Archbishop Naumann never got to meet his father, but through baseball, got to know him
Story by Todd Habiger
It’s simple really. A round, cushioned cork, wrapped in wool and cotton yarn, covered by stitched rawhide. A baseball. But for Joseph Naumann, it’s something so much more. It’s a portal through time and space. It’s a magical tool that allows him to connect to the father he never met.
Fred Naumann loved baseball. Growing up in St. Louis, he was naturally a loyal St. Louis Cardinals fan. So much so, that he skipped school one day to attend game seven of the 1934 World Series.
“His Latin teacher said that anybody who skipped class to go to the World Series would flunk the class,” said Archbishop Naumann. “He didn’t believe her and went to World Series anyway. He had to take an extra semester of Latin because of that.”
Fred was also an excellent baseball player. After high school, he signed a contract with his beloved Cardinals. Fred was a fiery player — a hard-nosed catcher trying to work his way through a deep St. Louis Cardinals baseball system.
For three years, Fred toiled in the Cardinals system, moving from Missouri to Illinois, to Alabama, to Texas, to Florida — wherever the Cardinals needed him. Along the way, he got to catch a young pitcher who would one day end up in the Hall of Fame — but as a hitter — Stan Musial.
The 1940 season would be Fred’s last in the minors. According to Fred’s future wife Louise, Fred and his manager in Florida didn’t particularly like each other.
“Being young, he just quit and came back to St. Louis,” said Louise. “Other teams contacted him and he was pretty sure he would get picked up. But he didn’t realize that he was still under contract to the Cardinals.”
Not willing to go back to the Cardinals, Fred settled into life in St. Louis. He and Louise married. In 1942, he answered his country’s call during World War II, serving in the Pacific Theater.
After the war, Fred continued his baseball career, playing semipro ball in St. Louis. A few years later, a son, Fred Jr., was born. Still only in his early 30s, Fred was managing a store in 1948, but looking to make a change.
He never had the chance.
A week before Christmas — on Dec. 18, 1948 — Fred was stabbed and killed in his store by a disgruntled employee. His son Joseph would be born five months later.
Know thy father
Despite Fred’s death, Louise was determined that he would be a part of her boys’ lives. She started by keeping a picture of Fred on a cedar chest in the home at about eye level.
“I always told them that they were luckier than other kids because those kids only had their dads in the evenings, but their dad was watching over them 24 hours a day,” said Louise.
But it was through baseball that Joseph could really relate to his father. Particularly St. Louis Cardinal baseball.
“St. Louis is known for being very much a baseball city,” said Archbishop Naumann. “My mother, because my father played baseball, wanted my brother and me to be fans of the game.”
It was an easy time to be a Cardinals fan. The Cardinals dominated the 1940s, winning four National League pennants and three World Series titles behind Musial, who had settled in quite nicely as one of the greatest hitters of all time.
The ’50s weren’t nearly as kind, but Musial kept on hitting, building on his Hall of Fame career.
By the mid-1960s, the Cardinals were back competing for pennants and young Joseph got to see the team firsthand, thanks to some kind family friends.
“We were fortunate, because in the parish where I grew up, there was an elderly couple, and the wife was a secretary in the Cardinals office,” said Archbishop Naumann.
“They didn’t have any children, but she got four tickets to every game as one of the perks of her job. Her husband loved baseball and he would take my brother and me. Some years, we would go to almost half of the home games.”
It was also during this time that Joseph was reminded of his father’s connection to the baseball world. At one game, a scout for the Cardinals, Sheldon “Chief” Bender, got word that the Naumann brothers were in attendance. Bender had played with Fred Naumann in the minor leagues and the two were good friends. Bender gathered up the Naumann boys and took them to the Cardinals dugout to meet the players.
“That was such a thrill,” said the archbishop. “We got autographs and a baseball bat from them. It was nice that that many years later [Bender] would remember my father and make that happen for my brother and me.”
Bender would also occasionally visit the Naumann house when he was in town and tell stories about Fred.
“He had a lot of great things to say about my dad. Not only as a baseball player, but as a man,” said Archbishop Naumann. “He would talk about what a good friend he was and how he was a person of integrity who you could count on.”
Louise also kept old newspaper clippings around the house, which gave the archbishop a feel for what his father was like as a player.
“I remember being surprised that he got ejected from a couple of games,” said Archbishop Naumann. “It gave me some insight into him as a man. From other comments that people have said about him, his on-the-field demeanor was different than off the field.
“I get the impression that [off the field] he was somewhat laid back. Very much a gentleman.”
In 1997, much to the surprise of the family, Fred was inducted into the Greater St. Louis Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame. A group of former teammates pushed for Fred’s induction based on his career in the minors and semipro ball in St. Louis.
“I was surprised by [his induction], particularly because it was almost 50 years after he died,” said the archbishop. “It was a nice tribute to him.”
While his father was a fine ballplayer, Joseph couldn’t quite duplicate Fred’s on the field success. The archbishop freely admits that “the talent wasn’t there.”
Something his mother readily confirms.
“Oh, he wasn’t very good at all,” she said with a chuckle.
That didn’t stop young Joseph from trying. And he wasn’t above asking for some divine intervention.
“When I was playing baseball, I would pray to my father that he would give me the ability to hit the ball or do whatever I needed to do at that particular time,” he said.
Despite his own limitations, Archbishop Naumann takes great pride in the fact that his father was a good baseball player and part of the Cardinals system.
“I always felt proud about the fact that my father had excelled in baseball,” he said. “In St. Louis, baseball is so much a part of the culture, and baseball players were generally held in high esteem. It was kind of a cool thing to think that my father was a very skilled baseball player.”
