As you know from my last column, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball 75 years ago in 1947 by becoming the first black player in modern big league history. But 1947, was one of those years that was full of history and many more columns could be written from the happenings of that year.
1947 was Hank Greenberg’s last season as a player and that will be the subject of a future column, but let’s focus on two Jewish former players who started new chapters of their baseball life in 1947. Jake Pitler and Max Patkin were proud Jews and very popular with teammates and even more popular with fans.
Jake Pitler grew up in Pittsburgh and loved going to Forbes Field to watch the Pirates and their great shortstop Honus Wagner. When he was old enough he kept in shape going up and down the rows of seats selling scorecards and peanuts. His baseball skills were good enough to play in the low minor leagues in 1913 and two years later the five foot seven inch second baseman was playing for Chattanooga and his .364 batting average in 42 games brought him back to Pittsburgh as owner Barney Dreyfuss bought his contract.
As more and more players were off serving in World War One, Pitler played in 109 games. His biggest game was on August 22 as he played in a 22-inning loss to the Brooklyn Dodgers and compiled a record 15 putouts for a second baseman. Pitler’s big league playing career ended after only three games in 1918 after compiling a career .232 average in 383 at bats without hitting a home run. Jake refused a minor league assignment from the Pirates and opted to play semi-pro ball around Pennsylvania and New York. He settled in Binghamton in 1928 and after playing in the New York-Penn League became a manager for Scranton in 1934 and his leadership skills led to a managerial position in the Brooklyn organization five years later.
Thirty years after his major league debut as a second baseman for the Pirates, Pitler was hired by the Brooklyn Dodgers as a first base coach with the stipulation that he would take off on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. He was a friend and mentor to Jackie Robinson and to many other Brooklyn players including Sandy Koufax, who signed with the Dodgers in 1955. New managers usually change some or all coaches every time they’re hired, but the popular Pitler coached under four different managers in his 11 years with Brooklyn.
Pitler was honored with a special “Jake Pitler Night” twice (1954 and 1956) and given many gifts. In 1956 he donated $3,000 that was raised for him to the new Strausberg Wing of Brooklyn’s Beth-El Hospital. Pitler decided to leave the Dodgers after the 1957 season rather than go with the franchise to Los Angeles. He couldn’t get used to Brooklyn without the Dodgers and eventually returned to Binghamton, New York, where he died at 73 in 1968.
Max Patkin had a long career in baseball as an entertainer. His trademark was wearing a baggy uniform with a large question mark on his back instead of a uniform number. Born to Russian immigrant parents in Philadelphia in 1920 he saw his first game with his Hebrew school class eight years later. Max grew into a tall, gangly athlete, good enough to be offered a pro contract and become a pitcher in the minor leagues. While serving in the Navy in 1944, Patkin’s team faced Joe DiMaggio’s. The Yankees outfielder homered off Patkin, and Max followed DiMaggio around the bases clowning along the way. Soldier spectators loved it, while the Yankees star didn’t. Patkin, though, loved the applause and laughs and decided to incorporate some antics into his pitching.
After the war, Patkin resumed his minor league career but was soon released as a pitcher. However, he decided to stay in the game as an entertainer. Hired by the Cleveland Indians to perform and be the first base coach during spring training games, Patkin’s antics went over so well with colorful owner Bill Veeck, he was hired as a first base coach and as a drawing card. The team did so well in 1947 that ownership thought the fans were coming anyway and Max’s shtick wasn’t needed anymore.
Max polished his act in the off season and booked himself into as many minor league ballparks as he could for one-night stands. He would mimic players on both teams and walked up and down the foul lines in his tall, gangly manner.
Bill Veeck sold the Cleveland Indians and bought the lowly St. Louis Browns in 1951 and hired Max to be a clown-coach. Veeck was famous for having a midget bat in an actual game in ’51, but that’s another story for the future. When Veeck sold the Browns and they became the Baltimore Orioles in 1954, Patkin was out of a job and resumed booking himself in one-night stands around the minor league circuit.
When Bill Veeck bought the Chicago White Sox he brought Max back to entertain the fans on September 19, 1978. Jewish fans and Jewish players Ron Blomberg, Steve Stone and Ross Baumgarten were happy. Blomberg hit an eight inning bases loaded home run and the ChiSox would go on to win the game behind pitchers Stone and Baumgarten. Patkin had a small role as himself in the movie, “Bull Durham,” and worked with many famous entertainers including Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Groucho Marx and Dick Van Dyke.
Max, a long-time resident of the Philadelphia area, retired at 76 in 1996 and moved into his daughter’s home. He died of a heart aneurysm while hospitalized three years later in the last week of October. “My whole life was built around baseball,” Patkin once told an interviewer. “I’d even wear my baseball hat to dinner. I didn’t take it off until I went to bed and then I’d put it under my pillow with my old glove that I got from Jim Thorpe (famous native American athlete and former major leaguer). I loved the adulation, I loved being Max Patkin, the Clown Prince of Baseball.”