Batter up

Baseball bat and gloveIn a former life, a singular delight of parish work in one of the province’s larger rural areas was the local ministerial association. Clergy of several denominations shared great camaraderie and regularly came together for both spiritual and social events. It was refreshing to me personally to see the ecumenical spirit at work in a local setting, having grown up in a Protestant denomination that frowned on inter-church relations.

One weekend event will live in infamy, at least in my memory. We men and women of the cloth decided to go away as a group on Saturday.

At a retreat centre, we did what ministers do when they get together: we prayed, listened to a devotional or two, played games, perhaps gossiped a little and, of course, ate. As one wag put it, “The three f’s of the gospel…fun, food and fellowship!”

In the afternoon, we decided to play a game of baseball. Growing up, I didn’t play much baseball. On this day, though, I put myself wholeheartedly into the game, determined to show I could play as well as the next clergy. It was my moment to shine on the field.

The time came for me to be batter up. I didn’t know all the rules of the game, but I knew that a home-run was something to be greatly desired. I would be the darling of my team if I could dispatch the ball to kingdom come.

To be perfectly honest, my first swing was less than perfect. Indeed, it was downright embarrassing. All I did was “nick” the ball.

“Foul!” the umpire shouted.

Uhm, I thought to myself. Gotta do better than that next time round.

My second swing was made in heaven…or not. The ball could not have connected better with the bat. With a resounding crack, it flew directly down the field. I was in my glee. This one was bound for the record books.

I was about to make my dash to first base, when I heard a muffled groan.

I looked around. The ball was not about to provide me with a coveted home-run after all, for it had come to rest on the ground at the foot of the pitcher…one of the two Roman Catholic Sisters who had joined us for the day’s activities.

As I watched in horror, she crumpled to the ground and lay rigid and motionless. It was obvious the ball had already made its mark…on her head. I didn’t need a Ph.D. in Sports to realize that the baseball, on which I had pinned my hopes of a home-run, was going nowhere fast.

All the clergy ran to the prostrate Sister, to offer their help. When I reached her, I muttered to my wife, “Oh my God, I killed a nun!”

“Sister! Sister,” I heard people shouting. “Are you alright?”


“Slap her,” the United Church minister suggested helpfully.

No response.

“Pray for her,” said the Salvation Arm officer.

Deathly silence.

“Get some water and throw it in her face,” said the Anglican priest.

A pall of doom pervaded the field.

A few minutes later, the inert Sister barely opened her eyes and looked up groggily. She unsteadily got to her feet, with the assistance of the other ballplayers.

“What happened?” she asked with a dazed look in her eyes.

The Roman Catholic priest said, “You were hit in the head by a baseball.” To his credit and to my relief, he didn’t identify who was batter up when the accident occurred.

At the same time, I could only imagine the newspaper headline the following week had the victim failed to get up off the ground, “Pentecostal pastor kills Roman Catholic Sister with baseball.”

I was later told by one of the clergy present that there are other, less dangerous ways, to show any animosity I may have had toward Roman Catholics. I’m sure he was joking.

The Harbour Gracian who repaired Gandhi’s dentures

Dr. Butt - India 1943By 1931, Herbert Mercer Butt (1907-2005) of Harbour Grace was a dentist in Poona (an anglicized form of Pune), India. The road he had traveled to get there was no less interesting than the variety of clients in his dental practice in the country.

Receiving his early education at Coughlan Hall, as a young man, he entered Montreal’s McGill University.

He originally planned to make a career as an electrical engineer. Detecting some degree of dexterity with his hands, he determined instead to become a surgeon or a general practitioner. He changed his mind again when he thought back on Dr. Charles Cron (1886-1962) of Harbour Grace, who rarely had time off. A career in dentistry, though, would provide Herbert with both regular working hours and leisure time.

Between academic years, he worked summer jobs, including on a paddlewheel ferry between New York and Albany, as a truck driver in Boston, and as a door-to-door salesman.

On Christmas Day 1931, he arrived in Bombay (now Mumbai), later assuming the duties of dentist in Poona. (His mentor, the Oregonian, Dr. Dexter Davidson, had established a dentistry practice in the city.)

In 1937, Herbert, now popularly known as “Robin,” because of his red McGill sweater, returned to Harbour Grace, in search of a marriage partner. However, he returned to Poona, still single, but with pleasant memories of time with family and friends.

One morning, two months after arriving back in Poona, Robin was pleasantly surprised to receive in his office an attractive young missionary, assistant principal of a girls’ school. Lois Jean Denniston (1910-2005), daughter of an Australian merchant, had a toothache. He treated her, then married her in 1938.

Dr. Butt Sahib (“owner” or “proprietor”), as he was known to his Indian clients, tended a wide variety of patients. For example, he worked on the teeth of “Tommies,” common soldiers in the British Army, and full Generals. There were ladies, rajahs, maharajahs and celebrities. There was the Aga Khan, the millionaire leader of a small Indian Mohammedan cult. There was the Nizam of Hyderabad, then the world’s richest man. There was Prince Peter of Greece and Denmark (1908-80). There was the Viceroy of India, who has been described as having “the power of an absolute monarch, with no responsibility at all to the Indian people and subject only to the British government in London.”

GandhiPerhaps best known among Dr. Butt Sahib’s clients was one Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948), the pre-eminent political and spiritual leader of India during the Indian independence movement. Ron Pumphrey refers to Gandhi as “the then upstart and now Indian hero.”

The Butts’ son, Trevor, tells me in an email: “While Dad was doing dental work in Pune (Poona), Mahatma Gandhi was incarcerated there.”

Actually, Gandhi had been held in prison on several occasions, his first imprisonment in India being in 1922. Ten years later, his prison cell was in Poona. On May 6, 1944, he left a British prison for the final time. He had spent an almost unbelievable six-and-a-half years in them–2,089 days in India, 249 days in South Africa.

Gandhi’s upper dentures were sent for repair to Dr. Butt Sahib’s office in Poona.

Interestingly, William L. Shirer (1904-93), the well-known American journalist, war correspondent, historian and author of Gandhi: A Memoir, chatted with Gandhi many times. Their first meeting was on February 22, 1931.

“As our talk began,” Shirer wrote, “I tried to take in not only what Gandhi was saying but how he looked…. His actual appearance…was not one you would have especially noticed in a crowd.” At 61 years of age, Gandhi was showing wear and tear on his face. Shirer remarked on his turned-down nose, widened at the nostrils. Another impression stayed with Shirer. Age, fasting, the Indian sun, the years in prison, and the “long, hard, nervous work, had…sunk in his mouth just a little so that the lower lip protruded, and teeth were missing–I could see only two.”

Admittedly, Dr. Butt Sahib did not actually meet Gandhi face to face. However, the Harbour Gracian did hold in his hands and repair the Indian leader’s upper dentures!

The Butts returned to Newfoundland in the late 1940s when, in the words of Jack Fitzgerald, “British troops were being withdrawn from India and an Indian civil war was anticipated.”