As the baseball season begins, Archbishop Naumann’s thoughts often turn to his father and the game he loved so much.
“I try to remember him frequently in prayer. Baseball is still a way I feel connected to him,” he said. “I’m always glad to see spring training and the season roll around. I think that was something he probably looked forward to as well.”
For Louise, she feels proud of the fact that her boys have an understanding of who their father was, both as a ball player and as a man.
“I had decided that my goal in life was to raise my boys to be living monuments to their father’s memory,” said Louise. “And they truly are. Joe is a great bishop and Fred is a wonderful father and husband. What else could you ask?”
True confessions of a Cardinals fan
The year is 1964 and the Philadelphia Phillies have a six-and-a-half game lead in the National League with 12 left to play. The pennant is almost assured.
But in one of the great collapses in baseball history, the Phillies lose 10 straight, and the St. Louis Cardinals stage a furious finish to take the National League crown by one game. The Cardinals would go on to win the World Series 4-3 over the New York Yankees.
It was that season that Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann remembers most as a youth growing up in St. Louis.
“I was 15 at the time. That was a dream come true,” said Archbishop Naumann. “They were a fun team to watch with [Lou] Brock, [Mike] Shannon, Ken Boyer and Bob Gibson.”
It was the no-nonsense Gibson that Archbishop Naumann came to admire. Known for his competitive nature and a little bit of nastiness, Gibson was one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history.
“Bob Gibson was my favorite Cardinal player. When you went to a game and Bob Gibson pitched, you knew that it would maybe be two hours or less,” he said. “He took very little time between pitches and he took very little time getting people out. He was such a dominant pitcher and a competitive athlete.”
Through the years, Archbishop Naumann’s love for the game has never wavered. He’s seen his beloved Cardinals win more World Series titles in 1967, 1982, 2006 and 2011. Of course, there is the one that got away — the 1985 World Series that the Cardinals lost in seven games to the Kansas City Royals. That game was notable for the famous blown call in the ninth inning of game six that allowed the Royals to come back and win that game, forcing a game seven.
The archbishop said he watched game six in disbelief.
“It was definitely a bad call. Nobody can dispute that,” he said. “But I think good teams overcome bad calls. The Royals prevailed and were the best team during that World Series.”
Growing up in a National League city, Archbishop Naumann favors the style of play that is prevalent in that league, which typically sees more bunting, stealing, hit-and-runs and double switches, all because the pitcher bats in the National League as opposed to the American League, which uses a designated hitter to bat for the pitcher.
The archbishop has a particular disdain for the designated hitter.
“I think it’s a bad development,” he said. “It takes a lot of the strategy out of the game. I’m a purist along those lines. Having the pitchers hit is a good thing. It really changes the game with how [a manager] has to decide to keep a pitcher in or not keep a pitcher in. I think it takes a lot of the thinking out of the game.”
The archbishop has seen the game of baseball change from when he was a youth. Baseball is big business now. The salaries players make today are astronomical.
“Baseball has changed a lot from when my dad played because there wasn’t a lot of money to be made back then,” he said. “People played for their enjoyment and passion for the game. In some ways, I think it was really purer back when players made some sacrifices to play baseball.”
Archbishop Naumann feels that the money being thrown around the game today contributed to the ugly steroid era that baseball is just now emerging from.
It ruins the integrity of the game when athletes try to get an edge through chemicals,” he said. “Athletes, whether they like it or not, are role models for young people. That kind of example to young people is very dangerous — that they would copy athletes and use those kind of drugs that have a lot of harmful effects.”
Despite the problems with the game, the archbishop remains a fan and has a certain admiration for players that have let their faith shine despite the temptations that Major League Baseball offers. He’s a great fan of former Royals player Mike Sweeney, who has never been shy about professing his love for God.
Sweeney is currently retired and runs Catholic baseball camps in California and Kansas City.
“I think he’s such a classy person. It’s wonderful to see him so strong in his faith and share his faith with young people,” the archbishop said.
Despite his St. Louis upbringing, the archbishop has developed a fondness for the Kansas City Royals. When asked who he would root for in a second 1-70 World Series, he evasively answered “yes” with a hearty laugh, before adding, “I figure I can’t lose.”
Fred Naumann’s encounters with baseball royalty
- Stan Musial: Stan Musial was one of the greatest hitters in baseball history, but he started out as a pitcher. In 1940, he played with the Class D Daytona Beach Islanders. One of the catchers on that team was Fred Naumann. Musial played major league baseball for 22 seasons, all with the Cardinals, alternating between first base and the outfield. Nicknamed “Stan the Man,” Musial was the National League’s Most Valuable Player three times, won three World Series titles and shares the record for most All-Star Games played with 24. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1969.
- Branch Rickey: Branch Rickey was the business manager for the St. Louis Cardinals from 1926 to 1942 and signed Fred Naumann to a baseball contract. Rickey is most famous for breaking the color barrier as the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers by signing Jackie Robinson to a minor league contract in 1945. Rickey created the framework for the modern minor league farm system while with the Cardinals. He was the general manager of the Dodgers from 1942 to 1950. Rickey took over the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1950 and was responsible for drafting Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1967.
- Sheldon Bender: Sheldon “Chief” Bender was a minor league teammate and friend of Fred Naumann. Bender was a minor league manager and scout for the Cardinals from 1949 to 1966. He was hired by the Cincinnati Reds in 1967 and was director of the Cincinnati farm system that produced All-Stars the likes of Ken Griffey Sr., Dave Concepcion, Eric Davis and Paul O’Neil. The Reds minor league player of the year award is named after him. In 2008, Minor League Baseball began presenting the annual Sheldon “Chief” Bender Award to a person with distinguished service who has been instrumental in player development.