Aaron Gleeman of NBC.com’s invaluable Circling the Bases passes along a story today about Oakland A’s outfield prospect Grant Desme, who has decided to hang up his spikes and put on vestments. Desme, who mashed across two levels of A-ball this past season (.288/.365/.568) is 23 years old and won the Arizona Fall League MVP just a few short months ago. On it’s face, to most, it’s a baffling decision. Baseball America ranks Desme 8th among A’s prospects, and it seems like the young man had a legitimate shot at a productive baseball career. But, of course, matters of faith often don’t make sense to outsiders.
Last year, at Confirmation, our Bishop (who The Common Man philosophically disagrees with on a number of issues) told us an important truth about the decision to become a priest. If you don’t want to be something else, you probably wouldn’t make a great priest. To be a priest, our Bishop said, required sacrificing some of our hopes and dreams for the betterment of others. If you didn’t feel like you were giving up an important part of yourself to serve God more fully, the decision (and your commitment) would not be as meaningful. It motivates you to make your sacrifice worth it. And so, from The Common Man’s perspective, it’s wonderful to see a young man so dedicated to his faith and to improving the lives of others that he is willing to make such a sacrifice.
But the point of this post is not to get all weepy and gushy over one man’s decision to hear God’s call to his vocation. Rather, in light of what Catholicism has denied baseball today (a prospect), it’s important to remember some of what Catholicism has given back to the game:
For instance, baseball’s early years were dominated by Irish-Americans, often first or second generation immigrants, who popularized the early professional game. Baseball offered Catholic immigrants one of the few ways to earn a decent salary at a time when many businesses refused to hire Irish (in particular) employees. According to the Encyclopedia of Ethnicity in American Sports, from 1876 to 1884, forty-one percent of players entering into the new National League were Irish. The vast majority of these players were Catholics. While the percentage of Irish in the league fell toward the start of the 20th Century, many of the game’s major stars, including ther amazingly mustacheoed King Kelly, Dan McGann, Ed Delahanty, John McGraw, and Connie Mack (Cornelius McGillicuddy) continued to draw Eastern-America’s working-class, immigrant, and yes, overwhelmingly Catholic, fans to the ballpark. It’s not a stretch to suggest that professional baseball’s early survival in America’s cities was due to the support of its Catholic players and fans.
While 19th Century baseball may well owe its survival to us mackerel-snappers, baseball’s evolution from the Deadball Era to the Modern Era also owes Catholicism a debt of gratitude. In 1895, as most of you know, George Herman “Babe” Ruth was born in Baltimore. His father was a saloon keeper and his mother was often ill, and so little George became incorrigible, running the streets at the tender age of six and becoming a the poster child for juvenile delinquency. Unable to care properly for the boy, and under increasing pressure by the Baltimore court system, George’s father placed him in St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys in 1902, and signed over custody of his son to the Catholic missionaries who ran it. There, under the tutelage of Brother Matthias Boutlier, the head of discipline for the school, Ruth learned to read and write, played in the school band, was involved in drama club, learned shirt-making, and, oh yes, learned how to hit, field and pitch. In 1913, in a game against a local college, Ruth impressed scouts and was signed by the Baltimore Orioles. Then of course, Ruth went on to be the greatest player in the history of the game, excelling first as a left-handed pitcher for the Sox before becoming baseball’s home-run king and ushering in the Lively-Ball Era. You’re welcome. Appropriately, apparently all of baseball’s single-season home run kings, Roger Maris, Mark McGwire, and all-time HR leader Barry Bonds were and are also Catholic. Perhaps the homerun itself is Catholic.
