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Drash Jews in Major League Baseball

By Paul Roitman Bardack

I would like to thank the Tifereth Israel Mens’ Club for inviting me to talk briefly this evening on the subject of Jews and major league baseball.  Past presentations, I understand, have dealt with such weighty topics as asset management and preservation, the quest for Middle East peace, and insuring the health of an aging population.  Having successfully resolved those issues, I am pleased that you tonight wish to turn your collective attention to something truly important.


I also wish to acknowledge at the outset that the synagogue bulletin of activities, in its listing of tonight’s talk as “Jew and Major League Baseball,” has it wrong.  Thankfully, the story can be told in more than the singular.

For the story of Jews and baseball, as I perceive it, is in large part the story of our group’s desire, as well as our group’s actual ability, to transition from residents of an insular, mostly Eastern European identity into citizens of a more secularized American society.

Here’s how Chaim Potok put it, in his wonderful novel “The Chosen.”  I quote:

 

“We batted and threw the ball around, and it was warm and sunny, and there was the smooth, happy feeling of the summer soon to come, and the tight excitement of the ball game.  We wanted very much to win, both for ourselves and, more especially, for Mr. Galanter, for we had all come to like his fist-thumping sincerity.  To the rabbis who taught in the Jewish parochial schools, baseball was an evil waste of time, a spawn of the potentially assimilationist English portion of the yeshiva day.  But to the students of most of the parochial schools, an inter-league baseball victory had come to take on only a shade less significance than a top grade in Talmud, for it was the unquestioned mark of one’s Americanism, and to be counted a loyal American had become increasingly important to us during the last years of the war.”  End quote.

 

So the real subject of tonight’s talk is Jews and Americanism, and the sometimes uneasy, sometimes quite comfortable ways in which the two play out their relationship through the vehicle of the game of baseball.  The old joke from the 1920’s – “”Zaydie, Babe Ruth hit another home run today!”  “Yes, but is it good for the Jews?”” – has never been, in my opinion, too far from the surface.

 

Let’s start at the beginning or, to avoid an extensive side discussion, what for many passes as the beginning.  Nobody really knows with certainty when, or where, baseball started:  New England in the 1820’s?  Hoboken, New Jersey in the 1840’s?  New York in the late 1700’s?  Who knows.  But we do know that prior to the Civil War – when the sport was popularized and nationalized in Union and Confederate encampments and prisons – it was principally the pastoral refuge of an elite which, with few exceptions, was quite WASPish in orientation.

 

That changed after the Civil War, as did our nation.  Industrialization and commerce were on the march, and first in trickles and then in waves so too was immigration.  The New York Game of Baseball – as it was first called, with its arcane rules such as direction by the striker of where the hurler was to pitch the ball – was now being referred to typically as The National Pastime.  Goodness, that was the very same term used in Britain to define cricket.  And amateurism gave way to a growing desire by local teams to win:  first by recruiting younger and better players to replace older clerks and war veterans, then through widespread sub rosa payments to traveling teams, and finally through the creation of professional, paid teams and leagues.  Although the National Association enjoyed a horribly rocky existence as the first professional league during its five year run from 1871 through 1876, its model lived on as the Red Stockings of Cincinnati joined the Athletics of Philadelphia, the White Stockings of Chicago, and others from Syracuse, Indianapolis, Hartford and elsewhere to create the first lasting sports league on earth.

 

For baseball increasingly was becoming a moneyed game, one that manufactured its early stars, both fictitious and real.  Mighty Casey, perhaps a Baltimorean, perhaps a Brooklynite, gave poetic voice during his famous time at bat to the Irish wave of immigrants participating in the increasingly visible national game.  So too did the real Irishman, King Kelly, who inspired what was once the most popular song in the land.  I quote:

 

“Slide, Kelly, slide!

Your running’s a disgrace!

Slide, Kelly, slide!

Stay there, hold your base!

If someone doesn’t steal ya,

And your batting doesn’t fail ya,

They’ll take you to Australia!

Slide, Kelly, slide!”  End quote.

 

Yes, baseball was a growing presence throughout the land.  In 1876 the National League was born.  In its wake, prior to the 1901 formation by Ban Johnson of the working class beer-and-whiskey American League – one that would play Sunday games as no respectable National League team would do – a host of leagues came and went:  the Players League, the American Association, the Union Association, and others.  Baseball was growing, it was democratizing (although not racially), and it was opening up to new participants, both on the field and off.

