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Remembering Sam Nahem, the Syrian Jew who integrated military baseball

Long before Black Lives Matter, there was the End Jim Crow in Baseball movement.

For more than a decade before Jackie Robinson broke the sport’s color line in 1947, black newspapers, civil rights groups, progressive white activists and unions, the Communist Party, and radical politicians waged a sustained protest campaign to integrate the national pastime. Seventy-five years ago (September 8, 1945), a little-known episode in that struggle took place in, of all places, Germany’s Nuremberg Stadium, where Adolf Hitler had addressed Nazi Party rallies.

It was led by Sam Nahem, a Syrian Jew brought up in Brooklyn. Nahem was a right-handed pitcher who embraced left-wing politics. He pitched for Brooklyn College’s baseball team and played fullback on its football team in the mid-1930s. At the time, in the midst of the Depression, Brooklyn College was a center of political activism, and Nahem was radicalized, even joining the campus Communist Party group.

Sam Nahem (center) in Brooklyn College uniform

Sam Nahem (center) in Brooklyn College uniform

Signed by the Dodgers in 1935, he spent several years in the minors. Few of Nahem’s minor league teammates had ever met a Jew or a New Yorker before. Someone gave him the nickname “Subway Sam,” which lasted throughout his baseball career.

Nahem made his major league debut on October 2, the last day of the 1938 season. The 22-year old Nahem pitched a complete game to beat the Phillies 7-3 on just six hits. He also got two hits in five at-bats and drove in a run. Despite his stellar start, the Dodgers sent Nahem back to the minors, then traded him to the Cardinals in 1940, who assigned him to their minor league team in Houston and brought him back up to the big league club the next season. In his first starting assignment for the Cardinals, on April 23, 1941, Nahem pitched a three-hitter, beating the Pittsburgh Pirates 3 to 1, striking out three and giving up only one walk. That season, Nahem started eight games and relieved in 18. He won five games before losing two. He pitched 81 2/3 innings and registered an outstanding 2.98 earned run average.

Despite that performance, the Cardinals sold Nahem to the Philadelphia Phillies before the 1942 season. He made 35 appearances, posting a 1-3 won-loss record and a 4.94 ERA.

During the off-seasons, Nahem, a voracious reader, earned a law degree at St. John’s University and supported left-wing causes.

Like most radicals in those years, Nahem believed that baseball should be racially integrated. In both the minor and major leagues, he talked to some of his teammates to encourage them to be more open-minded. “I did my political work there,” he told an interviewer years later. “I would take one guy aside if I thought he was amiable in that respect and talk to him, man to man, about the subject. I felt that was the way I could be most effective.”

Nahem entered the military in November 1942. He volunteered for the infantry and hoped to see combat in Europe to help defeat Nazism. But he spent his first two years at Fort Totten in New York. During WWII, many professional players were in the military, so the quality of play on military bases was excellent.

At Fort Totten, Nahem pitched for the Anti-Aircraft Redlegs of the Eastern Defense Command. In 1943 he set a league record with a 0.85 earned run average. He also finished second in hitting with a .400 batting average and played every defensive position except catcher. In September 1944, his Ft. Totten team beat the major league Philadelphia Athletics 9-5 in an exhibition game. Nahem pitched six innings, gave up only two runs and five hits, and slugged two homers, accounting for seven of his team’s runs.

Sent overseas in late 1944, Nahem served with an anti-aircraft artillery division. After Germany surrendered in May 1945, the military expanded its baseball program. That year, over 200,000 troops played on military teams in France, Germany, Belgium, Austria, Italy, and Britain. From his base in Rheims, he was assigned to run two baseball leagues in France, while also managing and playing for his own team, the Overseas Invasion Service Expedition (OISE) All-Stars, which represented the army command in charge of communication and logistics. The team was comprised mainly of semi-pro, college, and ex-minor-league players. Besides Nahem, only one other OISE player had major league experience.

Willard Brown

Willard Brown

Many top Negro League ballplayers were in the military, but they faced segregation, discrimination and humiliation. Monte Irvin, a Negro League standout who later starred for the New York Giants, recalled: “When I was in the Army I took basic training in the South. I’d been asked to give up everything, including my life, to defend democracy. Yet when I went to town I had to ride in the back of a bus, or not at all on some buses.” Most black soldiers with baseball talent were confined to playing on all-black teams.

Nahem, defying the military establishment and baseball tradition, insisted on having African Americans on his team. He recruited Willard Brown, a slugging outfielder with the Kansas City Monarchs, and Leon Day, a star pitcher for the Newark Eagles.

Overseas Invasion Service Expedition (OISE) All-Stars

The Overseas Invasion Service Expedition (OISE) All-Stars

Nahem’s OISE team won 17 games and lost only one, attracting as many as 10,000 fans to their games, reaching the finals against the 71st Infantry Red Circlers, representing General George Patton’s 3rd Army. One of Patton’s top officers assigned St. Louis Cardinals All-Star outfielder Harry Walker, a segregationist from Alabama, to assemble a team. Besides Walker, the Red Circlers included seven other major leaguers, including Cincinnati Reds’ 6-foot-6 inch sidearm pitcher Ewell “the Whip” Blackwell.

Few people gave Nahem’s OISE All-Stars much chance to win the European Theater of Operations (ETO) championship, known as the G.I. World Series. It took place in September, a few months after the U.S. and the Allies had defeated Germany.

