When I was seven years old, my twin passions for the church and baseball collided. It was 1950, the year of my First Holy Communion. Every Wednesday afternoon at 2:30, all Catholics who attended second grade in public school in Rockville Centre, N.Y., as I did, were released early to attend the classes at St. Agnes Church that would prepare us for First Communion, admitting us into the congregation of the Catholic Church. Our class was held in a dark room in the parochial school, its back wall adorned by a gallery of the saints. There was the infant St. Ambrose, on whose mouth a swarm of bees had settled, causing his elders to predict great oratorical gifts; St. Patrick, the apostle of Ireland, brandishing a staff as he expelled the serpent of sin and paganism from Ireland. My favorite saint was the Jesuit Aloysius Gonzaga, the patron of youth, whose name my father had taken at his confirmation.
Our teacher, Sister Marian, was a small Dominican nun who seemed ancient at the time but was probably in her 50s, with a gentle manner, a flowing white habit with a wimple pulled so tight that her forehead was stretched smooth, and cheeks that bore such deep lines that the bottom and top of her face appeared to come from two different people. She introduced us to the text familiar to generations of Catholic schoolchildren: the blue-covered Baltimore Catechism with a silver Mary embossed on a constellation of silver stars.
My imagination was kindled by the concept of baptism. We learned that we were all born with souls that were dead in original sin under the power of the devil, but that baptism gave us new life and freed us from Satan's grasp. Without baptism one could not receive any of the other sacraments or go to heaven. The part that particularly aroused me, however, was the thought that if an unbaptized person was dying and no priest was present, it was up to us—i.e., me—to perform the sacrament by pouring ordinary water on the forehead of the dying person and saying aloud, "I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." More than once I used my unbaptized doll to practice the sacrament of baptism. I would make her comfortable on my pillow, run into the bathroom, fill a cup with water and very solemnly launch her toward salvation.
Sister Marian told us stories about the early Christian martyrs who were willing, sometimes even eager, to die for their faith when put to the test by the evil Roman emperor Nero. After a great fire destroyed much of Rome six decades after Christ, Nero's people began to suspect that he had started the fire himself to clear a site for his proposed Golden House and had celebrated the conflagration on his fiddle. To deflect the people's wrath, he made the Christians of Rome his scapegoats, sending them into the jaws of lions if they insisted on professing their faith. Many a night I lay awake worrying whether I might lack courage to die for my faith. Lions began populating my dreams, until visits to the Bronx Zoo found me standing in front of the lion's cage, whispering frantically to the somnolent, tawny beast behind the bars in hopes that if ever I were sent as a martyr to the lions' den, my new friend would testify to his fellow lions that I was a good person.
So rich were the traditions and the liturgy of my church that I could not imagine being anything other than Catholic. Though there were Jews and Protestants on our block, I knew almost nothing about these other religions. We were taught only that these people were non-Catholics and that we should not read their literature or inquire about their beliefs. Furthermore, it was a grievous sin for us to set foot in one of their churches or synagogues.
It was this last admonition that produced my first spiritual crisis. In early February 1950 our newspaper, the Long Island News and Owl, reported that Brooklyn Dodgers catcher Roy Campanella was coming to Rockville Centre. He planned to speak at a benefit for the local black church, then under construction, the Shiloh Baptist Church. The program was to be held in the Church of the Ascension, an Episcopal church one block from St. Agnes.
The son of an Italian-American father and an African-American mother, Campanella had joined the Baltimore Elite Giants, one of the great teams in the Negro leagues, when he was only 15. In short order his skill in calling pitches, his ability to fathom the vulnerability of an opposing hitter, his strong arm, his prowess at the plate and his endurance became legendary. He once caught four games in a single day: a twin bill in Cincinnati on a Sunday afternoon, followed by a bus ride to Middletown, Ohio, and another doubleheader that evening. Unlike Jackie Robinson, who considered his experience in the Negro leagues demeaning, Campanella claimed to have thoroughly enjoyed his years in black baseball. Less combative and more conciliatory than Robinson, Campanella repeatedly said that he thought of himself as a ballplayer, not a pioneer; that when he was catching or hitting, he focused only on what the pitcher was throwing, not the color of his opponent. Since his rookie season with the Dodgers, in 1948, he had established himself unequivocally as the best catcher in the National League. In 1949 he led the league's catchers with a .287 batting average and 22 doubles.
I couldn't wait to tell my father that his favorite player on our favorite team would be coming to our town, so he would get tickets and take me with him. I begged my mother to take me to the train station so I could tell my father the dramatic news as soon as he stepped off the platform. As our car passed St. Agnes on the way to the station, however, it dawned on me that Campanella was scheduled to speak in the Episcopal church. "Oh, no!" I said. "It can't be."
"What?" my mother asked.
Close to tears, I announced that there was no hope of my going after all, since I was forbidden to set foot in the Episcopal church. Campanella was coming to my town, and I could not even go to see him.