It is a good thing that the seminary did not require a baseball “sports combine” as a requirement for admission. If they had, my scouting report would have read “Slow. Poor arm. Poor fielder. Tends toward weight. Reflexes below average. No wrist speed. Likes sports.” On my third day on the hill in September 1962, there was a tryout with our baseball coach, Father Brennan Connelly, to see if there were any prospects among the freshmen for the high school’s varsity. I had gone out for a third base position in elementary school, signing in as a third baseman. I have had a lifelong affinity for infield positions because, when you field like Edward Scissorhands, on infield plays the shame and embarrassment is swift and immediate, unlike center field where misplays drag on like molasses. Living and playing as we did in the Catskill Mountains, the laughter and booing during tryouts had a way of echoing for quite some time down the Delaware Valley. Having never made the elementary school team in Buffalo, I had low expectations about making the St. Joe’s team where the competition was better, and they declined throughout the afternoon.
I must have impressed Father Brennan, because two years later he invited me to serve as the team manager. In seminary culture the manager was actually the bench scorer and equipment boy, with the added responsibility of phoning box scores to the sports editor of the Middletown NY Times Herald Record [later famous as the paper of record for Woodstock in 1969.] In the “he had one job to do” department, on my first game as manager I was phoning in results where we lost to a pitcher who struck out 16 St. Joe’s batters in seven innings. As I am reading the tally out of the scorebook to the typing on the other end of the line, the reporter stopped me and said, “What was the pitcher’s first name?” Silence. “Uh, I don’t know.” “You mean this guy strikes out 16 and you don’t have a first name?”
My turn for a cup of coffee in “the bigs” did not come until my last three months on the hill, as a college sophomore preparing to graduate from St. Joe’s and move on to take the religious habit. By 1968 the squad was depleted, as a lot of friends and players were moving on to life paths in other careers. Our all-star catcher and one of my closest friends left at Christmas to enter the service. In March 1968 we had no designated catcher, so Father Brennan accepted my offer and gave me a uniform as the emergency “break the glass” catcher. I am laughing today because my mother would not let me catch in elementary school lest something happen to my “priestly fingers.” Actually, I spent that 1968 spring season learning how to wear the catcher’s protective gear, particularly the part you never see on TV. I hiked down the hill to the Callicoon pharmacy, which carried a one-size-fits-all lower protection shield made from titanium, I think. When in uniform I waddled like a penguin. I think there was an understanding that some of the better athletes on the team [which would have been any of them, really] might catch the actual on-the-record games, which were primarily against other seminaries. That is what happened, and I spent the short season on the bench talking politics with Mike McCarthy, the other doomsday catcher. For the record, I was on the roster for the last college baseball game ever played by St. Joseph Seminary, as the college division would close with my class graduation.
The St. Joseph’s Sports Emporium:
Sometime just before my class arrived in 1962, the seminary had undertaken to carve out a new multi-sports field from a steep hillside. Visually, it was quite a feat. It was not ready during our freshman year; as I recall, the turf situation was the elephant in the ointment. When we finally got access to it, we speculated that the turf was a mixture of sod, straw, and cattle byproducts. After a full summer, the turf was passable for football if there was no rain or snow. But in the chill damp spring of the mountains, baseball was another story. A pop fly that landed on the ground literally disappeared. I seem to remember that Father Brennan preferred scrimmaging at the Callicoon downtown field. Today, looking back, I do feel badly that the new field never quite measured up to the hopes of those who planned and paid for it.
Most of my experience on that turf was football, which I will get to momentarily. But one gloomy spring day I asked my friend and varsity pitcher Buddy Ward to help me with a bucket list dream; I always wanted to pitch from a regulation mound to see what I was capable of. Buddy agreed and slipped on the catcher’s gear. He flipped a baseball to me, and it was waterlogged, as they always seemed to be up there, so I knew I better throw this thing with everything I had. I went into the windup and released 17 years of hopes, dreams, and fantasies. My pitch can best be described as a 58’ sinker. The ball landed about three feet in front of Bud and splattered him from head to foot with sod, straw, and cattle byproducts. He never said a word, just cleaned himself off and walked over to retrieve the ball. In a matter of fact voice he observed, “You know, I read somewhere that a baseball has to go 56 mph to reach home plate.” It was that gentleman cool that later led old Bud to a distinguished Air Force career and the prettiest girl at Catholic University, two of my wife’s and my closest friends today.
The “outdoor courts.”