 

And one of these was Lipman Emanuel Pike, by most accounts the first Jewish ballplayer.  Born in New York in 1845 Lipman was one of a mere handful of Jews to play organized ball during the founding era.  He has been cited as the first professional ballplayer, allegedly receiving $20 weekly to play for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1866, but the claim cannot be substantiated.

 

Lipman Pike became legendary:  a power hitter, he is said to have hit six home runs in an 1866 game and – I’m merely reporting here – to have out-raced a horse.  Primarily an outfielder, he played all positions for a variety of teams in Baltimore, Hartford, St. Louis, and Cincinnati between 1872 and 1878.  Indeed, Pike was with the St. Louis Brown Stockings when the National League was founded in 1876.  In 1877 he moved to the Cincinnati Red Stockings and became the league’s second home run champion, with four.  Pike compiled a trailblazing lifetime major league batting average of .304, with five home runs in 163 games.  A left hander, he died in Brooklyn at the ripe old age of 48.

 

And yet, despite his historic significance, it cannot be said that Lipman Pike blazed an immediate trail for Jews in the sport.  Few played over the next several decades, according to research undertaken by the American Jewish Historical Society.  The next Jews to play in the majors subsequent to Lipman and his brother Jacob (who, truth be told, appeared in only one game) likely were 40 year old Nathan Berkenstock, who played one game in 1871 for the Philadelphia Athletics; and Jacob Goodman, a first baseman who played sixty games for the 1878 Milwaukee National League team, spent several subsequent years floating around various minor league and independent teams, and resurfaced with Pittsburgh’s American Association franchise in 1882.

 

And over the coming decades the few Jews who did follow Pike and his brother, who followed Berkenstock, and who followed Goodman, were mostly journeymen players who took great pains to hide their religious affiliation.  That shouldn’t prove surprising; so did many of their counterparts elsewhere in an America beginning to burst with successive waves of first German, then Eastern European, Jewish immigrants.  And while it is true that occasionally the sport would see a clearly identifiable player like Barney Pelty, known as “the Yiddish Curver,” who pitched mostly with the Browns from 1903 through 1912, most Jewish players of the next several decades were mere footnotes to the real stars of the game, footnotes who tried with mixed success to hide their Judaism from others:

 

-         Mark Manuel of the 1904 Senators and 1908 White Sox went by the name of Moxie Manuel.

-         Philip Clarence Cohen played for the 1905 New York Highlanders under the name of Philip Clarence Cooney.

-         Harry Cohen played for the Browns, the Tigers of Detroit, and the Philadelphia Phillies between 1902 and 1906 under the name of Klondike Kane.

-         Henry Lipschitz played third base in 1915 for the Philadelphia Athletics under the name of Henry Bostick.

-         Infielder Michael Myron Silverman was known as Jesse Baker when he played one game for the 1919 Washington Senators (and had his career ended when the notoriously racist and anti-Semitic Ty Cobb spiked him in the throwing arm while stealing second base).

-         Reuben Cohen played for the Cardinals in 1921 as Reuben Ewing.

-         Sammy Cohen played for St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Brooklyn between 1916 through 1926 as Sammy Bohne.

-         Joseph Rosenbloom played as Joseph Bennett for the Phillies in 1923.

-         And then there is James Herman Solomon.  Solomon was a part-time infielder for the Yankees in 1930 and ’31, and for the Cardinals in ’32.  Playing as Jimmie Reese, James Herman Solomon has two claims to fame:  on road trips as a Yankee, he roomed with Babe Ruth – surely the most lonely position ever in organized sports, and as a ninety year old he appeared on field as coach of the California Angels, the oldest man ever to appear on field in uniform.

 

One therefore wonders what on earth could have served as the inspiration for the nationally popular 1913 song, “Jake, Jake, The Yiddish Ballplayer!”

 

Still, tentatively, and somewhat uneasily, Jews were starting to become real Americans, slowly assimilating within the world of baseball just as they were slowly assimilating within the larger country.  And they were making their mark in baseball off the field as well.  The vaudevillian lyricist and composer, Jack Norworth (who may have been Jewish; my research is inconclusive), joined by the verifiably Jewish composer Albert Von Tilzer, wrote this song in 1908:

 

“Katie Casey was base ball mad.

Had the fever and had it bad;

Just to root for the home town crew,

Ev’ry sou Katie blew.  {Note:  “sou” was slang for a low denomination coin)

On a Saturday, her young beau

Called to see if she’d like to go,

To see a show but Miss Kate said,

“No, I’ll tell you what you can do.””

