By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit
You can tell this book by its cover, says journalist, educator and musician Charles Honey.
“That’s a photo taken just down the road from my home in Grand Rapids, Michigan,” he explained in an interview this week. “First, you see the two boys playing ball. I’ve always treasured baseball; I’ve found a lot of joy and comfort in the game; and all across this country people find connection and spiritual meaning with each other through baseball. I’ve presented programs about this idea and people really seem eager to talk about that.
“You can see these boys are playing in a park. That beautiful setting reminds us of the importance of the larger natural world. Then, we see the two towers on the horizon: Sacred Heart, a church so close that I can hear the bells ringing in the morning. I like this photo because the towers against the blue sky remind us of the higher power presiding over all the beauty. And that’s the subtitle of the book: God, Nature and Sacrifice Bunts. These stories are about how spirituality works in our lives on an everyday basis.”
For decades, Charles Honey was one of the nation’s leading newspaper-based religion writers, filing stories via The Grand Rapids Press in western Michigan. Occasionally, you might have seen one of his stories that was picked up by a wire service appearing in a newspaper close to your home. As newspapers nationwide downsized and laid off specialty writers, Honey finally retired his column with the Press this spring after two decades. You can learn more about his life in general and his award-winning work at his website, SoulMailing.
Are you a baseball fan? Then you already understand what Charles is talking about when he says that baseball is a spiritual experience. Or, are you skeptical or perhaps don’t care about our National Pastime? Then, read this summary by Charles about the program he presents on this topic.
Our spiritual tap root in baseball often reaches down into our deepest memories from childhood and resonates, Charles argues, because of the “abiding beauty” of the game. “Besides being a wonderful game in itself, baseball has a way of connecting people across time, societal groups and generations,” he writes.
In the new book, you’ll find one whole section devoted to short, fun, inspiring baseball stories—old and new. In our interview, I told Charles that my favorite story reminded readers of the ugly, ant-Semitic abuse that was shouldered so heroically by Tigers great Henry “Hammerin’ Hank” Greenberg.
“Over the years, as I’ve written about the spiritual side of baseball or I’ve talked to groups about this idea—I’ve heard from so many people who want to share their own memories, often of going to games with their fathers or grandfathers,” Charles told me. “We all remember the details so vividly—the smell and feel and taste of the ballpark. These are memories that hold very special places in their hearts.”
Hank Greenberg is a memory shared through several generations of Charles’s family—from his own father to Charles’s grown children today.
“Hank Greenberg was one of my father’s childhood heroes,” Charles said. “My Dad grew up in Detroit and he grew up idolizing Hank Greenberg and Charlie Gehringer and all those players who were so famous in the 1930s and won the world series in 1935. I can still remember my Dad talking about how far Hank Greenberg could hit the ball. He was a legend to me!
“Then I read John Rosengren’s biography of Greenberg and that’s what caused me to write about Greenberg again,” Charles said. “I always had heard that he had suffered some terrible antisemitic slurs as a player—but I was appalled to find out how bad he had it, and Jewish families had it in Detroit in that era with KKK groups active in the city and Henry Ford publishing anti-Jewish propaganda nationally.
“To me the story of Hank Greenberg connects a lot of themes in this book—the importance of family and stories we share across generations, the importance of connecting people across religious, racial and ethnic lines for the good of the country—and the power of baseball to help people make those connections. Hank Greenberg faced some terrible antisemitism, but baseball is a central place in America’s heritage where bridges are crossed. We all know the story of Jackie Robinson, thanks to the movie 42. Over and over again, baseball plays a special role in bringing Americans together—even if sometimes they don’t want to come together, at first.”
IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT THE GAME:
WE HEAR AMERICA SINGING
Love baseball? Then, you’ve already decided to order a copy of this book—and you’ll be richly rewarded. Hate baseball? Then, wait! There’s much more. First, you should know that a majority of the stories in this book are about people discovering something transcendent about life. Charles tells stories of the famous (the Dalai Lama and former President Ford are here) but he’s often at his best writing about people who you’ll meet for the first time in these pages.
After the subject of baseball, the second biggest group of stories in this book center on American popular music. Charles Honey has always been a multi-talented media professional. Visit his Facebook page and you’ll spot him playing his electric guitar. In addition to performing as a musician, he also loves to “talk music.”
Want a sample? Check out his column 1965: the best year in rock radio—ever. If you were alive in the ’60s, you’ll either love this column—or perhaps arguing with Charles over which bands and songs he mentions. Either way, it’s a fun read.
In his new book, Faith on First, you’ll find true stories about Charles’s encounters—in many different ways—with musicians including Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Al Green, John Coltrane and more.
“Music and baseball are both abiding loves of mine,” Charles says. “I’m a musician myself and that’s also been such an important part of my life.”
As we talked, I reminded Charles of a recent cover story in ReadTheSpirit about the power of music to unite entire communities and, in some cases, music’s ability to inspire people to make new commitments to peace and compassion. I also reminded him of the truth repeated by songwriter Brother Al Mascia: “You can’t argue with a good song.” Music brings people together and lifts their spirits in powerful ways.
“For me, music is the shortest, most-direct pathway to the divine—or my sense of the divine,” Charles said. “Listening to music or playing music can bring me into a transcendent place of joy and a feeling of oneness with the universe faster than anything else. I think it’s a wonderful way of crossing ethnic, racial, religious and philosophical barriers.
“I also teach a course on the spirituality of the Beatles. When I do, participants talk about where they were at the time they heard this music, who they were with, how they felt about the world. People like you and me grew up with the Beatles and we should count ourselves blessed to have grown up in that era.
“I remember one class at Calvin College when I asked people to tell me stories about their favorite Beatles songs. And, a woman in her 80s named I Want to Hold Your Hand.
“I asked her, ‘Why that song?’
“She said, ‘I used to love holding my husband’s hand so much. We would take walks in the evening and we would hold hands.’ And then, she spoke of holding his hand on his deathbed and tears were falling in the room as she told this story. That was just a simple little pop song, but it has so many layers of resonance in her life.”
FINALLY, A WORD FROM A FRIEND
Reading this book feels like a warm and exciting experience of making new friends. As a good newspaper columnist, Charles understands how to write as a friend—and he presents these true stories in that tone. You’re meeting dozens of new people in these pages. So, it’s fitting to close this story with a reflection on the new book written by Charles’s longtime colleague Pat Shellenbarger, who currently writes for Bridge magazine in Michigan.
Pat writes …
Yes, this is journalism, but Charley practices a higher, literary form that makes his columns so compelling that they draw you in, whether you think you’re interested or not. Always there is substance to what he writes. He is a reporter and a storyteller.
Charley does not preach but gives readers something to think about. He is drawn to the ordinary among us who have something extraordinary to say. In these pages, you’ll find pieces that read like conversations between friends. A terminally ill man who spent 30 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit talks of faith and forgiveness. A father teaches his son to throw a curveball and to accept the curves life sometimes throws. A stranger on a beach looks out at his daughters splashing in the surf and remarks, “So beautiful.”
That is the essence of what Charley writes. Beauty, spirituality and peace can be found in the Bible, the Quran, the Talmud and other religious texts. Take a moment to look around, he teaches us, and you’ll find them everywhere.
Care to read more?
Mark your calendar! One week from today, Charles Honey returns to the pages of ReadTheSpirit magazine with a five-part OurValues series exploring the values expressed in Beatles songs. That’s one of Charles’s specialties both in his writing and in classes he teaches.