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Museum Seeks Jews’ Memories of Baseball

Do you remember where you were when Sandy Koufax said he would not play on Yom Kippur. The National Museum of American Jewish History is looking for you.
By:
A baseball signed by Sandy Koufax displayed in National Museum of American Jewish History.

A baseball signed by Sandy Koufax displayed in National Museum of American Jewish History.
Photo Credit: National Museum of American Jewish History

Josh Perelman is seeking kin — but not his own. Rather, Perelman is on a quest for families and individuals who will share memories, artifacts and pictures that help tell the story of the American Jewish relationship with baseball.

As chief curator for the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, Perelman is mounting an exhibition that will open next March. Instead of focusing solely on American Jewish baseball icons such as Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, the exhibit is meant to be grass roots and personal, revealing how Jews connected to this country and to each other through America’s national pastime.

The connections need not be related to professional baseball, Perelman said. They could involve memories such as rushing through dinner to make Little League games, reminiscences of playing ball in Jewish summer camps and displays of team uniforms that were sponsored by Jewish businesses.

When a caller mentioned to Perelman a friend’s b’nai mitzvah at which guests were seated at tables named for Jewish Major Leaguers — including Lipman Pike, considered the first Jewish professional baseball player — Perelman expressed interest in obtaining a seating card from the event.

On a website launched last week by the museum, fans are encouraged to alert the museum to what items they might want to donate or lend, as well as to stories about the person’s connections to baseball.

Some items to be displayed in the museum might not relate to Jewish ballplayers at all but will help illuminate the exhibit’s theme, “Chasing Dreams: Baseball and Jews in America.”

For example, Paul Newman of Philadelphia posted photographs of two baseballs that were signed long ago by Pete Rose and Johnny Bench, stars on the Reds’ championship teams in the 1970s. The players personalized their autographs for Newman’s late father, Rabbi Max Newman, of Cincinnati.

Another photo shows former Dodgers pitcher Carl Erskine posing in 2011 with a smiling Rebecca Alpert, a professor of religion and women’s studies at Temple University. Alpert wrote in the post that she “grew up believing that rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers was what Jews were supposed to do because the Dodgers integrated baseball and represented the working class.”

Many of the items that respondents mentioned, posted or offered to the curators relate, of course, to Jewish Major Leaguers: a brilliant color image of a very young Koufax wearing his Brooklyn cap as he delivered a pitch against a backdrop of trees and a blue sky; photos from the 1970s of Washington Senators first baseman Mike Epstein fielding and sliding; and a black-and-white shot of Greenberg with boxing champion Joe Louis, under which the unidentified emailer wrote, “Jews have long regarded themselves as a people on the outside looking in. African-American heroes like Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson have been part of ‘our crowd.’ ”

“The story of Jews in baseball has typically been told by focusing on Major League Baseball, and counting up how many Jews played in Major League Baseball and disputing who’s a Jew and who’s not a Jew: Was Elliott Maddox Jewish? Was Rod Carew Jewish?” John Thorn, the lead consultant for the exhibition, said by telephone. “To me, the far more interesting story was on the other side of the television set: What was the ordinary Jew’s experience with baseball? How did baseball become a binding, integrating, assimilating force in Jewish life?”

Aside from his professional qualifications as Major League Baseball’s official historian, Thorn is in a unique position to examine the issue. Thorn, who is Jewish, was born in a displaced person’s camp in Germany after World War II and settled with his parents in New York. Baseball, particularly the experience of collecting baseball cards, was how the young Thorn made his way in his adopted country — his “visa to America,” Thorn said.

“The story of baseball being more than a game, which is a cliche, of course, resonated for me particularly,” he said.

Up to 200 artifacts will fill the 2,400 square feet on the museum’s fifth floor. After closing at the end of the 2014 baseball season, the exhibit will tour nationally, with smaller versions visiting Jewish community centers, synagogues, historical societies, libraries and stadiums, Perelman said.

Besides the general public, items will come from the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, the American Jewish Historical Society and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. Bud Selig, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, is among those serving on the advisory committee.

