It wasn’t easy. In the first place I was a parish priest and had to be in church on Sunday mornings when the chapel services were held at the stadiums. So if I was to do it at all, it had to be when I was on vacation. But a far bigger issue was that I was an Episcopal priest, and all the leaders of Baseball Chapel were conservative Evangelicals at best, and Bible thumping Fundamentalists at worst. They all thought Episcopalians were heretics. The Executive Director of Baseball Chapel actually lived in New York. His name was Dave Swanson, and although a Fundamentalist, he was bright (Princeton educated), sophisticated and fairly intellectual. He had recently retired from running his family’s business, Thomas English Muffins. So I basically spent the next two years schmoozing Dave Swanson, attempting to convince him I would be a perfect chapel leader for the Yankees and Mets. Finally, in the summer of 1988, he asked if I would lead the chapel services for both teams during the month of July. I could do both teams because they were never in town at the same time.
When that first Sunday dawned I was as excited as I have ever been in my entire life. The game was to start at 1PM, but I arrived at Shea Stadium at about 10AM, about the time the players began to drift in. My friend B.J. Weber went along to guide me through the process. Dave Swanson was there as well to check up on my orthodoxy. Because of the anti-fraternization rule in Major League Baseball, there were two separate services, one for each team. So the first thing to do was check with the team’s chapel leader, who on the Mets’ at that time was Gary Carter. The service itself consisted in a few prayers, a scripture reading and a full sermon, concluding with a benediction. It had to be squeezed in somewhere between stretching, batting practice and fielding practice. Once the time was set, we went over to the visiting team clubhouse to set the time of the service with that team’s chapel leader. The Mets were playing the Houston Astros that day, and their chapel leader was Billy Hatcher. While we waited for the time of the services, we just hung out with the players, in the clubhouse, the dugout or even out on the field. I have to admit that I was pretty star-struck and tongue-tied that first Sunday.
The one rule about the chapel service was no one from management was allowed to come. Most members of the media were unwanted as well. So only players, coaches, trainers and attendants were welcome. Sometimes broadcasters came, but they were often former players. It was always an adventure to figure out where to actually hold the event. On that first Sunday, the Mets’ manager Davy Johnson offered to let me have it in his office. It was not a large room and as the players pushed in, there was almost no space left. I actually had to sit on Johnson’s desk to lead the service. As I began, I looked over to my left where Gary Carter, David Cone and Tim Teufel were squeezed together on the couch. Sitting at my feet, so close we were almost touching, were Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden and Howard Johnson. As I started speaking, I was so nervous my eyes were swimming, and I looked down right at Howard Johnson and screamed inside my head, “Howard! Howard Johnson! I know you!” Fortunately I was able to maintain a modicum of composure, and limped through the sermon.
The deep roots of Baseball Chapel go all the way back to the early 1960’s when Randy Hundley, a catcher on the Chicago Cubs, was frustrated that he couldn’t go to church on Sundays when the team was on the road. He organized the first chapel services for his teammates, which were held in the hotels where the team was staying. Soon players on the Minnesota Twins had organized their own services as well, and within a decade most major league teams had a core of players who gathered regularly for Christian fellowship, Bible study and prayer, usually on Sunday morning. This was at a time in American history when there was a far clearer division between “church and state”, or in this instance, church and profession, than there is today. In 1970, Watson Spoelstra, a cranky but born-again sportswriter for the Detroit News, and the broadcaster Ernie Harwell, began organizing Sunday morning services for the Tigers’ players. The response was so positive, Spoelstra approached the Commissioner of Baseball Bowie Kuhn in 1973, and asked him for funding to organize a formal Baseball Chapel program. They were an odd couple, the rough-hewn crotchety Evangelical writer and the well educated, well bred, elegant Catholic Commissioner, but following a hunch that this was the right thing to do, Kuhn gave the new endeavor $5000 and the official blessing of Major League Baseball.
Spoelstra quit his job as a writer and devoted his full time to organizing Baseball Chapel. Kuhn’s official stamp of approval gave it legitimacy in the eyes of both players and management, and within three years every major league team had a player representative and a volunteer chapel coordinator who found the speakers. Spoelstra recruited each one himself including some who volunteered to his surprise, such as Hank Aaron, Sal Bando and Reggie Jackson. In 1978, Spoestra began organizing the same plan for every minor league team, and for the winter leagues in Latin America. After Spoelstra retired in 1982, the aforementioned Dave Swanson took over the leadership of the organization. Under his hand it grew into an organization where today it has a full-time staff of eight, and provides services each week during the season attended by over 3000 professional ballplayers.