Play Ball! Jews make it — onto big league baseball card set

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For anyone who says a Jew can't make it as a big-time athlete, Martin Abramowitz has an answer. Well, 141 answers, in actuality.

The Newton, Mass.-based fan has created a baseball card set encapsulating every Jew who ever laced up a pair of spikes and stepped between the lines, going back to the days before pitching mounds and mitts.

Even the most ardent Jewish baseball fan will probably pause to utter a

lengthy "uhhhhhh" after naming Sandy Koufax, Hank Greenberg and, maybe, Shawn Green. But Abramowitz's 141-card set has them all: Lipman Pike, Andy Cohen, Harry "The Horse" Danning and Ken Holtzman get their due.

"For an audience that always works on the assumption that there weren't or aren't many Jewish players, or Jews are not great athletes, or Jews have not been involved in a lot of mainstream activities of American life — motherhood and apple pie stuff — Jews have, in fact, been an integral part of America's game for about 140 years now," said Michael Feldberg, executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, which is distributing the set.

The card set, known as "American Jews in America's Game," was born in Abramowitz's kitchen when he had a baseball epiphany.

"I collect vintage Jewish baseball player cards," said Abramowitz, who is planning director for Boston's Combined Jewish Philanthropies when he isn't collecting cards or sitting at Fenway Park.

"So we were sitting at the table one day and [my son] Jacob was looking at his Ken Griffey Jr. and Michael Jordan cards and I was looking at my cards and I said I could never have a complete set because about 40 of these guys never had cards.

"He was half paying attention and he said, 'Make 'em yourself.' And he took out a piece of paper and scribbled a logo with a baseball and a Jewish star."

Three years later, after crisscrossing the nation, scouring newspaper archives to deduce the religion of a ballplayer who may have played 10 big league games and has been dead for 80 years, it's nearly opening day for American Jews in America's Game.

The set ought to be available in a limited run of 15,000 units by Labor Day, though many collectors have paid their $60 in advance.

Abramowitz's quest almost ended before it started, however, when he discovered that nearly 40 Jewish players' photographs couldn't be located in either the Baseball Hall of Fame or the Sporting News archives.

"I figured I'm dead. The project was a nice idea but you can't make a set of cards with 40 photographs missing," he said with a laugh.

That's when Abramowitz's search led him to George Brace's basement.

Brace, a name that cries "Chicago" as much as Royko or Belushi, was the unofficial team photographer for both the Cubs and White Sox for more than half a century from the 1920s on. More than 200 of his photos grace Harry Caray's restaurant, named for the legendary Cubs broadcaster.

If any player ever stepped onto the grass at either Wrigley Field or Comiskey Park, Brace got 'em. More than a million negatives featuring the greats and not-so-greats of the golden age of baseball are now wedged into Brace's laundry room.

Brace died in June 2002 at the age of 89, but not before providing Abramowitz with more than 30 of the photos he needed. Abramowitz notes, with noticeable emotion, that the last photograph Brace shot was of him with Brace's daughter. In fact, the set's 141st card honors Brace.

Since many of the old-time Jewish big leaguers played only sporadically at the Major League level after journeyman careers across the minors, Abramowitz turned to Ray Nemec.

Thanks to Nemec, who earns his bread running a newsletter for collectors of antique doorknobs and is the king of minor league statistics, Abramowitz was able to fill the backs of the cards with numbers compiled in such locales as Kanakee, Quad Cities or Albuquerque.

In order to track down the remaining eight-odd photos, Abramowitz turned to Feldberg and the AJHS. Feldberg did more than just give advice on how to rummage through obituaries or high school yearbooks and track down family. He bought the project.

"This is exactly what we should be doing, bringing an appreciation for the richness of the American Jewish experience to an American Jewish audience," said Feldberg, who quickly reimbursed Abramowitz the $25,000 of his own money he had sunk into the project.

The set is now distributed by the AJHS and can be ordered at www.ajhs.org or by calling (617) 559-8884. It will also be sold at the Hall of Fame, incidentally.

Feldberg and Abramowitz's work wasn't always easy. In an era when blacks weren't allowed into the Major Leagues, some Jews kept their identities a secret.

Both Phil Cooney, an 1920s-era infielder for the Cincinnati Reds, and Sammy Bohne, who had a cup of coffee with the New York Highlanders (later the Yankees) in 1905, played in the days before names — or, perhaps, even numbers — were on the backs of uniforms. But, if they had, that name should have been "Cohen."

Jimmie Reese, a Yankee of the 1930s who actually roomed with Babe Ruth (or, more accurately, the Babe's luggage), also hid his uber-Jewish moniker.

Abramowitz recalls a perhaps too-good-to-be-true instance of Ike Danning catching for a Jewish songwriter Harry Ruby during an exhibition game. Since the battery mates opted to forgo the traditional hand signals and call their pitches in Yiddish, Reese surreptitiously had a field day.

When Danning later said, "I didn't know you were so good," Reese replied "You didn't know I was Hymie Solomon."

While only one of every thousand or so Major Leaguers was a Jew, Feldberg feels the baseball card set is a reminder of how ingrained Jews are within American history and society.

"I think most American Jews have little knowledge, understanding or appreciation about how we are newcomers or outsiders, how we didn't just get here when your grandfather or mine got here," he said.

"We are not just Ellis Island. We have been an integral part of American life and helped define American values. In 1654, a group of 23 Jews landed in New Amsterdam, what is now New York City. We have been here since the time of the pilgrims."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.