Eddie Lake Society members live, breathe and talk baseball year-round
No World Series for our Tigers this year because their 2017 season was more of a World of Tsuris. With the Fall Classic beginning next week, our beloved Bengals are absent from post-season play for the third consecutive year.
With this past season’s trades to reduce their $199.75 million payroll, they’re also absent most of their superstars. And what is the average Jewish baseball fan to do now that the Tigers are void of our one and only Jewish manager Brad Ausmus? Move on to football? Not so fast.
The aforementioned topics are reasons enough to keep talking baseball with a passion if you happen to be one of dozens of members of our Jewish community who live, breathe and think baseball even as winter approaches. That’s because they’re members of a distinguished group of baseball aficionados that is Detroit’s Eddie Lake Society (ELS). Fifty percent, give or take, of the society’s 100 members are Jewish. But Eddie who?
Eddie Lake is an ordinary ball player who donned the Old English D from 1946-1950. Ordinary being the operative word in describing why his name was chosen to be the namesake of the society by its founder, the late Detroit News sportswriter Joe Falls, who created the group 20 years ago. But why Eddie Lake?
“He did very little to be immortalized as a major league ball player,” Jerry Green, a colleague of Falls wrote of Eddie Lake in 2015. “But that is the perverse reason Eddie Lake has been immortalized in Detroit. Because he was ordinary. So, it is that a group of baseball addicts — ordinary men and women — meet monthly in gab sessions of the Eddie Lake Society.”
So, nu? Where’s the Jewish connection? Joe Falls wasn’t Jewish, but the co-founder of the society, Max Lapides, 90, of West Bloomfield is. As the story goes, Max called Joe one day to spout off about one of his columns, which resulted in a lunch date — and several more lunches and a friendship. Joe expressed to Max that while he covered all sports, he wished he could get a group together to just … talk … baseball. And the rest, as they say, is history.
If each Jewish member of the society had his or her own baseball card, you’d learn quickly they’re a veteran group. Dr. Manny Sklar, 92, former chief of gastroenterology at Sinai Hospital, who retired this year after 60 years in practice, has been a lifelong baseball fan. “I attended the 1935 World Series against the Cubs when I was 10 years old and traveled to St. Louis to watch the Tigers in the Series in 1968,” Sklar told me.
He joined the society after a member invited him to hear Tigers manager Jim Leyland speak. “He was wonderful,” Sklar said. “Very humorous and interesting. Since then, I’ve been a regular attendee.”
Manny recalled that Leyland got stopped for a traffic violation while driving to the meeting. My guess is the manager got out of the ticket by providing the officer a couple of his own.
Ironically, ELS member Irwin Cohen, 75, would have a fateful encounter with the Eddie Lake nearly a half century before there would be a club bearing his name. “I was at my very first baseball game in 1950 with my Yeshiva Beth Yehudah Day Camp,” Cohen fondly recalled. “During warm ups, Eddie threw us a baseball … but I didn’t catch it!”
For Cohen, baseball is more than just in his blood — it once was in his paycheck. Cohen was the director of group ticket sales for the Tigers for nine years; joining the front office in 1983, just in time to earn a World Series ring in 1984!
Cohen wore many caps for the Tigers, including shooting photographs, which led to perhaps his most memorable baseball encounter.
“In 1983, the Tigers retired Hank Greenberg’s number. I was on the field for the ceremonies,” Cohen told me. “Before the game, I had a chance to interview him and we made a trade. He would give me a personalized autograph and I would send him copies of the pics I took.”
Who knew the biggest trade in baseball in 1983 would be between Hank Greenberg and Irwin Cohen?!
Over the years, Cohen has written several books about baseball and co-produced Echoes of Tiger Stadium with Joe Falls; a three-hour recording that includes conversations with numerous legends of the game, including Ted Williams and our own Ernie Harwell and Al Kaline. It’s obvious Irwin is never short of material for his next Eddie Lake Society lunch.
Looking down my ELS scorecard, I come to Dr. Robert “Bob” Matthews, 82, a retired orthodontist and society member for the last 15 years. Like many of his fellow teammates at the society, the good doctor has incredible memories of Hank Greenberg.
