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Flatbush Flashback

Jewish Stars of Baseball

"Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story" trailer from Willow Pond Films on Vimeo.

"Cleveland Indians third baseman Al Rosen, the second in a very short line of 'Hebrew Hammers' (and the best Jewish slugger since the original Hebrew Hammer, Hank Greenberg), was leading the A.L. with 18 home runs, 4 more than Mickey Mantle of the Yankees." —from Bobby in Naziland

Peter Miller's Egg Cream, a documentary about the chocolate beverage that contains neither egg nor cream, led me to another Miller film, Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story, from 2010, which also coincides with a theme I touched on in Bobby in Naziland.

 

Bobby references three Jewish major league ballplayers: Brooklyn-born Sandy Koufax, pitcher for the Brooklyn and L.A. Dodgers; Detroit Tigers first-baseman and outfielder Hank Greenberg; and Cleveland Indians third-baseman Al Rosen.

 

In the book, I talk about how Koufax, on his way to the Hall of Fame, learned to throw his unhittable curve ball on the "sacred, scruffy sandlots" of Brooklyn's Parade Grounds and was crowned King of the Jews when he sat out a World Series game on Yom Kipper.

 

I also mention how Greenberg, in 1938, blasted 58 home runs, the closest anybody came to breaking Babe Ruth's record before Roger Maris did it, in 1961. Though he missed three prime years to serve in the army during World War II and was subjected to rabid anti-Semitism from fans and opposing players, over the course of his 13-year career Greenberg hit 331 homers with a .313 lifetime batting average—amazing statistics for a player of any religion.

 

But I didn't know till I saw Jews and Baseball that Greenberg, too, was celebrated for refusing to play a World Series game on Yom Kipper.

 

In this impressively comprehensive documentary, Miller, an Emmy- and Peabody-award–winning director, doesn't cover all 160 Jews who played the game going back to the dawn of professional baseball. But he covers a lot of them, lavishing most of his attention on Koufax and Greenberg, the game's two greatest Jewish stars, but also giving Rosen—somewhat obscure because he played only seven full seasons, outside a major media market—his due.

 

I've been following baseball since I was old enough to understand what baseball was. And I was brought up in a household where any Jew who'd ever achieved anything of significance was brought to my attention. Yet I didn't discover Rosen until I was about nine and started reading books like Who's Who in Baseball. I was amazed that I'd never heard of a player who'd hit so many homers—43 in 1953 alone, when he was the American League MVP—and who shared my last name.

 

He wasn't the only Rosen who played professional baseball. Also mentioned in the film is Goody Rosen, a Brooklyn Dodger and New York Giant center fielder who, in his best season, 1945, hit .325 with a dozen home runs. I remember people in my father's candy store talking about him long after he'd retired—probably because, like Y.A. Tittle, they liked saying his name.

 

Narrated by Dustin Hoffman, Jews and Baseball features extensive archival footage, interviews with fans like Larry King and Ron Howard and, of course, interviews with Koufax, Greenberg, and Al Rosen.

 

Though the film will obviously hold the strongest appeal to Jewish baseball fans (and those old enough to remember the Brooklyn Dodgers), I'd recommend Jews and Baseball to all fans, regardless of religion, race, or country of national origin. It's streaming on Amazon.

________

My latest book, Bobby in Naziland, is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers, as well as at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore.

 

I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter or my eternally embryonic Instagram.

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Maris in the Fall

 

In "Maris in the Fall," a chapter in Bobby in Naziland about Roger Maris's quest, in 1961, to break Babe Ruth's "unbreakable" home run record, I referenced four parody poems that ran in the April 8, 1962, edition of the New York Times Magazine. The poems were part of a feature, "Maris in the Spring, Tra-la, Tra-la," comprised of 19 poems by Milton Bracker, the Times Rome bureau chief.

 

The poems, published to coincide with opening day of the baseball season, are a classic example of doggerel. But when I read them at age nine, I thought they were fantastic—even the footnotes rhymed! They were better than any poem Edgar Allan Poe ever wrote, and I used to think nothing could beat "The Raven."

 

I memorized most of Bracker's poems, recited them to anybody willing to listen, and hoped that someday I, too, would be able to write such extraordinary poetry.

 

I wanted to quote some of the poems at length in Bobby in Naziland, but when I contacted the Times to get the rights to approximately 50 words, the non-negotiable price they stated was outrageous. You'd think they were selling me an original handwritten manuscript by Shakespeare.

 

So I did what I've often done in similar situations: sliced and diced a total of 16 words—enough to communicate the poems' flavor while staying well within the bounds of "fair use."

 

Since this Website is both "educational" and not for profit, in celebration of this weird season of pandemic baseball (and the normalcy of seasons past), I will now quote the four poems in full (and still remain within the bounds of fair use).

 

I Love Maris

I love Maris in the springtime,

I love Maris in the fall;

I love Maris

Nearly-as-much-as-I-love-Paris,

If he just h-i-t-s that ball.

 

The Electronic Age

Transistor Sets

Why do so many people go

To ball games with a radio

That tells each hapless nearby being

Exactly what his eyes are seeing?

