ADVERTISEMENT

The remarkable life of a man nicknamed Pi played out in Western New York years before there ever was a movie or book of the same name. He is largely forgotten now, obscured by time and overrun by events, but Pius Louis “Pi” Schwert had a life worth remembering in the widely disparate worlds of sports and politics.

That dichotomy can be summed up in the kind of trivia question beloved by baseball fans:

Who was the only New York Yankee player ever to go on to a career as a U.S. congressman?

The answer is Schwert, an Angola native and backup catcher for the Yankees who debuted at the same time as a young Boston Red Sox pitcher named Babe Ruth. Schwert went on to become a highly popular Erie County clerk and played a prominent role in local amateur athletics for decades, before he was elected as a U.S. representative from Western New York.

He collapsed and died at a wedding dinner near Washington, D.C., on the eve of World War II, at a time when he was considering a run for mayor of Buffalo.

Pi Schwert, despite his organizing and sportsman’s roles in amateur baseball and basketball here, his two seasons with the newly renamed Yankees and his exploits as an early collegiate All-American, isn’t even in the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame or the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame. Neither the Yankees nor the National Baseball Hall of Fame have much more than basic information on him.

There’s probably a good reason why he has been overlooked – he only played in 12 games for the Yankees of 1914 and 1915, had 24 at-bats and logged a respectable but unspectacular batting average of .208. He did play for the Buffalo Bisons from 1920 to 1922, but that was in a sort of emergency role that he had to work in around his new career as a banker.

Still, Schwert had a remarkable life, especially for his times. He was born on Nov. 22, 1892, in Angola, the son of Julius and Louisse Schwert and the grandson of a German immigrant who had been a saloon keeper in Hamburg in the 1870s and a hotelier in Brant in the 1880s. Julius was a banker and businessman who served as the Evans town treasurer and clerk, and as town supervisor for 17 years.

Julius and Louisse sent their son to Angola High School, and later to “post graduate” high school classes at Lafayette High School in Buffalo. All that study was good enough to earn young Pius admission to the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Wharton School of Commerce in Philadelphia, where – unlike the rest of the hard men from the coal fields and farms who made up most of professional baseball at the time – he emerged with a degree in economics in 1914.

An early All-American

At Penn, Pi was an impressive student. He became president of the Wharton Association, and a member of Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, Friars Society, Scalp and Blade Society and the Christian Association.

He also emerged, though, as a baseball player. He was a member of the freshman class baseball team in 1911, then spent the next three years as the starting catcher for the varsity squad. By his senior year he was captain of the team and was picked for the All-American college team.

Julius probably wasn’t all that happy, but his son Pi still had some baseball oats to sow. Instead of using that economics degree in his father’s trade of banking, which was certainly as open to him then as it would be later on, Pi signed on with the New York Yankees – who, until just a year earlier in 1913, had been the New York Highlanders. He was assigned no uniform number; players didn’t wear numbers at the time. One of the few photos from his baseball career shows him lined up with three other Yankees, inexplicably wearing a white home uniform while the rest are in road-game grays.

Another photo shows Schwert catching in practice while American League base-stealing champ Fritz “The Catonsville Flash” Maisel is at the plate. Forget batting helmets – the Yankee third baseman isn’t even wearing a cap, in this shot.

Schwert didn’t have to go far to sign with the Yankees. They were in Philadelphia when he joined the club managed by Hall of Famer Frank Chance. A Pittsburgh Press sportswriter of the time, following the then-common practice of naming teams by the leagues they played in, picked up on the news that July:

“Catcher Pius Schwert, of Buffalo, who captained the University of Pennsylvania baseball team during the spring, has signed with the New York Americans and came here from Philadelphia with the team last night. He has signed a one year contract.

“Schwert and Coach Roy Thomas had a conference with Chance in Philadelphia a few days ago and the New York manager accepted the collegian’s terms. Schwert went to Shibe Park yesterday and was togged out in a New York uniform. He did not get in the practice, as it was late when he reached the grounds.

