SABR

Paul Castner

This article was written by Bill Lamb.

When he made his debut in a mid-August 1923 game against the Philadelphia Athletics, Chicago left-hander Paul Castner secured a line for himself in the record book of the national pastime. That entry, however, would be a slender one, as Castner made only five more big-league appearances before abandoning the game at the close of the season. Notwithstanding the brevity of his tenure with the White Sox, the mere fact that Castner played in the major leagues at all is noteworthy – given that baseball was only his third best sport. A recent graduate of the University of Notre Dame, he had been an athletic standout in South Bend: captain of both the football and baseball teams, as well as star player-coach of the ice hockey club. Although others may contend for the laurel, Paul Castner may well have been the finest all-around athlete ever to wear the Fighting Irish uniform. But sadly for him, Castner was born too soon to earn a big professional payday in the sports – football and hockey – that most suited his abilities. So rather than in sports, the ensuing decades of his life were spent working as a midlevel corporate executive and an insurance agent.

Paul Henry Castner was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, on February 16, 1897, one of five children raised by traveling salesman Martin Castner (1864-1947) and his wife, the former Louise Moes (1868-1964).1 Paul’s parents were Minnesota natives of mostly German descent and devoutly Roman Catholic; a maternal relative had established an order of Franciscan nuns in Luxembourg.2 By 1905 the family had moved to the town of White Bear Lake, about 25 miles northeast of Minneapolis, where Paul went to elementary school.3 As a teenager he attended nearby St. Thomas Military Academy, where emphasis was placed on discipline, religious devotion, and athletics, an atmosphere that Paul thrived in. Rare for the times, all the Castner children continued their education past high school. But in Paul’s case, further schooling had to await the fulfillment of a military commitment with the US Army’s 36th Engineering Battalion in World War I.

Mustered out in 1919, Castner received a scholarship offer from Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne. On its face, the offer was a curious one. Paul had not played football at St. Thomas; he had been an ice hockey and baseball star. And Rockne had never laid eyes on him. The coach was acting solely on the recommendation of a friend who had told Rockne that Castner was a great natural athlete.4 Arriving on campus in September 1919, Castner was not the typical callow freshman. He was a physically mature (5-feet-11½, 187 pounds) 22-year-old military veteran. But like all first-year students at Notre Dame, Castner would be ineligible to play varsity sports like football and baseball. He would be obliged to content himself with intrasquad scrimmages and the limited playing schedule of the freshman teams. Ice hockey, however, was another matter. At the time, hockey was no longer played at Notre Dame, the school’s club team having disbanded after its lone season in 1913. Assisted by a fellow student from Canada named Anthony “Kitty” Gorman, and with Father William Cunningham serving as faculty overseer, Castner revived the hockey club, recruiting players from around campus, securing equipment and skating venues, and scheduling a handful of games. Uncooperative weather – practice and games were played outdoors – disrupted the club operation, but the Notre Dame six still managed to post a 2-0 record against outside competition, with captain Castner the clear star of the team.5

Castner got his first taste of big-time college athletics on October 2, 1920, when Coach Knute Rockne placed him in the starting lineup for the Notre Dame football opener against Kalamazoo. Playing fullback, he spent most of the afternoon blocking for the legendary George Gipp, on his way to 183 yards rushing. The outcome was never in doubt, with Notre Dame, the unofficial defending national champions, cruising to a 39-0 victory. Thereafter, Castner served mostly as understudy for returning letterman Chet Wynne, but saw substantial action in every game as Notre Dame slugged its way to a second consecutive 9-0 season. With Gipp on the sidelines nursing an ankle injury, Castner finished a fine sophomore season in Gipp-like style, scoring twice in the team’s 25-0 season-ending pasting of the Michigan State College Aggies.

