Sunday, March 9


Who hires nuns? The Pope, of course. And Bishops. And me.

I hired a nun back in 1995 to serve as a reporter for WEWS-TV in Cleveland. What was I thinking? I was looking for a way to “own” coverage of the Cleveland Indians’ playoff run to the World Series. I knew our sports department could handle the runs, hits and errors—the sports coverage. I knew the news staff could come up with compelling sidebar stories. What I was looking for was something unique—something one-of-a-kind—something you’d get from Newschannel 5 that you couldn’t get anywhere else, that would make you sit up and take notice. In those days I don't think we were yet using the term "water cooler talk" to describe must-see features (come to think of it, I'm not sure the term "must-see TV" was in use, either): but I wanted something that would get both die-hard baseball fans and casual viewers talking. I wanted a reporter they could identify with.

So we had a brainstorming session with the staff. I said, “I want a super-fan. Get me the guy who beats the drum out in center field.” I didn’t know his name, but I knew that stretching back to the old days in mammoth Municipal Stadium a guy out in the cheap seats beat a huge drum in tom-tom rhythms at every home game to cheer “the Tribe” on.

“Let’s hire him and send him to every game, home and away, to file reports froim a super-fan's perspective. I’ll even buy a first-class plane ticket for his drum so he can take it on on the plane.”

“Oh, you mean John Adams,” someone said. “You don’t want him. He’s not very cooperative.”

“OK,” I said, “Get me the nun.”

I didn’t know her name, either—but everyone knew who I was talking about: The Indians’ #1 fan. She was allowed more-or-less free access to the team clubhouse—and she baked the players and coaches cookies! The staff told me I was talking about Sister Mary Assumpta of the “Sisters of the Holy Spirit.”

You might recognize her, too. She had a bit part in Major League, the Charlie Sheen/Tom Berenger flick about the hapless Indians trying to get back to the World Series for the first time since 1954.

The on-the-field baseball scenes were staged (for some reason) in Milwaukee, in the Brewers old ballpark: but the city scenes were shot, of course, in Cleveland—and the cast and crew took a liking to Sister Assumpta, just as the real-life Indians had.

I met with her and found her to be bright, articulate, funny and out-going—with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Cleveland Indians. So I made her an offer she couldn’t refuse. If she could get time off from her job as an administrator at Jennings Hall, one of the finest elderly-care facilities in the area, I’d send her to all the Indians playoff and series games—and pay her, to boot. She could do what she wanted with the money (which, admittedly, wasn’t much).

And that’s how Sister Mary Assumpta became a big-time TV reporter, even featured on the CBS Morning Show and in People magazine.

I was right. Her coverage was unique. No one--not even surly superstar Albert Belle--had the heart to turn down an interview request from Sister Mary Assumpta. And she was so sweet and so unassuming that the players really opened up to her. Journalists and broadcasters get quotes and sound bites. She had conversations and got information and emotion. And she was nominated for a local Emmy.
And now an explanation. I’ve just told you almost everything I know. But in doing my due diligence I came across a wonderful article on Sister Mary Assumpta written by Debbie Hansen for Wonderful!

I guess I could just publish a link to the article (it’s at and be done. But it’s long and involved. I’m sure Ms. Hansen won’t consider it plagiarism if I borrow some of her research and copy some of her pictures and try to condense the highlights, still giving her credit for a job well done.

The work is hers. The conclusions: that the Sister brings light and joy to all around her—are Ms. Hansen’s as well as mine.

Remember, I grew up in Cleveland. My first knowledge of the Indians came just after my 7th birthday—when they played the New York Giants in the 1954 World Series. I remember my Grandpa took the train from Racine, Wisconsin, and my Dad took him to one of the games. It might have been the first game: the one in which Willie Mays made what some call the greatest play of all time, his over-the-shoulder catch of a Vic Wertz smash to deep center.

In the end, the Giants won it all in four straight. For the next forty years every year was “next year” in Cleveland.

Little Helen Rachel Zabaskiewicz was a fan by then, too.

Later, as Sister Assumpta, she taught in Catholic schools from 1968 until 1992, when she got her license in Nursing Home Administration. In 1986 she became the Mother Superior, an elected position, of the Sisters of the Holy Spirit at Jennings Hall.

To quote the Hansen article:

“While she was teaching, Sr. Assumpta helped out at Jennings. One of the resident's daughters was the manager of Service America, the company who serviced the stadium. The company often gave their tickets to ‘the good sister taking care of her mother.’That is how Sr. Assumpta so often sat behind home plate, along with the player's wives.

“She started a fan club of sorts at Jennings, called ‘Adopt A Player.’ The residents adopted the player of their choice and then sent them a certificate letting them know. They then followed up with cards and letters, special notes after games, for birthdays, etc.

“Sister took approximately 50 of the residents, all in wheelchairs, to an Indians game. The tribe was still playing at Municipal Stadium at the time, which was not handicapped accessible. Benedictine High School loaned them 2 busses and they went to the "behind the fence" picnic area where the wheelchairs could get in. In order to convince one resident who was bordering on depression that she should come along, Sister promised her that she could meet Mel Harder.

“Not knowing how she was going to keep this promise, but determined to do so, she knocked on a door marked "Authorized Personnel Only" thinking it may be the clubhouse. It was. Mel Harder came out and talked to them and then made arrangements for meetings with Joe Carter, Brook Jacoby, Andre Thornton and others.

"To thank the players for being so considerate, the sisters made them chocolate baseball players and put their individual numbers on the caps. The start of the next season they made them chocolate chip cookies to welcome them back, and the cookies became a trademark.

“Sister Assumpta even arranged to have the residents sing the national anthem before the game in the 87-88 season. 1988 was Sr. Assumpta's 25th Anniversary in the community. Her friends from Pennsylvania [where she was born] sent the sisters money to buy her something really special that she wanted badly but would never buy for herself.

“Her choice? An Indians starter jacket. She has been seen nationwide in that jacket, which along with the cookies became a trademark.”

Debbie Hansen’s article told me something else I didn’t know: that the folks at Upper Deck Trading Cards made a card of her—apparently she’s the only non-sports figure on an Upper Deck Trading Card.

Now the bad news: despite “our” best efforts and prayers (so much for my claims of objectivity), the Indians lost the 1995 World Series to the Atlanta Braves in six games. But Sister Assumpta got to see all six—as my employee.

My Dad saw one game, too—with me. Sort of our family story turning full circle. We sat with my friend, Sister Mary Assumpta.

I’m glad I was her boss. Not her “Big boss,” mind you: we know who that is. He’s lucky to have such a faithful servant. Her talent isn't "on loan from God"--it's a gift she shares with us all!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I met Sister Mary Assumpta at Jennings Center in May 2007 when performing on the piano for the senior residents. She came over to the grand piano and sang/danced a variety of Gershwin songs, among others. I was floored; she was infectiously endearing and entertaining...and good! It was a very memorable experience, and I look forward to performing at Jennings Center in April 2008 (by her request) for a celebration of the Sisters' 75 Years of Caring! -Guytano Parks, pianist.