Franciscan sisters, Bing Crosby, and an old movie

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Wednesday 29, September 2010 | Category:   Consecrated Life

What do the Sisters of St. Francis of the Providence of God and the Pittsburgh Pirates have in common (besides being located in the city of Pittsburgh)? A connection to the singer and actor Bing Crosby (yes, there was a “Bing” before the Microsoft search engine).

If you go to the vestibule of the Mary Immaculate Chapel at the sisters’ motherhouse, you’ll find listed in bronze among the thousands of other donors to the Chapel Fund of the 1940s and 1950s the name of Bing Crosby, writes Franciscan congregational archivist Mr. Dennis Wodzinski in the fall 2010 issue of The Whitehall Franciscan.

Bing’s name got there because of the determination of the then-motherhouse chaplain, Father Joseph Skripkus, who was so impressed with Bing’s performance in the movie The Bells of St. Mary’s, in which Crosby played a Roman Catholic priest attempting to save a New York City parish school from closure, that he wrote Bing a letter saying: “I want to say that I admire you and your work greatly. The roles you play are clean and will do much to prove to Hollywood that decency in films pays.” (Skripkus also included a copy of a short work by one Harold Bell Wright called The Uncrowned King which he thought “could become a pearl of the silver screen.” Father Joe, by the way, was not shy about letter-writing. In his personal papers is correspondence from members of the Roosevelt family, including a proclamation from President Franklin D. Roosevelt.)

After Crosby acknowledged the note, Father Joe kept writing, including a letter about the motherhouse building that he concluded by saying: “Dear Friend, on account of your great charity, I . . . ask you to erect one more eternal monument, which will speak loudly of your charity as long as the St. Francis convent will exist.” Apparently the appeal succeeded.

BING CROSBY with Pirates manager
Billy Meyer in 1948.

Which brings us to the Pirates. Crosby was a co-owner of the team at the time, and it was his skittishness about watching them play the New York Yankees in the 1960 World Series that led to the creation of a piece of history.

Bing was so nervous about jinxing the team that he couldn’t bring himself to watch the seventh and deciding game against the Yankees, played at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field 50 years ago on October 13, 1960. So he flew to Paris and listened to it on the radio. Some of his employees, however, filmed the game on kinescope so that he could see it in its entirety when he returned. (Kinescope recorded television programs by filming the picture from a video monitor. It was just about the only way to record TV before the widespread use of videotape. By the way, Crosby had a role in the development of videotape, when in 1951 engineers at Bing Crosby Enterprises demonstrated a black-and-white videotape recorder; Crosby backed the effort not only because of the commercial possibilities of the new medium but also supposedly so he could play golf and watch programs later.)

And watch the game when he got back we assume he did, because it ended up being one the most dramatic in World Series history: Pittsburgh second-baseman Bill Mazeroski hit a walk-off home run against Ralph Terry to give the Pirates a 10-9 win and a World Series victory over the mighty Yankees (who between 1947 and 1964 appeared in the World Series 15 times, winning 10 of them, including five in a row from 1949-1953).

Like most games of the era, it was thought no complete recording existed, its video documentation limited to newsreel highlights. But, as first reported in the New York Times, the entire kinescope copy of NBC’s TV broadcast of Game 7 was recently found in a wine cellar at Crosby’s old home near San Francisco. The films, which record every out of the game, are being transferred to DVD, and the game will be shown during a special on MLB Network this December.

“Maz’s” historic homer from a newsreel:

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