“Schwert is called one of the best catchers Penn ever had and was regarded as one of the best receivers in college ranks this year. He is a tall lad with a good arm and is a fair hitter. His throwing to bases all season was a feature of every Penn game.

“Scout Billy Murray, of the Pittsburg Nationals, looked Schwert over twice at Franklin Field, but the Pirates picked up catcher Rodgers, of Michigan, instead, when it was understood that Schwert would not play professional ball. But Chance’s offer looked good to him and he accepted. Schwert was graduated from Penn a few weeks ago.”

Not that Pi saw much action that month. The right-hander’s actual debut came in August, because of a union rule, as Yankee historians Ray Istorico and Marty Appel have noted: “It was after 6 o’clock then and, as Walking Delegate Ed Sweeney of the Player’s Fraternity objects to working other than union hours, Chance gave a young catcher named Pius Schwert a chance to catch.”

1914 and 1915

Schwert got into three games with the 1914 Yankees, as a replacement or to work with a specific pitcher. He went 0 for 6, with two walks and three strikeouts. He wasn’t exactly setting the league on fire.

The next year he played in nine games, going 5 for 18 (.278) with six runs, six RBIs, three doubles, one walk and six strikeouts.

Schwert’s major league career stats are a matter of record, but the box scores of his games are not. There are historical gaps in 1914 and 1915, in that department, for all of baseball. Finding those invaluable game summaries, once devoured by baseball fans in the era before radio and TV, requires knowing the dates of the games and poring through old newspapers.

There are, for example, no box scores found to date that would indicate Schwert batted against Red Sox pitcher Babe Ruth; he probably did not. One quaint Philadelphia Record game account does give a glimpse of a typical Schwert outing, against Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics, which included all-time superstar Nap LaJoie:

“Showing signs of despondency, Keating pitched to McInnis. … Barry hurt his hand sliding into second on Saturday, so they loaned his uniform to Conway, the Victrix third baseman who was stationed at the Baker corner. The uniform almost fitted, a couple more inches here and there and it would have been big enough. Kopf was shifted to his natural position, shortstop, and the combination worked very well except that Malone had three errors.”

The starting pitchers were quickly driven from the game, which the Yankees eventually lost 12-7. In the third inning, “Cy Pieh and Pi Schwert, this new battery, met with a warm reception. Conway singled and Malone tripled. Kopf’s out scored Malone. Then Pieh settled down. … Singles by Cree, Bauman, Schwert, High and Peckinpaugh in the fourth netted three runs.”

In one early game, Schwert would recall, he got to play when an irate umpire threw the starting Yankees catcher out of the game. When he got to the plate, the ump recognized him as the collegiate who had gotten into a hot argument with him when he was still with Penn. “You again,” the ump snarled, and then told the batter – LaJoie – not to take the pitch to see if the new kid could throw out a base-stealer trying for second. But LaJoie swung, lofting a pop-up that Schwert easily handled.

In another game, he watched the starting catcher block one of Ty Cobb’s feared spikes-up slides into home plate, and then got an earful of instruction from the other catcher on the bench on just how to do that without getting maimed.

Schwert spent part of the 1915 season in the minors, catching 31 games and hitting .214 with one home run. One of his Skeeters teammates, the legendary Jim Thorpe, would be called up to the New York Giants by the end of that season; Schwert also would catch a game against the Bisons in Jersey City that September. Schwert realized there was too much catching talent on the Yankees to break through there, and his father wanted him to use that degree. He would return to Angola in 1916 and open a general store, but also played for the Newark Indians in 1916 and the Mobile Sea Gulls in 1917.

Next, the Navy

And then life, in the form of World War I, intervened. Schwert joined the Navy as a yeoman at the Bremerton, Wash., naval yard and later was commissioned as an ensign and assigned to the Philadelphia Naval Yard – where, of course, he played on both the Naval Yard and the Fourth Naval District teams.

