Out of the Park

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9/1/2009

Father Michael J. McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus, was no stranger to the game of baseball.

In his first year at Our Lady of the Angels Seminary in Lewiston, N.Y., Michael McGivney crossed home plate three times during the game on May 20, 1872. He also helped a brand-new intramural team called the Charter Oaks win their very first game, 23-6.

Now, picture young McGivney sending the ball so high and far past centerfield that it doesn’t land until years later in Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.

Sound farfetched? Not when you realize that the Knights of Columbus has several very strong links to Yankee Stadium.

On the stadium’s opening day, April 18, 1923, Knight Al Smith, governor of New York and the first Catholic to run for President from a major party, threw out the first pitch. On that same day, in the third inning with two runners on base, Yankee and fellow Knight George Herman “Babe” Ruth hit the stadium’s very first home run. The Bambino hit 40 more that season to lead the league.

And where have the Knights publicly commemorated not one but three papal visits? Yes, Yankee Stadium. Finally, who for more than 20 years owned the land on which Yankee Stadium and its parking lot was built? You’ve pitched a shutout if your answer was the Knights of Columbus.

A TRIFECTA IN BRONZE Back to Top

Just more than 85 years after Yankee Stadium opened, Pope Benedict XVI celebrated Mass there on April 20, 2008, marking the bicentennial of the Archdiocese of New York. More than 57,000 worshippers attended, among them many Knights and their families.

“Let us take the Lord at his word! Let us renew our faith in him and put all our hope in his promises!” Pope Benedict said in his homily. “Hasten the coming of God’s kingdom in this land!”

The Knights memorialized this Mass with a 105-pound bronze plaque that stands more than three feet tall. It was blessed by the Holy Father and placed in Monument Park, now located behind centerfield of the new Yankee Stadium, which opened last spring. The plaque united Pope Benedict with two of his predecessors already memorialized there.

The second plaque was placed in 1980 as a lasting memorial to the Mass for World Justice and Peace offered by Pope John Paul II on Oct. 2, 1979.

Knights attending the Mass listened intently as the Holy Father said in his homily, “On many occasions, your nation has gained a well-deserved reputation for generosity, both public and private. Be faithful to that tradition….”

It was John Paul’s first visit to the United States after being elected pope, and the event was more exciting than watching the perfect ball game. The Yankees were eager to commemorate this historic event and invited the Knights to place a plaque among the other famous monuments at the stadium.

On Sept. 5, 1980, before the team played the California Angels, Cardinal Terence J. Cooke of New York and then-Supreme Knight Virgil C. Dechant led the delegation that dedicated the plaque.

“It was a great thrill and quite a privilege to accompany Cardinal Cooke setting this monument out on centerfield for the prayer service,” Dechant recalled.

During the blessing, Cardinal Cooke prayed that “the words which Pope John Paul II spoke so clearly and powerfully here at Yankee Stadium will continue to change the hearts of all men and women, and truly make us one human family.”

The event called to mind the dedication of the first of the three plaques, which took place June 25, 1966, in honor of Pope Paul VI and the Mass he celebrated at the stadium Oct. 4, 1965.

It was Knights of Columbus Day at the ballpark, and the Yankees were playing the Chicago White Sox. More than 100 members of the Fourth Degree color guard lined the dedication path, and approximately 12,000 Knights and their families watched the solemn ceremony take place before the game.

Then-Supreme Chaplain Bishop Charles P. Greco of Alexandria, La., blessed the plaque before a crowd that included then-Supreme Knight John W. McDevitt and two notable sportsmen who were counted among the Order’s membership: Yankee pitcher Steve Hamilton and White Sox Manager Eddie Stanky.

HALLOWED GROUND, HALLOWED PLAYERS Back to Top

When Pope Paul VI delivered his homily at Yankee Stadium in 1965, he was actually speaking on ground owned by the Knights of Columbus. At the time, the Order served as the Yankees’ landlords. In 1953, some 30 years after the stadium opened, the Knights bought the nine acres on which Yankee Stadium was built. The decision grew out of Father McGivney’s vision — not as a lifelong baseball fan, but as the founder of a fraternal order to help provide for members’ families.

To continue fulfilling that vision in the mid-20th century, the Order began purchasing the properties of some large corporations and “leasing the properties back to the original owners at a rental that will give the Order an adequate interest return for the money invested,” wrote then-Supreme Knight Luke E. Hart in a letter to members.

“We gave them a 100-year lease for the ground at what turned out to be a reasonable, low rent,” explained Dechant.

But in the early 1970s, when representatives of the City of New York decided to renovate the stadium, they also wanted to own the land under it.

“It was not our wish to sell it, but we had no choice,” Dechant said. “We were proud to own it.”

Among the past supreme knight’s favorite memories are attending games with Bishop Greco. They sat in box seats behind home plate, and Yankees Manager Yogi Berra would hop the fence between innings “to visit with Bishop Greco,” said Dechant. “They were old friends.”

Many years earlier, one particular Knight made Yankee Stadium thrive, as evidenced by the popular nickname the stadium acquired: “The House That Ruth Built.”

“Ruth’s bat essentially bankrolled the building of Yankee Stadium, which was built to accommodate all the people who wanted to see him play,” wrote Christopher Kauffman in Faith and Fraternalism: The History of the Knights of Columbus. “A star pitcher for much of his career in Boston, the Yankees let him loose as a slugger and outfielder. Ruth hit 54 homers in 1920, then 59 and 35 the next two years, respectively.” In 1927, the Sultan of Swat hit his record 60th homer in the stadium.

Ruth’s monument near those of the three popes describes him as “A great ballplayer, a great man, a great American.” Missing is any mention of him being a Knight — which Ruth was, beginning in 1919 when he joined Père Marquette Council 271 in South Boston, Mass. Ruth was particularly interested in helping the disadvantaged, especially orphans, and visited them all over the country in hospitals and reformatories. He also started the Babe Ruth Foundation for impoverished children and clearly exemplified the Knights’ principle of charity.

Pitcher Ronald Guidry also stands out among other World Series Yankee-Knights. Guidry salvaged the 1978 season for the Yankees after the team was trailing the Boston Red Sox that year by 14 games.

On June 17, Guidry set a Yankee record by striking out 18 California Angels batters. Winning game after game, “Louisiana Lightning” Guidry put the Yankees in a dead heat with the Red Sox by September. His victory against them in a one-game playoff gave him a league-leading 25 wins. Finally, in the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Guidry led the Yankees to two of their four wins. For his achievements, Guidry later received the Cy Young Award.

After retiring in 1989, Guidry joined Assumption of the Virgin Mary Council 7411 in Rayne, La. Past Grand Knight Glen Meche said Guidry “shies away from attention,” adding that “his work with the Knights and with his family is a real expression of faith.”

Joining Ruth’s No. 3 jersey, Guidry’s No. 49 was retired in 2003, and a memorial was dedicated to him in Monument Park. These players, though, are only two in a long line of baseball-loving Knights that stretches back through the Order’s history. If we close our eyes for a moment, perhaps we can see Father McGivney standing in Yankee Stadium, smiling as he looks over his Knights and the MVP plaques that were presented to three “Most Venerable Pontiffs.”

Joseph Pronechen is a staff writer for National Catholic Register and Faith & Family magazine. He writes from Trumbull, Conn.