Take us out to the ballgame

Detail, illustration by T. Schluenderfritz

Nineteen forty-eight was the year our local baseball team, the Cleveland Indians, won the whole thing — the American League pennant and the coveted World Series.

The entire city was giddy with excitement during the last weeks of competition, and the hallowed halls of St. Columbkille School were less subdued than usual as schoolmates gave the “thumbs up” sign as they passed each other in the hall. Even Finneran, the custodian, moved his radio from the church to the basement of the school, so that the sound of the games, from the first to the ninth inning, filled most of the first-floor corridor. Pennant fever was at an all-time high.

Then, about a week before the end of the season, the new team owner, Mr. Bill Veeck, announced that the following Wednesday would be Kids’ Day at the ballpark and that any kid under 16 could get into the game absolutely free. To show he was serious, a large box of Kids’ Day tickets arrived at St. Columbkille School, as did similar boxes at every other school in the city.

“They have to let us go!” Victor Doyle excitedly chattered. “lt would be a sin to waste a free ticket!”

I don’t know if it was fear of the sinfulness of waste or not, but on Tuesday afternoon we were told that school would be dismissed at noon on Wednesday and that there would be buses to take us down to the ballpark! The nuns told us that those of us on the school baseball team could wear our uniforms to the game to show the world that St. Columbkille supported baseball, God, and fair play.

“lt would be a sin to waste a free ticket!”

Regardless of what we assumed was a lack of familiarity with the sport, the nuns were excited, too. Sr. St. Gabriel, my teacher, led us in a long prayer thanking God for making baseball, the Cleveland Indians, and Mr. Bill Veeck, the mysterious man who had decided to give almost 80,000 kids a special treat.

Wednesday morning was a wasted morning. Try as they might, the good sisters were at a distinct disadvantage in trying to compete with the excitement of the day. When it came time to leave for the game, we crowded into the buses. Ritchie Saperstein and Denis Tracy were able to come with us in our bus because they were almost as much a part of St. Columbkille as the O’Neills, the O’Briens or the O’Donnells. Ritchie, in fact, played third base for us from time to time and was wearing his St. Columbkille uniform.

Our bus joined the line of other school buses coming from all directions to converge at the great stadium on the shores of Lake Erie. The stadium’s parking lot filled with thousands of excited kids, moving along in eager anticipation of the adventure that waited inside.

“Sit in the lower boxes if you have uniforms on!” said the usher as we spilled out into the bleachers. Other school teams were there, too, and because of our uniforms we were given the best seats in the house. As we filed down the aisle, we were handed a bag of peanuts, a hot dog, and a cup of cola simply because we were kids! It was as if heaven’s door opened and we were allowed a glimpse of our reward.

As we filed down the aisle, we were handed a bag of peanuts, a hot dog, and a cup of cola simply because we were kids!

I had been in the stadium many times before, but I had sat mostly in the bleachers. This was the first time I had ever sat in the boxes, so I was amazed at how close I was to the playing field, the players, and everything I considered good and holy about baseball.

“Look, Sean-o! The sisters are even gonna watch the game!”

Victor poked me and pointed at the boxes across the aisle from us where Srs. St. Patrick, St. Kermit, St. Mary, and St. Gabriel sat, aloof and slightly prim, watching a spectacle we were certain they did not understand.

“Maybe you should go sit with the sisters and tell them what’s going on!” I hollered over to Danny, who simply ignored me and watched the field.

We soon forgot about joking about the nuns as the game began. It was an exciting game and soon we were caught up in the ecstasy of the great American pastime. Crumpled peanut bags and empty cola cups littered the cement at our feet, and we tugged the visors of our baseball caps low to shield our eyes from the torrid sun as our team relentlessly plodded onward toward an anticipated victory over the New York Yankees.

We soon forgot about joking about the nuns as the game began.

From time to time, I glanced over at the box where our nuns sat and marveled at their patience, watching a spectacle they could not possibly comprehend.

During the last inning, when it was evident that our team was going to triumph, the four nuns stood up and moved to the aisle.

“Mr. Patrick!” Sr. St. Patrick motioned to my brother Danny who was our team captain. “When the game is over, gather your team down under the stands here. We’ll go to the bus together so no one gets lost.”

When the game was over and the kids began to mill toward the exits, Danny led our team down the ramp to the spot under the bleachers where Sister had said to meet. Ritchie, wearing his baseball glove on his left hand, pounded his fist into the leather several times in his enthusiasm to show how grateful he was to have been to a real game for once.

As the crowd thinned, we looked for some sign of our teachers. It was dark under the stands, but we knew this was where we had been told to meet.

“There they are!” Victor beamed and pointed.

Sure enough, the four nuns were standing with a couple of other nuns whom we didn’t know. We figured they were probably nuns from one of the other schools in the diocese run by the same order.

The sisters were gathered around a hulking man wearing a sport coat and an open collared shirt, sporting a wide, infectious grin. He had closely cropped blond hair and looked a lot like Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The sisters were all talking at once, it seemed, something totally out of character for the ladies who insisted we wait until we finished talking before trying to say something ourselves. We moved over to the group and stood silently while they chatted — about baseball!

“He’s good where he’s at but I think it’s a mistake to have him start the game,” Sr. St. Patrick was pontificating. “You need to save his pitching for the later innings when his strength just might save the game.”

“I’ll think about it, Sister,” the friendly man said, and turned to walk away.

“You might just come and watch our boys play!” Sr. St. Kermit called after the big man.

He turned around to face us and grinned. “I just might do that, Sister. You say they play this Friday afternoon? I think we’re free then. I just might do that!”

“We’ll pray for you anyway!” Sr. St. Patrick called jokingly.

“Who’s that?” my brother, Danny, said loudly.

The big man had heard him. He turned and fixed Danny with his glistening, penetrating eyes.

“Hey, kid!” the man called. “The name is Veeck. It sounds like wreck!”

Danny’s jaw dropped.

“We’ll pray for you anyway!”

We never did find out how the nuns knew someone even famous people didn’t get to meet. Besides Bill Veeck, our game that Friday boasted such spectators as Mike Garcia, Larry Doby, and Lou Boudreau. We won handily. We couldn’t miss with a cheering section like that!

A few weeks later, when the Indians played in the World Series, some of the nuns asked for students to bring little portable radios to school so we could all listen to the games. Like I said, the whole city was in a whirl about baseball.

Speculation about how the nuns knew baseball, the ballplayers, and the team owner faded into memory as time went on. But I would never again jump to conclusions about the nuns who taught us much more than just our lessons!

Illustration by T. Schluenderfritz

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