Passion Plays

How Religion Shaped Sports in North America

By Randall Balmer

Passion Plays

192 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 30 halftones, 2 maps, notes, index

  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-7006-5
    Published: September 2022

Ferris and Ferris Books

Hardcover Available September 2022, but pre-order your copy today!

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Randall Balmer was a late convert to sports talk radio, but he quickly became addicted, just like millions of other devoted American sports fans. As a historian of religion, the more he listened, Balmer couldn't help but wonder how the fervor he heard related to religious practice. Houses of worship once railed against Sabbath-busting sports events, but today most willingly accommodate Super Bowl Sunday. On the other hand, basketball's inventor, James Naismith, was an ardent follower of Muscular Christianity and believed the game would help develop religious character. But today those religious roots are largely forgotten.

Here one of our most insightful writers on American religion trains his focus on that other great passion—team sports—to reveal their surprising connections. From baseball to basketball and football to ice hockey, Balmer explores the origins and histories of big-time sports from the late nineteenth century to the present, with entertaining anecdotes and fresh insights into their ties to religious life. Referring to Notre Dame football, the Catholic Sun called its fandom "a kind of sacramental." Legions of sports fans reading Passion Plays will recognize exactly what that means.

About the Author

Randall Balmer is a prize-winning historian, leading public commentator on religion, and author of more than dozen books. He holds the John Phillips Chair in Religion at Dartmouth College.
For more information about Randall Balmer, visit the Author Page.


“This entertaining history examines the religious and cultural roots of baseball, basketball, football, and hockey...The illuminating insights into how sports reflect the historical periods and communities in which they developed will change how fans see the games. This one is a winner.”—Publishers Weekly

"Every sports commissioner, owner, coach, player, administrator, official, journalist, and fan should read Randall Balmer's insightful, enlightening, and entertaining book in order to understand the historical origins of the games we love and the values so deeply embedded in them—and how those virtues shape the character of our companies, communities, and country."—David Baker, Retired President of the Pro Football Hall of Fame

"Randall Balmer provides a swift, comprehensive, and excellent survey of the origins and cultural context of the creation of North American team sports."—Derrick E. White, author of Blood, Sweat, and Tears: Jake Gaither, Florida A&M, and the History of Black College Football

"Appeals to the curiosity of readers who are interested in both sports and religion but never thought to put the two together in history, or at all. Randall Balmer compellingly shows the parallels and enmeshments of sports and religion throughout the history of the major professional sports teams. Beautifully written and chock-full of fascinating stories, his perfectly calibrated discussion about the contemporary moment in sports complements its historical accounts."—Julie Byrne, author of O God of Players: The Story of the Immaculata Mighty Macs

"Analogies are often drawn between sports and religion, yet few writers have explored this connection with the grace and skill that Randall Balmer wields in this book. Filled with engaging historical detail and careful analysis, Passion Plays not only explains why millions are passionate about sports—it also enables us to understand that sports provide us with an important lens to see how religion is embedded in the cultural fabric of North America in ways that move beyond the walls of religious institutions."—Christopher H. Evans, coeditor of The Faith of 50 Million: Baseball, Religion, and American Culture