Italian-American Catholics, of course, became far more prevalent after the 1920s, as their waves of immigration mirrored that of the Irish in the 19th Century. Eager to adopt American customs and ideals, many Italian children migrated to baseball as a way to assimilate. Again, the large (and mostly Catholic) immigrant populations of New York and Philadelphia fed into the popularity of the new stars, and encouraged Catholics to support local teams. The next decades saw the rise of the DiMaggios, Phil Rizzuto, Tony Lazzeri, Yogi Berra, Dolph Camilli, Ernie Lombardi, and others who defined the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s (and particularly the budding dynasty of the New York Yankees). The growing Catholic sensibility of New York City was reflected in the construction of its teams, and indeed, as Lazzeri, Berra, Rizzuto, DiMaggio, Frank Crosetti, Billy Martin and others led the Yankees, the Bronx and Brooklyn were experiencing an influx of Catholic immigration, as middle-class industrial work fled Manhattan.
And, of course, it’s important to note the influx of Latin American talent that has become so steady into the Major Leagues. Most of these players, of course, are raised Catholic in their native countries, and bring their faith with them when they play here. Sammy Sosa (perhaps a bad example), Juan Marichal, Luis Tiant, the Alou brothers, Mariano Rivera, and Roberto Clemente serve as just a starting point of a laundry list of prominent Latino Catholics who played and still play in the game today. While there’s nothing to suggest this, The Common Man wonders if a common faith, in addition to common language and similar cultural backgrounds help these players identify with one another and support them during what is undoubtedly a very difficult transition.
Other prominent Catholics in baseball include: Mike Piazza, Mike Sweeney, Jeff Suppan, professional grit-manufacturer David Eckstein, Whitey Ford, Wally Pipp, Tommy Lasorda, Ivan Rodriguez, Joe Torre, Bowie Kuhn, Sean Casey, Leo Durocher. This list, of course, is nowhere near comprehensive. But very few websites or publications have such lists, for understandable reasons. For many people, their faith is private, and The Common Man respects that. This list just includes individuals who have been public about their faith in forums he could find.
But it’s not like baseball hasn’t given back to the church. For instance, at least two former major leaguers have preceded Desme into the priesthood. These include:
John Burke (NY Giants, 1902): Fr. Burke played in four games for the Giants that year, two on the mound and two in the outfield. Burke managed two hits in 13 ABs (both singles) and pitched 14 innings with an ERA of 5.79. He lost his only start that year, but did pitch a perfect game. His performance in 1905 is missing from his record, but Burke went 38-27 in the minors from 1903-1907, including 15-5 for the Lancaster Millionaires of the Tri-State League in ’07. Burke later became a priest (date unknown), and served as pastor of St. Joseph’s church in Keyport, NJ from 1929 until 1950, becoming a Monsignor before his death.
Al Travers (Detroit, 1912): Travers’ story is terrific. As many know, in May of ’12, Ty Cobb went into the stands and beat a no-armed man who had been heckling him with a bat. Cobb was immediately suspended indefinitely by Ban Johnson and Cobb’s teammates (for some reason) went on strike in support of the prickly Peach. American League President Ban Johnson ordered the Tigers to play, and so, on May 18, the team threw together a group of Philadelphia college players (and two coaches) to play against the World Champion Philadelphia A’s. Travers was the starting pitcher, and went the full 9 against the A’s, giving up 24 runs (14 earned) on 26 hits and 7 walks. He also went 0 for 3 at the plate. Travers ended his career with a 15.75 ERA and a .000 batting average, a combination of futility that’s hard to match. The next day, Johnson reduced Cobb’s suspension to 10 games, and the Tigers returned. Travers eventually graduated from St. Joseph’s University, entered the seminary, and became a Jesuit Priest.
Also, Tom Mulcahy, a former minor league player, and San Diego Padres scout and executive was ordained as a Jesuit priest in 1968.
In all, as The Common Man said, this is in no way a comprehensive history of Catholicism and baseball, though The Common Man wishes one existed. So intertwined are the sport and the faith that it's hard to imagine baseball being the game we know today without it. Indeed, across all the immigrations and influxes into the game, Catholicism has been an ever-present part of the game's history, culture, and color. And The Common Man is very pleased and proud that, like Travers, Burke, and Mulcahy before him, Desme is helping baseball give something back.