 

Anybody recognize it?  If you didn’t recognize the song by its first verse, you will surely recognize it by its second:

 

“… but Miss Kate said, ”No, I’ll tell you what you can do.”

 

Take me out to the ball game,

Take me out with the crowd.
Buy me some peanuts and cracker jack,
I don't care if I never get back,
Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don't win it's a shame.
For it's one, two, three strikes, you're out,
At the old ball game."”

 

That song was written in 1908 by one, possibly two, Jews.  Perhaps only “Happy Birthday To You” has been sung more often.  Yet, it would be a quarter century before another Jew would have as lasting an impact on the game.  His name, of course, was Hank Greenberg.

 

But before we turn our attention to Hank Greenberg, let’s look at another pattern of Jewish involvement in early baseball.  In 1882 Louis Kramer helped organize the American Association, and was its president in 1891. Aaron Stern, a clothing merchant, was a co-founder of the American Association and owner of the Cincinnati Reds in 1882-1890. Other officials of the Cincinnati club included Edgar Mayer Johnson and Nathan Menderson. Jake Morse, who became a noted sportswriter, was manager of the Boston team in the Union League in 1884. Barney Dreyfuss, president of the Louisville Colonels in 1899 and owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1900-1932, founded the World Series in 1903 (and famously tussled with the first Commissioner of baseball, Judge Landis, over the Commissioner’s power to control the game).

 

One of the game's most controversial owners, Andrew Freedman, a lawyer and a power behind New York City's Tammany Hall, was president of the New York Giants in 1894-1902. Louis Heilbroner managed the St. Louis Cardinals in 1900, and nine years later founded baseball's first statistical bureau. Harry Goldman was an organizer of the American League in 1900, and with the Frank brothers, Moses and Sydney, served as an official of the Baltimore club in the new league in 1901-1902.  The list goes on and on.

 

Thus, seeing a significant Jewish front office presence in the sport, a 1921 article in The Dearborn Independent entitled “The Jewish Degradation of American Baseball” could declare the following, and I am quoting at length here:

 

“The Jewish controllers of wrestling will not permit a real wrestler to appear—indeed, they go to infinite pains to bar him out—because a real wrestler would immediately show up the game. Wrestling is as much a Jewish business, controlled in its every part, as the manufacture of clothing, and its hirelings are mostly Gentiles.  That is what baseball was coming to. The whole sport was getting down to an “exhibition game” status. The overtone of “money, money, money” grew louder and louder. The sport aspect of the game was beginning to give way to the “show” aspect. There were numerous signs that an attempt was being made to “star” certain persons, to run “headliners,” and to pull off a game with a sensational ending—just like a ballet is staged, or a pageant. Thrills were being offered—not as the give and take of the game, the accident of tensest action, but as practiced acting.  That is, baseball was slowly being brought under the level of the box-office idea.  There were forces against this metamorphosis of the game. Certain men saw what was coming. There were also forces favoring the change, and wanting it to come. Curiously enough, the forces that favored turning baseball into afternoon vaudeville were Jews, and those who favored keeping the game as part of American outdoor sports were non-Jews.”  End quote from The Dearborn Independent in 1921.

That, too, was part of the American tableau earlier in the last century.  And anti-Semitism was endemic in the owners box as well.  How else to explain the sad tale of Harry Rosenberg?  Rosenberg played eleven seasons in high minor league ball after 1930, averaging .325 and collecting over 2000 hits.  What a superb audition for the majors, and yet year after year after year Harry Rosenberg was not called up.  Why?

So onto that stage emerged the greatest Jewish ballplayer of all time, Hank Greenberg.

Hank Greenberg was America’s first Jewish baseball star.  In a career that spanned from 1933 through 1946, Hall of Famer “Hammering Hank” played for the Detroit Tigers and Pittsburgh Pirates.  His career helped break down the barriers of discrimination in American society, and served as a beacon of hope to millions of American Jews who confronted worldwide bigotry during the Depression and World War II.

 

In 1938, Greenberg achieved tremendous fame when he fell two home runs short of matching Babe Ruth's record of sixty home runs in a single season.  He was chosen Most Valuable Player in 1935 as a first baseman and again in 1940 as a left fielder.  He batted in more than one hundred runs per season seven times in his career.  His lifetime batting average was .313 and his career home run total was 331.

 

In May 1941, Greenberg made headlines as the first star ballplayer to enlist in the Armed Services.  In June 1945, he was the first ballplayer to attempt a comeback after so long an absence from the sport.  And he did so successfully by hitting a home run in the first game he played upon his return.  In l947, Greenberg set another benchmark when he became the first major league baseball player to earn more than $100,000 per year.

