The Long Tradition of Catholics in Baseball
COMMENTARY: In light of the Dodgers promotion of anti-Catholicism, an online exhibit by the Blessed Michael McGivney Pilgrimage Center explores how the Knights of Columbus and Catholics positively impacted the national pastime for more than a century.
The Los Angeles Dodgers was the organization to heroically break discriminatory barriers with Jackie Robinson’s historic 1947 season when the team was in Brooklyn. But more than 75 years later, the same team is now being accused of promoting what one Dodger called “hate of Christians and people of faith.”
Catholic groups and prominent leaders, such as Catholic Vote and Bishop Robert Barron, called for a boycott of the Dodgers, after the team reinvited the “Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence” to receive the “Community Hero Award” during the club’s 10th-annual LGBTQ+ “Pride Night” on June 16.
In a video criticizing the ball club, Bishop Barron argued the Dodgers are reinforcing America’s “long tradition” of anti-Catholicism, which he says is the “last acceptable prejudice.” Meanwhile, Washington Nationals’ pitcher Trevor Williams, one of several players condemning the so-called sisters’ invitation, stated the move violates the Dodgers’ discrimination policy, which “explicitly state[s] that any conduct or attire at the ballpark that is deemed to be indecent or prejudice against any particular group (or religion) is not tolerated.”
Williams is unabashedly Catholic, describing himself as a “Servant of Christ” in his Twitter bio. He is also one of the numerous players — like Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, John McGraw, Connie Mack and Gil Hodges — featured in the four-part online exhibit by the Blessed Michael McGivney Pilgrimage Center, “K of C Baseball: An American Story,” which explores the deep roots of Catholicism in the national pastime spanning from the pre-MLB era to the modern day.
While the exhibit highlights some of the game’s mightiest heroes, at the center of the exhibit is the influence of Father Michael McGivney: a humble parish priest from the late 19th century who founded the Knights of Columbus, in part, to withstand anti-Catholic bigotry, and viewed baseball as a tool for strengthening the community — a tradition the organization has carried on throughout its history.
From Ballfields in Niagara to Thomaston
Not many of Father McGivney’s personal writings have survived, since most were burned after the priest died in 1890. Yet actions speak louder than words — and the number of references to baseball in his biography Parish Priest speaks volumes.
The first record occurred on May 20, 1872. Two teams composed of New York and Connecticut seminarians attending Our Lady of Angels Seminary at Niagara University squared off in a baseball game that lasted only five innings. McGivney, a native of Waterbury, Connecticut, played left field and batted fourth for the Charter Oaks Baseball Club, of which he also served as the team’s vice president. According to a box score in the university newspaper, he scored three times as the Charter Oaks routed New York’s Mohawks, 23-6.
Baseball followed Father McGivney. As a parish priest, where he would later form the Knights of Columbus at St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Connecticut, he scheduled an “uptown” and “downtown” baseball game at the annual parish picnic; and as pastor at St. Thomas Church in Thomaston, he not only organized games, but also quite possibly served as the third-base coach for the local council’s club.
A few years after Father McGivney’s death, Knights of Columbus councils began forming baseball leagues across the United States and Canada. While other fraternities and associations had leagues, the K of C leagues were vastly popular (Chicago’s K of C league had 42 teams) with some rosters featuring MLB talent, like future Hall of Famer Ross Youngs, who played for the San Antonio Knights of Columbus team in 1916.
Councils were even encouraged to form teams, but there was a reason beyond building inter-council comradery. As the exhibit narrative explains, “For the Knights of Columbus, the game served as an early avenue of assimilation for Catholic immigrants and first-generation Americans,” during a time when Catholics faced discrimination as alleged non-patriotic citizens.
Many Catholics — and Knights — gravitated toward the sport, with many working their way into professional clubhouses.
