When Al Burke ’72 says, “Baseball is a big deal in our family,” he isn’t kidding. The national pastime has been much more than that for three generations of Burkes.
Encouraged by their father, Bill, who had played for the Jeffersonville (Ind.) High School baseball team and a state champion fast-pitch softball team, Al and his six brothers grew up on the diamond. His brothers played at Providence in Jeffersonville; Al played at St. Xavier in Louisville. Oldest brother Danny was courted by the Baltimore Orioles but instead attended the University of Louisville, where he lettered for three years.
In 1968, when it was his turn for college, Al Burke headed to Bellarmine. There, he met another baseball fanatic, Fr. John Deatrick ’55. An outfielder for the Knights while he was a student, Fr. Deatrick had returned to Bellarmine that year as chaplain and assistant baseball coach. He became head baseball coach in 1970, a position he held through 1974.
To Fr. Deatrick, baseball was more than a game. “Some of the real ministry I did at Bellarmine was done on the baseball field,” he said. Players learned “so many important things: cooperation, discipline, leadership.” He saw that ministry spread as many of his players went on to become high school, college or youth-league coaches themselves and passed those life lessons on to others.
One of those players was Al Burke. After graduating from Bellarmine, he returned to St. X as an English teacher and baseball coach. And in 1976, he came back to Bellarmine, where he served as head baseball coach from 1977-81. His younger brother, Kevin Burke ’84, was the pitcher for the team.
“I was a very shy and quiet person when I came to Bellarmine, and baseball really helped me mature and develop leadership skills,” Al Burke said. “Fr. Deatrick saw that in me when he named me captain.”
That was not the only role the priest played in his life. In 1973, Fr. Deatrick married Al and Mary Jo (’74/’84) Burke, and he baptized their first child, Erin, a year later.
Erin Burke graduated from Bellarmine in 1996 and is now an academic counselor for BU athletes. The Burkes’ older son, Paul Burke ’99, was an All-American catcher for the Knights and played for the Atlanta Braves organization for two years. (The Burkes’ younger son, Chris, a University of Tennessee graduate, played for the Houston Astros for a number of years before retiring in 2010.)
Al Burke is now a partner in Heyburn Burke & Robinson. When he and Mary Jo decided to establish a scholarship fund, “it seemed right to have a baseball player as the recipient,” he said. The scholarship will provide financial assistance for tuition and fees to a full-time student who demonstrates need, with preference given to freshmen and baseball players. “Mary Jo suggested we ask Fr. Deatrick to join us because he is very important in the history of Bellarmine baseball and in our history,” Al Burke said.
Fr. Deatrick readily agreed. “Many of the important lessons that I learned and taught took place on the Bellarmine baseball field,” he said, “and I would like for other students to be able to have that same experience.”