As part of that massive engineering project of carving out the mountain, the seminary created an asphalt complex right outside our dormitory that included a basketball court and a volleyball court. Known as the “outdoor courts,” the facility was the true everyman facility. The basketball varsity players practiced in the friendly confines of the gym, but anybody who itched to play could scamper up the incline and get up a game. We played in every weather, even shoveling the court for a half-court pick-up game in January.
Next to the basketball court was the volleyball court, which was also frequently crowded but often for more political reasons. The hardest math teacher in my six years was the legendary Father Elmer Wagner. If you only knew him from the classroom, he was an intimidating instructor and disciplinarian. Nobody wanted to be sent to the blackboard, and I suggested we keep time on the guys who “tied up the class the longest at the board” by prolonging his blackboard agony and protecting the rest of us, and give him an atta boy after class. Eventually we kept track of season records for running out the clock.
However, Elmer was very fond of volleyball—he loved those courts. And he didn’t invite you into his games as much as announce with Pythagorean certainty that you would be there. When the bell rang at 3 PM and the halls were full of students, Elmer would point at me and yell “Burns.” And I would wave and say, “I’m in,” and he would go his way. At one point in my college freshman year, I was carrying an 18% test average in his “set theory” course, so I wasn’t in the strongest position to decline. Looking back, though, and thinking of the mix of jocks and non-jocks who played, and the integration of new college students with us fifth-year students, the volleyball matches were and are an overlooked community builder. Elmer played competitively but his insults seemed funny up there.
There were lots of pick-up games in the fall, but attention turned to the interclass games. Hypothetically, each class played the other five on the record, though I am not sure the freshmen had to run that gauntlet, as they barely had time to know each other. My recollection is that in my first year we played the sophomores and got steamrolled. By second year we had sorted ourselves out and I found myself playing right guard on offense, a position I maintained for five years. It was not a matter of skill as much as size, of which I had a good amount. The collective thinking in the huddle went that by the time a pass rusher ran around me to get the quarterback the play would be long finished.
We had a terrific class of players at the “skilled positions” on offense and defense, i.e., passing, catching, intercepting, etc. The seminary did not allow tackle football, which for all practical purposes ruled out a running game. We offensive linemen in the trench had one job to do, pass block. As a high school sophomore, I might find myself trying to block an ex-GI who entered the seminary at the college level, and predictably I caught hell in the offensive huddle as our quarterback cleaned himself of the sod, straw, and bull byproducts into which he had been dumped face first. I said tackling was not allowed; I did not say it never happened. Or on my watch.
Today my buddy John Burke and I laugh about those years. He was the center of the line, the hiker, directly to my left on the line. This was fitting enough because for ten years in the seminary we were paired together alphabetically. On report card day, for those of us with “issues,” academic or disciplinary, John was late for his appointment one time with the rector, and I went in first, and I got John’s dressing down instead. One day we were in a class game, bent down and waiting for the quarterback’s snap count. There was a guy opposite us from the other class who had been running his mouth, and with the three of us inches apart, John utters a truly funny off-color put-down of the guy. I had never heard that phrase before, and I laughed so hard I fell forward and got flagged for an offsides penalty.
The toughest moments were practice scrimmages within the class. We had a great sprinter in our class, Joe DiGiacco, who played in the defensive backfield far away from the line. However, on occasion he would “blitz” and rush the quarterback. It was my job to block him if I saw him running in. Unfortunately, nobody ever told Joe this wasn’t a track meet, and he would come in full sprint form, all knees, elbows, joints, etc. The next day I would hurt everywhere. Never block a sprinter. I won’t even go into the baton.
Somewhere in my sophomore year we started a winning streak and went from 1963 through 1967 without a loss. The very last college class game at St. Joe’s, college sophs versus college freshmen, or “The Turkey Bowl,” was played in mid-November 1967, and ended in a tie. The field was horrific as usual, but this was a game between guys who knew each other very well. I cannot remember if anyone thought of the historic implications; I doubt it. But it is true that in six months we would be off to novitiate in New Jersey and our opponents would inaugurate the new seminary formation program at Siena College in Loudonville, NY.
As for me, the clean living of novitiate would help me lose all my excess weight, and I took up running 5-8 miles daily. Wouldn’t you know, finally some athletic success and nobody around to see it. Anyway, I had fun writing today’s post. Please file protests on the St. Joe’s page. And if you would like a little more football humor, you’ll enjoy this Johnny Carson interview with Art Donovan…which may remind some of you of your best athletic moments.