Castner was awarded a varsity monogram at the postseason banquet and, with Gipp and other seniors leaving the team, great things were expected from him in the future.6

Castner returned to the ice that winter, again captaining the Irish hockey club. A skating rink had been built on campus and better equipment secured, but bad weather again hampered club operations. The intercollegiate campaign consisted of a 2-0 victory over Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh and the split of two contests played in Houghton, Michigan, against the Michigan School of Mines. Oversized football lineman Hartley “Hunk” Anderson was in the nets for the Irish and surprised game observers by showing “some real goaltending” ability, while Castner scored “most of the goals.”7

A left-handed pitcher-outfielder, Castner was a three-year mainstay of the Notre Dame baseball team. But he and his mostly inexperienced teammates struggled for much of the 1921 season. In the season opener, Castner pitched well against Wisconsin in cold, rainy weather until the game was called a 3-3 draw after 11 innings. On April 30 Castner took a 6-2 lead against Michigan into the ninth inning before blowing up. The Irish lost 8-7 in ten innings. Four days later, he was on the short end of a 3-1 decision to Illinois, despite pitching a five-hit complete game. Playing the outfield, the good-hitting Castner had four safeties during a 15-14 donnybrook lost to Northwestern the next week. After another loss to Michigan, the young ND nine caught fire, reeling off seven consecutive wins in 11 days. Particularly gratifying were three wins over in-state rivals. Castner garnered two of them, setting down Purdue 8-1 on May 21 and throwing a three-hitter at Indiana seven days later, winning 4-2. An 11-7-1 season ended with Castner dropping a 6-2 verdict to Wisconsin. Despite the last-game defeat, Castner had made a favorable impression on major-league scouts and received several offers to turn pro at season’s end. He turned them down.8

His junior year at Notre Dame saw Paul Castner at the height of his collegiate athletic glory, with outstanding performances turned in on the gridiron, ice, and diamond. The Irish football season began with two walkovers: a 56-0 drubbing of Kalamazoo that was over as soon as Chet Wynne returned the opening kickoff for an 80-yard touchdown, and a 56-10 mauling of DePauw that saw the ND second- and third-stringers play much of the game. On October 8, 1921, an event unseen in almost three years occurred. Notre Dame lost a football game, being upset on the road by Iowa, 10-7. Among the Irish more frustrated by the loss was Paul Castner, whose third-quarter attempt to tie the game with a 50-yard drop kick came up just short. Late in the game and with Notre Dame on the march, a Castner pass reception and run brought the Irish to the Iowa 17-yard line. But the game clock expired before Castner, perhaps college football’s finest all-purpose kicker, could attempt another field goal. The defeat at Iowa would be a unique experience for Castner – the only loss he ever suffered wearing a football uniform.

Purdue paid the price the following week, being pummeled by an angry Notre Dame eleven, 33-0, with Castner’s left leg contributing two long-range field goals. After a hard-fought 7-0 Homecoming victory over Nebraska, Notre Dame reeled off impressive wins over Indiana (28-7) and Army (28-0). The team then faced Rutgers before a large crowd at the Polo Grounds. The issue was settled early, when Castner went 65 yards for a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage. He later added 43- and 47-yard field goals and several 50-plus-yard punts, as the Irish coasted to a 48-0 triumph. No-sweat wins over Haskell, Marquette, and Michigan State concluded the 1921 season, Notre Dame finishing with a 10-1 mark. Individually, Castner was the team’s third leading scorer, with his 48 points surpassed only by future Detroit Tiger Johnny Mohardt (72) and Chet Wynne (54). Paul had also been a first-rate defender, a necessity in that era of two-way football. But probably more than anything, it was Castner’s long-distance punting and drop-kicking that caught the eye of sportswriters, a number of whom placed him on their All-American teams at season’s end.9 His teammates, meanwhile, selected Castner as football team captain for the next season.

