known as enthusiasalum.” (To do: work enthusiasalum into a conversation with friends or colleagues.)
Uncle Claude remained the family trickster to the end of his days. According to one of the weathered clippings lovingly copied and passed down through the generations, he once carried around a $10,000 bill for a few days “for the thrill” of seeing the “shock” of shopkeepers when he’d ask if they could break it for a $5 purchase. (“A hundred-dollar bill?” marveled a gas-station attendant. “Hundred nothin’. That’s a thousand-dollar bill,” chimed a second attendant – to which a third, with a choice profanity, exclaimed, “That’s a $10,000 bill!”)
To younger generations growing up in small-town Indiana, the stories lit up the horizon. They showed that life is possibility. It is to be relished. No matter where you come from or which side of the tracks you grew up on. No matter what had happened to you that day. It was a lesson we never forgot.
For the past month, I’ve been carrying a scrap of paper in my pocket with a snippet from a meditation. “Life involves one risk after another.” It’s a reminder, like a verbal string around my finger, to stay open, take a chance. The reading ends with a quote from Helen Keller: “Life is a daring adventure or nothing.”
In the way these things happen, life has been feeding that message back to me lately. This week, my Dad – an 85-year-old farmer who’s itching to get on his tractor and start working his fields – told me a cousin’s daughter is going sky-diving to celebrate her 18th birthday. A Quaker friend has just come home from three months facilitating non-violence workshops in Latin America. Over dinner another friend shared his dream of moving to Spain after he retires to join medical missions to the Third World. Two friends – one old, one new – are deferring opportunities to work in the corporate world to start their own businesses.
We hear so often that life is there for the taking, it's easy to tune out. But who’s to say it’s not right – that, in fact, at any moment, we could be Pete Rose, the Ty Cobb of my generation, standing by third base near the end of one of the greatest games of all time, game six of the 1975 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and his Cincinnati Reds, shouting to the Sox’ grizzled third-base coach, Don “Popeye” Zimmer, “Hey, Popeye! Popeye! Win or lose, Popeye, we’re playing in the fucking greatest game ever played!”
It begins – going back to Kierkegaard, Pascal, et. al – in faith. This week, I read that in Pali, the language in which Buddhist texts were first written, the word used for faith, saddha, translates to “place the heart upon.” When we take a leap of faith for something we care about, we are placing our heart upon it. Faith, then, is not a static state – something we eventually achieve – but an action. According to the book, Faith, by Sharon Salzberg, a Buddhist author and teacher, saddha was a verb. “We ‘faithe,’” Salzberg writes. “Saddha is the willingness to take the next step, to see the unknown as an adventure.”
I don’t think it’s such a big leap from baseball to spirit. (And not because the statistic that Uncle Claude took pride in later in life was a streak of 20 years of churchgoing without missing a Sunday.) In both we see glimpses of what life can be like, that we can take back with us into our daily lives. We’re given images, visions, messages that we will wrestle with in the days after – for example, the quotation from William Penn recited by a Friend in my Quaker meeting last Sunday that's been grappling with me through the week: “Love is the hardest lesson in Christianity…for that reason, it should be most our care to learn it.”
When we take a chance on life, we are, in a phrase another friend told me this week, “taken to the edge – and softened.” It’s there that, in the traditional Quaker term, “way opens.” We see and hear things that challenge us to take the next step – even if we’re not sure what the next step after that one will be.
According to the story passed down in the family, Ty Cobb so much wanted to win the wager with Uncle Claude that, despite banging a hit off the wall that could easily have been a triple, he stopped at first. Thanks to my Uncle Bill Berry (who, himself, got a big league tryout) for letting me record him telling the story. The details on Claude Elzy Berry’s career come from a combination of news clippings from 1943-1974 in the Richmond (IN) Palladium-Item and Baseball Reference’s minor-league and major-league reference guides. The story of the San Francisco Seals’ association with “jazz” can be found by clicking here.
The Pete Rose quote – fast-becoming one of my mantras – is from the book The Long Ball: The Summer of ’75 – Spaceman, Catfish, Charlie Hustle, and the Greatest World Series Ever Played, by Tom Adelman. Click here for more information.
In addition to insightful reflections on faith from a Buddhist perspective, Sharon Salzberg’s book Faith is a beautifully written account of the author’s spiritual journey – one that I never would have guessed. Click here for more information.
No music in this week’s essay, but I’ve been listening to a lot of Louis Armstrong lately, especially Life Is So Peculiar, a good reminder to keep our sense of wonder. Unfortunately there's not a pristine version on YouTube, but here's one that comes close. There's a nice recording of the song on four-disk budget boxed set, C'est Ci Bon: Satchmo in the Forties (available on Amazon here; some of the tunes are also in iTunes); the colletion also includes three of my other Louis favorites: his slowed-down On the Sunny Side of the Street; C’est Ci Bon; and La Vie en Rose (sigh).