A Jewish baseball cards series


BOSTON, Nov. 11 (JTA) — During the annual convention of the Society for American Baseball Research here this summer, Martin Abramowitz of Newton, Mass., invited convention attendees to his home for brunch and a discussion on baseball players from years past with names like Greenberg, Koufax and Reese. However, the Reese mentioned was not Brooklyn Dodger shortstop Pee Wee Reese, but Jimmy Reese, another middle infielder, who played some 70 years ago.

The lesser-known Reese shares a special distinction with Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax — he is one of just 140 Jews ever to play major league baseball, and will be featured in an upcoming set of baseball cards Abramowitz created to celebrate this fascinating aspect of the Jewish experience in America.

Abramowitz is the founder of Jewish Major Leaguers, a nonprofit organization based in Newton (actually, in Abramowitz’s home) that is collaborating on the project with the American Jewish Historical Society and a card manufacturer to be determined.

He hopes that the first set of cards will bring attention to men like Reese, a second baseman for the Yankees during the 1930 and 1931 seasons who roomed on road trips with none other than Babe Ruth. (Though, as Reese often quipped, he spent more time in the hotel with the Babe’s luggage than the Bambino himself.)

Abramowitz, the vice president of planning and agency relations with Combined Jewish Philanthropies, Boston’s Jewish federation, has become a baseball historian through his efforts to help honor Jewish Americans who appeared in a major league game from 1871 to the present. During baseball’s early years, Reese and other Jews sometimes concealed their religion. The story of how Reese revealed his Jewish identity is quite amusing.

“Reese changed his given name to Jimmy Reese, and no one knew that he was Jewish when he broke in with the Yankees in 1930,” Abramowitz. Reese batted .346 in his rookie year with the Bronx Bombers, and was an astounding 10 for 20 that season as a pinch-hitter. “One day, in an exhibition game, Reese stepped into the batter’s box against a Jewish pitcher and Jewish catcher who communicated their signs in Yiddish. Reese feasted on this pitcher in the past, and the catcher was perplexed.”

“You are hitting the ball extremely well against us — it’s as if you know what we’re going to throw before the ball comes to the plate” the catcher said to Reese, according to Abramowitz. “We’re giving each other signs in Yiddish — there is no way that you could know that.” “Reese paused, then he told the catcher, ‘My name is Hymie Solomon.’ ” Reese and the other Jewish baseball players honored in this card set are taken from an official list compiled by the Jewish Sports Review in Los Angeles.

The list includes Hall of Famers like Greenberg, who challenged Ruth’s single-season home run record in 1938 when he bashed 58 round-trippers for the Detroit Tigers, as well as today’s legends-in-the making, like Los Angeles Dodger Shawn Green, who blasted four homers in a memorable 6-for-6 performance in May.

The historical society hopes to be able to release this set by Opening Day 2003, but the release is pending final approval of Major League Baseball, the Major League Baseball Players Association, the Major League Players Alumni Association and the players themselves. The society is currently in discussions with these organizations concerning licensing issues. It is estimated that 10,000 sets of the cards will be produced and sold at a price of $36 per set.

The cards will be marketed primarily through a network of Jewish congregations, gift shops, museums, bookstores, catalogues and the Jewish media. The National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., has expressed interest in selling the cards as well. The process of documenting player achievements, learning their stories, and locating pictures has significantly advanced scholarship on Jews in baseball. In a letter to the historical society, Timothy Wiles, director of research at the Baseball Hall of Fame, wrote glowingly of the Jewish card series.

“This card set is a significant, highly readable, and well-researched contribution to the documentary record of both baseball and the participation of Jews in the game,” Wiles said. Abramowitz, whom Wiles invited to speak at the Hall of Fame about his efforts to put together the card set, is proud of what the project will accomplish.

“When we issue the Jewish Major Leaguers set, it will be the first major-league card for about 50 players and the first card of any kind for about 40 players,” said Abramowitz, who noted the official title of the set will be American Jews in America’s Game, 1871-2002. “The first Jewish player to use his obviously Jewish name was Andy Cohen, a second baseman with the New York Giants in the 1920s, and the total number of Jews in major league baseball comprise one-tenth of 1 percent of all who made it to the majors.”

Abramowitz tapped into an eclectic network of baseball afficionados to create the cards, including the late George Brace, a Chicago-area photographer who took at least one picture of every major leaguer who passed through the Windy City to play either the Cubs or the White Sox from the late ’20s until the early ‘90s.

While the Hall of Fame provided some photographs, Brace furnished Abramowitz with all but a handful of the pictures needed. To obtain the remaining photos, Abramowitz and his colleagues added to the record of Jews in the major leagues with some original research. Hours and hours were spent poring through obituaries and newspaper archives to locate the families of these players in the hopes of getting a picture for the front of their cards.

During this effort, Abramowitz discovered another Jewish baseball player initially omitted from the Jewish Sports Review’s list — Sam Fishburn, an infielder who made his debut with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1919. For Abramowitz, the opportunity to issue cards for Fishburn and other Jewish major leaguers who were never recognized for their unique distinction motivated him to see the project to fruition.

“I really wanted these guys to have cards, to have a slice of immortality,” said Abramowitz, whose teenage son, Jacob, encouraged him to create a set of cards for past and present Jewish major leaguers and sketched the design for the card logo. “Baseball cards represent an American sports icon, and I wanted these guys to be memorialized in some clear way. I feel very responsible for their image and seeing that their names live on in the history of baseball.”

Abramowitz has advanced $25,000 of his own money so far into the project — that sum has paid for design work on the cards, rights to photos, research and premarketing expenses. AJHS has stepped up to the plate to repay Abramowitz for his initial investment — the cards, when issued, will be an AJHS product. More funds will be required to pay for the actual production costs, and the AJHS is seeking to raise about $45,000 for this effort. For more information on “American Jews in America’s Game, 1871-2001,” send an e-mail to jewishmajorleaguers@rcn.com.

The American Jewish Historical Society plans to host an exhibit of the cards and associated memorabilia in the spring. Contact the AJHS for details (ajhs@ajhs.org).

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