Titans of the Game to the House Ruth Built
Without Catholics, many of whom were members of the Knights of Columbus, the national pastime would be remarkably different. At the turn of the 20th century, John McGraw and Connie Mack, both Knights, set the standard of managerial excellence that continues to influence the game — and their achievements are hard to ignore, amassing nearly 6,500 wins and eight World Series titles combined.
Other notable players of the era include Hall of Famers “Wee” Willie Keeler, Napoleon Lajoie and Johnny Evers (who served as a K of C “Casey” in World War I). Yet the most influential Knight to step into the batter’s box was the Sultan of Swat, George Herman “Babe” Ruth, who joined Pere Marquette Council 271 in South Boston in 1919.
The pitcher-turned-home-run slugger revolutionized the long ball, holding the record for single-season (60) and career (714) dingers for decades (until they were broken by other Catholic players, Roger Maris and Hank Aaron, respectively). Though he struggled to practice his faith before making a full confession at the end of his life, Ruth often collaborated with the Knights of Columbus in charity events and barnstorming tours in the offseason — which brought MLB talent to the West Coast (the first team beyond the Mississippi River wouldn’t exist until the 1950s).
Meanwhile, like Father McGivney, the Knights of Columbus found value in utilizing baseball for goals beyond the final box score. As part of its charitable operations during World War I, the K of C sent thousands of balls, bats and uniforms to Allied soldiers worth $50,000 (equivalent to more than $1 million today), so much so that nearly 5,000 baseball games were played daily with “outfits supplied them by the Knights,” according to the organization’s magazine. But in December 1953, the K of C made an extraordinary real estate move — since unparalleled by other fraternal, let alone Catholic groups — by purchasing the land to Yankee Stadium as part of a leaseback investment. Then-Supreme Knight Luke Hart wrote to members saying the transaction was not only an investment opportunity, but furthered the mission Father McGivney set out for the order to financially protect Catholic families.
The K of C would eventually relinquish the land rights in 1971, but there are tangible reminders of the group’s legacy at the current Yankee Stadium’s ‘Monument Park,’ with markers honoring papal Masses celebrated by Popes Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
Committed to Charity
While the exhibit highlights a laundry list of Catholic ballplayers and other factoids (like an endearing friendship between a Knight and a bull terrier who became the Cleveland Naps’ official mascot), it also focuses on men of faith.
For Mike Sweeney — one of the greatest Kansas City Royals players in franchise history, a Knight of Columbus and chairman of Catholic Athletes for Christ’s advisory board — his accomplishments on the diamond are secondary to leading his family to heaven. “Christ has appointed me to be the priest in my domestic church,” Sweeney says in an episode of Everyday Heroes, which is featured in the exhibit. “I was placed on this earth to get my wife and children to heaven, and as many other people as I can with me.”
Likewise, Trevor Williams has leaned on faith throughout his eight-year career, saying it is “a constant,” adding, “It’s the most important thing in my life and my wife’s life and our family’s life.” The Nationals pitcher has put his faith into action through his initiative Project Thirty Four, which assists with purchasing medical equipment and assistive devices for patients with spinal-cord injuries. Williams started the program after witnessing his roommate, teammate and close friend at Arizona State, Cory Hahn, suffer a career-ending spinal-cord injury while sliding headfirst into second base.
Meanwhile, local Knights of Columbus councils have carried on the tradition Father McGivney began, recognizing the need of providing young people with an outlet by constructing and maintaining ballfields, as well as sponsoring teams, particularly those that included children with special needs. Additionally, councils have hosted baseball clinics for young athletes and community trips to minor and major league ball games as fraternal and fundraising opportunities.
The exhibit, ultimately, demonstrates a long tradition of Catholics positively impacting the national pastime, from the majors to Little League ballfields, for more than a century. However, the Dodgers are either ignorant or blatantly ignore Catholicism’s deep baseball legacy by honoring a group known for its discriminatory mockery of Christianity.
Hopefully, Father McGivney — who was beatified in 2020 — intercedes to help the Dodgers recognize the error of their ways — making the game, once again, a diamond of assimilation and community, rather than division.