What Cards They Were - Heinie, Sandy and the Flip

Baseball Hall of Fame sponsors 140-card Jewish set

Tamar Morad
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Tamar Morad

What do Andy Cohen, Buddy Meyer and Al "Flip" Rosen have in common? If that's too tough, how about Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax?

Only a small minority of baseball buffs would likely recognize all of these men as Jewish major-leaguers. But the task will be easier when a collection of specially minted baseball cards of Jews who have played in the major leagues becomes part of the permanent exhibition at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Martin Abramowitz, who has a doctorate in social welfare and works for Boston's Combined Jewish Philanthropies, is the man behind the set. He has spent $25,000 of his own money - and the past four years - collecting data on the players and creating cards for 140 Jewish major-leaguers.

"I believe that until this card set is released, the full extent of Jewish participation in the game at the major-league level remains a story that has not been told well, and a story which deserves wider dissemination," wrote the Hall of Fame's director of research, Timothy Wiles, in a letter to the American Jewish Historical Society, which agreed to sponsor the project.

Wiles told the Forward that it is the first card set of an American ethnic group and that he hopes other groups will follow suit.

Major League Baseball, baseball's governing body, and the Players' Association are currently reviewing the set for licensing - essentially a matter of verifying that the pictures on the cards will be of high quality. After such approval, AJHS can market the set for sale.

The project was born in 1998 when Abramowitz and his bar-mitzvah-aged son, Jacob , were sitting at the breakfast table examining a Hank Greenberg card, the elder Abramowitz's latest addition to his collection of vintage baseball cards. Greenberg was arguably the best Jewish baseball player of all time. Wouldn't it be a challenge, Abramowitz thought, to have cards made for all the Jewish major-leaguers in history? His son agreed.

"He drew the logo right away - it seemed obvious to him what it should be," said Abramowitz. That logo - a Star of David with a baseball inside of it - appears on each card today.

To be sure, Abramowitz isn't the first to document the history of Jews in the game - several books and a magazine called the Jewish Sports Review have already done that. But this is the first time that anyone has sought to create a card set of all the Jewish major-league baseball players in history.

The set captures "the intersection of baseball, the all-American game, and being Jewish, which probably meant being an immigrant, or viewed as such," Abramowitz said. "The Jews literally played America's game. They integrated, and their fans integrated with them."

The cards, which read "Jewish Major Leaguers" across the top front, feature a picture of the player, along with his name across the bottom. On the back are the players' baseball statistics, along with some Jewish-baseball factoids. For Heinie Scheer, for example, who played for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1922 and 1923, Abramowitz includes the fact that "Heine combined with Moe Berg (who broke into baseball as a shortstop) to form what may be the only documented Jewish double-play combination in the history of professional baseball."

In determining which players qualified as Jews, Abramowitz used the Jewish Sports Review's standard. That is, players were deemed Jewish by matrilineal or patrilineal descent, or if they converted to Judaism before their time in the major leagues, but not if they converted out before those years - and as long as they never renounced their Judaism.

Working off of the Review's list, the crackerjack researcher, tracked down 90 existing baseball cards from the Hall of Fame, but cards were never made for many of the players who weren't stars in the game's early days.

Abramowitz traveled to the Chicago home of George Brace, a photographer who had snapped the images of every player who came through the Chicago Cubs' Wrigley Field and the Chicago White Sox's Comiskey Park between 1929 and 1993. Brace, who died in June, stored his photos in metal filing cabinets in his basement and supplied Abramowitz with many of the photos he was looking for.

Another baseball guru, Roy Nemec, who had created a database of minor-league players, helped provide information on some of the players who had short stints in the major leagues and spent most of their careers in the minors. Players' obituaries led Abramowitz to their families and alma maters, and to more photographs.

The earliest players posed some of the toughest cases to crack. Prior to the hey day of Jews in baseball - the 1930s and 1940s - when anti-Semitism was a hard fact in professional sports in America, many Jewish baseball players used aliases. Thus, each card Abramowitz made indicates the player's real name in his career summary, which appears on the back of each card.

Abramowitz admits to one strike-out - Ike Samuels, who played briefly during the 1890s for the St. Louis Cardinals, wasn't included in the set because Abramowitz couldn't find a photo for him.

But Abramowitz, who said he enjoys the idea that he's "doing justice to the memories of these people," etched into Jewish baseball history two men who were absent from prior lists - Guy Zinn, who played for the short-lived Federal League in 1913 and 1914, was omitted from prior lists by a clerical error, and Sam Fishburn, a St. Louis Cardinals player, was included after his grandnephew contacted Abramowitz.

The researcher was able to verify Fishburn's Jewishness because Nemec found himself in the player's Pennsylvania hometown one day, tracked down his obituary, and went to the local funeral home to find out who had officiated at the funeral. It was a rabbi.

Abramowitz has several ideas that are waiting in the bull pen if his set generate s sufficient revenues. One of them is to document on film the oral histories of former players or their survivors. He'd like to ask what it meant to them to be both baseball professional and Jew - in particular, their experiences with anti-Semitism in the game and whether succeeding at baseball helped them and their Jewish fans integrate into American culture.

By arrangement with the Forward