Baseball, religion, and a small town

Author inspired by his late uncle who died in World War II

Author Tommy Murray. Photo courtesy of Tommy Murray
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Author Tommy Murray has written a novel about a small town Catholic high school baseball team and its journey to the state finals. Inspired by his late uncle who was killed in World War II and played on a championship team, Murray takes you to a town “where baseball is a religion.”

Murray answered a few questions for Catholic Digest about the book, his uncle, and how working as a public school teacher influenced Fathers, Sons, and the Holy Ghosts of Baseball (Beaver’s Pond Press, 2017).

Q: What is Fathers, Sons, and the Holy Ghosts of Baseball about?

A: Tolstoy believed that every great story is a variation of two themes: A stranger comes to town or a person makes a trip. Both of these themes blend together in my story as told through the eyes of T.J., the stranger, a 14-year-old habitual petty offender, whose mother has brought him back to her mighty small hometown in northwest Iowa as a last resort escape from his probation officers and reform schools.

Time often slows and frequently even stops in Cottage Park, Iowa, where time is best measured not by the hands of a clock but by innings in a baseball game. Praying and playing baseball are two of the town’s primary activities. Actually, they are one in the same in a town where baseball is a religion — a religion where some fathers like the Greek god Chronos, devour their sons before they can grow up, and other fathers like the God of Abraham, sacrifice their beloved sons to save the world.

Still, time does eventually flow on. Much like the Des Moines River just outside Cottage Park, time also leads to Des Moines, the site of the 1974 Iowa high school baseball tournament. Cottage Park’s Holy Trinity High School has never won the finals.

The team’s three elderly coaches vow to at last anoint themselves finals champions before they retire in their final season. For the players, the road to the finals is a confirmation by fire — a rite of passage before they must face adulthood looming before them.

Fathers, sons, and the holy ghosts of baseball join together in the quest for the finals. They will make a trip to Des Moines, along with all 727 residents of Cottage Park where young and old alike ultimately learn that you must sacrifice before you can gain and sometimes lose before you can win.

Q: Why did you decide to write your book about a high school baseball season in Iowa in 1974?

A: Good writers write about that which they know. I know the time period around 1974 very well. I played football at Notre Dame in 1973. I often don’t mention it was Notre Dame High School in Burlington, Iowa, and that I only played two downs in my junior year. On defense during the second down I was victim to a quarterback reverse option that resulted in an 89-yard-touchdown for our rival, West Burlington. I was benched for the rest of the season.

During that time, I observed the relationships between my teammates and our three old coaches: a priest, and two coaches who had retired from the public high school in Burlington. This experience was the genesis of my baseball story that would be set in northwest Iowa — a story that I would write and revise until 1988 when the legendary writer J.F. Powers reviewed the first 40 pages of the manuscript before giving up in both rage and despair. I was all too happy to agree with his assessment that my literary effort was punishing both myself and the reader and stuffed the red-inked manuscript in a box. I buried the box in a closet for a few decades.

In 2014, I retired from the Minneapolis Public Schools and decided to literally dust off the manuscript and print one copy, dedicated to my father, who was rapidly losing his memory to dementia. Unfortunately, I couldn’t write my story as fast as dementia robbed my father of all of his memory, and then of his life. Dad never got to read the printed copy.

Photo courtesy of Tommy Murray

Q: Can you tell us about your uncle, and how your book pays homage to him?

A: My namesake — my Uncle Tommy Murray — pitched for Bancroft, Iowa St. John and won the fall Iowa state championship game in 1943. In so doing, St. John became the first Catholic school to win an integrated public/private state championship. Uncle Tommy had been exempted from the draft for severe juvenile arthritis, but nevertheless, he graduated that year and enlisted in the Army. He was shot to death in an ambush as he was following a tank unit in the Philippines in 1945.

My father, uncles, and grandfathers —even the good people of Bancroft, Iowa — model the virtues of the legacy I hope to leave, a legacy of devotion to church, patriotism, and baseball, especially baseball.

Q: Did your time as a teacher in the Minneapolis Public Schools system influence you or help you to write a story that focuses in part on a high school baseball team?

A: Nearly all of the characters in my story are composites of loved ones that have passed on, some that I’ve never met like my Grandpa Art and my Uncle Tommy, others that I knew and loved, some from Iowa, some from Minneapolis, from wistful old men to former students that were brutal and charismatic gang leaders on the streets of North Minneapolis. Somehow I seem to continue to see and hear them, mostly in the persistent whisperings of those who want to be remembered and who want their story to be told because they continue to live as long as I, and we, tell their story. I believe these holy ghosts have given me permission to embellish their stories as long as those stories illuminate their truths.

Q: What is it about baseball that makes it such a good topic? How does it connect to religion?

A: I recently had this very discussion with a literary baseball magazine that focuses almost entirely on the major leagues. I argued that there’s so much to baseball beyond the bright lights and often domes of Major League ballparks. Perhaps it is precisely because Iowa has no Major League team that attention can be given to its authentic stories of real baseball.

There are no atheists in foxholes, or out on a baseball field. With its nonstop interior dialogue and its outward signs of grace manifested in the baseball ballet, the Catholic orthodoxy is just as evident as Official Baseball Rules. All seven sacraments are practiced in or around the national pastime and local obsession in this story.

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