Forgotten Jewish Baseball Players
For Major League Baseball (MLB) fans, October is a time to focus on the playoffs (which started Oct. 5 this year) and the World Series, events that thrust Jewish Hall-of-Fame players such as Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg into the national spotlight.
To the average fan, the names Lipman Pike, Moe Berg, and Al Schacht may be forgotten—but the impact of those Jewish ballplayers is still felt in and around America’s pastime.
To Peter Horvitz, those names are indeed not forgotten. The author of The Big Book of Jewish Baseball, Horvitz relishes talking about them and keeping their memories alive in the minds of other fans. One of his personal favorites is the Brooklyn, NY-born Pike.
Known as the “Iron Batter,” Pike was one of the stars of 19th-century baseball in the United States, the first Jewish player, and the first player to be revealed as a professional—he was paid money to play.
Horvitz was also a consultant for Richard Michelson on Lipman Pike—America’s First Home Run King, an illustrated children’s book with drawings by Zachary Pullen.
“During the Civil War, many of the Brooklyn boys played baseball in the army camps and the game began to spread throughout the country,” Michelson writes. “But as baseball became America’s most poplar pastime, and spectators began to be charged to watch a ‘match’ (game), ‘captains’ (managers), hoping to both give their team an advantage and draw more ‘cranks’ (fans), began to secretly pay some of the better players, even though it was against the rules.”
Michelson says there is no way of knowing which player was the first paid in this manner, but in 1866, when he was 21 years old, Pike accepted $22 a week to move from Brooklyn to Philadelphia to join the Athletics. His career ran from 1871-1887.
“Pike is not as well known as other Jews who played in the majors like Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg,” Horvitz told JNS.org. “But he should not be forgotten because he was the first Jewish manager and first Jewish umpire. He was one of the fastest running players of his time and he once raced a horse and won. Lip was also the baseball champion of his league and the home run champion. He was much respected in his day.”
Another forgotten favorite of Horvitz, Moe Berg, had notable contributions off the field as well as on it. Berg served as a secret agent during World War II and is also remembered for a trip he took to Japan.
“In 1934 they organized a trip of major leaguers that went to Japan,” Horvitz said. “This was the most important trip ever sent to Japan and included Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Connie Mack was the organizer. The State Department called Mack and told him to bring Moe Berg along. They were happy to have him because he spoke Japanese as well as 20 other languages. Without question Berg was the most intelligent man that ever played baseball.”
While he was in Japan on that trip, Berg skipped a day of baseball and went to bring flowers to the daughter of an American Embassy staff member who had just had a baby.
“Berg left the flowers downstairs in her room and went up to the roof with a camera and filmed the entire Tokyo area,” Horvitz said. “Those pictures were later used in the Doolittle Raid on April 18, 1942.”
The Doolittle Raid was the first air raid by the U.S. to strike the Japanese home islands during World War II, and was retaliation for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Berg played a total of 662 games from 1923-1939 for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Chicago White Sox and the Washington Senators.
According to Ralph Berger of the Society for American Baseball Research, Jewish fans should not be forgotten, either.
“I think there is another area that should be broached,” Berger told JNS.org. “That is the Jewish fan of baseball. Being a fan was a way for them to enter the mainstream of America, as well as for the players.”
Berger said Greenberg and Koufax should be remembered not only for their prowess on the diamond, but also for their guts in response to anti-Semitism.
“Hank never backed down from anyone and he refused to play on the High Holidays,” Berger said. “Koufax had guts in his response to Carl Furillo’s anti-Semitic remarks. We should remember all the Jews who played in the big leagues and overcame outright bigotry and proved they had the right to be there.”
There have been lighter sides to the Jewish experience in baseball. One example is Al Schacht. Known as the “Clown Prince,” Schacht was the first professional mascot.
“Al Schacht and Max Patkin were the forerunners of the modern day mascots,” Horvitz said. “They would entertain and clown around in between innings. This was after they retired. Schacht dressed as a hobo with a tall stove hat and a long dirty tuxedo coat. This was in the mid-late 1920s.”
While researching his book, Horvitz had the privilege of interviewing Harry Danning. Nicknamed “Harry The Horse” for Damon Runyon’s Broadway character, Danning played his entire career as a catcher for the New York Giants, and was ninth all-time in career hits behind Al Rosen.
In 1934, according to the Jewish Press, a Florida hotel refused entry to Danning and fellow Jew Phil Weintraub during spring training. “Hibiscus” was a code word for Hebrew in Florida—as in “we don’t have hibiscus in our hotel.” Giants’ manager and All-Star first baseman Bill Terry threatened to take the entire world champion team to another hotel unless his Jewish players were given lodging. The hotel’s management backed down.
“There was obviously anti-Semitism going on and there are a number of stories like the Danning one, but it was never to the extent of the racism shown to African Americans,” Horvitz said. “A lot of it was individual players facing off against another player.”