The story of baseball cannot be told without a tip of the cap to the Knights of Columbus.
For the Knights of Columbus, the game served as an early avenue of assimilation for Catholic immigrants and first-generation Americans. Today, baseball continues to serve as a path of spiritual formation and charity for Knights and their families. These values stem from the Order’s founder, Blessed Michael McGivney, who was an early fan of the game.
Join us in this four-part series about the unique, untold Catholic-American story of how the Knights of Columbus as an organization and individual Knights — including some of baseball’s mightiest heroes — stepped up to the plate to produce many memorable moments and shape America’s pastime for the better.
Fraternity, Unity, Baseball
The historical record doesn’t tell us why Michael McGivney loved baseball. He left few written words — just 13 letters and a few quotes from local newspapers survive. Yet it is evident from his actions as a seminarian and parish priest that he loved our national pastime for its fraternity and how it united a community. Fraternity and unity would inspire him to later establish the Knights of Columbus in 1882.
Fraternity, Unity, Baseball: Father McGivney, Baseball Manager, Baseball Player
The first record of Father McGivney’s love for the game 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 game that lasted five innings. McGivney played on the Connecticut squad —the Charter Oaks — since he was a seminarian from Waterbury, Conn. He was also the club’s vice president. During the game, McGivney played left field and batted fourth, implying he had a decent arm and good hitting abilities. With his three runs that day, the Charter Oaks handily defeated the Mohawks (New York) 23-6.
No other surviving box scores of the Charter Oaks have been located. McGivney’s stay in Niagara was also short-lived — he moved on to study at Sainte-Marie College in Montreal the following year.
However, McGivney’s love for the game traveled with him. As a parish priest, where he would later form the Knights of Columbus at St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Conn., he scheduled an “uptown” and “downtown” baseball game at the annual parish picnic, the “uptown” team winning 14-4 on one occasion. He continued to organize baseball games as pastor at St. Thomas Church in Thomaston, Conn., and was possibly the third-base coach for the local council’s baseball club, according to his biography Parish Priest.
A Catholic-American Story
However, at the time of the Order’s founding, Catholics were not held in high esteem, often taking the most dangerous jobs for little pay. They were seen as papists, loyal only to Rome, not as patriotic American citizens. But on the baseball field, it was about skills, not religion — and baseball became an avenue of integration and assimilation into American society.
For a fledgling fraternal organization, assimilation was attractive, and it has resonated for more than a century — from major league ballparks to local Little League ballfields. This love for baseball is deeply ingrained in the Knights of Columbus, and it stems from the Order’s founder. It is Father McGivney’s example and his love for the snappy play on the diamond that encapsulates the best aspects of the game and the excellence every Knight strives for on and off the field.
Baseball was seen as an “Americanizing” influence. In 1910, the Order’s monthly magazine — Columbiad — published “Baseball the Best Sport,” a piece written by Richard F. Nelligan, an assistant professor of hygiene and physical education at Amherst College:
“Baseball, in my opinion, when practised [sic] as a sport, does more for young men in the way of promoting their physical and moral well-being than any other single exercise. …From the President of the United States to the humblest factory hand the game possesses a keen fascination which forces all classes of men and women into the open air, where they form lasting friendships, and enjoy a respite from the wear and tear of our strenuous American life.”
The First Hit in the National League
The first National League (NL) game was held on April 22, 1876, between the Philadelphia Athletics and the Boston Red Stockings. A crowd of more than 3,000 attendees gathered on 25th and Jefferson streets to witness the inaugural contest on that “favorable” Saturday afternoon, according to Philadelphia Inquirer. Athletics’ pitcher Lon Knight successfully recorded two outs in the top of the first; then Jim “Orator” O’Rourke stepped to the plate.
O’Rourke received the nickname because of his “tendency toward lengthy rhetoric,” a holdover from his days of practicing law, as stated in his biography by the Baseball Hall of Fame. He had been playing professional baseball since 1872 and amassed 335 hits to that point, but his 336th would solidify his place in history. Orator Jim slashed Knight’s pitch toward left fielder George Hall for a single — the first hit in the oldest, and still active, baseball league.
O’Rourke drove in a run on his second hit of the game and scored as well to help the Red Stockings win 6-5 over the Athletics. He would play in nearly 2,000 games throughout his professional career appearing in his final game at 54 for John McGraw’s New York Giants, with more than 2,600 hits and helping his teams to nearly 10 titles in the NAPBBP and NL.
The First Hit in the National League — Jim “Orator” O’Rourke
The man with the first hit in the NL would also be an active member in the Knights of Columbus in Park City Council 16 in Bridgeport, Conn. As a Knight, he served in the same council with the Order’s second supreme knight, John Phelan, and sat on the Park City Council’s Knights of Columbus War Fund during the First World War, which was established to underwrite “centers for the large body of men …in training and mobilization camps,” also known as K of C huts. He passed away on Jan. 8, 1919 and was then elected to the Hall of Fame in 1945.