No sooner had he doffed shoulder pads and helmet than Paul Castner was back in uniform, on the ice for the Notre Dame hockey club. While ice hockey was still not accorded NCAA varsity sport status, Notre Dame, Michigan, Michigan State, Michigan Tech, Wisconsin, and Minnesota had banded together to form the Midwest Hockey Conference. With future Four Horseman Jim Crowley in goal and Paul Castner assuming the role of player-coach, the Irish were the class of the conference, going undefeated in league play. Their only loss during an 8-1 season came in Chicago against semipro Canadians, and most observers considered the Notre Dame club the unofficial hockey champions of the Midwest.10 Notre Dame’s fortunes rested largely on the stick of Paul Castner, who scored 37 of the 55 goals tallied by the Irish. He was, simply put, the “best individual hockey player” in the region.11

Paced by the stellar pitching duo of lefty Paul Castner and right-hander Dick Falvey, the 1922 Notre Dame baseball team was a powerhouse. The Irish began the season with seven straight wins, which included a 4-1 victory over Xavier during which Castner struck out 14. The highlight of the season, however, came against Purdue at a game played in Lafayette. After Dr. Edward C. Elliott, the newly installed Purdue University president, had thrown a ceremonial first pitch, Castner took over the hurling duties. Nine innings later, the Boilermakers were still looking for their first hit, victimized by a 4-0 Castner no-hitter.12 At the conclusion of an 18-4 collegiate season, the Irish defeated a Fort Wayne semipro team in a benefit game behind Castner’s three-hit pitching. The result was conveyed to some local news readers under a headline that intimated the religious divisions of the near Midwest during the early 1920s: “Catholics Defeat Lincoln Lifers, 9-2.”13 At season’s end, Castner again declined offers to turn pro.144 Appreciative teammates elected him captain of the baseball team for 1923. 15

The 1922 Notre Dame football season shaped up as a challenging one. Thirteen of the 21 lettermen from the past year’s team, including consensus All-American Eddie Anderson and stars Johnny Mohardt and Roger Kiley, had graduated the previous June. Then over the winter, returning starters Hunk Anderson, Art Garvey, and Fred Larson were declared ineligible by Notre Dame officials for having played in an offseason semipro game.16 Success would therefore depend largely on the triple-threat talents of Paul Castner. The many who had tabbed Paul a preseason All-American appeared vindicated in the season opener, the annual cakewalk over Kalamazoo. The 46-0 Notre Dame rout featured 90- and 95-yard kickoff returns for touchdowns by Castner.17 The following week, another Castner TD run highlighted a 26-0 whitewash of the University of St. Louis. In-state rivals Purdue and DePauw were easily dispatched, with a slightly injured Castner being held out of action against the latter by Coach Rockne. A rested and fit Paul Castner was the standout performer in the next Notre Dame game, an intersectional clash in Atlanta against the pride of the South, Georgia Tech. Paul caught a touchdown pass from Harry Stuhldreher, kept the Yellow Jackets pinned down in their own territory with long punts, and spearheaded the defense that held Tech to a field goal in a 13-3 Irish victory. He also apparently made quite an impression on many of the Southern belles in attendance, leading the Atlanta press to dub the handsome Castner, the “Valentino of Football.”18

With the Notre Dame record now standing at 5-0, the stage was set for the greatest single game in the collegiate football career of Paul Castner: the November 4, 1922, game against Indiana. There was little love lost between the Hoosiers and “the Catholics,” but the game proved one-sided. Castner ran for two long touchdowns, returned an interception 65 yards for a third TD, drop-kicked 35- and 45-yard field goals, and was perfect on three extra points. Final score: Castner 27, Indiana 0. The following week, archrival Army keyed on Castner, dislocating his nose in the process of holding Notre Dame scoreless. But the Cadets could not score either, with the game turning into a defensive-minded exchange of booming punts by Castner and Army’s Bill Wood before the match ended in a 0-0 tie. The football career of Paul Castner ended a week later against another in-state rival, Butler University. Although the Bulldogs had upset Illinois earlier in the season, the team was not considered a serious threat to Notre Dame. Coach Rockne did not even start his first team. But once Castner and the other frontliners took the field, the game quickly turned noncompetitive. Then in the third quarter and with the Irish coasting to a 32-3 win, disaster struck. Castner suffered a dislocated pelvis, “the victim of a knee delivered after play had stopped and he was lying on the ground in an unprotected position,” according to a bitter account of the incident subsequently published in a Notre Dame annal.19