 

Now, Greenberg was not the first Jewish ballplayer to have been touted as a superstar.  That would have been Andy Cohen, mostly a second baseman with the 1926, 1928, and 1929 New York Giants.  The Giants, looking for a Jewish star to attract a Jewish fan base in the nation’s most Jewishly populated city, traded Rogers Hornsby to the Boston Braves to make room for Cohen on their roster.  Hornsby went on to a Hall of Fame career; suffice to say, Cohen did not.

 

And Greenberg was not the only successful Jewish ballplayer of his time.  Remember that Morrie Arnovich had a six year career as an outfielder, one that lasted from 1936 through 1941 and saw him selected to the 1939 National League All Star team.

 

But Greenberg was easily the best and most famous Jewish ballplayer of his time, the first Jewish superstar.  Recall the story from 1934 when the Tigers had their first chance to win the pennant in thirty years.  After receiving rabbinic “dispensation” to play on Rosh Hashana, Greenberg missed a crucial game on the even more important holiday of Yom Kippur.  Although the Tigers lost that day, Greenberg’s decision won the respect of a nation.  As syndicated poet, Edgar Guest, wrote (and I quote):

 

“We shall miss him in the infield and shall miss him at the bat,

But he’s true to his religion – and I honor him for that!”

 

Religious fealty, by the way, only went so far, contrary to what is alleged in the second paragraph of the Shema – the paragraph, you will recall, which advances the notion that good deeds will yield good outcomes:  the Tigers of Hank Greenberg went on to lose the 1934 World Series to St. Louis, four games to three.

 

Back to Hank Greenberg.  Greenberg often confronted on-field anti-Semitism.  Now Jew-baiting from the bench was an accepted part of the sport at the time, as was all ethnic baiting.  (Even the Italian Yankees of the era – people like Tony Lazzeri – were the subjects of constant slurs by opposing players.)  So it was no surprise that, for example, during the 1935 World Series against the Chicago Cubs the umpire had to intervene in order to stop the catcalling aimed at Greenberg from the Chicago bench.

 

Now, compare Greenberg’s experience with that faced by the other prominent Jewish star of the era, Sid Gordon.  Along with Greenberg, Gordon of the New York Giants was taunted with horribly obscene bench jockeying and Jew-baiting.  But Gordon was liked in a way that Greenberg was not, and – frankly – he was not as good a ballplayer, so not infrequently opposing managers shut down the anti-Semitism directed to Gordon as they would not against Greenberg.  No, for the most part, Greenberg stood alone to the ceaseless cries, from the opposing players and from the opposing fans, of “kike” and “Heb” and worse.

 

Regardless, when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947 (the same year the classic film on anti-Semitism, “Gentleman’s Agreement,” was released), Greenberg was among those who most empathized with the obstacles Robinson faced.  In future years Robinson would remember Greenberg as the first opposing-team player to give him encouragement; and Jews of that generation would remember Greenberg as a bridge both to baseball and to secular America, a brawny source of power when American Jews – and especially their European cousins facing extermination – were decidedly without it.

 

For – after Robinson and Greenberg – baseball began to democratize as never before, as did America, and the next several decades following Greenberg’s career therefore saw an explosion of Jews in major league ball:  the brothers Norm and Larry Sherry, Al Rosen (the first major leaguer to be voted MVP unanimously), Cal Abrams (the runner thrown out at home plate in the Dodgers pennant losing final game of 1950), Mike Epstein (otherwise known as “SuperJew”), Ken Holtzman (who holds the record for most career wins by a Jewish pitcher), Scott Radinsky (who holds the record for most games pitched by a Jewish pitcher), Steve Stone, Elliott Maddox, Art Shamsky, and Steve Yeager, among others.

 

In the interest of time, I won’t dwell too much on the most famous member of this post-Greenberg group, Sanford Koufax of Brooklyn.  If you are attending tonight’s talk, it is a fair assumption that you already know his story.  Suffice to say, when fellow Jewish ballplayer and pitcher, Bob Tufts – who pitched for San Francisco and Kansas City in the early ‘80’s – was asked at the ceremony marking his conversion to Judaism what Jewish name he wished to adopt, Tufts replied “Sandy Koufax.”

