April 2, 2009


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‘Baseball Mania’ a hit at church with strong Hill ties

St. Malachy’s parish in North Philadelphia has many fans and supporters in Chestnut Hill. Perhaps its most famous connection to our town is that Chestnut Hill actor David Morse portrayed St. Malachy’s long-time pastor, Rev. John McNamee, in the popular 1991 Hollywood movie Diary of a City Priest. Father McNamee is an author and poet who can be seen from time to time reading from his works at The Irish Center in Mt. Airy.

The North Philly parish’s most poignant link to Chestnut Hill is the generous scholarship fund at St. Malachy’s school established in the name of  Springside School alumna, Johanna Sigmund, who lost her life on 9/11 in the Twin Towers. Then there is the faithful group of Notre Dame alums who conduct an annual 5K run at Valley Green to raise funds for the inner-city parish and its school. Another group, “The Friends of St. Malachy’s,” headed by local couple Vince and Eileen Reilly, has organized many parties and events through the years to help the parish, which was originally founded in 1850 to serve Irish immigrants to Philadelphia.

Last but not least, Sister Cecile Reiley, SSJ, Director of Parish Services at St. Malachy’s, who is coordinating this Sunday’s fun event, Baseball Mania at Malachy’s, (which corresponds to the Phillies opener on April 5) says she “grew up in Chestnut Hill during my novitiate at Chestnut Hill College in the 1950s.”

Philadelphia has always been a baseball town — at times fanatically so. Remember the whole city taking a day off to cheer the Phillies’ World Series win last October? Connie Mack, legendary major leaguer and longtime manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, lived for many years at the corner of  Lincoln Drive and Cliveden Street. And Jack Norworth, the vaudeville actor who in 1908 wrote the lyrics to “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” baseball’s unofficial national anthem, was born in Philadelphia in 1879.

Well, every Hill area resident who loves baseball and the music that goes with it is invited to have a ball at an afternoon of fun, music, poetry and song: Baseball Mania at Malachy’s on Sunday, April 5, 4 p.m., at St. Malachy’s Church, 1429 N. 11th St. in Northern Liberties. That night, the Phillies, who earned the right to play the opening game of the entire major league season with their World Series 2008 win, will play the Atlanta Braves at Citizens Bank Park in their first stab this year at defending their title.

So baseball will be in the air. But there’s more to the story. When Tim Wiles, director of  research at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, titled his new book Baseball’s Greatest Hit, he was referring not to the 3,455,558 times a bat has hit a ball since major league baseball began in 1871, but to the song that tens of thousands of fans still sing and sway to during every pro game at the 7th inning stretch, “Take me Out to the Ball Game.” Wiles will be a special guest at the St. Malachy’s event this Sunday, together with copies of his book, which includes a CD of  Carly Simon singing baseball’s most famous song.

In his sleuthing, Wiles discovered that Jack Norworth, the song’s lyricist, had a famous musical grandfather, organ builder Henry Knauff. Knauff  brought fame and esteem to Philadelphia with his innovative organ designs, many still operating in historic local churches. The Knauff family had frowned on Norworth’s choice of a stage career, so spunky Jack Norworth changed his name, went on to be a successful vaudeville actor and singer, and wrote the lyrics to over 2500 songs, including “Shine On, Harvest Moon.”

In a way, Baseball Mania at Malachy’s will be a metaphorical healing of the Knauff-Norworth family rift, since the distinguished Henry Knauff  built the 140-year-old organ at St. Malachy’s, which has been declared “of exceptional historic merit worthy of preservation” by the Organ Historical Society. Funds raised at the Baseball Mania event will be used toward restoring this fine organ, which was badly damaged by a 1997 collapse in the church ceiling.

The show will feature a swinging jazz sax, the barbershop quartet “Born to Sing,” a rendition of the classic Abbott and Costello routine, “Who’s on First?” by well known local thespians Tony Braithwaite and Joe Mallon; seventh-grade student and classical pianist extraordinaire Marvin Brown, a rendition of “Casey at the Bat” by baseball historian Wiles, and a visit by the St. Malachy Choir.

Stop by for an hour or two of music and laughter at this lively concert and variety show. It will be followed by a reception and silent auction featuring historic baseball and music items, as well as dinner packages and vacation offerings. It is rumored that certain descendants of Cornelius McGillicuddy (Connie Mack) may be in attendance.

Tickets to the first Phillies game that night are hard to come by — but the concert at St. Malachy’s is free (they will pass the hat to benefit the organ fund) and open to the public as long as seats last.

For more information, call St. Malachy’s at 215-763-1305 or email