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Image credit: USA Today Sports

Baseball players are actually cleverly disguised regular people. Sure, they have athletic talents that most of us can’t even dream of, but aside from those few hours per day when they are at work, those don’t actually matter. What you’re left with is a group of 25 young men who are … well, young men. I think that a lot of people have the idea that they know baseball players in the same way that they know their friends, because they see them on TV. In reality, once you walk up to a player and shake his hand and say, “Hey, I saw you on TV!” there’s little more to say after that. The player usually just says some sort of pleasantry, signs the autograph, and moves on to the next person.

It doesn’t mean that MLB players aren’t interesting people. Some of them are sincere and kind people. Some of them are jerks. Some of them have opinions that you would agree with. Some do not. Some like to talk about those opinions. Some prefer to keep to themselves. In other words, they’re human. Some of them even have hobbies that have nothing to do with the sport they play. If you share that hobby, it might even make for a really cool conversation.

At the end of that autograph, you might find a few extra characters. An extra message, instead of a player just signing his legal name and being done. He’ll sometimes put a reference to a bible verse. It won’t surprise people to learn that there are baseball players who are particularly religious. Athletes have been slipping in “thank yous” to higher powers in post-game interviews for as long as there have been post-game interviews. We know that there are plenty of religious people out there, and it makes sense that some of them just happen to be baseball players.

As a psychologist—and as a scientist—I find the topic of religion to be of endless interest. While I have my own views on “the big questions” (views that I prefer to keep to myself), it’s fascinating to study the topic from the outside. Whether you are a religious person or not (and whether the question is even all that important to you), religion does exist and it drives a lot of behavior in the world. So, why not study it the way we would study any other force that drives people’s behavior?

And so the question occurred to me: How religious are Major League Baseball players?

It’s harder to measure “religiousness” than you might imagine. Even simple questions fall apart quickly under a bit of scrutiny. You can directly ask “are you religious?” but that word is going to mean different things to different people. You can ask about belief in a divinity, but even the idea of religion as a focus on a divinity is not universal. (I once overheard a professor of religion who was himself Buddhist say to a Christian student, “You want eternal life with God. I want eternal nothingness. They aren’t the same.”)

You can ask people how often they pray or go to religious services, but different faiths have different expectations of their followers on those subjects. And what do we do with the people who consider themselves open to the idea of some sort of spiritual answer to those “big questions” but who aren’t entirely sure of what form that takes? Are they … religious? What about the people who will mouth the words that they are (insert faith here) but who do little more than say those words? There isn’t a perfect way to do it, so we make do with the imperfect ones.

I won’t be asking any players about their views on the subject of religion today. Some of them, of course, are very open about theirs without my needing to ask. Some probably have strong opinions on the subject, but consider the matter a private issue. Some may not want to talk about it because, frankly, they just don’t want to deal with people’s reactions, positive and negative.

But it doesn’t mean that we are without data.

Warning! Gory Mathematical Details Ahead!

The first place I went to try to answer this question was Twitter. MLB is kind enough to keep a list of Twitter accounts that belong to MLB players, so it’s relatively easy to read a whole bunch of MLB Twitter bios. A Twitter bio is an interesting place to look for religion, because it has a limited amount of space. There’s the wry joke about the standard Twitter bio looking something like

Parent. Spouse. Lover of (food item). Place of birth. Alma mater. Sports team. Other sports team. Bible verse.

The forced shortening of the bio makes a person boil their entire identity into a very small space. You have to pick the important stuff. If someone uses some of that space to highlight some sort of religious reference, I think that says something about them. This isn’t a foolproof method. There were 1,241 players on the list (some of whom are minor leaguers, some of whom were probably major leaguers when the list was compiled, but aren’t anymore).

The first one is David Peralta, whose bio simply says that he’s an outfielder for the Diamondbacks and that he’s Venezuelan. From this, I don’t know anything about Mr. Peralta’s spiritual beliefs. I do know that whether he has them or not, he didn’t put it in his bio. His teammate, Nick Ahmed, is the first person on the list who makes a religious reference. (His bio begins with “Loving Jesus.”) With Mr. Ahmed, I know his general views and that he considers them important enough to devote some of his 160-character bio to them.

I used a fairly simple strategy for surveying the data: the Ctrl+F strategy. In a 2014 study by the Pew Charitable Trust, 70.6 percent of the people whom they surveyed (they only surveyed people in the United States) identified themselves as Christian, while only 5.9 percent identified with another faith. (The rest, and we’ll get into this in a moment, were people who were religiously unaffiliated.) Most of the other countries from which MLB players commonly come from are also primarily Christian as well.

