By Daniel D. Schantz
My father had a magical way with men.
In his 87 years, my father led a host of men to Christ and guided several into the ministry. I think it was because Dad was more than just a preacher. He was first and foremost a truly fine man. Like Jesus, Dad was both godly and human, and men could identify with that. On Sunday, Dad was “the preacher,” but at Friday night church softball, he was just “Ed.”
On Sunday my father dressed like a prince. The navy blue suits preachers wore in the 1950s seemed tailor-made for his handsome six-foot frame. His starched, white shirts lit up his deep-set, smiling eyes, and set off his thick, black hair, which he combed straight back. His feet were clad in wing tip shoes, he shined up like patent leather.
The royal illusion was spoiled only by the clip-on neckties he wore for convenience. They always hung a little bit crooked. Once his tie actually fell off, at the worst possible time, during a wedding ceremony.
“Oops!” he said with a grin, and snapped the tie back in place.
Moments like that endeared him to everyone.
On Friday night, however, my dad wore faded jeans, a short-sleeved shirt, and a farm-store ball cap. When he replaced his wing tips with baseball cleats, it transformed him from a revered holy man into an eager, young sportsman. “Let’s play ball!” He was older than most of the men, having gotten a late start in ministry, but on the playing field he was young as any of them.
“That’s undignified,” one of them argued. “It’s not the image I want.”
My father was less interested in image and more interested in getting to know the men he worked with. And—just as important—in giving them a chance to know him.
Dad played no special position. He could pitch a little, catch a little, hit a few baggers, and trudge around the bases. His ball glove was a flat, cheap mitt, with no padding, and I often wondered why he bothered to wear it.
He was no showman. Once, when he was playing shortstop, the batter hit a zinger straight to him. The ball bounced at his feet, flew up and banged him in the chin, knocking his dentures loose. Somehow he managed to catch his teeth in his left hand and still threw the runner out with his right hand.
He got a few laughs for such Barnum & Bailey moments, but it never bothered him, he just laughed about it. It was good for men to see his humility. Some of them were almost professional players, and they secretly admired him for trying so hard in a sport for which he had no special aptitude. He was, after all, a preacher, not a sand jockey.
But it was also good for them to see him the day the pitcher threw him a screaming cannonball. Somehow, he got some good wood on it, and whacked it into centerfield, driving in two runners.
“Way to go, preacher!”
“Nice work, Ed!”
Dad never bragged, but I could tell from the smile on his face that he was properly proud.
One Friday night the umpire made a terrible call when Dad was at bat. “Strike three, you’re outa there.” The stands erupted in “boos,” but Dad never said a word. He understood the imperfections of leaders. He had made a few bad calls himself.
During break time, Dad joined the crowd at the concession stand, slurping a soda, and wiping his brow with a strong, sweaty arm. I admired the way he took an interest in everyone. To him, everyone was a prospective convert to Christ, or a potential leader in the church.
“Ed, this is my new bride, JoAnn, she’s a great cook.”
“I never miss a chance to meet a good cook,” Dad said. “We have church potluck the first Sunday of every month.”
I was glad that my father had a sportsman’s side to him. On Sunday he was a paid professional, but here at the diamond, he was just like other dads.
If it was good for Dad’s church members to get to know him, it was just as important for him to find out what they were like. He was not too surprised to find they were somewhat less than saints.
One deacon had a vocabulary deficit. He often filled in the blanks with the “D” word.
“Excuse the language, Ed. No offense meant.”
“None taken. That’s between you and God, I’m not the police.”
Dad did not scold men because he had bigger goals for them. He preferred to build on their strengths, believing bad habits would fade as men grew in spiritual stature.
Dad was mystified, I recall, by a young player whose competitive drive was so strong he clearly was not enjoying the game. He was consumed with winning, as if his entire manhood were somehow threatened by losing this amateur ball game. Dad tried to show the man he was more than one-dimensional, more than just a ballplayer.
“This is a fine boy you have here,” he said, putting his arm around the man’s son. “I’ll bet you are a good father.”
The man seemed to relax. “This is Tony, he’s my buddy. He’s kind of a loner. He likes fishing better than competitive sports.”
“Not a thing wrong with that. I love to fish, myself.”
The ball field was often the only place he would meet these boys. He knew someday they might make good deacons or Sunday school teachers, or even go to Bible college and become preachers, if he could get them coming to church.
If a player seemed distant or downhearted, Dad would hang around him, looking for a chance to be of help. Men who would never come to a church office for counseling would talk freely of marital adjustments or job stress when they were in the dugout, riding the pine.
“Thanks for listening, Ed. It means a lot to talk to someone I can trust.”
“You bet, that’s what I’m here for.”
The ball field attracted a lot of “fringe” church members, members who came to church, say, only four or five times a year. Dad would befriend these types, hoping to draw them into a deeper relationship with God.
“I wonder if you and your wife would consider being greeters at church on Sunday morning? You both have a lot of personality and a knack for making people feel at ease. That’s what we need at the front door.”
Often the answer was, “Well, OK, I think we could do that.”
Little by little, Dad formed ballpark relationships with people, relationships that caused them to listen to what he said on Sunday morning, from the pulpit. They came to trust him, because they knew him.
I look back on those games with deep pleasure. In truth, I was never much into sports. I went to the games just to be with my friends. Often I spent the time playing tag, or chasing the large moths that fell from the field lights. Sometimes I sat in the stands, trading baseball cards and coins with my friends, watching the game with just one eye.
But, when my father was at bat, I was always there by the fence to see what he would do.
“Spank it, Dad! Send it to the moon!”
He struck out that day, but he never struck out with me. I was always proud to be his son. My father’s example was the best sermon he ever delivered.
Daniel D. Schantz is professor emeritus with Central Christian College of the Bible in Moberly, Missouri.