Subway Sam Nahem, ballplayer and union man, dies at 88

One spring day in 1940, after a particularly disastrous outing, young Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Sam Nahem was asked by a New York Daily News reporter what good he was doing the team.

“I am now in the egregiously anonymous position of pitching batting practice to the batting practice pitchers,” said the clever right-hander, without missing a beat.

Often the only New Yorker — and Jew — his teammates had ever met, he was nicknamed “Subway Sam.” A born raconteur and lifelong liberal, Nahem died Monday, April 19, of natural causes at age 88 in his Berkeley home.

Nahem, a former Brooklyn sandlot baseball legend, Brooklyn college quarterback, and law school graduate and licensed attorney, went on to pitch parts of four seasons in the big leagues sandwiched around a military hitch. After hanging up his spikes in 1948, he moved his family from the Big Apple to Berkeley nearly 50 years ago, where he was a longtime organizer and activist for the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union.

“Sam believed in people. That’s why he was so political. He believed that people deserved more, and so there was a great faith in humanity,” said Joanne Nahem, Sam’s daughter.

Added his eldest son, Ivan, “I remember my dad said once he couldn’t understand James Joyce, and that was inconceivable to me he wouldn’t understand something, [especially] something literary, he was so well-read. As a kid, that was a shocking concept.”

Nahem, who grew up in a Syrian Jewish neighborhood where the first language was Arabic, excelled at a number of sports. His youngest son, Andrew, recalls tales of long, hot summers spent in backwoods towns during his minor league days — which Nahem would pass by “reading all of Balzac.” Sometimes, Nahem would even bring his books into the dugout.

“It was almost detrimental to him at that age. He was almost too bookish for the jocks he was around,” said Ivan Nahem. “He might have gone further [in baseball] if it weren’t for his bookishness, but that’s who he was.”

Besides being a Jew with an advanced degree, Nahem differed from his Major League teammates in his strong belief that baseball should be integrated.

“I was in a strange position. The majority of my fellow ballplayers, wherever I was, were very much against black ballplayers, and the reason was economic and very clear. They knew these guys had the ability to be up there and they knew their jobs were threatened directly and they very, very vehemently did all sorts of things to discourage black ballplayers,” Nahem told j. in a rollicking October 2003 interview.

Nahem enjoyed his best professional season in 1941, for the St. Louis Cardinals, when he went 5-2. A year later, however, he was a Philadelphia Phillie. The next year, he was drafted.

“Subway” Sam didn’t see combat in Europe. But, in 1945, he did team up with legendary Negro League pitcher Leon Day to lead the integrated Overseas Invasion Service Expedition all-stars over an all-white 71st Infantry Division team stocked with professionals. The high-pressure games were played in front of 50,000 rabid fans at the same Nuremburg stadium in which Hitler held his most infamous rallies.

Nahem made it back to the Big Leagues in 1948. In his career, he was 10-8 with one save and a 4.69 ERA.

After moving to Berkeley in 1955, Nahem threw himself into his work as a union organizer. Son Andrew recalls Nahem leading a successful strike against Chevron Chemical, “Being gone for days at a time and sleeping in his clothes and stuff like that.”

Nahem retired two decades ago, but would sometimes accompany friend and fellow union organizer David Aroner into negotiations as a volunteer, where his years of accumulated wisdom and legendary wit made him a formidable asset.

Nahem is survived by his children: Ivan of Hoboken, N.J.; Joanne of Minneapolis; and Andrew of New York City; and three grandchildren. His wife, Elsie died of cancer 30 years ago. Sam never remarried, but he did have a long-term relationship with Nancy Shafsky.

“I was always the envy of my friends because I had such a great father,” said Andrew Nahem.

“It’s been very hard the last few years. But, when I think about it overall, I feel tremendously lucky.”

The Nahem family requests donations in Sam’s name be sent to Doctors Without Borders, P.O. Box 1856, Merrifield, VA 22116-8056

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.