The year was1948 and a great baseball season was unfolding. In the American League, Joe DiMaggio was on his way to a league-leading 39 home runs and 155 RBIs, while Ted Williams would win the batting title with a .369 average.
In the National League, Stan Musial would come close to winning the Triple Crown. He led in average (.376) and RBIs (131) but would finish one shy of the 40 home runs posted by Ralph Kiner and Johnny Mize.
But at this time 60 years ago, Jewish baseball fans were watching the front page more than the sports page. Newspapers in major league cities told of the end of British rule in Palestine, and of Jews around the world celebrating as the State of Israel was proclaimed.
In my hometown of Motown, an estimated 22,000 people gathered on May 16, 1948, at an athletic field of a Detroit public school about three blocks from where my family lived at the time. Older yeshiva students walked to the site while I obediently piled into the yeshiva bus along with the younger kids.
Skywriters outlined the Star of David in white against the blue sky. Hundreds upon hundreds of blue and white flags with the Star of David in the center fluttered gently. I remember shofars blowing and animated dancing, but was really too young to realize the scope of the occasion and wanted the people off the field quickly so our class could play baseball.
For those old enough to follow events through the newspapers, Detroit Free Press staff writer Sam Petok opened his article with the following:
A mournful bray of resolution from Detroit’s Jewry was sounded Sunday and hurled across the seas to the bloodstained soil of a newborn state.
The Shofar, the ram’s horn blown only at sacred holidays, sent its sonorous notes floating into the cloud-flecked skies.
In a hushed moment, 2,000 years of wanderings through the world, of being pilloried, of turning the cheek and of national ignominy flashed through the minds of the throng.
Israel, the Jewish state, had been proclaimed.
A front-page story byWallace R. Duell in the Detroit News provided a sobering reminder of what was ahead:
After almost 2,000 years of aspiration and striving, the new state was being prematurely born. It was not ready for life. Its contours were not yet complete as they had been hoped for and designed. Its organs were not yet fully functioning. Yet it must spring to arms, in the very moment of its birth, for the millions of surrounding Arabs were implacable and would destroy it if they could.
The new Israel was a cartographer’s – and a defending general staff’s – nightmare. It was three almost entirely separate territories, rather than one each touching only one of the others and only at one small point: a narrow coastal strip; a wedge inland in the north at the Sea of Galilee; and a rough triangular shard of a piece of desert in the south pointing to Akaba.
Immediately at hand were the more than 30 million Arabs of seven adjacent states.
While the defenders of the Jewish state fought on, the 1948 baseball season in the United States saw the midseason debut of Negro League superstar Satchel Paige at the age of 42 with the Cleveland Indians. In August, Babe Ruth died at age 53.
As the baseball season wound down, fans of New York teams gave up hope that one of their teams would be in the World Series. The Boston Braves wrapped up the National League pennant by six and a half games over the St. Louis Cardinals, while Brooklyn finished third and the New York Giants came in a distant fifth.
In the American League, the Yankees won 94 games but the Red Sox and Indians finished tied for first with 96 victories, forcing a one-game playoff at Boston’s Fenway Park.
Beantown fans were rooting for a Red Sox victory, which would mean the World Series sites would only be blocks apart. Many Braves players were secretly hoping the Indians would win, as the capacity of Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium was more than twice that of Fenway Park – and more seats meant more ticket sales translating into higher World Series shares for players.
Cleveland manager Lou Boudreau, who also was the Indians’ regular shortstop, would be named the American League’s Most Valuable Player based on his .355 batting average, 18 home runs and 106 RBIs. Boudreau’s two home runs in the playoff game helped defeat the Red Sox.
Johnny Sain, who led the majors with 24 wins, beat Bob Feller 1-0 in the Series opener. Game 5 at Cleveland’s huge stadium drew a then-record attendance of 86,288. The Indians took the Series four games to two. Jewish rookie Al Rosen shared in the excitement but was hitless in his one Series appearance as a pinch-hitter. Jewish superstar Hank Greenberg, who had retired in 1947 with a .313 career average, was in his first year as an executive with the Cleveland Indians.
Each winning player’s share was $6,772 while the losers pocketed $4,571. Now, of course, most players earn more than that for each regular season at-bat. Our national pastime has exploded since Israel fought for its independence. Unfortunately, so has the national pastime in Arab countries – hating Jews and developing ways to destroy Israel.
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Last month I gave my pennant predictions. My choices to top their divisions in the National League were the Mets, Cubs and Diamondbacks. My wild card pick (the team with the best record other than those topping their divisions) was the Braves.
In the American League, I picked the Yankees, Tigers and Mariners to top their divisions and the Red Sox for the wild card. Of course, I can’t predict the future any better than you can, but I base my predictions on the many hours I spend watching baseball along with the knowledge that a season is full of ups and downs.
I see the Mets and Tigers getting hot in the latter stages of the playoffs and advancing to the World Series. The Tigers have a better lineup and would outpace the Mets over the long daily grind of a season with few days off. In a World Series, however, with an off day after the first two games and another after the fifth game, a team only needs three starting pitchers and the Mets will defeat the Tigers in a thrilling seven-game Series.
Chaim Shapiro, a red-hot Cubs fan who grew up in Chicago and is now living in New York, would disagree. Chaim, a knowledgeable guy who reads The Jewish Press, estimates he’s seen more than a thousand games at Wrigley Field and avidly watches the Cubs from New York through MLB.com.
Chaim says this is the year the Cubs will be in the World Series because they have a good team – not because it’s exactly a hundred years since they won a Series. By the way, the team the Cubs beat in 1908 was Ty Cobb’s Tigers.
Irwin Cohen, the author of seven books, headed a national baseball publication for five years before earning a World Series ring working as a department head in a major league front office. His Baseball Insider column appears the second week of each month in The Jewish Press. Cohen, president of the Detroit area’s Agudah shul, may be reached in his dugout at email@example.com.