They played the first two games in Nuremberg. Allied bombing had destroyed the city but somehow spared the stadium. The U.S. Army laid out a baseball diamond and renamed it Soldiers Field.
On September 2, 1945, Blackwell pitched the Red Circlers to a 9-2 victory in the first game of the best-of-five series in front of 50,000 fans, most of them American soldiers. In the second game, Day held the Red Circlers to one run. Brown drove in the OISE’s team first run, and then Nahem (who was playing first base) doubled in the seventh inning to knock in the go-ahead run. OISE won the game 2-1. Day struck out 10 batters, allowed four hits and walked only two hitters.

The teams flew to OISE’s home field in Rheims for the next two games. The OISE team won the third game, as the Times reported, “behind the brilliant pitching of S/Sgt Sam Nahem,” who outdueled Blackwell to win 2-1, scattering four hits and striking out six batters. In the fourth game, the 3rd Army’s Bill Ayers, who had pitched in the minor leagues since 1937, shut out the OISE squad, beating Day by a 5-0 margin.

The teams returned to Nuremberg for the deciding game on September 8, 1945 – 75 years ago . Nahem started for the OISE team in front of over 50,000 spectators. After the Red Circlers scored a run and then loaded the bases with one out in the fourth inning, Nahem took himself out and brought in Bob Keane, who got out of the inning without allowing any more runs and completed the game. The OISE team won the game 2-1.

A Jewish Communist and two Negro Leaguers had helped OISE win the GI World Series. The Sporting News adorned its report on the final game with a photo of Nahem.

Back in France, Brigadier Gen. Charles Thrasher organized a parade and a banquet dinner, with steaks and champagne, for the OISE All-Stars. As historian Robert Weintraub has noted: “Day and Brown, who would not be allowed to eat with their teammates in many major-league towns, celebrated alongside their fellow soldiers.”

One of the intriguing aspects of this episode is that, despite the fact that both major league baseball and the American military were racially segregated, no major newspaper even mentioned the historic presence of two African Americans on the OISE roster. If there were any protests among the white players, or among the fans — or if any of the 71st Division’s officers raised objections to having African American players on the opposing team — they were ignored by reporters. For example, an Associated Press story about the fourth game simply referred to “pitcher Leon Day of Newark.”

It isn’t known if Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey was aware of Nahem’s triumph over baseball segregation in the military. But in October 1945, a month after Nahem pitched his integrated team to victory in the European military championship, Rickey announced that Jackie Robinson had signed a contract with the Dodgers. In April 1947, Robinson became the first African American player in the modern major leagues.

Nahem returned to Brooklyn after the war and played baseball on weekends for a top-flight semi-pro team, the Brooklyn Bushwicks, who often played and beat the best Negro League teams and sometimes even defeated teams comprised of major league All-Stars. In October 1946, Nahem captained the Bushwicks team that represented the U.S. at the Inter-American Tournament in Venezuela. Nahem led the team to the championship, including winning the final game over Cuba. He remained in Venezuela to play for Navegantes del Magallanes, a racially integrated team in the professional winter league, pitching 14 consecutive complete games to set a league record that still stands today.

The Philllies recruited Nahem for their 1948 season. By then, several major league teams had hired black players, but the Phillies weren’t one of them. In fact, the Phillies were probably baseball’s most racist team, known for verbal abuse toward Jackie Robinson in his rookie season the previous year. Manager Ben Chapman gained notoriety for his vicious taunting of Robinson and was still managing the team when Nahem joined the roster.

Years later, Nahem recalled that “he [Chapman] left me in once to take a real beating. When you’re a racist you are also an anti-Semite. Some reporters asked him about it, whether he kept me in there for some reason other than the demands of the game. He denied that it was anti-Semitism.”

Nahem’s second fling with the Phillies lasted only one season. He pitched his last major league game on September 11, 1948. In his four partial seasons in the majors, he logged a 10–8 won-loss record and a 4.69 ERA. After leaving the Phillies, Nahem pitched briefly for the San Juan team in the Puerto Rican League at the end of 1948, then rejoined the Bushwicks for the 1949 season.

Nahem worked briefly as a law clerk but was never enthusiastic about pursuing a legal career. He took jobs as a door-to-door salesman and as a longshoreman unloading banana boats on the New York docks. The FBI kept tabs on Nahem, as it did with many leftists during the 1950s Red Scare. Agents would show up at his workplaces and tell his bosses that he was a Communist. He lost several jobs as a result.

To escape the Cold War witch-hunting, and to start life anew, Nahem, his wife Elsie, and their children moved to the San Francisco area in 1955. Nahem got a job at the Chevron fertilizer plant in Richmond, owned by the giant Standard Oil Corporation. During most of his 25 years at Chevron, he worked a grueling schedule — two weeks on midnight shift, two weeks on day shift, then two weeks on swing shift. He left the Communist Party in 1957, but he remained an activist. He served as head of the local safety committee for the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union at the Richmond plant. Nahem was often offered management positions, but he refused to take them, preferring to remain loyal to his coworkers and his union.

Despite his grueling work schedule, Nahem immersed himself in the new wave of activism. He took his children to civil rights and anti-war demonstrations. His son Ivan recalled Nahem hosting lots of dinner parties where the talk was all about politics and the civil rights movement. In 1969, Nahem helped lead a strike among Chevron workers that attracted support from the Berkeley campus radicals.. Nahem died in 2004 at 88.

Sam Nahem (l) in later years with family.

Sam Nahem (l) in later years with family.

Although Nahem often talked about his days as a major league pitcher, he rarely discussed the accomplishment that best combined his athletic talent and his political views — his role in integrating military baseball.

Peter Dreier teaches politics at Occidental College. His books include The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame, We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism, American Style, and the forthcoming Baseball Rebels: The Reformers and Radicals Who Shook Up the Game and Changed America.

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