Monsignor Martin A. Schwalenberg, 83, chaplain to Orioles, Colts, Blast

March 21, 2004|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Monsignor Martin A. Schwalenberg Jr., chaplain to the Orioles, Colts and Blast teams who in his youth played a season of minor-league baseball, died in his sleep of complications from a stroke Wednesday at his retirement home in Pembroke Pines, Fla. The former pastor of St. Charles Church in Pikesville was 83.

"We had some good times together," said former Orioles manager Earl Weaver, who also lives in Pembrook Pines. "He had a special Mass for us when we won the World Series in 1970. He was a fun-loving guy. He went to the dog track and he liked the ponies, too. He was a regular human being and a very, very good one, too. He could give solace to people. He was always available if anyone needed him, but he never pushed himself."

"He was a character," said Monsignor Myles McGowan, a longtime friend. "He was just a wonderful priest and conscientious about his work. He got along with everybody and had a fine sense of humor. He had a special ministry to the athletes because he was one himself."

Known as Father Marty at Oriole Park, he regularly parked his black Oldsmobile in the best space in the players' lot.

Newspaper stories said his shirt pocket bulged with a stack of calling cards engraved with the prayer of St. Francis and his home numbers.

"On his cap is a silver cross. Seeing it glitter, a player stills his bat, tips his hat," a 1998 Sun article said. "Like the breeze that fills the ballpark, Father Marty roams unfettered, and is everywhere expected. He alone can be found with players in the locker room after 6:45 p.m.; he alone can march onto the field during practice. In the clubhouse, he gets a daily shoeshine from third-base coach Sam Perlozzo, and in the cafeteria, a free meal. `Who knows when I might need him?' the cashier says."

On Sundays during home games, Monsignor Schwalenberg offered Mass in the warehouse for employees and a handful of Orioles players and their families. An hour before the game, he brought communion to players at their lockers.

"Baltimoreans may hate the Yankees, but the monsignor was always impressed that the New York team came to his Sunday Mass and were dressed in coats and ties," said his cousin, Timothy E. Welsh of Ellicott City. "Joe Torre was fond of him, and gave him his cap and wrote, `Thanks for putting God back into baseball.' "

Born in Baltimore and raised on the east side, he was a graduate of St. Elizabeth's Parochial School and played soccer, football, baseball and basketball at Calvert Hall College High School, where he graduated in 1938. After attending Loyola College for two years, he signed a contract with the old Philadelphia Athletics and pitched and played shortstop for a season in the team's farm system.

He then decided to become a priest. After studies at St. Mary's Seminary and University in Roland Park, he was ordained in 1945 and was assigned to St. Augustine's parish in Elkridge.

In 1950 he served at Immaculate Conception Church in Towson and was later named pastor of the old St. Paul's Church on Caroline Street. In 1968 he became pastor at St. Charles Borromeo in Pikesville. He was given the title of monsignor in 1982 and retired five years later.

A friend, Hal "Skinny" Brown, an Orioles pitcher in the 1950s and early 1960s, introduced the young priest to Brooks Robinson, then on a farm team in York, Pa. Monsignor Schwalenberg grew close to Mr. Robinson, whom he eventually baptized.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Mr. Robinson, Mark Belanger, Andy Etchebarren, Scott McGregor, Terry Crowley and Mike Boddicker were among the regular visitors to his rectory. He performed their marriages, baptized their children and comforted them.

He was also a presence at Memorial Stadium for Colts games for nearly three decades and was the chaplain of the Baltimore Blast soccer team. He was also chaplain to the state police and Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

The night in 1979 that Yankees catcher Thurman Munson died in a plane crash, then-Father Schwalenberg recalled answering his rectory bell and finding Orioles catcher Rick Dempsey on his doorstep, crying "big manly tears," certain that life would never be the same. "You'll get through it," the priest told him.

The Sun reported that in May 1998, Monsignor Schwalenberg had been to the ballpark and had returned home when he glanced at the television and saw Mike Mussina flat on the ground, his face and nose bloodied from a batted ball to the eye.

"Geez, that's the pitcher," he said before driving to the University of Maryland Medical Center to offer Mussina "a few words." He stayed until midnight.

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered Tuesday at 10 a.m. at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, 5300 N. Charles St.

Survivors include cousins.

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