The Little-Known Stars of Jewish Baseball

Book Tells Forgotten Tales of 'Yiddish Curver' and Moe Berg

By James Sullivan

Published April 06, 2013, issue of April 12, 2013.
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The Catcher Was A Jew: Moe Berg, immortalized in Nicholas Dawidoff’s book “The Catcher Was A Spy,” is one of many Jewish players found in Larry Ruttman’s new book.
Courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library
The Catcher Was A Jew: Moe Berg, immortalized in Nicholas Dawidoff’s book “The Catcher Was A Spy,” is one of many Jewish players found in Larry Ruttman’s new book.

Known as the “Iron Batter,” Lipman Pike was one of the earliest baseball stars. Playing for the Philadelphia Athletics in the 1860s, Pike was a power hitter at a time when home runs were rare. And he was one of the first paid players — $20 a week. He is also widely noted as the first prominent player from a Jewish background.

Another Jewish player, turn-of-the-century pitcher Barney Pelty, earned the nickname the “Yiddish Curver” for his confounding breaking ball, which helped him compile a career earned run average lower than Sandy Koufax’s.

Pelty was not an overwhelming presence on the mound, but he was particularly skilled at locating his pitches. “I think a brain goes a long way,” baseball historian Larry Ruttman said.

Ruttman, a Boston lawyer, is celebrating the publication of his second book, “American Jews & America’s Game: Voices of a Growing Legacy in Baseball.” He, too, is pitching to spots — specifically, the place where American Judaism meets the national pastime.

Yes, the book is about Koufax, Hank Greenberg and Al Rosen, the great players who have been featured in other books on the subject as well as in the 2010 documentary “Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story.” But it’s also about those who, though they never played professionally, have been emblematic of the Jewish community’s longtime affinity for the great American game.

Among Ruttman’s subjects are the late Marvin Miller, whose commitment to justice as a union organizer led to free agency, making him perhaps the most influential nonplayer of all time; Roger Kahn, author of the classic Brooklyn Dodgers reminiscence “The Boys of Summer,” and Marty Abramowitz, who created a line of baseball cards devoted to Jewish major leaguers.

That ampersand, Ruttman said, is the key to the book’s title. If the book were called “American Jews in America’s Game,” he notes, he would have been limited to the few hundred players and executives who identified as Jewish. (By his count, there are presently 17 Jewish major leaguers, including Kevin Youkilis and Ian Kinsler.)


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