Jewish Cub recalls his brief Big League career

Ed Mayer is an oxymoron. And he’s a proud oxymoron.

The license plate on the car resting in front of his cozy Corte Madera home says it all: “OLD CUB.”

When Mayer opens his door, it’s easy to guess which Major League team he used to suit up for. He’s sporting a bright blue Chicago Cubs shirt and hat. He’s eschewed sliding pants in favor of slacks, but those are blue too. Only his brown topsiders would look out of place on a current member of the Northside Boys.

Mayer has an additional reason to flaunt his tenure with the Cubbies — he’s one of only a dozen or so Jewish players to have donned the pinstripes of the team in its century-and-change of existence. He still gets a few letters a month because of that, some from as far off as Israel.

Mayer’s 1958 Topps card lists him at 6-foot-2 and 185 pounds; he doesn’t look like he’s put on too much weight since then and he certainly hasn’t shrunk. He eagerly leads visitors back to a small guest room chock full of memorabilia from Mayer’s years in organized ball as well as photographs of his three kids, eight grandkids and three great-grandchildren. (“Make sure you mention those great-grandkids in the article; three’s not bad for a guy who’s only 74.”)

Sepia-toned team photos of Mayer’s many squads adorn the walls: There’s the Portland Beavers, the Omaha Cardinals, the Greensboro Patriots, the San Jose Red Sox and the Montgomery Rebels to name a few. In each shot, Mayer is the tall, bespectacled and slightly stooped-over guy in the last row. In only one photo does Mayer resemble the strapping athlete he was: a shot of him with an arm around each of his Russian Jewish grandparents, who come up to the middle of his rib cage. With his nifty suit, glasses and the incredible height difference, the shot resembles photographs of Robert Wadlow, the world’s tallest man.

But Mayer is most interested in showing off someone else’s photos — his father’s. Ned Mayer was a top-level semipro player in San Francisco in the 1920s and even played third base on Galileo High’s team next to a lanky young shortstop named Joe DiMaggio. But in the midst of the Depression, Ned Mayer needed to put food on the table for his family, so he left the ball yard and went into plumbing.

This put young Eddie Mayer in a position vastly different from the stereotypical Jewish ballplayer of his day. No, he was never yanked off the field and forced to practice the violin. Instead, he was encouraged to play baseball since virtually day one. In fact, in one of his earliest photos, he’s not quite 3 years old and not quite half as tall as the bat his father placed in his hands.

Mayer grew into that bat. The left-handed pitcher soon made a name for himself as a playground legend for local amateur and semi-pro teams; headlines from The San Francisco Examiner, Chronicle and Call-Bulletin scream “15-year-old tosses no-hitter” and recount the day he and his dad played on the same city squad. (“He might have been kind of mad because they batted me ahead of him. He went 2-for-3, I went 1-for-4 and pitched and we won, 4-1.”)

A shot-by-shot sequence of his pitching motion published in a Cuban newspaper during his winter ball days reveals a deadly sidewinding delivery from the lanky left-hander: Imagine a southpawed Byung-Hyun Kim without an aversion to pressure situations.

When he wasn’t playing ball, his parents played the more traditionally Jewish roles of making sure he went to Lowell High School, making sure he did all his homework and taking him to Congregation Beth Israel, where he was bar mitzvahed. That Fillmore Street synagogue has since burned down, but its fabulous stained-glass windows now grace Temple Beth El in Aptos, where Mayer’s son and grandchildren attend.

It wasn’t until Mayer’s playing days at U.C. Berkeley that he got his first real taste of anti-Semitism. Thanks to his ambiguous last name, he was pledged into a fraternity with bylaws barring Jews from membership. When his religion became known, he was politely asked to leave. Not one to dwell on setbacks, Mayer immediately walked up the hill to Sigma Alpha Mu, the Jewish frat, and joined on the spot.

Still, for the most part, “Nobody cared what religion you were. As a baseball player, they just wanted to know how well you could do.”

When Mayer began playing professional baseball, he saw real hatred and discrimination. As a Cub, he was told he couldn’t attend a team function at a golf club because of a policy prohibiting Jews (Ernie “Mr. Cub” Banks — Mayer’s favorite teammate — also was not invited, as he is black). In Indianapolis a fan shouted anti-Semitic obscenities at Mayer as he pitched. But this was peanuts compared to what his black teammates withstood every day.

“There was a bad incident,” Mayer recalls. “We were in Montgomery, on our way through Georgia. And when we stopped, everybody wanted to buy a Coke out of the machine at the gas station. There was a guy on my team from San Diego, a black guy who later became a famous pitcher, Earl Wilson.

“And we all got off the bus and Earl goes to put his nickel — a nickel, ha! — in the machine and the cracker attendant comes out and points a gun at him and says ‘No n—— is going to buy a Coke out of my machine,'” Mayer says, a dead serious look across his usually jovial face.

“I got in front of [Wilson] and pushed him back on the bus and bought his Coke for him. But that guy could have gotten away with killing a black man back then in the South. Every day I saw the segregated bathrooms, restaurants and hotels. The guys on my team couldn’t even eat with us or stay with us. In Louisiana, they weren’t even allowed to take the trip. There was a law against black and white players playing sports there.”

Mayer never “walked around wearing a yarmulke or a Star of David” and, with the exception of one Cubs teammate (whom he will not name), never had a problem with anti-Semitism. No manager ever refused to play him — if anything they played him too much.

In the days before pitch counts and arthroscopic surgery, Mayer racked up hundreds of innings in the minors, sometimes adding hundreds more in Caribbean winter ball. When he began feeling progressively weaker in his sophomore big league season in 1958, doctors revealed he’d reduced the muscles in his left arm “to spaghetti” and his career was over. He played minor league and Mexican ball until he was 30 but “I knew I was through.”

He does make sure to mention that, though he won only two Major League games, one of them was over Sandy Koufax and the Los Angeles Dodgers. And that’s something.

Mayer dealt with his career’s abrupt close the same way he dealt with the anti-Semitism at the fraternity: He put it behind him quickly and moved on to something else. He worked in plumbing with his father and then returned to Cal as a 36-year-old undergraduate, earned a bachelor’s and a teaching credential and taught in Pacifica for 25 years.

Sitting with his feet up in a recliner, the Old Cub waves at the photos, newspaper clippings, the trophy he was personally awarded by Babe Ruth as outstanding player in a San Francisco teen tournament and, of course, the snapshots of his large family.

“I’m a very rich man,” he says.

And rather than focusing on what his baseball career wasn’t, he’s thrilled with what it was.

“I’ve got a better life than Bill Gates. You’re telling me Billy Crystal wouldn’t give his right testicle to have been a Major League baseball player? George Will? Tom Cruise? These people are famous and they all wanted to be baseball players. And I was.”

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.