Hot under the collar

It being the start of the season, when hope still beats in each fan’s heart, we need a little lectio oldballgameio — a Catholic baseball story.

In an early August 1905 ballgame, a priest decked the owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Barney Dreyfuss. His bishop, Regis Canevin, was so upset that he banned all his priests from attending baseball games ever more.

I came across that story recently, and with John Franko, reporter for the Pittsburgh Catholic, and the Pittsburgh diocesan archivist, Ken White, we began to search out what really happened.

The priest at the center of the story was Father Thomas P. Walsh, a local pastor who had recently been appointed. He came from the Old Country — County Mayo, Ireland — and was ordained for the Pittsburgh diocese in 1896.

Many priests were both “cranks” and “deadheads” in those days. Let me explain. “Cranks” was what they called baseball fans back then; and “deadheads” was the owners’ term for those who were given free tickets. Priests made good “deadheads” because they gave a little bit of a public blessing to professional ball players and ball games that some still viewed as unsavory.

Father Walsh was at a New York Giants-Pirates game in Pittsburgh on Aug. 4, 1905. He thought he had made a bet with a fellow in a nearby box on the outcome of an inning. He won the bet and went to the box to collect. It was the owner’s box, and Mr. Dreyfuss denied he had made any such bet. Words were exchanged and Dreyfuss shoved the priest. The priest responded by socking him.

When the authorities arrived, the priest gave his name as “Ward” and said he was a machinist from Minnesota. Nobody was buying that as he “didn’t have the appearance of a laborer.” He was dressed in clericals. He then said he was a seminarian from Maryland.

The next day at the Allegheny Police Station, Father Walsh showed up with a fellow priest. The priest spotted an old buddy who was a retired detective. He asked the former detective how he could get his friend out of this mess. His answer: have him apologize to Dreyfuss.

So Father Walsh, finally admitting his identity, stepped up to Dreyfuss and apologized profusely for his actions the day before. “I accept your apology,” Dreyfuss replied. “I bear no enmity and have no desire to prosecute you,” Dreyfuss said, while still sporting a shiner. The charges were dropped.

But the story got added cachet with the report that Pittsburgh diocesan priests were banned from baseball games. As far away as San Francisco, newspapers reported that “the Right Rev. Mr. Kittel, acting in the absence of Bishop Canovin [sp], who sailed for Rome, has ordered all priests to stay away from ballgames. In the past from 60 to 70 priests have attended every contest.”

I couldn’t find any evidence that priests were actually banned from ballgames for any serious length of time. Perhaps Father Kittel issued such an edict to the priests in Bishop Canevin’s name while he was away. But there was no such statute in diocesan files. Or any stories of such a ban being enforced.

And what of Father Walsh? He was pulled from his church the day of the altercation. He was assigned after a two-month wait to a parish far away from the ballpark. His career as a deadhead was over.

But his priestly vocation continued. Father Walsh would later serve as pastor in four parishes down through the years. He died a priest in good standing on July 21, 1923.

Here’s an April wish that your team has a good season. But no matter what happens, don’t be a crank about it.

Or a deadhead.

Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.