Baseball And The Jewish Soul

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New book probes links between the diamond and the diaspora.

COVER ART OF BASEBALLIn 1938, Tiger slugger Hank Greenberg, the icon of Detroit Jewish pride, nearly broke Babe Ruth’s “untouchable” single-season record of 60 home runs. But that wasn’t all that was going on in the Jewish world. More was happening outside Detroit … across the ocean.

Forty-one days after Hank Greenberg’s 58th home run, Herschel Gryznspan, a 17-year-old Polish Jew, attempted to kill an official of the German Embassy in Paris. … “I did it because I loved my parents and the Jewish people who have suffered so unjustly,” he said.

The Nazi diplomat died, and his genocidal regime used the incident as pretext to launch the Kristallnacht pogrom in Germany and Austria resulting in the murder of scores of Jews, the burning of more than 1,000 synagogues and looting of 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses. This horror was a prelude to the Holocaust and World War II.

Detroit Tiger star Hank Greenberg
Detroit Tiger star Hank Greenberg

Three years later, Greenberg, the greatest Jewish baseball player of all time, was the first Major Leaguer to enlist in the Armed Forces after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He returned to the Tigers after the war in 1945 and led the team to a World Series championship.

But by 1948, Greenberg had retired from the game and was employed as a front-office executive with the world-champion Cleveland Indians. On this winning team was another Jew, Al Rosen — a young infielder who would soon become a superstar in his own right.

Pause here, however, for another reality check: What was happening at that time of great consequence to Jews worldwide?

A week after Al Rosen and Hank Greenberg rode in the victory parade in downtown Cleveland to celebrate the winning of the World Series, the new State of Israel repelled most of the invading armies of Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Egypt still remained a threat to the tiny nation of 650,000. …

While more Jewish Americans were buying television sets, many wealthy Iraqi Jews were arrested. Some were hanged, and Zionism was declared a crime. The events would lead to the confiscation of property and bank accounts by Iraq, and 126,000 Jews going to Israel.

It would take quite a history and baseball buff to compile a book of parallel timelines between baseball and Jewish history.

That author is Irwin Cohen, the local Jewish historian, Zionist and former Detroit Tiger front-office employee whose encyclopedic knowledge of the sport won him the nickname “Mr. Baseball.”

His latest book, Jewish History in the Time of Baseball’s Jews: Life on Both Sides of the Ocean, links historical events affecting Jews with concurrent tales of Jewish feats and foibles on the baseball field.

Irwin Cohen was given a World Series ring in his work for the ’84 Tigers.
Irwin Cohen was given a World Series ring in his work for the ’84 Tigers.

Although the two topics may at first seem unrelated, Cohen’s book, surprisingly, can be appreciated by Jews not obsessed with baseball on one hand and baseball nuts not members of the tribe on the other.

Link To The Holocaust
The idea for the book arose by chance. Cohen, the former publisher of the weekly Baseball Bulletin and author of Echoes of Detroit’s Jewish Communities — A History, was at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills when he met former minor-league ballplayer Richard “Hap” Foreman who was a docent there.

Foreman, whose grandfather Gus “Happy” Foreman played briefly in the Major Leagues, and Cohen, who spent nine years working in a public relations role with the Tigers, hit it off right away over baseball. But, being at the Holocaust Center, they also speculated what their lives would have been like had they been born on the other side of the Atlantic.

Cohen’s book leaves the reader overwhelmed by the profound conundrum of American Jewish identity: religious freedom and upward mobility in America versus the struggle to save one’s very life everywhere else.

His grasp of historical details, whether in the diaspora or on the diamond, is impeccable. And he doesn’t just focus on Israel and the Holocaust.

Early Days
Cohen’s narrative begins on May 5, 1860, just slightly before Abraham Lincoln is elected president, as the Detroit Free Press declares, “No game has been introduced to the American public that has so permanently won their favor as base ball.”

Cohen tells of the first Jewish ballplayer, Lipman Pike of the Philadelphia Athletics who began playing in 1866. Six years later, while with Baltimore, Pike led the league with six home runs and batted a respectable .292. A speedster on the base paths, baseball lore has him winning a $250 prize by outrunning a racehorse in a 100-yard sprint.

Lipman Pike, the first Jewish ballplayer in 1866
Lipman Pike, the first Jewish ballplayer in 1866

Pike eventually retired to his native Brooklyn and opened a haberdashery. Cohen then notes:

New immigrants from Russia came to New York and brought tales of horror … Gangs [in Russia] attacked Jews at will while police did nothing … Around this time, a cholera epidemic prompted President Benjamin Harrison to issue an order for 20 days detention of all immigrants. Many blamed the influx of Russian Jews on the spreading of the disease.

Focus On Detroit
Cohen also includes Detroit in his perspective on anti-Semitism. He writes extensively about industrialist Henry Ford’s anti-Semitic diatribes in his newspaper the Dearborn Independent in the 1920s and details the activities of the Ku Klux Klan in Detroit.

Cohen also writes about growing up in Detroit in the 1950s with the influx of Holocaust survivors from Europe.

“Their children became our classmates in Hebrew school,” he writes, “and we helped Americanize them by allowing them to play baseball with us. Soon they became like us, talking baseball and collecting baseball cards.”

Cohen’s story is up-to-date with profiles of modern Jewish stars like Shawn Green, Gabe Kapler and Kevin Youkilis, and even the little-known Brian Horwitz, a rookie outfielder in 2008 nicknamed “Rabbi” by his San Francisco Giants teammates.

As for the Tigers home opener this Friday, “Mr. Baseball” is optimistic.

“I think the Tigers should go to the World Series,” he said. “Whether they win it depends on how hot they are that week.

Henry Ford’s anti-Semitic Dearborn Independent of Sept. 3, 1921
Henry Ford’s anti-Semitic Dearborn Independent of Sept. 3, 1921

“I think it’s going to be a very good season for Downtown Detroit,” he added. “When the Tigers first came to Comerica Park in 2000, we could see beyond the outfield stands the empty David Whitney building and the empty David Broderick Tower. It looked like the demise of Detroit.

“But now, as we look out, we can see comebacks. As our team came back from last place in 2003, our Downtown is coming back. It’s like a rebirth.”

On Tuesday, May 7, at 5:30 p.m., the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan will present Cohen with its 2013 Leonard N. Simons History Award. The honor will be given at an event at the Detroit Historical Museum. Tickets begin at $30. For information, call (248) 432-5517 or visit www.michjewishhistory.org.

On Sunday, May 19, at 6 p.m., Cohen will speak at Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor at an event sponsored by the temple brotherhood. The cost is $5. For information, call Evan Mirsky at (734) 355-2415. 

Baseball’s Jews: Life on Both Sides of the Ocean ($24.95) is available at the Book Beat and Borenstein’s Book & Music Center in Oak Park, and Spitzer’s Hebrew Book & Gift Center in Southfield. The book also can be ordered direct from the author at irdav@sbcglobal.net or (248) 967-3383 (please, no phone calls until Monday afternoon, April 8).

 By David Sachs|Senior Copy Editor

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