The story of “Baseball Santa”

As a little boy, I dreamed of being a ballplayer. Nobody dreams about becoming Santa Claus. This is the story about a skinny, redheaded kid who unexpectedly became robust, beer-bellied “Baseball Santa.” Life throws us a lot of curve balls. Charlie is hard to hit, but sometimes we connect… and sometimes dreams (and even non-dreams) do come true.

The following item is from a continuing series of photos that appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune as part of “Faces of San Diego 2000.”

In 1949, our family moved to Columbia City, Indiana where my father became the Cub Scout Pack Master and Superintendent of the Presbyterian Church Sunday School. He was even Santa Claus for one year and a constant source of embarrassment to his family.

Santa and his Sons (Indiana - 1950)

Santa and his Sons (Indiana – 1950)


This is a photo of the skinny, redheaded kid…

Farmington High School (1955)

Farmington High School (1955)

After I turned 60, strangers approached me to offer jobs as a professional Santa Claus. I didn’t want to be Santa Claus. Then something happened to change my mind. My wife and I were having dinner at HomeTown Buffet. While loading my plate, I felt something on my leg and looked down. A little Mexican girl had both arms wrapped around my knee. She looked up and said, “I love you, Santa Claus.” A woman standing beside me asked if this happened often. I told her that the older I get, the more it happens. The look on that little girl’s face melted my heart.

"Will you be our Santa Claus?" (2002)

Shortly after that encounter, my wife and I attended a neighbor’s party. These two charming ladies (above) convinced me to be the replacement for their aging Santa Claus who was retiring following controversy between the Community Christmas Center and local atheists. I remembered their life-sized Nativity dioramas from when I first moved to San Diego. I took my kids to see the Christmas Story at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion when they were little. I gladly volunteered to be their Santa Claus, because the spirit of the CCC is low-key and non-commercial. Christmas has become too commercial. Santa should be about giving and not about making extra income during the Holiday Season. I was honored to become part of a great San Diego tradition in Balboa Park.

Baseball Santa (2002)

Baseball Santa (2002)

This little boy was afraid of Santa and wouldn’t talk. I asked if he liked baseball. He nodded, so I handed him my bat. I asked if he’d like to wear my baseball cap. Again he nodded, so I put it on his head. Next, I asked if he would do me a favor. Would sit on my lap so I could have a picture of him with my bat and cap? To my surprise, he agreed. I didn’t know it then, but I had become “Baseball Santa.”

My best friend and former basketball teammate, Rich Nelson, is an American Legion baseball commissioner in Illinois. In 2003, he invited the original House of David base ball team to play an exhibition game at Elfstrom Stadium, home of the Class A Kane County Cougars of the Midwest League. Secretary of Trustees and team captain Ron Taylor agreed to allow Santa Claus to play for the bearded religious colony. From the 1920s through the 1940s, House of David was a famous barnstorming team that played all challengers including the great Negro League teams of the era.

Chicago Tribune (July 27, 2003)

Chicago Tribune (July 27, 2003)

By the way, the hidden baseball mentioned in the Chicago Tribune article was not a fake ball. It was the actual game ball. Former 98-year-old HOD catcher Eddie Deal taught me the trick. It was part of their entertainment which included the renown House of David “pepper game” routine.

Captain Ron and Santa (2003)

Captain Ron and Santa (2003)

Ron Taylor and Baseball Santa are shown relaxing after the House of David game. Santa is drinking a nutritional supplement designed to maintain his santaesque waistline. Ron sent the following letter:

House of David (August 25, 2003)

House of David (August 25, 2003)

My wife, Jeri, saw an advertisement in the newspaper about a group of prominent Santa Claus artists who would be appearing at City Lights Christmas store. She thought the figures created by an artist named Peter Nourjian looked like me. While at the store, a pleasant woman approached and announced her intention to make a Santa replica of me. How did she know I was Santa Claus? She turned out to be Pipka, the 2003 “Santa Artist of the Year.

Baseball Santa and Pipka (October 2003)

During the 2003 Christmas Season, Santa stopped to visit his friends at the San Diego Hall of Champions. Founder Bob Breitbard wanted his picture taken on Santa’s lap as shown below in the 2004 Hall of Champions Journal.

San Diego Hall of Champions Journal (2004)

San Diego Hall of Champions Journal (2004)

In 2004, Leslie Macher, a television producer for Major League Baseball, wanted me to talk about San Diego’s early ballparks for their new HDTV series, “Cathedrals of the Game.” Halfway through taping, the host, Michelle Beadle, confided that when the crew pulled into the Hall of Champions parking lot that morning, she joked, “Hey look, Santa Claus is on vacation in San Diego.” They was surprised to learn that Santa was their baseball historian. Michelle referred to me as “Santa” during the interview, but the reference was cut when the program aired.