With O’Rourke’s bat, the Knights of Columbus is fully etched into the history of what would become the MLB, but he was only one of several stars who were members of the Order and who would change the game.
K of C Baseball Leagues: “Baseball is gaining a great foothold among the Knights”
Around the turn of the 20th century, it was common for working men, associations, and clubs to form their own baseball leagues to build fraternity among themselves. The Knights of Columbus similarly began establishing teams, starting in the northeast.
Knights in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York increasingly began holding inter-council games and games across state lines. In August 1902, a council in Concord, Mass., had a baseball committee and arranged a rivalry game between Knights from New York and Boston. The nine-player teams competed for a “silver cup.” Although the final score was not recorded, the New York Knights were victorious.
K of C Baseball Leagues: A few of the teams
From then, the Columbiad began reporting on councils forming their own teams — with light-hearted names such as the “Muskegon K. C. Champion Constellation Bloomer Boy Baseball Nine” and the “Grand Rapids Stupendous Convocation of Spherical Manipulators” — and even their own leagues in New York, Boston, Chicago and St. Louis. Chicago was “recognized as the greatest and largest fraternal baseball league in the world” with 42 teams, enough for five divisions.
K of C Baseball Leagues: A few of the players
The players were members of the council with experience. Some played for their college teams. Some were semi-professionals. Others played in the majors, such as Joe Quinn — the first and only Australian-born native to play in the majors until 1986. Quinn played on one of the six St. Louis ball clubs in 1905. Meanwhile, future Hall of Famer Ross Youngs played shortstop for the San Antonio Knights of Columbus baseball team in 1916.
K of C Baseball Leagues: Encouragement from outfitters
By 1911, the Columbiad was running ads for baseball gear as well as stories about prominent Knights in the majors. One prominently featured ad read, “Every K. of C. Council Should Have a Base Ball Team” and challenged readers to “go after the councils near you, and teams from other organizations.” Knights responded, expanding the game throughout the country, and even into parts of Canada.
Knights in the Majors
The early days of baseball were ripe for heroes and standard bearers and, at most turns, it was a Knight of Columbus who set those measures of excellence and laid the groundwork for the growth of the game.
In the first World Series between the Boston Americans and Pittsburgh Pirates held in 1903 featured Knight of Columbus Fred Clarke — the Hall of Fame manager of the Pirates — and Hank O’Day, a Hall of Fame umpire. However, both men could not compare to the heroics of Boston pitcher, and brother Knight, Bill Dineen.
Knights in the Majors – Bill Dineen
If one were to look at his overall career statistics, Dineen would not be considered one of more stellar pitchers of the era, with more losses than wins when he retired despite four 20-win seasons. In fact, his teammate in the 1903 series was the legendary Cy Young. Yet it was Dineen who, according to the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), “set the standard for World Series excellence,” with three wins — two of which were shutouts — in the nine-game series, including the title clinching game.
Knights in the Majors – “Wee Willie” Keeler
“Wee Willie” Keeler was one of the game’s best hitters in the dead ball era with two batting titles, a lifetime average of .341, and once held the longest hitting streak of 44 games — which was later broken by another Knight, Joe DiMaggio in 1941.
Knights in the Majors – Hugh Duffy
Hugh Duffy was another stellar hitter, winning the Triple Crown (leading the majors in batting average, home runs, and hits) in 1894 with the Boston Beaneaters, and still holds the MLB record for a single season batting average at .440.
Knights in the Majors – Joe Tinker and Johnny Evers
Two Knights of Columbus — Joe Tinker and Johnny Evers — are etched in baseball legend as members of one of the game’s fabled Tinker to Evers to Chance double-play combination featured in the poem “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon.”
Knights in the Majors – Ed Walsh
Ed Walsh of the Chicago White Sox was one of the greatest pitchers of the era and still holds the record for the lowest career earned-run-average (ERA) with 1.82.
Knights in the Majors – Roger Bresnahan
Roger Bresnahan, also known as “The Duke of Tralee,” popularized shin guards and brought rudimentary batting helmets into the national pastime, an impact still seen today by every catcher at every level of the game.
Knight in the Majors – Harry Hooper and Duffy Lewis
Harry Hooper and Duffy Lewis made up the “golden outfield” that helped win a combined four World Series titles for the Boston Red Sox prior to the Curse of the Bambino.
Knights in the Majors – “Nap” Lajoie
And Napoleon “Nap” Lajoie, considered baseball’s first superstar, was so beloved, the Cleveland changed their name to the Cleveland Naps — the only time a major league team has been named after a player.
