It was the spring of 1961, and I had just signed a minor-league baseball contract with the Washington Senators to play for Pensacola, Florida, in the Class D Alabama-Florida League. I reported to spring training at Fernandina Beach, Florida, on April 1, delighted with my $250-a-month contract and ready to begin doing the only thing in life I had ever wanted to do: earn my living as a professional baseball player.
That three-week spring-training period was inaugurated by manager Archie Wilson, a longtime minor-league outfielder embarking on a managerial career, and general manager Thomas Cronin (Joe Cronin’s son). We were housed in a motel, two players to a room, and during the initial team meeting, Archie reminded us that it was the first year of major-league expansion, and the opportunities open to us were unlimited. He said it was highly probable that two or three of us would be going to spring training with the Washington Senators the following year.
Those words were heady wine to a kid who had grown up in New York City in the 1950s in a railroad flat on West 90th Street. In that rough and tumble Irish neighborhood, your options were limited. If you weren’t studying for the priesthood — or in jail — you’d be a cop, a fireman or a garbage man. (Saying “sanitation man” at the time was considered pretentious.) If you had real brains, you could get a job with Metropolitan Life, Ma-Bell or Con Edison.
Blessed with loving and insightful County Cork-born parents who realized the possibilities America held for those who dared to dream, my propensity to do so had been encouraged from childhood. It would be my finest parental legacy that, despite our meager financial circumstances, I was encouraged to be all that I could be and strive for the best. At 11, Bobby Thompson’s homer electrified me. My love for baseball transcended everything, and what I dreamed of — and prayed for — was to be like Stan Musial and play baseball in the major leagues. Moreover, all idealist and a true believer, I envisioned an adventurous and full life in all quarters, on and off the field.
From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day we played baseball. The first three days were established as a loosening-up period; then the intersquad games began, and it was down to serious business. The reality was that there were many more players in camp than the team roster could hold, and even though we had contracts, we were competing among ourselves for the few precious berths on the team. Taking note of the four other catchers, I realized I was in for a battle.
I started off playing well and continued to do so for the duration of camp. Playing daily against stiff competition brought out the best in me. I knew my limitations: I didn’t run well and, at 6-foot-4 and 170 pounds, didn’t hit for power. Still, I managed a .316 batting average to complement my strength as a superb defensive catcher.
It was humbling to see how good some of these guys were. John Kennedy, who went on to a 12-year major-league career, was the shortstop. Smooth and graceful, it was like being at the ballet to watch him work his magic around the second-base bag. Twice he bailed me out with scoops of low throws and made me look good when I could have looked bad.
The cuts started after the first week. Players just disappeared overnight. Nobody discussed the departed players, for our hearts were in our mouths lest one of us would be next, and it was with a mixture of hope and foreboding that we observed our fate unfold.
My turn came
That first spring training, with all its wonder and excitement, was surreal. Breakfast at 8 on those cold Florida mornings made baseball seem impossible, but by 10, the warmth of the sun on the field beckoned you to do something glorious. At 20, I was lithe and fit, and I could do it. The fragrance of the grass; the feel of leather and wood; the comfort and sweetness of your own sweat; being in love with the greatest game God ever invented — heaven on earth.
Suddenly, the final day arrived. One final cut had to be made and the team was assembled in the lounge of the motel as Archie called us into his room, one-by-one. Each conference took about five minutes, and you could hear a pin drop in that musty lobby as we watched the players emerge: some resigned, some relieved, some bewildered; some angry, some happy, some crying. Finally, my turn came.
“John, I’m sorry to have to tell you that you are being released,” Archie Wilson said. “I think you’re a good ballplayer and I wanted you on this team, but the powers that are nixed my plea. They want an experienced catcher to handle the young pitchers, and they have a guy coming down from Class B with a couple of years experience. I know how much you wanted to play ball, kid, and I’m sorry things didn’t turn out for you. Maybe you’ll get a chance with another club.”
Too numb to speak and realizing how hard the manager’s immediate job was, I left the motel in a trance and wandered down to a nearby beach. I’d earned the right to prove myself with one professional season, and it was being denied me. Why? What had I done wrong? What good were my prayers? Was there a curse on me? How would my father feel telling his workmates that I didn’t make it after — only three weeks before — proudly announcing to them that his son was a professional baseball player? The nuns had taught us that everyone has a vocation. Why had God forsaken me and deprived me of the only thing that mattered in my life?
The following morning, the team left for Pensacola, and I was given a train ticket to go home.
After service in the Marines, for five more years I pursued my dream, working at all sorts of jobs to keep myself going. But it wasn’t to be. Suddenly, I was 25 and three knee operations had curtailed my mobility. Finally, in Los Angeles in 1966, I conceded defeat and gave up the ghost.
Finding my place
Bewildered, I would adopt an uneasy stoicism for the following few years as I worked my way around the world, becoming, by serendipitous default, something of a Renaissance man.
“A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather them” (Eccl 3:5). No matter how bad things got, I still heeded my mother’s admonition to pray one decade of the Rosary daily to the Blessed Virgin Mary to get me Jesus’ grace. My mother, Mary, always appeared to be on surprisingly intimate terms with Mary, the mother of God, and that osmotic gravitas was powerful. And obeying my mother paid off in the summer of 1976 when, on answering a want ad, I became the doorman at the famous Tavern on the Green restaurant in New York. An interesting job, I would pitch my tent there for the following 24 years, the beneficiary of an unusual working education and a strong union, which enabled me to keep my dignity, then and now.
God’s mysterious ways unfolded for me in 1985, when I finally found that comparable feeling to baseball — and my true vocation in my 40th “job” — with the publication of my first article in a respectable magazine. So this is what it had really been all about. My father, Timothy’s, words came back to me: “Every guy, if his life is to have meaning, at some time or another, has got to say his piece.” At 73, I’m saying mine now and hoping to make a difference. And by the intercessory clout of the holy Mother of God and the efficacy of her Rosary, I’m going to make a difference for good.
John Moylan writes from New York.