Last week at Anxious Bench, I had a chance to interview historian Paul Putz, who just launched Sportianity, a blog on “the unique cultural world that stands at the intersection of sports and (mostly evangelical Protestant) Christianity.” When I asked Paul to share significant changes in “Sportianity” since sportswriter Frank Deford coined the term in 1976, he talked about gender, race, and then a topic near and dear to my heart:
…while my dissertation is focused on the United States, there is a global dimension to Sportianity that deserves more exploration. Athletes in Action, Venture for Victory/Sports Ambassadors, and others have always emphasized global evangelism through sport. They continue those efforts today. Meanwhile, the FCA, which confined its work to the United States for its first few decades, has expanded globally in recent decades.
As you may recall, a few years back I gave a talk at Evangelical Theological Society (later published in Fides et Historia) in which I urged historians of evangelicalism to make the “global turn” and stop focusing so heavily on American religious history. That talk was inspired by David Swartz’s discussion of pioneering Latin American evangelicals like Samuel Escobar.
Add that to my love of baseball and it was rather exciting to see that this morning’s Sportianity post focused on Felipe Alou, an outfielder who made the All-Star team three times in his long career. The second major leaguer from the Dominican Republic, Alou became a born-again Christian the day before he made his major league debut in 1958. Four years later, Paul reports, Alou’s testimony was the cover story in The Christian Athlete, the magazine of Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
As Paul notes, Alou’s conversion took him away from the form of Christianity that had dominated Latin American religion since the European conquest:
Like most Latinos, Alou grew up in a Catholic family. But in his view he did not become a Christian until his born again experience in 1958. To signify his new religious identity, he was later “baptized into the new faith” by Lindy McDaniel, a well-traveled relief pitcher who doubled as a Church of Christ minister.
Alou’s evangelical Protestant faith caused friction among his Catholic family members; he wrote in 1962 that he “experienced ridicule and misunderstanding” back home in the Dominican Republic.
When Alou’s story was published, he was unusual in two respects: only 3-4% of Latin American Christians were Protestant, and Latinos accounted for only 8% of major leaguers. Now, the equivalent figures are closer to 20% (and rising quickly) and 28% (fairly steady for fifteen years). So stories like Alou’s — and those of more recent stars like Mariano Rivera and Albert Pujols — are potentially significant for historians of Latin America, sports, and Christianity alike.