In the July 23 issue of The Jewish Press I mentioned that our two new favorite players, Jacob Steinmetz and Elie Kligman, are about 6-foot-five. While Steinmetz may have exceeded that figure by an inch, Kligman is an inch over six feet. In the same issue of The Jewish Press, Alan Zeitlin wrote a great article about the two players and commented, “If both players were to make the big leagues they are believed to be the second and third observant players to play in the pros – after shortstop Morrie Arnovich who played in the 1930s and ’40s, decades before the first MLB draft in 1965, and was a shortstop for the Phillies and Reds.”
Let’s take a closer look at Arnovich. Morris was born on November 16, 1910, into an Orthodox family in Superior, Wisconsin. Superior was inferior to the closest big Jewish towns. Milwaukee was 327 miles away and the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul were closer by about 200 miles. Morrie’s parents wanted him to be a rabbi, but Morrie preferred playing baseball and basketball to religious studies. He was good enough to catch the attention of baseball scouts and played semi-pro ball on Sundays to pick up some extra dollars. Veteran baseball minds advised him to not play the infield and concentrate on the outfield only. He starred in the outfield and was signed to a professional baseball contract by the Philadelphia Phillies.
After spending three seasons in the minor league system of the Phillies, Morrie was brought up to the majors in the last weeks of the 1936 season and impressed the manager and coaches by batting .313 in 48 at-bats. The following year, he became a regular outfielder for the Phillies and batted .290 with ten home runs. While Jewish fans were concentrating on Hank Greenberg’s efforts to pass Babe Ruth’s single season home run record of 60 in 1938 (Greenberg ended the season with 58), Jewish baseball history was made on August 20, 1938.
Three Jewish players involved in the game between the Phillies and New York Giants – Arnovich, Harry Danning and Phil Weintraub – all hit home runs. Danning’s Giants edged the Phillies 9-8. Morrie got off to a fast start in 1939 and his five hits in one game on May 17 sent his batting average soaring over .400. But he was worried over the news in the papers and on radio following the ocean liner S.S. St. Louis, which became known as the “Voyage of the Damned.” The ship was denied entry to Cuba and desperate pleas to America, Canada and other countries to accept its Jewish passengers were rebuffed. Also in May of ’39, the British issued a White Paper that limited Jewish immigration to Palestine to only 75,000 over a five-year period.
As the Jews of Europe were looking for avenues of escape, the Jewish community of Philadelphia was staging “Morrie Arnovich Day” on a scheduled Sunday double-header between the Phillies and Pittsburgh Pirates. The Associated Press wrote, “A crowd of 13,000, including his father, Charles, 54, of Superior, Wis., saw Arnovich, the National League’s leading hitter, presented with a complete fishing outfit between games. It was the first time Arnovich’s father has seen him play in the major leagues.” Morrie had two hits in eight trips to the plate in the twin bill that the teams split.
Morrie was honored to be one of three Jewish players to participate in the 1939 Hall of Fame Dedication Game at Cooperstown, New York, in 1939, along with Moe Berg and Hank Greenberg.
But the biggest honor was being elected by fans to the National League All-Star team in July at Yankee Stadium. Deeply disappointed he didn’t get in the game, he still enjoyed being around baseball’s greatest stars of the time and went on to have his best season with an average of .324.
Arnovich was dealt to the Cincinnati Reds during the 1940 season and went to the World Series with the Reds. He saw action in game four against the Tigers in Detroit; he was hitless in two at-bats but received a World Series share and ring as the Reds won in seven games. After the season, the Reds sold Morrie to the New York Giants where he would be part of Jewish baseball history in the 1941 season.
On September 21, 1941, four Jewish players were in the starting lineup for the New York Giants. Arnovich was in left field, rookie Sid Gordon in center field, Harry Danning was catching and Harry Feldman was pitching. The game only took one hour and 39 minutes as the Giants won 4-0. Morrie spent the next four baseball seasons in military service. Discharged in January 1946, the 35-year-old Arnovich signed on with the Giants again, but was released after playing in only one game as it was obvious that he didn’t have the mobility he had before he entered military service. But Morrie was on the Giants long enough in 1946 to be one of five Jewish players on the team that year. The others were, Harry Feldman, Sid Gordon, Goody Rosen and Mike Schemer.
Arnovich had a career batting average of .287 and played in 590 big league games, all in the outfield. While he played on Shabbos and most Yom Tovim, he stayed away from non-kosher foods to the best of his ability.
The popular Morrie signed on with the Cubs organization as player-manager in four different minor league towns before returning to his Superior hometown. He kept busy by scouting for the Phillies, operated a jewelry store and sporting goods store with his wife, Bertha, coached various sports teams in the area, and was active in the town’s small Jewish community, and served as president of the Hebrew Brotherhood Congregation. A heart attack claimed Morrie on July 20, 1959, four months shy of his 49th birthday.