While today’s Major League Baseball stadiums are often considered cathedrals of sport, tiny Four Winds Field in South Bend, Indiana, offers a baseball-as-religion link that the Wrigleys, Fenways and Camden Yards of the world never will.
Home to the South Bend Silver Hawks, the Class A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks, the 4,300-seat ballpark also features the only synagogue in an American ballpark. True, it now hosts the franchise’s team store, rather than worshipers, but there’s clearly a rich history hidden among the foam fingers and trading cards.
“When our owner, Andrew Berlin, purchased the team, we didn’t actually have a walk-in team store,” said Joe Hart, club president. “It was literally an old concession stand that had been converted.”
Just outside the left field fence, however, sat the empty (and previously deconsecrated) Sons of Israel Synagogue, originally built in 1901 to serve South Bend’s Jewish community. Using $1 million of a total ballpark-renovation budget of $4 million, the club restored the building, pushed the fence out beyond it and filled it with team gear and memorabilia.
The project was undertaken with the cooperation of the city and local Jewish community, which determined that converting a house of worship into a sports-memorabilia shop was preferable to having it torn down altogether.
“They gave us their full blessing,” said Hart — with one exception. “When we proposed putting a 'Hit It Here' sign on the roof, they suggested that a target on the roof might not be the best thing.”
Instead, the project entailed preserving enough original features — an ornate chandelier, pressed-tin ceiling, rooftop Star of David symbols — that the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places last July.
Now it is a store dedicated to another sort of religion, namely, the church of baseball, which may explain the mural that hangs above the cash registers. Taking its cues from the central panel of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, it recalls “The Creation of Adam” except for the fact that God is sporting a glove and poised to give Adam, not the spark of life, but a horsehide.
Emblazoned above it, the first (and only) commandment reads simply: Play ball.