What item would Perelman most like to acquire for display?

A bat, glove or personal item relating to Pike would be nice, he said.

The ultimate catch, though, would be the High Holy Days ticket that Koufax didn’t use after making his celebrated decision to sit out Game 1 of the 1965 World Series against the Minnesota Twins because it fell on Yom Kippur.

“As many shuls as there are in Minnesota, that’s how many claim he was there” to observe the day, Perelman said.

The ticket, Perelman added — his slyness detectable even over the phone — is something “I know doesn’t exist because he didn’t go to services.”

This article was written for JTA by Hillel Kuttler in his ‘Seeking Kin’ column that aims to help reunite long-lost relatives and friends.

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9 Responses to “Museum Seeks Jews’ Memories of Baseball”

  1. David Nachenberg says:

    I have lyrics to a Baseball Rap, which I would like them to include…please e mail me or message me on Facebook to let me know how to send it. Thanks. David Nachenberg (Rap Daddy D)…also have articles I have written for a few publications…e mail me and I will send them as attachments, or send links. rapdaddyd@gmail.com

  2. Ahron Ebert says:

    Why is the JP caring a story about an anti Judasim museum?

  3. Anonymous says:

    I found this amazing Jewish Baseball player autographed artwork that would be perfect for the museum! Check it out at- http://www.jewishbaseballplayer.com.

  4. As a secular Jew, and atheist to boot, I did not care what Sandy Koufax did or did not on Yom Kipper: the holiday, lamented Talmud scholar Woody Allen, when Jews all over the world thanked god for breaking all of his promises to his (?) chosen people. Moreover, we could care less for the Dodgers, O'Malleys transplants to LA. Indeed, many Dodger fans converted to the Mets of Queens and eve, you should pardon the expression, those damned Yankees in the Bronx. We admired Koufax for his immense talent, which evoked praise from Bob Feller, no mean pitcher in his own right. Rapid Robert claimed that our Sandy was the best pitcher during his lifetime. Sadly, the brilliant southpaw could not display his craft in Brooklyn because manager Walt Alston used his sparingly. After a hurling a two-hit shutout in 1955, his rookie year, he did not pitch again for six long weeks. That hiatus prompted Jackie Robinson to complain. Alston may have feared Sandy's alleged wildness. Some of us intuited anti-Semisitsm. Ver veyst? Who knows? In the last analysis, Sandy Koufax, gave Jews–religious–or not shtoltz (pride). Who–in the Gershwin groove–could ask for anything more?

  5. Dan Silagi says:

    I always felt that Koufax, who wasn't religious in the slightest, bowed to rabbinical pressure by not pitching on Yom Kippur. Here was a guy who married not one but TWO shikses, and is now in a relationship with a third, who was Laura Bush's roommate in college. Hey, if Koufax was in the least bit religious, I'd have applauded his decision. If it were me, I'd have pitched, and would have told the rabbis to stick it in their ears. BTW, Drysdale, who started the game in place of Koufax, lost it, 8-2.

  6. Dan Silagi says:

    Not that I have any problem at all with marrying out. :)

  7. It was Bob Feller who famously commented that Jackie Robinson wouldn't make it in the majors. So much for him being a good judge of talent. Those who switched their allegiance to the Mets or Yankees when the Dodgers left Brooklyn were home-town fans, not team fans. There were millions of Dodger fans who never saw Ebbets Field, never saw the city of churches, never got within 1000 miles of Brooklyn but who nevertheless lived and died with the Dodgers. I raise my hand as an example. Robinson was my hero, from the moment he broke in to the majors in 1947. I wasn't about abandon that team simply because they changed cities. When the Bums left Brooklyn, I followed them to LA. To leave the Dodgers because they left Brooklyn is to consign them to a parochial setting. They were bigger than that. To accuse Alston of not pitching Koufax because he was Jewish is silly; in Brooklyn? That's a serious accusation against a great Hall of Fame manager.

  8. I guess he might have thought Hank Greenberg was just showing off "by not "playng on Yom Kippur"

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