Cathedrals of the Game (2004)

Cathedrals of the Game (2004)

On December 11, 2004, Barnes & Noble and The Old Globe Theater sponsored an event known as “Million Books for a Million Children. Santa was invited to read “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and the Old Globe’s Grinch acted out the story. Afterwards, the Grinch himself autographed a copy of Dr. Suess’s Christmas classic for Santa. Then the Grinch asked for an autographed copy of Santa’s Baseball in San Diego: From the Padres to Petco. Santa laughed, “I didn’t know you were a baseball fan.” Without cracking a smile, the Grinch deadpanned, “I am.”

The Grinch and Santa Claus (2004)

The Grinch and Santa Claus (2004)

In 2005, the Surf Dawgs became San Diego’s entry in the newly formed independent Golden Baseball League. As a publicity stunt, the team held tryouts for the local media and Baseball Santa was invited to showcase his skills. Although not tendered a coveted professional contract, Santa did make the Channel 10 highlights when he backhanded a deep shot in the hole at short and fired a two-bouncer to first base.

East County Gazette (April 6, 2005)

East County Gazette (April 6, 2005)

Baseball Santa is shown below taking his swings during the Surf Dawgs tryout at Tony Gwynn Stadium.

Sc00988701

Sc0098870101

In 2006, Baseball Santa again played for House of David in a doubleheader at Legion Park in Wheaton, Illinois. He is shown below watching a ball hit with his candy cane willow ricochet off the left field fence. With blinding speed, Santa was able to stretch a certain double into a single.

Santa connects (Wheaton, Illinois - 2006)

Santa connects (Wheaton, Illinois – 2006)

After the game, Rich Nelson and Santa went on the road to Sister Bay, Wisconsin to visit Pipka at her studio. It didn’t take long for her to decide to make a figurine with a baseball theme.

Baseball Santa and Pipka (Sister Bay, Wisconsin - 2006)

Baseball Santa and Pipka (Sister Bay, Wisconsin – 2006)

Later on the same road trip, Santa rejoined the House of David team at beautiful Eastman Field in Benton Harbor, Michigan. The Davids were scheduled to face the mighty Bonneyville Millers from Indiana. Santa is shown below with ballists from the Millers club.

Santa and the Bonneyville Millers (Benton Harbor, Michigan - 2006)

Santa and the Bonneyville Millers (Benton Harbor, Michigan – 2006)

A close play at second base (Benton Harbor, Michigan - 2006)

A close play at second base (Benton Harbor, Michigan – 2006)

Below is a rare copy of Baseball Santa’s Upper Deck baseball card.

Baseball Santa Swank (Upper Deck - 2006)

Baseball Santa Swank (Upper Deck – 2006)

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The card appeared on the New York Post website.

New York Post (December 24, 2006)

New York Post (December 24, 2006)

Bill Swank Upper Deck baseball card

Bill Swank (Upper Deck - 1955)

Bill Swank (Upper Deck – 1955)

Upper Deck catalog

Upper Deck catalog

Upper Deck liked the “antique look” of the Farmington card so much that it was featured in their catalog. Antique look? 1955 isn’t antique!

Former Negro Leaguer Neale “Bobo” Henderson and Baseball Santa were invited to be Opening Day speakers for the Southeast San Diego Little League.

Baseball Santa, Neale "Bobo" Henderson, Alicia Gwynn, Joe Brown, Jr. (2008)

As a tribute to Buck O’Neil, Dave Winfield arranged for every Major League Baseball team to symbolically draft a former Negro League player during the annual amateur draft in June 2008. It was my privilege to travel to Orlando, Florida as a guest of MLB for this historic event.

Walter McCoy, Baseball Santa, John "Mule" Miles (June 5, 2008)

Walter McCoy, Baseball Santa, John “Mule” Miles (June 5, 2008)

Santa with 102 year old Emilio Navarro (June 5, 2008)

Santa with 102 year old Emilio Navarro (June 5, 2008)


When I gave my baseball card to the former Negro League players, rather than commenting about Santa Claus, they were impressed that I played for House of David. Several stated that when they first saw me, they immediately thought of the House of David. All appreciated the fact that House of David played against the Negro League teams.

In 1954, San Diego Post 492 won the American Legion National Championship. My good friend, Billy Capps, was the Legion Player of the Year in ’54. Billy invited Rich Nelson and me to join him and his wife, Sue, at the 2008 American Legion World Series in Shelby, North Carolina. I wanted to visit Shelby because its town leaders had allowed black ballplayers from San Diego Post 6 to play in the 1940 American Legion semi-finals.