Sportswriter T.H. Murnane stated it best in a 1908 Columbiad article about Knights’ impact on the national pastime:
“Strange to say baseball has a spiritual side. This is a fact, and the Knights of Columbus have done much for the members of the profession, for the player Knights are bound to do their duty, and protect, as far as possible, the young men breaking into the business, making the game cleaner and more wholesome all round.”
By 1916, Columbiad reported that Knights of Columbus were “heavily represented” on major league rosters, making up nearly one half of the 336 players in the NL and AL. But the two heavyweights of the dead ball era were John McGraw and Cornelius McGillicuddy, more popularly known as Connie Mack.
The Napoleons of Baseball: John McGraw and Connie Mack
John McGraw was pugnacious, overly competitive, and, in many cases, combative. The Knight of Columbus was nicknamed “Mugsy” and the “Little Napoleon” for his managerial style and frequent fights with umpires — he held the record for most ejections until 2007. But he was also a man of opportunity.
When the managerial position for the Orioles was opened in 1899, the 26-year-old took his chance and managed the team to an 86-62 record. It would be the first of many successful seasons in a storied 33-year managerial career, mostly with the New York Giants. By 1905, McGraw had established himself as one of the premier managers in baseball.
The Napoleons of Baseball: John McGraw and Connie Mack (part 2)
McGraw’s rise nearly coincided with the rise of another Knight of Columbus’ managerial career. Known as the “Tall Tactician,” Mack served as manager, treasurer and part owner of the Philadelphia Athletics and guided the club to six of the AL’s first 14 pennants.
The two men were opposites in both managerial style and appearance. McGraw was 5’7,” fiery, plump, and dressed in a baseball uniform, while Mack stood 6’1,” slender, calmer and dressed in a suit and hat. But in their first meeting in the World Series, McGraw bested Mack, winning his first of three World Series titles.
However, the managers would square off again in the 1911 and 1913. Both times Mack’s teams — famously made up of the $100,000 infield which included Eddie Collins, Jack Barry (a Knight of Columbus), and Frank “Home Run” Baker — outperformed McGraw’s clubs.
Mack, ever the gentlemen, complimented his compatriot at one point in his career saying: “There has been only one manager, and his name is McGraw.”
Combined, the two titans of baseball were Knights of Columbus and set the standard of managerial excellence that continues to influence the game today. When ranking the greatest managers of all time, McGraw and Mack typically make the list. Their achievements are hard to ignore. Between the two of them, they amassed nearly 6,500 wins — McGraw with 2,763 and Mack with 3,731, still a major league record — and combined for eight World Series titles and 19 pennants.
The Napoleons of Baseball: Their Teams and the Knights of Columbus
It is also noteworthy that both the Giants and A’s rosters consistently featured Knights of Columbus, including notable players like Jim Thorpe (Giants) — considered one of the greatest athletes of all time — and Nap Lajoie and Jack Barry (A’s) to name a few. Whether the managers actively recruited their players to the Order is only conjecture, but not a far-fetched possibility.
Their influence on the game, and on the Knights of Columbus, is only one element of baseball’s storied history. But a Great World War and a Great Bambino would take the game, and the K of C, to new heights in the echelons of baseball glory.
Epilogue – The Holy Cross Crusader
John Joseph “Jack” Barry caught the eye of Connie Mack when playing for the College of the Holy Cross baseball team. In 1908, the Knight of Columbus made his major league debut. He never was a powerful hitter, and he never batted over .300 in a single season with the A’s, but he was a fixture in the “$100,000 infield.” Barry was instrumental in clinching three World Series titles for the franchise in 1910, 1911, 1913.
After serving during the First World War, Barry played one more season, but injuries from baseball and the Navy hindered him athletically. Barry retired.
However, his baseball career did not end. He returned to Holy Cross to become the head coach in 1921. In his first season, Barry managed the team to a 30-win season and, in 1924, was unbeaten. The winning continued throughout his 39 seasons at Holy Cross (1921-1960), including the defeat of Missouri for the 1952 College World Series title. He never posted a losing season, coached 25 players who made the majors, and, at one point, had the highest career winning percentage in college baseball history (.806).
Barry passed away in 1961. His contributions to baseball were honored when he was among the initial class of inductees to the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1966, and he was inducted into the College Baseball Hall of Fame along with Lou Gehrig, Christy Mathewson and Joe Sewell in 2007.
Written and Researched by: Andy Fowler, Content Producer
Research and Editing by: Anne Ostendarp, Multimedia Archivist
Editing by: Brian Caulfield, Vice Postulator of the cause for canonization of Blessed Michael J. McGivney
User Experience by: Rob Acampora; Morgan Izzo