(But since, at short, he was a whiz

  With every drive and bouncer,

No wonder Phil Rizzuto is

  My favorite announcer.)

 

Historic Utterance

Near Coogan's Bluff

(Oct. 3, 1951—Giants win playoff on sensational home run in 9th, 5–4)

Bobby Thomson took a bat,

Knocked the Brooklyn Dodgers flat,

Said, aware he was much richer,

"Glad I wasn't born a pitcher*."

___

  *Pity, indeed, Ralph Branca's plight:

Pitched that day. Tossed all night.

 

The Last Time I Saw Maris

The first time I saw Maris,

His bat was coming round;

I loved the way it smote the ball,

I loved the shot-like sound.

 

The next time I saw Maris,

He loped from base to base;

He didn't have to run at all,

He set a hero's pace.

 

The last time I saw Maris,

He wore a handsome tux;

He wasn't making runs at all—

But he was making bucks!

________

Bobby in Naziland is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers, as well as at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore, where you should (and probably can) buy it again.

 

I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter or my eternally embryonic Instagram.

 

 

 

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No Asterisk for Maury Wills

 

"With the transistor radio pressed to my ear, I can feel the electricity of 25,000 people in Dodger Stadium and a million more who are tuned in coast-to-coast. I can feel it pouring into Maury Wills, surging through his body. The Dodger infielder, having drawn yet another walk against the Chicago Cubs, takes a huge lead off first base, and the frenzied L.A. crowd, knowing he's feeding off their energy, is on its feet, chanting 'Go, Maury, go!' willing him to fly, to again steal second, now only 80 feet away." —from Bobby in Naziland

 

In the summer of 1962, I listened to a lot of baseball on a transistor radio my parents had given me for my birthday. Mostly I tuned in to the Yankees, the reigning World Series champs. Since the Brooklyn Dodgers had split for L.A., in 1957, I'd become a Bronx Bomber fan. There was no choice, really. I never understood how anybody could root for the Mets, the "lovable losers" created out of thin air, in 1962, to replace the irreplaceable Dodgers.

 

When the Yankees had a day off, I'd listen to a Dodger game if I could find one. Of course it bothered me that "dem bums" had moved 2,500 miles away, but fellow Brooklyn Jew Sandy Koufax was still a Dodger, so I felt a connection to "dem," though Koufax had been injured in July and was out for the rest of the season.

 

Even without Koufax, the Dodgers were a thrilling team—thanks to Maury Wills, a player I could relate to, despite his lack of Jewishness. Unlike my Yankee idols, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, who blasted baseballs into the bleachers, Wills, a 5-foot-10-inch, 160-pound infielder, who never hit more than six home runs in a season, got by on pure speed. I, too, was a fast runner and I devoted a significant portion of my childhood to trying to figure out how to apply my speed to baseball, even though my hitting abilities were akin to those of Gus Bell, the Mets right fielder, who finished the '62 season batting a hefty .149. If I could just find a way to get on base, I thought that I could be like Maury Wills.

 

With Wills providing the spark, the Dodgers were locked in a life-and-death struggle for the National League pennant with those other New York deserters, the San Francisco Giants, with the winner gaining the right to lose the World Series to the invincible Yankees.

 

Hanging out in front of my house or wandering around the neighborhood, I'd listen to Dodger games, the voice of Vin Scully transporting me to distant ballparks where I'd become one with the crowd, urging Wills to get on base and make something happen—and just about every time he came to bat, something did happen.

 

Though hitting an unspectacular .299, Wills's blazing speed forced errors, turned routine ground balls into singles, and turned walks into triples. His on-base percentage was .347, and every time he got on base, everybody watching or listening to the game knew he was going to try to steal—second, third, and sometimes home. There was little anybody could do to stop him. In 117 attempts, he was thrown out stealing only 13 times—8 of those times on hit-and-run plays when the batter didn't hit the ball. No team's entire roster had more steals than Maury Wills alone. The Washington Senators came closest, with 99.

 

Wills stole his 96th and 97th bases, tying and breaking Ty Cobb's record of 96 steals, which had stood for 47 years, in the 156th game of the season, on September 23, 1962, in a 12–2 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. (No asterisk for Maury!)

 

The Dodgers and Giants both won 100 games, finishing tied for first place and forcing a three-game playoff series. On October 3, in the seventh inning of game three, Wills stole his final base of the season—number 104.

 

But the Giants pulled the game out—1951 déjà vu all over again!!!—and went on to lose the World Series to the Yankees.

 

I watched game seven on TV, a 1–0 nail-biter at Candlestick Park. The game ended as Willie McCovey lined out hard to second baseman Bobby Richardson, with the tying and winning runs on second and third base.

 

Somewhere Maury Wills, the National League MVP—Willie Mays of the Giants, batting .304, with 49 home runs and 141 RBIs, finished second in the balloting—was watching, too.

________

Bobby in Naziland is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers, as well as at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore, where you should (and probably can buy it again).

 

I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter or my eternally embryonic Instagram.

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