“I saw my first game at age 5. My dad pointed Hank Greenberg out with great pride, as being one of us,” Bob said. “I remember asking him, ‘Daddy, how do you know it’s him — they all have the same white uniform on.’ My dad’s answer: ‘Bobby, I know you can count to 5. See the very tall man in the center wearing No. 5 on his back? That’s our Hank Greenberg.’”
If Bob Matthews’ name looks familiar, that’s probably because you’ve encountered it at the JCC in West Bloomfield. That’s where “The Matthews Sports Exhibit-Jewish Heroes and Other Legends” is housed. It’s a breathtaking exhibit featuring his personal rare sports memorabilia and the award-winning documentary Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story.
Bob said, “There’s a joy in having the memorabilia, but the true real joy is sharing it with those who appreciate it.”
So, does the “starting lineup” of members of the Eddie Lake Society include any younger Jewish baseball fanatics? You betcha. Frank Reinstein, 41, is affectionately referred to by his ELS buddies as “the young guy.” And it figures he’s into baseball — he’s a numbers guy. Frank is a CPA and senior audit manager.
Frank confirms the number of Jewish members in the society is sheer coincidence, not a condition.
“The Jewish camaraderie is not so much in the ELS as it is outside. Inside the club, we’re just baseball fans, regardless of age, religion or color. However, I’ll see fellow members outside the ELS at temple, bar mitzvahs, weddings, and we talk freely about our club. I can walk up to someone at Yom Kippur services and start a conversation about who the Tigers’ next skipper might be.”
Like Bob, Frank has a tremendous collection of memorabilia, including Jim Leyland’s jersey from the 2013 All-Star game and the actual on-deck circle used at the last game played at Tiger Stadium.
No baseball “club” is successful without a strong manager and the Eddie Lake Society is no exception. Meet Karen Bush, 76, its executive secretary. Her responsibilities have grown over the years, especially when Joe Falls’ health prohibited him from running the club like he used to.
Karen loves her Tigers and she is a tiger. She runs the society with a determination that is unmatched and greatly admired. And she’s been a baseball fan and purist since birth … actually a little before.
She recalls fondly her first Tiger game in 1941. “My mother was pregnant with me. She was 41 and it was her first pregnancy. She wasn’t around other pregnant women and was totally unprepared the first time I kicked. I kicked again, and she turned around in reaction and bashed the man sitting in the box seat behind her over the head with her popcorn.”
Karen was especially close with the Tigers teams of the mid-1960s. “I knew all the players and their wives and they knew me. I was sort of a semi-official mascot — everybody’s pesky kid sister. They, and the ’68 Tigers, knew me as ‘Teach’” — a nickname honoring her profession at the time.
J.P. McCarthy talked baseball with Bush regularly on WJR radio. The exposure caught Joe Falls’ attention. “He asked me to the second meeting ever of the ELS. Did I decide to join? I never even thought about it one way or the other. It was baseball, and that was where I belonged.”
Karen isn’t Jewish but every Jewish member of the society I spoke with confirmed affectionately that she is an honorary Member of the Tribe. “She keeps the group together,” Irwin Cohen said. “Without her, I think the club would have been gone a long time ago.”
It’s impossible not to wax nostalgic when you’re introduced to the Eddie Lake Society members and their passion for our National Pastime. Their stories took me back to a more innocent time in baseball history. So much so, I nearly got out my Royal typewriter to prepare this column.
Hopefully, the Eddie Lake Society will find a way to survive for many years to come. As the immortal New York Yankee Yogi Berra once said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
Alan Muskovitz is a writer, voice-over/acting talent, speaker, emcee and a regular guest host on the Mitch Albom Show on WJR AM 760. Visit his website at laughwithbigal.com and “Like” Al on Facebook.
Meet Eddie Lake
At 5’7, 160 lbs., Edward “Eddie” Lake was considered by many to be too small to play pro ball. Yet, the scrappy shortstop hustled his way through 11 Major League seasons from 1939 to 1950.
Eddie Lake Society member Irwin Cohen described Lake as a “nondescript player; a back-up player’s back up.” In his five seasons with the Tigers (1946-1950), Lake hit just .229 with 23 homeruns and 111 RBIs. He was more adept at walking than hitting. In the ’46 and ’47 seasons, Lake combined for 342 base on balls.
Lake had a career batting average of .231; hitting 39 homers with 193 RBIs in 835 games. He died June 7, 1995, at age 79.