Castner spent the next few weeks confined to an Indianapolis hospital. In his absence, Rockne inserted backup Elmer Layden into the starting lineup and the new backfield quartet of Layden, Harry Stuhldreher, Jim Crowley, and Don Miller (later immortalized by sportswriter Grantland Rice as the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame) spearheaded a 19-0 victory over Carnegie Tech. But Castner’s size and inside power-running were sorely missed in the season ender, a 14-6 loss to a Nebraska eleven that outweighed the Irish by 20 pounds per man.20 Missing the crucial last two games cost Castner in the awards department, as his standing declined with many of those formulating their All-America teams. His best showing was a fullback placement on the third team selected by Walter Camp. Some consolation, however, was provided by a widely syndicated column by Coach Rockne which cited Castner as second only to the incomparable George Gipp as a Notre Dame football great.21

His gridiron career now behind him, Castner focused on recovering from the hip injury and getting back on the ice. Again serving as the Notre Dame hockey coach, he started off gingerly. But by season’s end, he was back in form. The only losses suffered by the 6-2 Irish rinkmen came at the hands of Canadian opponents, while Castner’s individual play landed him a first-team berth on the Western hockey all-star squad named by Marquette coach Basil J. Corbett.22

A preseason training trip to Tennessee demonstrated that team captain Castner was fit for duty with the 1923 Notre Dame baseball team. But the 16-10 season proved something of a letdown for the Irish. Still, Castner finished in style, pitching a five-hit complete game in a season-ending 4-2 victory over Illinois. Paul had gone 14-7 on the mound over three seasons. He then took off the Notre Dame uniform, having been an integral part of the football (27-2-1), ice hockey (18-4), and baseball (46-21-1) teams that had further established the Fighting Irish as a collegiate athletic power. But Castner had been more than just a handsome jock at South Bend. He had also been a serious student, completing his bachelor’s degree in business administration while taking an active part in campus life as freshman class president and an officer of the Monogram Club.

Castner graduated from Notre Dame in June 1923. He then surprised sports observers by spurning waiting offers from the Washington Senators, Chicago White Sox, and St. Louis Browns, to announce his intention to begin a business career in his native St. Paul.23 A month later, Castner changed his mind, signing with the White Sox, then mired in the American League second division. Going nowhere, the White Sox were bent on trying out new talent and summoned Castner immediately, having him bypass any seasoning in the minors and report directly to Chicago manager Kid Gleason.24 On August 6, 1923, Castner made his major-league debut as a seventh-inning pinch-hitter in a game in Philadelphia, grounding out to third. He then took the mound and pitched two innings of scoreless relief in a 14-4 loss to the A’s. Two more relief appearances in hopelessly lost contests against the A’s followed.

The memorable moment of the otherwise forgettable MLB career of Paul Castner occurred in Yankee Stadium on August 20, when Castner was raked for four runs in a four-inning relief stint against New York. As described by Chicago scribe Irving Vaughn, “[T]he Yanks got real tough and socked [fellow newcomer Claral] Gillenwater and Paul Castner so fiercely that the outfielders ran themselves bowlegged chasing the fleeing pill.”25 With the outcome of the 16-5 game no longer in doubt, manager Gleason allowed the good-hitting Castner to bat for himself in the ninth. Meanwhile, bored Yankee left fielder Babe Ruth had begun playing with a dog that had somehow gotten loose in the outfield. Seconds after Ruth had tossed his fielding glove to the mutt, Castner lifted a fly ball to left – which the Babe nonchalantly caught barehanded, much to the amusement of spectators.26 After that, Castner did not see action for another month, before making a brief relief appearance in a Sox drubbing by Detroit. He came into the game with Ty Cobb stationed at third, and Cobb promptly stole home on him, an event that Paul would enjoy recalling in his story-telling later years. On October 2, 1923, Castner made his final major-league appearance, surrendering three hits and two runs in two innings of relief work against the Tigers.

