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Jewish baseball heroes, real and fake

Ross Ufberg at the Forward’s Arty-Semite launched an imaginative series about "The Lions of Zion," a fictional all-Jewish baseball team trying to compete in the National League in 1933.

Had the team been real, JTA might have been able to help the hapless Hebrews drum up support the following year.

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JTA Jewish Daily Bulletin "Slants on Sports" columnist Morris Weiner had a connection with 1934 National League president-elect Ford Frick. Like Weiner, Frick had made his mark as a sports writer, and the two apparently got along just swell. So much so that Weiner doled out three pairs of World Series tickets in a JTA essay contest called "The Greatest Jewish Baseball Player." Kind of makes our 2011 contests seem wimpy.

While Ufberg portrays the Lions’ matchup with the New York Giants as "nine Davids" versus "nine Goliaths," odds weren’t bad that they might have squared off against a fellow David. In 1923, Giants’ manager John McGraw signed 20-year-old Moses Solomon, who reportedly hit a whopping 48 home runs in the Minors’ League that season, although he didn’t make it into the rotation. If set five years earlier in 1928, the schlubby Lions may have even been jeered by fellow Jews rooting for Giants’ rookie pitching ace second baseman Andy Cohen, whose opening day victory against the Boston Braves led many to believe that they’d found their "long sought hero." Hailed as the first Jew with a regular spot on the New York lineup, Cohen was honored with Andy Cohen Day on September 25 of that year:

Andy Cohen Day was celebrated at the Polo Grounds on Tuesday when the Giants played the Cincinnati Reds. A purse of $1,500 was presented to Andy Cohen for being the first Jewish player to gain a regular place on the New York club. The Hebrew Orphan Asylum band played and many friends of the Jewish player attended the game.

But a month before the ballpark holiday, Frick — prior to being voted President — had already declared Cohen a wash-up. Cohen went on to play several seasons in the minors before being picked up by the Reds in 1935. (That same same year his brother Harry got a trial with the Washington Senators. In 2007, JTA writer Martin Abramowitz wrote that Cohen had "stepped in as Phillies skipper for one game in 1960.")

Why the obsession over who’s Jewish? Weiner explained that John "Mac" McGraw was looking to create a Jewish hero:

John McGraw had his belly laughs and his headaches when it came to finding a Jewish ball player who could play ball and hit. McGraw tried Solomon, Levy, Bentley and Andy Cohen in order to give the Jewish baseball fans all over the country a treat—which was the thing they wanted. All of these men were good in the minors but fizzles in the majors. Some proved flashes in the pan. None of them were big league timber.

Frick’s commentary on McGraw’s quest for the Jewish hero was telling:

"Yes, sir," fricked Ford, "fate and baseball are great pranksters. For a quarter of a century John McGraw searched the highways and byways of the baseball hinterlands for a Jewish ball player of big league calibre.

"But somehow he couldn’t quite find what he sought. He got Andy Cohen but Andy couldn’t hit half as well as he could please the fans, and he faded out of the picture. McGraw came up with Young Levy—but Levy turned out to be a better fiddle player than a pitcher and he too faded quickly into the shadows. Mac tried strategy and guile. He wanted to cater to New York’s huge Jewish population. He wasn’t even above a little trickery. He let it be rumored around that Herzog was Jewish and he never bothered to deny the rumor, either, that Artie Nehf, the great little southpaw, was of Hebraic descent. Neither was, of course—but Mac had his eye on the box office."

As an aside, the Herzog and Nehf story recalls an amusing story that the Forward tracked: when New York Mets’ slugger Mike Jacobs was mistakenly labelled a Jewish hero for a three run homer in his first major league at-bat. The controversy would be reprised when Jacobs joined the Florida Marlins and was curiously honored with a free T-shirt giveaway on Jewish Heritage Day.

In any case, hats off to Ufberg for the clever concept of an all-Jewish pro baseball team. Hopefully the Lions will enjoy as much success as the 1934 undefeated "Jewish nine" in Seattle’s indoor Church league. At the very least, we hope this series will offer the same kind of suspense that Weiner depicted in his make-believe World Series showdown between Detroit Tigers’ legend Hank Greenberg and Giants’ rookie prospect Phil Weintraub (While Greenberg did play in the World Series that year, the latter didn’t make it too far):

If our dreams come true, we shall see the Giants play in the World Series this year right here in New York against the Detroit Tigers. Now imagine the ninth inning of the ball game in the rubber match of the series. It is the fifth game. The Giants have two to their credit and the Detroit Tigers have also won two games. In the early half of the ninth, Greenberg hit a triple with two men on and only the glad pole on the bleachers saved it from being a homer.

The score is now three to two in favor of the Tigers and there are two outs on the Giants with a man on second. Bill Terry sends in Phil Weintraub as a pinch-hitter. The crowds are tense. If Phil comes through with a hit the tieing run will be scored. If he poles a homer he wins the game. The pitcher winds up, the batter crouches—and folks finish it for yourself depending on whether you are rooting for the Giants or plugging for the Tigers…

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