Former American Legion Baseball Commissioner Lou Brissie, Billy Capps, Rich Nelson (2008)

Former American Legion Baseball Commissioner Lou Brissie, Billy Capps, Rich Nelson (2008)

Reverend Eddie, Zaiden, Baseball Santa (Shelby, North Carolina - 2008)

Reverend Eddie, Zaiden, Baseball Santa (Shelby, North Carolina – 2008)

While at the Legion World Series, a little boy named Zaiden asked if I was Santa Claus. He became very excited when I handed him my card. A short time later, Zaiden wanted to give me a dollar bill that his mother had given to him to spend on a snack. I thanked the boy, but explained that Santa doesn’t accept money. Then I thought about a Baptist minister I’d met earlier in the stands named Reverend Eddie. He had told me about his out-reach program for the poor.

I asked Zaiden if he would be willing to give his dollar to help poor people. He said, “If that’s what you want me to do, Santa, then I’ll do it.” I introduced the youngster to Rev Eddie, but wanted to make sure the kid understood what poor meant. Immediately he replied, “Yeah, them’s broken people. They ain’t got no money.” Yes, he wanted to give his dollar to help poor people. The preacher and the boy’s mother both started to cry. Zaiden, you’re a great little kid! Shelby is a great town!

The Shelby Star (August 25, 2008)

The Shelby Star (August 25, 2008)

As a goodwill ambassador at the Legion World Series, Capps usually makes the front page of the local newspaper, but I knocked him off the cover this time…

Alan Ford article about John Ritchey (Shelby Star, August 25, 2008)

Alan Ford article about John Ritchey (Shelby Star, August 25, 2008)

In September 2008, Rich Nelson was invited to play in the final doubleheader of the season for House of David. I gave him an old Santa Claus beard and wig, but Rich didn’t want to be another “Baseball Santa.” I was finally able to convince him to play as himself: 112 year old Richard E. Nelson.

Terry Bertolino wheels 112 year old Richard E. Nelson to the mound (2008)

Terry Bertolino wheels 112 year old Richard E. Nelson to the mound (2008)

As a tribute to the House of David’s relationship with the Negro Leagues, Rich would pitch the first game of the twin bill and, as the legendary Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe used to do with the Kansas City Monarchs, catch the second game

Richard E. Nelson pitched in the first game (Benton Harbor, Michigan - 2008)

Richard E. Nelson pitched in the first game (Benton Harbor, Michigan – 2008)

.

...and caught in the second game (Benton Harbor, Michigan - 2008)

…and caught in the second game (Benton Harbor, Michigan – 2008)

Note that Richard E. Nelson is playing catcher in a rocking chair to honor Negro League catcher Lloyd “Pepper” Bassett. Several “cranks” (fans) actually believed that Rich was 112 years old. HOD captain Ron Taylor told them (with a sly grin), “We just dug him up.”

Baseball Santa with Impostor (Benton Harbor, Michigan - 2008)

Baseball Santa with Impostor (Benton Harbor, Michigan – 2008)

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The Hobart (Indiana) Deep River Grinders brought their own Santa.

Richard E. Nelson (112), senior Grinder ballist (70s), Baseball Santa (68) at Eastman Field (2008)

Richard E. Nelson (112), senior Grinder ballist (70s), Baseball Santa (68) at Eastman Field (2008)

House of David (2008)

House of David (2008)

2008 House of David team photograph (above) and, after all that, Rich needed his own baseball card (below):

Below is the cover of the 2008 House of David program. I was surprised to be included in the lower right corner.

As a favor to a friend who needed a Santa Claus, I agreed to take a “Santa job” during the 2008 season. I decided Baseball Santa would use the money to purchase baseball equipment for kids in Mexico. I learned about “The Christmas Train” which annually delivers 5,000 gifts packages to needy kids in Tecate, Mexico on El Dia del Los Tres Reyes . The train travels from Campo to Tecate. Because of bureaucratic problems with Mexican Customs, I could only smuggle a few jerseys and caps across the line at this time.

I met Tecate Mayor Donaldo Penalosa who is a big baseball fan. Arrangements were made to meet him in Jamul where we loaded his RV with gear for the Tecate Little League. Later, after learning the South Bay Little League in Chula Vista, California was experiencing problems, Baseball Santa took a carload of equipment to league president Art Diaz.

In 1972, the Madres were formed by San Diego Padres wives to support youth baseball. The theme of the 2009 Madres mid-summer meeting was “Christmas in July.” Almost $100 was raised for youth baseball by ladies posing for pictures on Baseball Santa’s lap.

Baseball Santa was interviewed by Randy Dotinga with Voice of San Diego in August 2009:

Pipka’s “Play Ball” figurine was introduced for the 2009 Christmas Season.

The following story is from the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau website:

On May 2, 2010, Baseball Santa gave equipment to the Rosarito Little League as part of their Dia de los Ninos celebration.


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