Sixty years ago, in 1956, baseball icon Connie Mack died at age 93. A former player and manager in the late 1800s, Mack assumed control of the Philadelphia Athletics in the American League’s inaugural year of 1901 and managed the club for the next 50 years, stepping down as manager at age 87.
Elvis Presley hit the national music charts for the first time with “Heartbreak Hotel.” The fairy-tale wedding of the decade turned actress Grace Kelly into a princess as she married Prince Rainier III of Monaco.
Hank Greenberg, at the time a part owner and the general manager of the Cleveland Indians, became the first Jewish player to be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Al Rosen’s home run against the Washington Senators on June 24 was the Cleveland third baseman’s 1,000th career hit.
At the same time, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser was laying the groundwork to seize and nationalize the Suez Canal.
As the summer of 1956 wore on, Nasser closed the Suez Canal and the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping and on July 26 blockaded the Gulf of Aqaba. Israel considered its options, as did France and Britain, who were the largest shareholders in the Suez Canal Company.
Egypt’s Jews felt Nasser’s wrath. Some were imprisoned; others were forced to leave the country after their property and bank accounts were seized.
For Americans, baseball provided an escape, and Jewish Americans followed the exploits of their favorite teams and of the relatively few Jews who wore baseball uniforms.
Plagued by injuries that kept him out of 33 games, the aforementioned Rosen hit only .267 with 15 home runs in 1956. Rosen was just 32 when the 1956 season ended, but his 10-year career with Cleveland would end with a lifetime batting average of .285 and 192 home runs. Rosen could have played in 1957 and beyond if he had accepted a trade to Boston but he opted to retire because his wife was having health issues and he was happy in Cleveland, where he was active in Jewish causes and had a good position with the investment firm of Bache and Company.
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The last time I was slapped by a yeshiva rebbi was on Monday, October 8, 1956.
As recess time approached for our 8th-grade class, I was wondering what was happening at Yankee Stadium.
It was Game 5 of the World Series between the Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers (back then, all World Series games were daytime affairs). Each team had won two games and Game 5 featured Don Larsen pitching for the Yankees against Sal Maglie for the Dodgers.
Maglie had breezed through a seventh straight winning season and brought a remarkable 108-49 career record into the World Series.
Larsen had mediocre career numbers of 30-40 at the time. He was known more for his hitting than his pitching. At one point in his first big league season in 1953, the 6-foot-4 Larsen had seven consecutive hits, but he won only seven games while losing 12 for the St. Louis Browns.
The Browns became the Baltimore Orioles the following season but the move didn’t help Larsen as he won three while losing a whopping 21.
Traded to the Yankees in the off-season, Larsen was demoted to minor-league Denver in May of ’55 and was brought back to the majors by manager Casey Stengel after winning nine of 10 games and hitting 12 home runs. Larsen won nine of 11 decisions with the Yankees and helped himself by hitting two home runs.
The 1956 season was Larsen’s best in his 14-year career. He appeared in 38 games, won 11 and lost 5, and posted a 3.26 ERA.
My pennies were on Maglie and the Dodgers for Game 5. Especially after Maglie had gone all nine innings in Game One, beating the Yankees 6-3. Larsen was lifted in the second inning of Game Two after yielding four walks and a hit. Manager Stengel hated bases on balls.
But 60 years ago I didn’t know about Larsen and his friendship with the Richman family. Writers Art and Milt Richman had hit it off with the tall pitcher a couple of years earlier. Larsen was treated to kosher meals at their mother’s home.
Larsen had dinner with Art Richman on Sunday, October 7. Before departing for his bed at the Grand Concourse Plaza Hotel near Yankee Stadium. Larsen, who knew Art’s mother attended synagogue faithfully, pulled a dollar bill from his wallet.
As Larsen put it in his book The Perfect Yankee, “I gave Arthur a dollar for the synagogue to bring good luck to me and the Yankees. I don’t know why I did that, but looking back it sure worked.”
As soon as afternoon recess began that Monday the 8th, I trotted two blocks to my home and turned on the TV. The Dodgers were batting in the ninth inning and I saw the last two outs of Larsen’s perfect game before running back to yeshiva with a minute to spare.
I encountered a rebbi in the hall and he figured I knew the score. “Larsen pitched a perfect game, and the Yankees won two to nothing, ” I told him.
He slapped me across the face and said, “Don’t lie.” He never apologized, even though I reminded him about it several times over the years. His defense: “Would you believe Larsen would pitch a perfect game against the Brooklyn lineup of Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, Gil Hodges, Duke Snider, and Roy Campanella?”
Twenty-one days after Larsen’s gem, Israel advanced through the Sinai Peninsula and overpowered Egyptian army positions. On the last day of October, British and French planes hit Egyptian airfields near the Suez Canal, forcing Egyptian forces to retreat. International pressure eventually forced a withdrawal of the attacking forces, and Egypt was prevented from further blockading Israeli ships and controlling the Straits of Tiran.
As 1956 came to an end, British and French forces had withdrawn from Egyptian territory. Facing United Nations resolutions and intense pressure from the Eisenhower administration to withdraw its troops, Israel was rescued from sanctions by the tireless efforts of Senate majority leader Lyndon Baines Johnson, who never yielded on standing with and for Israel.