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Beer and Whiskey Money for Father Grabnickels
by Don Drewniak

Prior to October 14, 1951, my only awareness of baseball was that of a Boston Braves game played at Braves Field on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston in August 1948 when I was five-years old. The game made little sense to me, but the two hot dogs that I polished off left a lasting impression as the best food I had ever eaten.

Only four dates hold more significance to me than that October day: the date of my birth; the date of my marriage; the date I was drafted into the United States Army during the Vietnam War and the date of my daughter’s birth. The 1951 date began my love affair with baseball and my near lifelong obsession with the Cleveland Indians.

By the start of the 1952 MLB season, I had become a fan of the Indians. Al Rosen, the Indians’ third baseman, was my favorite player. How did an eight-year old living in Massachusetts become an Indians fanatic?

Fall River was blessed with a minor league team, the Fall River Indians, from 1893–1898, 1902–1910 and 1946–1949. With the ending of the third Fall River Indians’ run, professional baseball deserted the city. Well, not totally. Baseball was a sport back then, as it was in the years dating back to its beginnings in the 1860s. Sadly, those days are gone. Today’s professional baseball in the United States is business — big business — with even major-league bench warmers raking in a minimum of over $700,000 per year.

In the 1950s, most players had to work in the “real world” during the off season, as their predecessors did going back to the beginnings of professional baseball. There were also those who were able to barnstorm.

My parents took me to see a barnstorming game played at Fall River Stadium on that October 14th in 1951. One of the teams was that of Birdie Tebbetts All-Stars. I’m guessing that the opposition was comprised of some of the local area’s better players. Tebbetts had just finished his first season with the Indians after having played with the Red Sox during the previous four years. Other Indians players on the team were Al Rosen, Mike Garcia and Jim Hegan.

Bobby Thomson of the New York Giants was also on the team. Eleven days earlier, he hit “The Shot Heard Round The World,” a one out, three-run walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth inning that beat the Dodgers in game three of the National League three-game playoff in 1951.

If memory serves me correctly, my parents and I were seated several rows in back of, and to the right of, the dugout used by Tebbetts’ team. At some point in the game, a foul grounder was hit toward the area in which we were sitting. I raced toward the railing separating the playing field from the seats. My momentum carried me over the railing resulting in my dropping a short distance onto the field.

The baseball gods must have been watching. I was unhurt and before I could move, Rosen came out of the dugout, picked me up by the back of my neck (or so I remember), grabbed the ball and brought me into the dugout. He proceeded to sign the ball and had several other players do so as well. After escorting me back to the “scene of the crime,” he lifted me over the railing and I scurried back to my seat.

As soon as I was told that Rosen played for the Cleveland Indians, I was “doomed” to be a fan of the team.

What the baseball gods give, they can take away. The signed ball became my prized possession. Not knowing any better, I kept the ball on top of a bureau in my bedroom. I noticed sometime later that the signatures were fading. Figuring that sunlight must be the culprit, I wrapped the ball in paper and placed it in a shoebox that I stored in my closet. Over the next few years, I added to the box other baseballs that I found scattered here and there.

During my sophomore year in college, my mother tossed the box in the trash not knowing that one of the balls was the “Al Rosen” ball. The fault was mine, not hers.

By the start of the 1952 Major League Baseball season, I was possessed by baseball and, in particular, the Cleveland Indians and my hero, Al Rosen. Information about the Indians was difficult to come by. Until I found a broken Philco radio in the Tucker Street Dump that my father managed to fix, day-to-day coverage of MLB was limited to newspaper coverage from the Boston Herald and the Fall River Herald News, and the occasional watching of a game on my Uncle Al’s television.

The newspaper coverage was predominantly about the Red Sox and the Braves. However, box scores and updated standings were treasures.

The newly-discovered baseball cards began to provide me with some sense of the immediate history of the game. For much of 1952, my twenty-five cent allowance was largely spent buying six-card packets of baseball cards for five cents each. Grandpa John provided me with an additional source of money.

He was a reluctant church goer. From the time my grandfather arrived in the United States, he worked long hours in the cotton mills. He resented those who did not work, and viewed priests as non-workers.

I disliked church services as much as he did. There were two Sunday morning masses at St. John’s Ukrainian Catholic Church, 8:30–9:30 and 10:00–11:30. Very few kids attended the church services as most of the parishioners were in their fifties, sixties or seventies. Each mass was conducted in Ukrainian which I did not understand, making the time even more boring than it might have been in English. Thank goodness I was allowed to attend the early mass, and I usually went with Grandpa John.

St. John’s was a small church. It had ten-to-twelve rows divided by a center aisle. Each row seated about sixteen adults. Looking from the rear of the church, men sat on the right, women on the left. It was Grandma Zofia who “forced” Grandpa John to attend mass.

When I went to mass with Grandpa John, we always sat near the middle of the last row on the right-hand side as we faced the altar. That was by design. As I remember, there were two collections during the mass. One was a “seat offering” in which money was placed in an envelope and dropped into a basket carried by the priest as he walked around the church. I often complained to my mother about the seat offering as most of the time during mass was spent either kneeling or standing.

The second collection involved the dropping of coins or bills into a basket. Grandpa John claimed it was beer and whiskey money for Father Grabnickels and, therefore, it justified what we did. He taught me a valuable skill — a skill, that because my fingers were smaller and more flexible than his, I was better at doing.

As the priest hurriedly walked up the outside aisle to our right, Grandpa John would always smile when he saw bills in the basket as they provided cover and quite often quarters would be balanced against the bills. Those were the target coins.

When Father Grabnickels turned the corner from the outside aisle to the back of the seating area, we would each drop a nickel in the basket and then, with palms down, try to pull up a quarter with a piece of freshly-chewed gum stuck to the bottom of our index and middle fingers. I had reached the point wherein I was successful about one out of every two tries.

It was off to church the morning after my first buying of baseball cards and I was nervously excited. The big moment came about forty minutes into the mass. I made a clean nabbing of a quarter and forced myself not to laugh out loud when I heard Grandpa John whisper a Ukrainian swear word. He had failed. The quarter was pure profit as the nickel offering was given to me by my mother.

That was the last quarter that I was to grab from Father Grabnickels’ basket. I flubbed the try on the following Sunday. A week later, Grandpa John informed me that we needed to stop because he believed Father Grabnickels was becoming suspicious.

I had to endure a confession session with Father Grabnickels a month or two later. After admitting to such sinful actions as having put well-chewed Bazooka bubble gum on Betty Ann Crossen’s seat in my third-grade class, he peered at me and asked, “Is there anything else you want to say to me?”

Yes, is it true that you spend the collection basket money on beer and whiskey?”

“No, Father.”