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April 19, 2018 1:21 pm

New Book Examines History of Jewish Baseball Cards

avatar by Alice Burdick Schweiger

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The cover of “The Jewish Baseball Card Book.” Photo: Provided.

If you think that Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg are among only a handful of Jewish baseball players, you might want to think again.

According to The Jewish Baseball Card Book by Bob Wechsler, with Peter McDonald and Martin Abramowitz, there are some 169 Jews who played in at least one major league game from 1871-2016. In this new, impressive coffee table book, the authors give a history of Jews in baseball and a history of baseball cards, with images of each player seen on various cards.

Putting the book together was the idea of Abramowitz, who was once an avid collector of baseball cards. “Baseball cards have been around since the mid-1880s, and Jewish players appear in almost every set of baseball cards ever made,” says Abramowitz, who is a retired Jewish community executive in Boston, and the head of the Jewish Major Leaguers, a nonprofit organization.

“I had done two programs about Jewish baseball players at the Hall of Fame, and I met Bob Wechsler, a sports writer/editor who had an extensive collection of original baseball cards — plus he wrote the book Day by Day in Jewish Sports History in 2007.  When I thought about putting a book together, I called him and he loved the idea. We both felt that baseball cards are a wonderful icon of American culture.”

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There was a lot of research in the late 1990s about which baseball players were Jewish — but not all the Jewish players had cards. “Forty of the Jewish players didn’t have a card. During World War ll, there was a stoppage of printing baseball cards, and the same for World War l,” he explains. “And if you go back to the 1920s and ’30s, not everyone had a card — and many players had brief careers. So, finding photos of these 40 players was a major achievement.”

In the book, the criteria for determining which players are Jewish is that they had at least one Jewish parent, did not practice another faith, and identified as being Jewish. “Interestingly, in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, virtually every Jewish player had two Jewish parents. But by the 1990s and 2000s, most had only one Jewish parent,” notes Abramowitz.

About 98% of the cards shown in the book are owned by Wechsler, in his personal collection. “There’s a fairly large community of Jewish collectors, and we’re in touch with each other on message boards, so if I needed a certain image, someone was able to send it to me,” says Wechsler, who started collecting cards when he was a sports writer. He had been sent a sample pack of Pacific Trading Cards, and discovered that two of the players were Jewish. He thought it would be fun to start collecting cards of every known Jewish player.

The most difficult card to acquire, says Wechsler, was Morrie Arnovich’s 1939 Father & Son card, “It’s a regional issue from a Philadelphia area shoe store featuring Phillies and Athletics players.”

What are the rarest cards of Jewish players? “Cal Abrams 1955 Esskay Franks regional issue from Baltimore, and Herb Karpel’s 1949 Hage’s Dairy card from the old Pacific Coast League,” says Wechsler. “A Hank Greenberg 1934 Al Demaree Die-Cut card was found in a Chicago warehouse recently, and it may be the only copy. In addition, I only know of one copy of Barney Pelty’s 1912 Pirate Cigarettes card, which looks identical to his 1911 tobacco card, except for his team name and a different advertisement on the back.”

The Jewish Baseball Card Book is filled with a wealth of information on Jewish baseball history, such as the fact that the first Jewish baseball player to appear on a card was pitcher Barney Pelty in 1909, and that Al Rosen was unanimously named the American League MVP in 1953.

For sure, there is an ethnic pride that Jews have about Jewish baseball players. “I think every minority group feels pride in its athletic accomplishments,” says Wechsler. “We are in the golden age of Jewish baseball players, with more than a dozen players in the majors in each of the last three years. Two Jewish players — Alex Bregman of the Astros and Joc Pederson of the Dodgers — had outstanding World Series performances last year.”

Wechsler hopes that people will learn that there are more Jewish players than just Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax. “With the book’s chronological format rather than alphabetical, readers can find out what eras had the most active Jewish players. In the meantime, the images of their baseball cards bring the game and players to life.”

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