He returned to his general store after the war, then became a bank clerk and vice president and by 1921, three years before his father’s death, president of the Bank of Angola.

But the lure of baseball still was strong. Toward the end of the 1920 season, three Buffalo Bisons catchers were laid up with injuries and Schwert – then playing for the Semi-Pro League Buffalo Nationals – was called on to catch the last 20 games: “Manager Wiltse, of Buffalo, picked up a semi-pro catcher named Schwert to help out. In the second game of the double-header against Jersey City recently he hit a home run with the bases full,” the Reading (Pa.) Eagle reported.

The 1921 season got even more complex. Schwert stayed with the Bisons part-time, playing only 29 games and hitting .262 with two doubles and a triple. The reason? According to The Buffalo Express, “Pi Schwert, the former Yankee player, who lives in Angola, is unable to go on the road for business reasons, but he sends a letter, stating he will gladly fill in at backstop if we need him when the Bisons are home. He is big league material and will be welcome when needed. Schwert helped us out in a bad pinch last (season), the fans remember.”

The North Tonawanda Evening News noted that Schwert had deserted his business to play the end of the 1920 season with the Bisons.

“Pi, although often describing himself as through with baseball, has a strong liking for the game and now indicates he may at some not far distant date retire from business and devote all his time to the game. However the present arrangement calls for him to play with the Bisons at home only. It is probable that he will be available nearly all the time in the heat of the pennant campaign,” the writer noted.

“Schwert was on his way to a big league career a few years ago when he was taken by the Yankees, only to decide to renounce the game in favor of business. He played phenomenal ball upon returning for his brief stay last season, staging a hitting spree which has seldom been equaled in the league. He socked the ball for an average of .456 and among his sensational feats was a mighty home run over the left field wall with the bases loaded and four runs needed to tie the score. Schwert is a most welcome addition to the club not only for his rare baseball playing ability but also a remarkable personality, which makes for harmony on a ball club.”

Changing direction

Things were not so rosy in 1922, though. Schwert was projected as the team’s starting catcher, but two younger men were impressive in spring training and the strain of juggling business and baseball proved unworkable. He was released.

While working as a bank president from 1921 to 1931, though, Schwert still got in a lot of sports. He headed a strong Angola amateur team that also featured two other former Bisons. Through the years, he would lead the Angola Bear Cats, the Angola All Stars, the Angola Horseshoes and the Evans A.A. team of The Buffalo Evening News Suburban League, and would become president of the newly formed Western New York League in 1929.

The 5-foot-10-inch 160-pounder also captained the Angola Giants team in the American Legion basketball league in the 1920s, and also in 1929 was elected president of the newly organized Southern Basketball League of The Buffalo Evening News division of the New York State Newspapers Athletic Association. He would help Buffalo News sportswriter Bob Stedler organize the Evening News Suburban Softball League and Western New York Basketball Federation, serving on its first board.

And through the years, he would share a dais or two at dinners featuring such storied former ballplayers as Honus Wagner, “Marse Joe” McCarthy and Rabbit Maranville.

By 1931, he was working as manager of the Masonic Service Bureau, a job placement agency during Depression unemployment. Despite working for the Masons and being a Protestant in an era when that mattered to most Catholics (he was baptized in Farnham’s Holy Cross Lutheran Church on Christmas Day in 1892), he also organized annual Shrine-Knights of Columbus baseball games for several years – a job perhaps made easier by the fact that his wife, Hattie, belonged to the Rosary & Altar Society at Most Precious Blood Catholic Church in Angola.

The political years

In 1933, Schwert decided to run for public office. A Democrat, he was elected as Erie County Clerk that year and re-elected in 1936, also serving on the President’s Review Board for veterans’ compensation claims – and, of course, continuing his amateur baseball career.

