Garth Brooks’ first album included a kind of overlooked song called “Cowboy Bill.”
It is easy to forget the song that was part of an amazing debut album that included hits like “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old),” and “The Dance.”
“Cowboy Bill,” though, was always one of my favorites.
It told of an old cowboy who liked telling stories of his heroic days riding for the Texas Rangers. Cowboy Bill was a hero to the young kids who hung on his every word, but the grownups said the old man was just telling lies.
Of course, it turns out that Cowboy Bill really was a hero, and all of his stories were right on the money. They were, as Garth sang, “just as true as the blue Texas sky.”
One thing I like about that song is that it kind of reminds me of Butte legend Tom Mulcahy, even though it is the old guys who always knew the truth of his amazing life.
Many a man pulled up a barstool next to Tom, and many a man had to have thought Tom was full of it as he told stories about pitching batting practice to Tommy Lasorda. They probably never believed that he played basketball against the Minneapolis Lakers.
Some probably shook their heads at the news that Tom was part of a baseball organization that won the National League pennant.
Tom, or “Father Tom” as Lasorda, the late Dodgers legend, calls him, was the real deal. Those stories he shared were 100 percent authentic, and they were all fantastic.
Mulcahy, who passed away at the much-to-young age of 88 last week, was the real deal.
In an era when brushes with greatness can often be confused with the real thing, Tom Mulcahy was almost too good to be true.
While most of Tom’s stories were about the people he knew from his days in baseball, working 20 years in the San Diego Padres organization, Tom was an amazingly accomplished athlete.
In 1950, Mulcahy earned first-team All-State honors as he helped Butte Central win its first state basketball championship.
When the Minneapolis Lakers came to Butte shortly after winning the 1952 NBA crown, Tom was part of the college all-star team to take them on. In front of a packed house at the brand-new Butte Civic Center, Mulcahy scored six points against the great George Mikan and the Lakers.
Sure, Mikan probably was not guarding Mulcahy, but six points against the NBA champion Lakers is a pretty big deal.
Former Maroon “Jumpin’” Joe Kelly also played and also scored six points.
After playing at Montana State University, Tom went to Gonzaga University, where he was a three-year starter and captain on the basketball team. And basketball was not even his best sport.
No, Tom was a baseball man.
In 1949, Mulcahy was a captain on Butte’s state championship American Legion team. He was a legend with on the mound and with his bat in the Copper League, which was Butte’s version of Major League Baseball.
Tom went 9-1 on the mound for Gonzaga in 1954. He struck out 97 batters and registered a one-hitter as well as a multiple two-hitters.
He played in every game over a three varsity seasons at Gonzaga. He once pitched 15 consecutive complete-game victories over a two-year stretch.
When he was not pitching, he played first base. He hit .433 in that great 1954 season.
In 1956 and 1957, Mulcahy, who was inducted into the Gonzaga University Hall of Fame in 1991, played for four minor league baseball teams, including one in Spokane. He was originally signed into professional baseball by fellow Gonzagan Bing Crosby.
Tom never made it to the big leagues, at least not in baseball. But he was ordained into the Jesuit Order. He also stayed in baseball after his playing days, eventually serving 20 years in the front office of the San Diego Padres.
In Spokane, Mulcahy served as batting practice pitcher for the Spokane Indians under Lasorda, who was one of the all-time great baseball characters. Lasorda, of course, passed away at the age of 93 on Jan. 7, just a few months after he saw his beloved Dodgers win the World Series.
In September of 1984, Los Angeles Times writer Dave Distel wrote a feature story on Lasorda as the Padres were running away with the National League West, and Mulcahy accidently made the paper.
Here is a passage from that story:
Many an “old friend” interrupted the conversation as Lasorda strolled on the grass in front of the visiting dugout. He waved at retired major-leaguer Ray Boone and asked him if he was available to play third base and he joked with Tom Mulcahy, the Padres’ director of group sales.
“You knew Tom used to be a priest, didn’t you?” Lasorda asked. “Father Tom was pitching batting practice for me one day a few years ago and one of the guys on the other team wanted him to hear confession. So he takes the guy down the first-base line and hears his confession. What’s the guy do in the game? Bang. One home run. Bang. Two home runs. Bang. Three home runs. I told Father Tom no more confessions before games.”
Mulcahy’s Padres went on to represent the National League in the World Series that year. They fell to the Detroit Tigers 4 games to 1.
While in San Diego, Mulcahy was known for taking care of his Butte friends — even the friends he did not previously know — always setting them up with tickets or anything else they needed.
He was also known to send boxes of baseballs and used wooden bats to the Butte American Legion teams, a much-appreciated gesture from one of the program’s all-time greats.
After retiring, Tom moved back to his old stomping grounds, and he talked baseball to anyone who would listen. He talked about his days playing and working in the game, and the men he got to know along the way.
He loved to talk about his collection of baseball memorabilia, which was better than the one owned by James Earl Jones on the movie “The Sandlot.”
In August of 2010, Tom and Bob Pavlovich hosted a reunion of Copper League players at the McQueen Club. About 50 former players attended, including 18 men over the age of 80.
The reunion included guys like Joe Rosetti, Dan Sullivan, Bob “Ace” Kovacich, John Little, Jim Hanley, “Sly” Jim Sullivan, Don Hanley, John Orizotti and Fresno State football legend Jim Sweeney together to talk about playing in Butte’s Clark Park.
If there is a heaven, that right there is it. At least it is for guys like me and Tom Mulcahy.
In 1993, Tom took his rightful place as a Mining City sports immortal when he was inducted into the Butte Sports Hall of Fame. The Knights of Columbus Hall, which features the best unofficial sports museum in the state, has a special section of photos that summarize Mulcahy’s many accomplishments.
That KC shrine and his Hall of Fame plaque tell the story of one of the greatest sports characters in the history of a town that is full of them.
They show that those terrific stories Tom loved to tell were just as true as the blue Texas sky.