 

What can one say about Sandy Koufax?  He made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers at the age of 19.  He was mediocre, at best, his first six seasons, losing more games than he won.  Then, overnight, things changed.  How they changed!  From 1962 through 1966 Koufax was baseball’s dominant pitcher, ever, before or since, overpowering hitters with a blistering fastball and a huge curve.  He was the league’s ERA leader all five of those years.  He won the Cy Young Award three times.  He was World Series MVP twice.  He was National League MVP once.  He had four career no-hitters.  He pitched a perfect game.  After retiring prematurely due to arthritis, he became the youngest person ever selected to the Hall of Fame.  And – in what appears to be the defining statistic for complete Jewish reverence for Jewish ballplayers (see, also, Shawn Green) – he refused to play the first game of the 1965 World Series, which was held on Yom Kippur.

 

(An interesting footnote:  Don Drysdale pitched that 1965 World Series game in place of Koufax.  He struggled.  When he was pulled early by manager Walt Alston, Drysdale purportedly said to his manager:  “I bet you wish I was Jewish today, too.”)

 

Now, I do not purport tonight to be providing the definitive, all-encompassing tale of Jews in baseball.  There simply is not enough time this evening.  I could, for example, speak an entire day about the wonderful career of Moe Berg, a journeyman ballplayer better known as a master of numerous languages and an extraordinarily successful World War II spy.  It is said that he spoke seven languages and could hit in none.  I wish there was time to show footage of the antics of Al Schacht, the “Clown Prince of Baseball, who entertained millions of fans at twenty-five World Series games, eighteen All Star games, countless major and minor league games, on military bases, and in films such as “Bull Durham.”

 

I cannot focus upon the upstart Federal League, whose records to this day – including those of its only Jewish ballplayer, Guy Zinn – are not recognized officially but whose existence was described fictitiously by Philip Roth in his vastly underappreciated work “The Great American Novel.”  (I regard that as the single best book on baseball I have ever read, by the way, and heartily commend it to you.)  I also do not have time to pay sufficient tribute to the great sportswriter Shirley Povich, the Washingtonian who wrote both of the immortal Walter Johnson and the hapless Senators, and who is the only man ever listed in Who’s Who of American Women.  And I certainly wish there was time to discuss in detail the absolute moral connection that I perceive between political breakdown exemplified by the 1972 Watergate break-in and social breakdown exemplified by the 1973 introduction of Ron Blomberg as baseball’s first designated hitter.

 

But, alas, there isn’t the time.  To quote the words uttered both by legions of Brooklyn Dodgers fans and by legions of Jews at the Passover seder:  “Next year.”

 

But I would like to conclude with an observation.  The story of Jews and baseball, I said at the outset, is really the story of Jews and their assimilation into secular America.  Today, more Jewish ballplayers are in uniform than ever before, benefiting from the labor policies initiated years ago by the Jewish leader of the Major League Baseball Players Association, Marvin Miller.  We go to the ballpark and thrill to the exploits of All Stars Brad Ausmus and Mike Lieberthal.  Bud Selig serves today as MLB Commissioner, working with prominent staff such as Steve Greenberg.  Jewish ownership and front office management is common.  (Under Conservative Judaism doctrine one indeed could easily hold a minyan consisting solely of those men and women who own the Washington Nationals, led by the Lerner family.)  Theo Epstein, Jerry Reinsdorf, Walter Haas, Fred Wilpon, Jerry Hoffberger, Bob Lurie, Charles Bronfman, Gabe Paul … these are all current or recent owners or front office personnel well known to you.

 

So Jews today proudly and confidently constitute a presence in baseball, on the field and off.  Even fans can order kosher meals at ballparks.  What a far, far cry from the early days, when – say – Abraham Cohen felt the need to pitch for the 1918 Chicago White Sox as Ed Corey.  Yes, we Jews have made it as real Americans, we seem to be saying, for we have even made it in the national pastime of baseball.

 

And we say this at precisely the moment when baseball has been eclipsed in popularity by football and basketball.  Super Bowl ratings are dramatically ascendant, World Series ratings in dramatic decline.  And the future prognosis for baseball is just as poor.  More kids, after all, play youth soccer than Little League.

 

That, too, I think is the story of Jews and baseball.  We belong in baseball, just as we belong in America.  We sense it.  We know it.  We earned it.  But there’s always a nagging feeling, just under the surface, that once we gain a foothold, either in baseball or in national identity, the quicksand ground under us already has shifted just a little bit.  For in baseball, as in America, even when we belong, I think we Jews still wonder if outsider status is potentially just around the corner.

 

“Zaydie,” the 1920’s joke went, “Babe Ruth hit another home run today!”  And, at some level, many of us still wonder if it is good for the Jews.

 
Thank you.

Drash, Given at TI February 2007

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