That winter, the White Sox optioned Castner to the Shreveport Gassers, the worst team in the Class A Texas League.27 He declined to report. Although he was not yet 27 years old, Castner’s career in professional baseball was over. Nor would he try to make a living in the fledgling pro leagues of his best two sports, football and ice hockey. Instead, he returned to Notre Dame to coach the hockey team28 and thereafter work in the local automotive industry. When back in Minnesota, he also pitched in the odd semipro game. In his brief major-league career, Castner had gone 0-0 in six games, all losses in which Chicago had been outscored by an astounding 80-26. He posted an 8.10 ERA,29 giving up 14 hits in 10 innings pitched, walking five without striking out a single major-league hitter. As a batter, he went 0-for-3, with one RBI.

His professional baseball days behind him at an early age, Castner lived another 62 years. Given his business administration degree and his renown as a Notre Dame sports star, Castner was a logical hire for the Studebaker Corporation, the automobile manufacturer headquartered in South Bend. By January 1928, he had advanced to sales manager for the commercial division, and later arranged for the hiring of Rockne as a motivational speaker for Studebaker. In 1929 Castner married Lolita Kuehl, originally from Iowa. The birth of sons Paul Jr. (born 1930) and Peter (1933) completed the Castner family. After leaving Studebaker, Paul became an insurance agent for Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company, first in Cleveland and thereafter served as district agent manager for the company in the greater Bridgeport, Connecticut, area.

In the mid-1950s, the Castner family relocated to the St. Paul suburb of Newport, Minnesota, where Paul worked for the insurance arm of the Catholic fraternal service organization the Knights of Columbus. He also took an active part in the alumni affairs of his alma mater. In his leisure time, Castner traveled around the country in a recreational vehicle, collecting on tape Notre Dame player memories of Knute Rockne. These reminiscences were preserved in We Remember Rockne, a book co-authored by Castner and John McCallum that was published in 1975. That same year, Lolita Castner died at age 75. Paul remained active until the very end of his life, speaking before SABR’s Halsey Hall (Minneapolis) chapter in 1985. He died of cancer complications in his birthplace of St. Paul on March 3, 1986, aged 89. Following a Funeral Mass at the Church of the Holy Childhood, he was buried in the Castner family plot in Calvary Cemetery in St. Paul. Paul Henry Castner, three-sport Notre Dame star of the early 1920s and six-game major-league pitcher, was survived by his sons Paul Jr. and Peter, and his elderly sister, Sister Mary Dorothea Castner, as well as four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Thus came to its end a long, eventful, and productive life.

The writer is indebted to Anthony J. Black of the University of Notre Dame and Stew Thornley of the Halsey Hall (Minneapolis) chapter of SABR for their assistance on this biography.

 

Notes

1 The biographical details presented here have mainly been extracted from US Census and local directory listings available online at Ancestry.com, and the Castner death notices published in the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Minneapolis Star-Tribune on March 4, 1986. Sources for the information on Castner’s athletic career include the material in the Paul Castner files at the University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana, and the Giamatti Research Center, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, New York, and the newspaper reportage of Castner’s sports exploits. Castner’s MLB stats have been taken from Baseball-Reference. Paul’s siblings were Irene (born 1894), George (1896), Helen (1899), and Ruth (later Sister Mary Dorothea – 1901).