Not surprisingly, nearly all of the references that I found were related to Christianity (although a few Judaism references snuck in as well). Within the list, I found 41 matches for “Jesus” (although two of them were players, Jesus Guzman and Jesus Aguilar), 61 for “Christ” (again, Christian Yelich and a few other people named Christian were caught up in that net), and 316 colons (Bartolo was not one of them), about a third of which were in the middle of bible verse references (e.g., “John 3:16”). There were a few other terms that turned up some results. All told, there were about 200 account bios that had an explicitly religious reference in them. Call it 15-20 percent or so of the sample.

A few moments ago, I pointed out that 76.5 percent of people in the United States identified as members of a religious group, but that’s a bit misleading in this context. While about a quarter of all Americans are unaffiliated religiously, more than a third of respondents born after 1981 said in the Pew Study that they were unaffiliated. This is also known as “the age group of people who are playing in MLB.”

Men are also much more likely than women to be religiously unaffiliated. So, the demographic group playing Major League Baseball is probably the least likely to be religiously committed. The Pew Study does not do the factorial breakdown of age and gender, but it’s reasonable to assume that about 40 or so percent of men who are of baseball-playing age in the United States have no particular religious affiliation.

Data from other countries is harder to come by. In 2012, Pew did a study on the global status of religion, and found an “unaffiliated” rate of 7.7 percent in the “Latin America-Caribbean” region, which is roughly one quarter of the overall rate in the United States. Since about 30 percent of MLB players hail from a place other than the United States (and mostly this vague “area”), it’s likely that this group of players brings the “religiously unaffiliated” rate in MLB down. We will assume that about 60-70 percent of MLB players, if asked, would identify themselves as a member of a religious group.

Belonging to a religious group is not the same thing as fully embracing that part of one’s identity. There are plenty of people who only show up for services during the big holidays or maybe not even then. The Pew data set from the United States sheds some light on this as well. Fifty-three percent of the full 2014 Pew survey data set said that religion was “very important” in their life, although that number was 47 percent for men and only 40 percent among those who were aged 18-29. However, among those who identified as Christian, the numbers were in the 70s.

Well, if roughly 65 percent of MLB players would identify as part of a religious group (most of them Christian) and 60-70 percent of those would say that religious identification is important to them, then we’d expect about 40-45 percent of MLB players to be religious people whose faith was important to them. About a third to a half of that number are putting explicit references to faith in their Twitter bios. That means that there are a large number of players in baseball who are religiously committed, but who keep a lower profile about it. That probably doesn’t surprise anyone, because real life is like that too, but sometimes it’s just good to remember that these are real people.

Our second data point comes from another source, one that you might have overlooked: walk-up music. In the last decade, it’s become common for players to have their own theme music as they either walk to the plate or come in from the bullpen (this would be mine). For most players, it’s probably a game of “pick your favorite song.” Well, thanks to the work of two University of Maryland students (Chris Rogers-Spatuzzi and Jake Gluck), who took the liberty of crunching data from MLB and categorizing songs by genre, we can get a look into what sort of music hitters want to hear just before they realize that they don’t have a prayer facing Clayton Kershaw.

What Rogers-Spatuzzi and Gluck found was that 5.3 percent (28 of 529) walk-up songs used by batters (some batters used more than one) and 3.1 percent (11 of 357) of walk-out songs used by pitchers were classified as “Christian.” This number is a lot lower than those who put a bible verse in their Twitter bio, but it about matches with the fact that about six percent of music sales in the United States are from the Christian and Gospel bins. (You see, kids, when I was a teenager, if you wanted to buy music, you had to go to the mall and there would a specific store with bins that held CDs …)

What’s interesting is that several of the players who had a Christian walk-up song also had a song listed that was lifted off the playlist of the local top 40 station. Again, we see that baseball players are about as religious as the rest of the population, and that even those who have religious theme music are also listening to other things on their Walkman (again, I’m old) … like most of the population.

And while this is the part where I usually have some lesson for the readers about what the #NewMoneyball is, I don’t have one this week. It seemed like a relevant question because it’s now November and our baseball heroes are busy not being baseball players. They’re doing other human things, perhaps a few divine ones, and I think it’s worth talking about that once in a while. MLB seems like it’s about as religious as one might expect a group of a few hundred young men to be. Some of them are into it. Some are not. That’s not a terribly interesting finding, but once in a while, I think it’s worth looking into something where that’s the entire point.

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Philip Sieg
11/18
When I was a teenager, you went to a place called a shopping center (predating the plethora of covered malls) or a free-standing department store or record shop and rummaged through bins of LPs and 45s. A few years before that, as a pre-teen, I might find myself peering at bins labeled 'Race Music".