Tag: sports

J.J. MacDermott Wins the U.S. Open

A writer calling from Ireland with a research request, alerted us to a forgotten golf celebrity in our parish history!

J.J. would have been about four years old in 1895, when a group of local enthusiasts improvised a nine-hole golf course at the Belmont Cricket Club (then located at 49th and Chester). The first four holes – made from tomato cans — were on the cricket club grounds; the other five were in a field next door, on the other side of an eight-foot fence that determined golfers had to climb! The golfers formed their own Belmont Golf Association in 1896, and, in 1897, the new club moved to 52nd and Chester, where legend said the old barn used as the clubhouse, “had once been the dwelling place for a Lenape chief named Aronimink, an odd name but one the BGA members eventually adopted and took with them to another site outside of town.” Little J.J. was fascinated, watching this strange new sport, and made his own golf course in his grandparents’ nearby orchard. At age 9, he “marched over to the club, which was, by that point, being called Aronimink, and announced that he would be the best caddie they ever had on the premises.” Walter Reynolds, the club professional, took a fancy to the plucky youngster and allowed him in.

                J.J. (John Joseph Jr.) MacDermott’s parents, John and Margaret, were married at St. James Parish (today St. Agatha St. James at 38th & Chestnut) on 15 November 1890. J.J. was born nine months later on 12 August 1891 – a year after our parish was founded – and was baptized in our parish that same month. His sisters Alice and Nora Gertrude were baptized here in 1893 and 1895. Their mother is supposed to have sung in the SFDS church choir, although we have no early records to confirm that. Their father was a mail carrier, and, reportedly, very strict. The MacDermotts lived at 1234 South 50th Street. Global Golf Post reports that J.J.’s grandparents, the Smiths, lived “a couple of streets over and a few blocks down.” According to records, they were also active parishioners. Young J.J. often stayed with them.

                When J.J.’s father wanted him to leave school in 1906, at age fifteen and begin working in a real trade, J.J. contrarily moved to Camden and took a job as assistant golf pro at the Camden Country Club, before becoming head professional at Merchantville Country Club in Cherry Hill a year later.        His career progressed quickly: in 1909, he finished 49th in the U.S. Open at Englewood Golf Club in New Jersey. In 1910, when the U.S. Open was at Philadelphia Cricket Club, he lost by 4. The following year, at Chicago Golf Club, “McDermott was 19 years old when he won the U.S. Open, making him the youngest winner in history, a record that still stands. He also was the first American to win the U.S. Open.” He won again in Buffalo, NY, in 1912 — a rare back-to-back victory.

                Sadly, J.J.’s rising star was a supernova. In 1913, in a burst of euphoria after winning the Shawnee Open, J.J., who had always been prone to odd, impulsive behavior, made a strange jarring speech scorning “British invaders” (boasting that Americans finally “owned” the U.S. Open), and then apologized, but his reputation was damaged. He still travelled to Britain for the British Open in June 1914, but he missed a boat, then his train was delayed, so he missed his qualifying tee time for the tournament. Returning across the English Channel, his ferry was struck by another ship and he had to board a lifeboat. Back home, misfortunes crowded upon him when his stock market investments failed. He had a nervous breakdown and moved back home with his parents (and back to the parish), before being committed to a mental hospital in Norristown in 1916. Formally diagnosed as schizophrenic in the 1920s, J.J. stayed in the institution until he died in 1971.

                The great theatre of world events upstaged J.J. MacDermott’s personal tragedy: World War I began in July 1914—just a month after his fateful British trip. And, as Doug Fraser has observed: “He’s like so many mentally ill people. It’s just easier to forget about them. It’s just easier to look away” — though perhaps J.J.’s hour is coming round at last as interest in his remarkable achievements seems to be suddenly renewed!


Bowling at de Sales

What are the things that bring parishioners – and Catholics — together? From the 1940s to the 1970s, a big answer was “bowling”!

D005 De Sales Photos Binder 09 012In September 1939, the Catholic Standard and Times announced that “Philadelphia’s Catholic Bowling League, a circuit of parish teams that has been dreamed of for several years, comes into existence Wednesday…Forty parish teams, in five divisions of the city…will compete for the Cardinal Dougherty trophy.”

Our parish Bowling League began in 1941, when the Parish Monthly Bulletin noted that “This sport is being sponsored by the Holy Name Society. For the first time, two teams have been entered in the Philadelphia Catholic Bowling League which is the largest in the country…At the same time a parish bowling league has been formed. It will play every Wednesday evening at nine o’clock at the Centennial Bowling Alleys at Fifty-second Street and Baltimore Avenue. The intramural SFDS league opened with six teams in the men’s division, and six teams in the women’s division. Mixed teams of men and women evolved a few years later during World War II.

The Centennial Bowling Alley was technically at 5210 Broomall. After games, John and Ted Deady recall that their Dad, who didn’t drink, would, nonetheless, join the other members of the league for fellowship at Davis’s, a pub at 52nd and Litchfield, as part of the weekly ritual. Was it hard to schedule bowling? In some years, the League convened at Jimmy Dykes Colonial alley at 51st and Sansom instead of the Centennial (Jimmy Dykes owned several Philadelphia bowling alleys, but was better known for baseball, playing for the Philadelphia Athletics 1918-1932 and the Chicago White Sox 1933-1939. He is buried at our sister parish of St. Denis, Havertown). In later years, the league met at Bowlero and Gehris Lanes in Upper Darby.

Why did bowling end? Professor Robert Putnam at Harvard uses the fall of bowling as a metaphor for a general decline of the social bonds that tie people together. Others observe that those connections have simply changed: modern parents tend to bond while seated on the sidelines of their children’s sporting events and practices. In our parish, there was yet another reason for bowling’s demise, having to do with a changing neighborhood: Paul Harvey notes that “bowling had started out as a group of parishioners; it ended as ex-parishioners coming in from the suburbs.” In 1963, there were 4,233 families in the parish; by 1973, only 1,232 were left – the rest had moved out of the city. That changed everything.

Why was bowling important? The 1955 Parish Monthly Bulletin observed that sharing and working together in parish activities helped “grace to grow.” In 1965, the 25th Anniversary Banquet program noted “a whole generation of friendship has grown up around the de Sales League.” Jerry Mc Hugh, whose Dad was one of the charter members of the de Sales league, offers a bowling romance:

My Dad bowled with one Kitty Duffy.  She and her husband later moved to Medford Lakes.  Sadly, Joe Duffy died young.  Kitty supported her kids as a secretary for the FBI.  When my mom died in 1998, friends urged my Dad to talk With Kitty, who participated in the bereavement ministry in her Jersey parish. He did and found it helpful.  Then they had lunch.  Then they had dinner.  Then ultimately they eloped, my Dad being 80 at the time.  That’s when my dad finally left de Sales to join her in Jersey. And my Dad’s old bowling ball was literally the last thing I took out of the house from the very back of the first floor closet. (The Bostons bought his house.) Dad and Kitty had ten great years together – with the de Sales bowling league bringing them together several decades later.”


1942 centennial bowling
Ad in 1942 de Sales Night Program