2006-05-12—Jewish humor in baseball
By Bruce Lowitt
OLDSMAR, Fla—Most baseball fans have heard of (and probably cheered) players like Ron
Blomberg (baseball's first designated hitter), Sandy Koufax, Hank Greenberg, Al Rosen, Shawn Green, Al Schacht and others— all Jews who starred in the major leagues.
They are merely the most notable of Jewish ballplayers who made it to The Show. Nearly 200 have been on big-league rosters throughout history.
Schacht was a pitcher for the 1919-21 Washington Senators before an arm injury cut short his playing career.
But he found his calling as "The Clown Prince of Baseball" appearing before single games and between doubleheaders.
In a crushed top hat, cleats and dusty tuxedo tails over a baseball uniform, Schacht delighted crowds, pantomiming a game, mimicking umpires, "rowing" a make-believe boat in a puddle with two bats as oars during rain delays, and so on. Schacht also performed at 25 World Series and 18 All-Star Games.
In his 1955 book, My Own Particular Screwball, Schacht wrote: "There is talk that I am Jewish —just because my father was Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I speak Yiddish and once studied to be a rabbi and a cantor. Well, that's how rumors get started."
Max Patkin followed Schacht into the baseball clowning business. Patkin, who wore a baggy uniform and a sideways cap, had an enormous nose in the middle of an elastic face, and his 6-foot-3 frame seemed to be double-jointed— at every joint.
The late Bill Veeck, onetime owner of the Cleveland Indians, who hired Patkin to increase attendance, once said of him: "He was put together by someone who didn't read the instructions very well."
Jews have been part of the major leagues since their inception.
On May 9, 1876, the first year of organized baseball, Lipman Emanuel "Lip" Pike, a New York City native, was the starting centerfielder for the National League's St. Louis Brown Stockings.
Pike actually began his pro baseball career five years earlier, playing in the National Association (a forerunner of the NL) for the Troy Haymakers, Baltimore Canaries (we are not making this up), Hartford Dark Blues and the Brown Stockings the year before they became an inaugural NL franchise.
He also played for the Cincinnati Reds, Providence Grays and the Worcester Ruby Legs (really) before his big-league career ended in 1881.
In 1913, a song, "Jake, Jake, the Yiddisher Ball Player (lyrics by Blanche Merrill, music by Irving Berlin) was published.
Back then, "Yiddisher" was what we now call a racial slur, but those times were different.
A sample of the lyrics about a man who has bet 50 cents on a game:
Who's that at the bat?
Did you say it's Jakey Rosenstein? Fine.
Jake, now don't you miss it.
Jake, go on and kiss it.
Give it a knock and don't you fake. .
What's that I hear the people shout?
Jake, I lose me half a dollar.
Poison you should swallow.
Moe Berg's reputation was built not on his baseball ability - he was a mediocre catcher at best - but as a spy.
He earned degrees from Princeton and Columbia Law School and studying philosophy at the Sorbonne and was multi-lingual.
A teammate once said of Berg: "He can speak seven languages, but he can't hit in any of them."
During World War II, Berg was an officer in the Office of Strategic Services, which later became the Central Intelligence Agency.
The general manager of the Cleveland Indians is Mark Shapiro, which Jonathan Mayo, a Jewish baseball writer for MLB. com, points out, means the Tribe has a Member of the Tribe.
Larry Sherry was a pitcher and Norm a catcher with the Dodgers in the 1950s and '60s. On May 7, 1960. they became the first - and so far only - all-Jewish brother battery in major-league history.
For those of you scoring at home, they had a pretty good game. The Dodgers beat Philadelphia 3-2 in 11 innings, Norm had two hits in three at-bats with a run batted in, and Larry pitched four innings in relief for the win.
By the way, because baseball plays on Jewish holidays, there has been conflict between the game and the Jewish community. The game has yet to relent, but some players have taken matters into their own hands by not playing during the highest of Holy Days.
Best known, of course is the hero of every Jewish fan of the Brooklyn (yay) and Los Angeles (feh) Dodgers. Sandy Koufax refused to pitch in Game One of the 1965 World Series against Minnesota because it was Yom Kippur.
Manager Walter Alston had to start his other ace, Don Drysdale, who lasted less than three innings, giving up seven runs.
When Alston came to the mound to remove him from the game, Drysdale said, "Well, Skip, I bet you wish I was Jewish today, too, huh?"
Lowitt is a semiretired sports writer living in Florida with his wife and more than half a century of guilt.