Although Christian professional athletes today are not afraid to share their faith with the world, Philadelphia Phillies great Mike Schmidt explained last week that professional baseball players back in the '60s and '70s were much more hesitant to come out as Christians because of the negative stigma associated with faith in MLB clubhouses.
Schmidt, who was enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1995 and is regarded by many as the best third baseman of all time, was a guest on the first-ever broadcast of the new "Faith on the Field" radio program on AM 610, ESPN's Philadelphia affiliate, last Thursday and detailed how he went through a "spiritual rebirth" in the late 1970s.
The show's host and Associated Press sports writer Rob Maaddi explained that even though it's common to see professional athletes now days tweeting about their favorite Bible verses, the attitude toward faith and religion among professional athletes during the time Schmidt played was much different.
Maaddi asked Schmidt to explain what the environment was like for Christian MLB players during the 1970s.
"It was almost like you can count on one or two hands the number of guys who had the courage as athletes to come out and profess their faith in God at a time when that probably would get you labeled as someone, I don't know if sissy is the right word, or someone that was a guy you might not want to have on your team," Schmidt said.
"People back in that time, we are talking about the '60s and '70s, there wasn't the understanding that there is now about one's spiritual side and that someone with a strong spiritual side can actually be as tough as anybody and be as great a teammate as anybody," he continued. "In fact, [Christians can] be a better teammate than most people because people of that ilk care more about other people than they do themselves. So, who can be a better teammate?"
As Schmidt's career progressed, he recalled that the attitude toward faith in MLB clubhouses improved. He explained that ministries like Baseball Chapel arranged for Christian teachers, pastors, speakers and writers to come into MLB clubhouses and offer 15-to-20-minute biblical messages for the players and team staff.
"In a lot of cases it was guys just stopping in to see what it was all about or guys that already had a spiritual connection in their lives. There were all kind of different men stopping in those [gatherings]," Schmidt explained. "I was one of the guys that got sucked into one one day."
"I heard a speaker by the name of Wendell Kempton who struck a nerve with me and basically the nerve that he struck was a little bit selfish," Schmidt continued. "He used a passage that I am reading right now from James, one of the first verses in the book of James in the New Testament about how you can count it all joy through tough times and tribulations because going through those times helps you to grow spiritually and become a better man."
Schmidt said that Kempton's message really stuck with him because it related so well to the ups and downs players go through during the course of a six-month baseball season. Schmidt added that he learned that no matter what happens on the field, he can lay his troubles out to God because the Lord's plan is to "help me grow as a person."
After Schmidt talked about how he went through a spiritual rebirth and became born-again in the late '70s, co-host Phil Moser asked him if it was harder for him to stand for his new-found faith after his teammates learned about it.
Schmidt said that it was "much harder." He recalled that after an article was published on the back page of the Philadelphia Journal with the big headline "Schmidt Finds God," he felt that all eyes were on him to see if he could actually "walk the walk."
"From that point on, I basically had to stand up probably in a stronger way than I ever thought that I would for [my faith]. [The article] was true but it shed a light on me personally and my family and my spiritual life and my commitment," Schmidt added. "That was my first real test about my spiritual commitment. Did it become harder? Yes. Everywhere you go, everything you do, when people know that about you, they watch you."