‘Richie Scheinblum! You once got three hits off me!” the winningest (though oft-traded) Jewish pitcher in baseball history said by way of greeting to the only Jewish switch-hitter ever to hit .300 in a single season.
The two former players — surrounded by 300-plus fans and more than a dozen former major leaguers and current team owners —were in lower Manhattan late last month at the third annual Hank Greenberg Sportsmanship Awards sponsored by the American Jewish Historical Society.
It was a rare New York appearance by the gifted southpaw who won 175 games in his career but preferred to stay out of the limelight. No, not Sandy Koufax, who won 165 games; the man in question is Ken Holtzman, who pitched for the Cubs, Athletics, Orioles and Yankees from 1965 to 1979, and beat Koufax 2-1 in their sole head-to-head matchup. Holtzman was on hand to accept an award for his work for the past years as a youth sports supervisor for the Jewish Community Center in his native St. Louis.
Jeffrey Loria, chairman and managing general partner of the world-champion Florida Marlins, was an honoree also in attendance. A New York City native who played second base for Stuyvesant High School, Loria came to baseball less than 15 years ago after a career of more than 25 years as an international art dealer, a decidedly unusual background for a baseball owner. In accepting his award, along with three other Jewish members of his front office, including vice chairman Joel Mael, a former wrestler at Yeshiva University, Loria quipped, “I am not going to tell you that [World Series MVP] Josh Beckett is really Josh Berkowitz.”
But now, thanks to a remarkable set of baseball cards of 142 Jewish major leaguers that the AJHS also was celebrating that day — a Jewish Major Leaguers project produced by Fleer/Sky Box International — fans can have at their fingertips capsule stories about not only the great Jewish stars like Koufax, Holtzman and Greenberg, but also obscure players who may have only lasted a game or two but still achieved major league status. Players such as left-handed-hitting outfielder Moses Solomon, who went 3 for 8 for John McGraw’s 1923 New York Giants but never lived up to the hype as “The Rabbi of Swat,” who could compete with Babe Ruth’s “Sultan of Swat.” Or catcher Ike Danning, who went 3 for 6 for the 1928 St. Louis Browns but is mainly known as the older brother of Harry Danning, an All-Star catcher for the New York Giants.
Solomon and Danning are two of the 41 players in the 142-card Jewish Major Leaguers set who never before were honored with their own card. Giving them their “slice of immortality” brings special satisfaction to Martin Abramowitz, president of Jewish Major Leaguers, mastermind of the nonprofit project and a longtime baseball-lover and researcher, who was born and raised in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, but now lives in Boston, where he is a vice president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies. Abramowitz and Roger Grass, president of Fleer/Sky Box International, shared the AJHS’s first MVP award for their work in bringing the Jewish Major Leaguers project to fruition. Appropriately, their friendship and collaboration in this pictorial tribute to the summer game of baseball came about because their sons were campmates at Camp Ramah in Palmer, Mass., in 1999.
Grass admits that initially he had only modest sales hopes for the project, perhaps 500 sets. But word spread quickly and Grass announced at the occasion last month that more than 12,000 sets had already been sold — even though they are not being sold in commercial outlets. Since proceeds are intended to benefit the society, they are available only through AJHS outlets and cost between $100 and $500 (for the deluxe set). Each card is a little slice of baseball history and Jewish history, and the thoroughness of the research is impressive.
Abramowitz and staff have discovered six converts to Judaism among the 142, including former Giants and Royals pitcher Bob Tufts and the African-American outfielder Elliott Maddox, who played for the Yankees and Mets and other teams; both attended the award ceremonies. (For those fans and historians who want to learn more about the connection between Jews and baseball, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., is hosting a conference in late August. Additional information can be found online at Jewishmajorleaguers.org.)
In accepting his sportsmanship award, Ken Holtzman shared a story that illustrates the proper place of baseball in a Jewish life. In 1973 Holtzman was scheduled to pitch game two of the American League Championship Series for the Oakland A’s against the Orioles in Baltimore. But it fell on Yom Kippur, and Holtzman would not pitch. The A’s owner, Charlie Finley, and manager, Dick Williams, accepted his decision without malice. But the pitcher didn’t know anyone in Baltimore or where to go for High Holy Day prayers. Shortly, he received a call to appear in front of the team hotel the next morning. At 9 a.m. the following day, the biggest limousine Holtzman had ever seen pulled up, and the driver held the door open for him. “If only my mother could see me now,” Holtzman thought as the car rolled toward the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. He then was escorted to front row center of the synagogue, where he was offered a handshake by a distinguished-looking man standing near his family.
“Ken, let me introduce myself,” the man said. “I’m Jerry Hoffberger, owner of the Orioles.” For Holtzman, the moral of the story was simple: “Jews stick together.”
Lee Lowenfish is a freelance writer based in New York City.