It’s funny how I have big gaps in my memory about the various classmates on Aroma Hill, but I can probably tell you what sport or sports each one of them enjoyed during our time at St. Joe’s. Whatever shortcomings the seminary may have had, there was no absence of participatory sports opportunities. Aroma Hill may have been situated in a remote location, but the tract of land was sizeable, enough room for farming and about a dozen sports venues of varying sizes. At various times of the year the two ventures overlapped, as fresh manure was spread over our new baseball/track and field complex every spring of my six years at the school in the hope that the sod would eventually take, which it never really did.
As to which was the most dominant sport in our seminary setting, I think you would get a variety of answers. Basketball was probably the most glamorous, particularly in the high school division. The varsity and JV played full schedules, home and away, against Catskill region public high schools; the toughest games were annual clashes with local powerhouses Delaware Valley and Fallsburg, along with several other minor seminaries from the Hudson Valley. Our schedules were abbreviated in the winter evening to watch the games in our cozy fieldhouse. Making the varsity was a considerable achievement, and at the risk of overkill, I would say that the high school varsity in my senior year [1965-1966] was probably the best squad I saw in my entire tenure on the hill. The fact that most of the roster consisted of my classmates, and that I am close friends today with many of them, has nothing to do with my opinion, except that they will kill me if I say otherwise.
Our junior college fielded a JV team which played an eccentric schedule ranging from other JUCO’s such as Lackawanna Valley [PA] Community College to college seminaries to local prisons [away games only] and the ubiquitous Callicoon Kiwanis Club. There were intramural basketball teams as well, but with extensive indoor and outdoor courts, my memory is that pick-up games were always open and available, particularly if you didn’t mind playing on ice and snow on our black-topped courts, as we frequently did. [By the way, to one of our readers and my classmate, Father Bob Hudak—Bob, I hope your convalescence from surgery is going well. I feel very guilty for all the times I tripped you on the ice to break up an easy lay-up.]
But football was a very close second. Not only were there ample places for pick-up games after school, but there were fierce class rivalries. We were not permitted to play tackle football, due to cost and liabilities, but remember that the legendary football games with President Kennedy’s family were “only” touch games, too. Somewhere in my class’s second or sophomore year we began a winning streak that extended for the rest of our seminary tenure, except for our very last game on the hill, a 7-7 tie with the college freshman class behind us. [I blame the field conditions for that outcome; punts literally died upon impact in the manure-sod.] That November 1967 game was the final college class rivalry ever played at St. Joe’s. The college division closed at the end of the 1967-68 school year. I was the starting offensive right guard for the total run of our winning streak. I was carrying a lot of weight then, and I got the position because my classmates observed how long it took defensive linemen to run around me on their way to the quarterback.
The varsity baseball teams [high school and college] labored in obscurity. Our main hillside campus field was just not very good; created in 1962, it was a noble effort, but no seminary could justify the cost of professional athletic sod, and nature did not progress as hoped, though the cows certainly pitched in. If my memory holds true, we hosted our varsity games at the Callicoon village field at the bottom of Aroma Hill, at least a mile from the campus. It was difficult for students to watch the games. I tried out for the high school varsity in my junior year, and after stifling a smile, the baseball coach named me scorekeeper/equipment manager, so at least I saw the games at the small [!] expense of lugging the gear back up Aroma Hill. The high school varsity played local public schools like the basketball team, along with several seminaries.
Our baseball coach, Father Brennan Connelly, whose main seminary responsibility was prefect of discipline, was very competent and stressed basic skills. There were stories that in his youth the Boston Red Sox had scouted him. In a way his coaching style resembled his spirituality of living honestly and doing the small things well. Most of our pitchers took the Greg Maddox approach of thought and control to their work. I cannot recall win-loss records over the years, but I do take away a sense of “quality experience.” One of my jobs was to phone the box scores into the Middletown Record. One day an opposing pitcher struck out sixteen St. Joe’s batters, and I got a good tongue-lashing from the sports desk of the paper because I hadn’t written down the pitcher's first name. A year after my class left Callicoon, the Record would have its biggest news story ever literally come to its front door; it was the only on-site newspaper for the 1969 Woodstock Festival and its coverage is noted in Wikipedia. [For alums, the link to the Middletown Record above will stir a lot of memories.] Also, for the historical record, I was on the college baseball roster as the emergency backup catcher in the college’s last days—an emergency being defined as an atomic war or the Second Coming.
Something that might get overlooked in our memories of the Hill is the number of niche sports available to us. The high school maintained a track and field team that competed in local tournaments but also encouraged guys like me to try some things out of our comfort zone. I had my first exposure to long distance running in some of the practices, timed with an hour glass, to be sure, but I got very serious about it in college and ran daily till years after ordination. For some time, there was a boxing ring under the gym, and a decent handball court next to our “old” ball field where daily softball was played in season. No one in my time escaped a few days every year on the paved volleyball court with its grand master, our eccentric but beloved math teacher, Father Elmer. After a particularly hard math test, there was a line a mile long to get in the game and stay on his good side.
There was hockey, too. I was not a skater, so my information pool is limited, but as soon as the small lake on the campus froze sufficiently, there was a modest but determined band of hockey players who scrimmaged frequently. I can’t recall if there were off-campus scrimmages or games. Once, during our high school years, Fr. Brennan decided to experiment with creating a rink on solid ground across from our dormitory. He opened several fire hoses to get the surface freezing, but the project backfired and soon water was spiraling out of the electric lights in the dorm chapel. As coach would say in his later years, “the only thing that saved me during that fiasco was that the rector was away in New York.”
Not everyone engaged in contact sports, for a variety of reasons, but on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons the school gave permission to leave the campus on foot, cross the Delaware River bridge, and hike into Pennsylvania. Aside from the health benefits, it would sometimes happen that you might end up hiking with a classmate you didn’t know too well—I think the rule called for at least two guys hiking together--and at some level better communications were facilitated or old arguments reconciled.
There was a remarkable absence of hubris in the “sports world” of our seminary. It was easy to acknowledge that some of my classmates were truly gifted, but none of them ever acted “elite;” for me, at least, they were always part of the guys. In fact, they were generous with their time and skills. One versatile pitcher taught me how to try to catch a knuckleball. But in the “greatest love no man hath” department, honorable mention goes one of my closest friends today, a classmate and starting pitcher in high school and college. It was an early spring day, cold, damp, and miserable, and we were just loosening up on our manure/sod infield. No one was using the mound, so I asked him: “I have never actually pitched from a true pitcher’s mound. Do you mind catching me for a few minutes so I can feel what it’s like?” He readily agreed and put on basic catcher’s equipment [wise man] while I took the mound. I had no formal training on baseball grip, so I just reared back and fired one in with all my might. I delivered a 58’ “fastball;” unfortunately, home plate is 60.5’ from the mound. My pitch kicked up a hail of manure, sod and mud, right into his face.
As he was cleaning himself off, he casually remarked, “I read somewhere that a ball has to go at least 50 mph to reach the plate.” I ran in to the plate and said that one pitch was all I needed. My “second pitch” was much better: a few years later, when we got to Washington, I suggested he and I go out drinking at the Catholic University Rathskeller for Halloween Night. Wouldn’t you know, he met his future wife on our outing.
For those from St. Joe’s who would like to add or subtract from my limited accounts here, the best place may be the “St. Joe’s Reunions” site on Facebook, or at the response site below:
On My Mind