Before the start of the 2004 baseball season, the American Jewish Historical Society published a set of baseball cards devoted to Jews in the Major Leagues. The set featured the 142 members of the tribe who had made the big time — even if only for the proverbial cup of coffee. For baseball nuts like myself, who believe that there is no such thing as trivia when it comes to the national pastime, the collection provided many moments of joy. There were, of course, the Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg cards, honoring the legendary Baseball Hall of Famers, but there was also a card for Mississippi-bred Charles Solomon “Buddy” Myer, the Washington Senators’ second baseman of the 1930s, who, with 2,131 hits, is the only Jewish player to have passed the 2,000 mark. (Currently third with 1,726, 33-year-old Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Shawn Green has a good chance to pass Myer.) Also given his due was right-handed pitcher Barney Pelty, the “Yiddish Curver,” who won only 92 games laboring for bad St. Louis Browns teams before World War I, and yet retired with the best earned-run average of any Jewish pitcher — a 2.62 — outstripping Koufax’s 2.76.
The AJHS now has issued an updated edition of Jewish Major Leaguers, 54 cards that prove once again that nothing about baseball is insignificant. The new set updates the stats of the record number of 12 currently active Jewish Major Leaguers, including such major contributors as Green, Houston Astros catcher Brad Ausmus, Philadelphia Phillies catcher Mike Lieberthal and St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Jason Marquis. There is also a card for Adam Greenberg, the young Chicago Cubs outfielder who last summer suffered the indignity of being hit on the head with the first pitch he saw in the Major Leagues. (Recovered from his concussion, Greenberg started spring training with the Cubs but was recently sent back to the minors.)
The new edition also honors “Pioneers,” people who made major contributions in all aspects of the game. Albert “Dolly” Stark, the first great Jewish umpire, is featured on one card. Stark is a man whose mobility on the field from 1927 to 1940 set a standard for the men in blue (later he became Dartmouth College’s basketball coach). Another card highlights Brooklyn Eagle sportswriter Abe Yager, who started out as a 15-year-old office boy and protégé of Henry Chadwick — the man who codified baseball’s early rules and invented the box score — and ultimately came to enjoy a sports writing career spanning nearly half a century. Allen Roth, a Brooklyn Dodgers statistician, is another pioneer. There is also famed New York Yankees broadcaster Mel Allen, born Melvin Allen Israel in Birmingham, Ala.; his memorable exclamation “How about that?” is featured on the front of his card.
Another new section, highlighting “Discoveries,” lists Hall of Fame Cleveland Indians shortstop Lou Boudreau. Though raised by a Christian father, Boudreau was descended on his mother’s side from a Quebec Jewish family. There is also a puckish card, “Half a Minyan: 1946 New York Giants,” which pictures the five Jews who played for the team that season: outfielders Morrie Arnovich, Sid Gordon and Goody Rosen; pitcher Harry Feldman, and infielder Mike Schemer. Incidentally, Schemer an example of one of the few times a rabbi’s son made the big leagues.
Three players in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League also make the new edition. Anita Foss’s card offers the touching item telling about how she took up baseball after her husband was killed in World War II. Initially there were four women featured in the 2006 series, but Margaret Wigiser phoned Marty Abramowitz, card project founder and president of Jewish Major Leaguers, Inc., informing him that she was Catholic, not Jewish. Abramowitz immediately removed the card, replacing it with a new one reading “Error” and picturing a bungling outfielder on the front and the explanation on the back. “This may be the first time a correction card has been issued,” Abramowitz said. His day job is with the Jewish Federation, where he is vice president of planning for the Combined Jewish Philanthropies in the greater Boston area.
Abramowitz himself is depicted on one card in the new set, throwing out the first pitch at Boston’s Fenway Park on Memorial Day 2004. The 65-year-old native of Brooklyn grew up a Yankee fan because, he said, the only television in his multifamily house belonged to a Bronx Bombers devotee. While enjoying the Warholian moment of fame that the new edition has brought him, Abramowitz took pains to stress that the historical and cultural aspect of the project is paramount. His goal is “to document American Jews in America’s Game,” and he pays tribute to the scholars and indefatigable researchers who have turned up the valuable nuggets about the players — paying special tribute to Peter Horvitz and his “Big Book of Jewish Baseball” (S.P.I. Books, 2001), Canadian writer David Spaner and Sheldon Wallman, editor of Jewish Sports Review and of the Web site jewishsportsreview.com.
JML, Inc. has several new projects in the works. An oral history, tentatively titled “Playing America’s Game: Memories of Jewish Major Leaguers,” is well under way, and Abramowitz would next like to issue a collection of cards devoted to Jewish achievers in other sports. The organization also has given a donation of a few thousand dollars to the fledgling Israel Association of Baseball, to help the organization in its efforts to build local diamonds and field a competitive team in international play. JML, Inc. has provided for the outfield wall in Israeli ballparks a portable sign listing American Jewish Major Leaguers.
Like the original edition, of which only a few high-priced luxury sets remain, the 2006 card edition is limited to 10,000 sets and is available at www.ajhs.org. Further information on the project to document the Jewish role in baseball and other sports is available at www.jewishmajorleaguers.org.
Lee Lowenfish is a freelance writer based in New York City. His biography of Branch Rickey, “Ferocious Gentleman,” is due out next year from the University of Nebraska Press.