2 Jean Lenz, Loyal Sons and Daughters: A Notre Dame Memoir (Lanham, Maryland: Rowan & Littlefield, 2002), 181.

3 Player questionnaire that Castner returned to the Hall of Fame in 1963.

4 Karen Croake Heisler, Fighting Irish: Legends, Lists and Lore (Champaign, Illinois: Sports Publishing, 2006), 62.

5 The origins and first years of the ice hockey club are detailed in the 1923 edition of The Dome, the Notre Dame yearbook. See also The Michigan Daily, February 17, 1971.

6 Tragically, within weeks of the 1920 football season’s end George Gipp was dead, having succumbed to the complications of a strep throat infection.

7 The Dome (1923), 303.

8 Watertown (New York) Daily Times, November 2, 1922.

9 For example, syndicated sportswriter Hugh Fullerton placed Castner on his first team, International News Service sports editor Jack Veiock made him a second-team pick, while the prestigious Walter Camp All-America team accorded Castner honorable mention.

10 See e.g., Sault Ste. Marie (Michigan) Evening News, October 5, 1922.

11 Muskogee (Michigan) Chronicle, January 17, 1922.

12 As reported in the Evansville Courier and Press, May 18, 1922, and elsewhere. For a local sports editor’s retrospective on the Castner gem, see James M. Costin, “Castner’s No-Hitter,” South Bend News-Tribune, May 3, 1938.

13 Evansville (Indiana) Courier and Press, June 9, 1922. Although the nickname would not be formally adopted by Notre Dame until 1927, the university’s sports teams were already often being referred to as the Fighting Irish. But not in the Midwest, and particularly not in Indiana, a stronghold of the virulently nativist Ku Klux Klan of the early 1920s. There, regional newspapers often used another moniker for Notre Dame teams: the Catholics. For more on the religious animosities prevalent during the era, see Todd Tucker, Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2004).

14 As reported in the Fort Wayne News Sentinel, June 4, 1922, and elsewhere.

15 Ann Arbor (Michigan) News, June 9, 1922.

16 As reported in the Idaho Statesman (Boise), December 14, 1921, and elsewhere.

17 With Kalamazoo going scoreless, it is unclear how Notre Dame became the recipient of two kickoffs. In any event, Castner’s feat of returning two kickoffs for touchdowns in the same game would not be replicated by a Notre Dame player for another 65 years – until Rocket Ismail did it against Rice in 1987.

18 As noted under Castner’s yearbook picture in the 1923 edition of The Dome. Apart from jet-black hair and good looks, Castner and silent screen idol Rudoph Valentino had precious little in common.

19 The Notre Dame Scholastic, 1923, 302. One account of the Notre Dame-Butler game published in the Indiana press was characteristically headlined: “Castner Injured as Catholics Win.” See Evansville Courier and Press, November 19, 1922.

20 According to The Dome (1923), 243, the Cornhuskers averaged 193 pounds, compared with the 173 pound norm for the Irish. At 187 pounds, the large-for-his-day and athletically gifted Castner was an exception to the small, agile player usually preferred by Rockne. Backfield replacement Layden weighed 161, making him the heaviest of the Four Horsemen.

21 See K.K. Rockne, “Notre Dame Coach Pays Tribute to Paul Castner,” published in the Rockford (Illinois) Morning Star, November 30, 1922, Kalamazoo (Michigan) Gazette, December 22, 1922, and elsewhere.

22 Rockford Morning Star, March 29, 1923.

23 Richmond Times Dispatch, July 1, 1923.

24 Evansville Courier and Press, August 4, 1923.

25 Chicago Tribune, August 21, 1923.

26 Daniel Okrent, Baseball Anecdotes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

27 Omaha World Herald, December 15, 1923.

28 Springfield (Massachusetts) Republican, December 24, 1923; Rockford Morning Star, December 27, 1923.

29 Baseball Almanac gives Castner a 6.30 ERA for the 1923 season.

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