In 1938, he won an election by 3,000 votes to replace James M. Mead in the House of Representatives (Mead had been elected to the Senate, the last Western New Yorker ever elected to that body). Instead of following the returns on the radio, Schwert had gone to visit former Bisons General Manager John C. Stiglmeier in the hospital. When informed, he said he was surprised because there were three candidates running against him: “They got two strikes on me, but I knocked the next pitch over the fence.”

Schwert was re-elected in 1940, having compiled a strong record on national defense (although he was against sending American troops to any war), for resource conservation and against stream pollution, and opposition to cuts for the poor. He opposed the St. Lawrence Seaway, championed vocational training and welfare programs for youth including physical education in schools (denying that was a “Hitlerizing” plan), and sought boat harbors for the Southtowns. He had a slew of endorsements, from the American Legion to organized labor.

On March 11, 1941, Pi Schwert was asked to make a few remarks at an Annapolis Hotel dinner given by Mr. and Mrs. Frank Bennett of Angola, who had married two weeks earlier. He knew them well, serving on the House Postal Committee while Bennett was head of the Railway Mail Association. Schwert spoke briefly, “in a light vein,” but when he returned to his seat he collapsed into the arms of his friend, Sen. Mead. He was pronounced dead by an ambulance surgeon. He was just 48.

The Meads and the Schwerts had planned a Florida vacation the next day, and when Schwert had been interviewed following the passage of the Lend-Lease Bill a few hours earlier he seemed healthy and in “a happy frame of mind.” Buffalo Mayor Thomas L. Holling was due in Washington soon to see if Schwert would accept his party’s 1941 nomination for mayor, but Mead had been planning to advise him against it because of a heart attack he had suffered a year earlier while they were exercising in the House gym.

Schwert had been a quiet and conscientious congressman, missing only seven roll call votes, including those taken during his hospitalization. Shock at his death was widespread. He was buried in Angola’s Forest Avenue cemetery. Hattie would join him there in 1967, after dying in her Lake Shore Road home.

Schwert had been a volunteer fireman and president of his town department and the Southwestern Volunteer Firemen’s Association, an officer on the American Legion’s county committee for years, a member of the Eagles, Moose, Lions, Odd Fellows, Buffalo Advertising Club, Buffalo Automobile Club, Orpheus, the Cazenovia and Erie Downs Golf Clubs, the Boreal Club, the Blackthorn Club and Big Brothers. Once described as a “champion joiner,” he had been the first vice president of the New York State County Clerks Association in 1938, and an active Mason and Zuleika Grotto monarch in 1939. He was inducted into the Seneca Nation as an honorary member.

Hattie was no slouch herself. A teacher in Eden and Buffalo before her marriage, she was a member of the first graduating class of Mount Mercy Academy in 1907, graduated from Buffalo State Normal School, and was a member of the Board of Visitors and Nurses Advisory Council of Gowanda State Hospital.

A past president of American Legion Auxiliary Newcomb Long Post 928, where her husband had been the first commander, she was active in Girl Scout work in Angola and organized the troop there, and was a Girl Scout district leader for several years. She was a member of the “76” Club of Congressional wives while in Washington, assisted Red Cross fund campaigns in Buffalo in the 1940s – and ran unsuccessfully for Congress after her husband’s death, becoming the first woman in Erie County history to be nominated for Congress by a major party.

The Schwerts had no children, and their legacy has faded. But for a successful businessman and congressman who never lost his love for the sport – and who was manager of one team that included Hall of Famer Jimmy Collins in the 1939 Old Timers Game at Buffalo’s Offermann Stadium – there may be a little tribute lodged somewhere in the job another Democratic mayor did to deliver a fine new baseball stadium to Buffalo.

The statue outside that stadium may feature Jimmy Griffin rearing back to throw the first pitch – but somewhere there may well be an old Yankees catcher with a big smile. At least, one can hope.

Mike Vogel at Bufkeeper@gmail.com