It is said that spring adds new life and new beauty to all that is.
The weather warms, flowers blossom and the world of many sports fans is sparked with the beginning of the Major League Baseball season.
From baseball games against the rival Maryknoll seminarians to a visit 67 years ago from a New York Yankees icon, the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement have a rich-but-quiet history with America’s favorite pastime.
Graymoor at one point fielded a baseball team, comprised of members of its Saint John’s Minor Seminary. The team’s history dated back to at least the late 1920s and 1930s, as the Friars turned to recreational sports during the Great Depression.
Each year, the Friars would face the team from the major seminary of the Foreign Mission Society of the United States – Maryknoll. The Graymoor seminarians would play a game against the Maryknoll clerics, though they scarcely found success.
Often, Maryknoll convincingly would emerge victorious.
However, on Wednesday, May 16, 1934, the Friars had their day. Despite some confusion in scheduling, Maryknoll sent its second team to play at Graymoor. The game turned into one for the ages.
The Friars’ seminarians leaped out to a 4-0 lead, and maintained it until V. Rev. Patrick Byrnes, Vice President of Maryknoll, and Father Francis Winslow, Assistant General, arrived to the field. Their presence energized Maryknoll, which struck back and scored three unanswered runs.
Leading by one run entering the ninth inning, Graymoor pitcher Peter Katsuno, a seminarian from Japan, struck out the first two batters he faced. But Maryknoll wasn’t done, putting two men on base, threatening to tie the game or possibly take the lead.
Needing to record just one more out, however, Katsuno kept his cool. He struck out the next batter he faced to clinch a 4-3 win for Graymoor. It was Graymoor’s first win over Maryknoll in six years.
Servant of God Father Paul Wattson, SA, the founder of the Society of the Atonement, delighted in the victory. It meant so much to him that he penned an article detailing the win over Maryknoll in The Lamp, a monthly magazine devoted to Christian unity and mission work published by the Friars.
“Our Peter rose to the emergency,” Father Paul wrote. “It proved one of the most thrilling games we have ever witnessed, and the tension increased as the game drew to its conclusion.”
Connections to the New York Yankees
Further illustrating the Friars’ ties to the sport of baseball, Father Paul personally knew former New York Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert during his life. Ruppert owned the Yankees from 1915 until his death in 1939. His estate owned the team from 1939 to 1945.
In 1955 – 15 years after Father Paul’s death – the Friars received a surprise in the form of a visit from Yankee legend Joe DiMaggio. However, the man dubbed “The Yankee Clipper” didn’t come to the Holy Mountain at Graymoor.
DiMaggio visited the Friars in Rome, Italy, perhaps while on vacation, at Sant’Onofrio. The church of Sant’Onofrio on the Janiculum Hill was entrusted to the Friars in 1946. Though small, the picturesque church and its adjoining monastery were built in the 15th century.
DiMaggio, who was Catholic, is famous for helping the Yankees win nine World Series championships and hitting safely in 56 consecutive ballgames in 1941. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame the same year he visited the Friars.
Graymoor’s Baseball Field Today
In his writings in The Lamp, Father Paul described how the Fathers from Maryknoll adored the Graymoor baseball field.
“(Maryknoll) was enthusiastic in their admiration of the splendid ballfield,” Father Paul wrote, “which now adorns the eastern slope of the Mount of the Atonement, the result of many years of labor and gradual construction.”
The field no longer sits on one of the Holy Mountain’s slopes. Today, newly restored, it is nestled in a valley surrounded by trees with a walking track built around it and an adjacent picnic area.
The Brothers Christopher from Saint Christopher’s Inn are known to use the field for recreation on weekends. It is open to the public for all to enjoy, whether playing ball, getting exercise on the track or having a picnic under the covered pavilion.