Half a century ago, in February 1968, baseball lifer Jake Pitler died at the age of 73. Pitler had a brief major league career as a second baseman with Barney Dryfuss’s Pittsburgh Pirates in 1917 and 1918 before embarking on a long managerial career at several minor league levels.
In 1947, Pitler became a coach for the Brooklyn Dodgers and a familiar face in the first base coaching box for the next decade – except on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when he went to religious services.
Two months after Pitler’s passing, another Jew, Mike Epstein, was sent to the minor leagues. Recalled to the major leagues by Washington the following June, Epstein homered in his first game back.
In August 1968, Jewish outfielders Norm Miller and Art Shamsky hit home runs with the bases loaded. Shamsky ended the season with 12 homers and a mediocre .238 average for the Mets while Miller batted one point less than Shamsky with six home runs. Mike Epstein’s .234 batting average was three points less than Miller’s, but he led Jewish major leaguers in home runs with 13.
Another Jew, Ken Holtzman, lost three more games than the 11 he won for the Cubs, but posted an impressive 3.35 earned run average.
Meanwhile, Larry Sherry’s big-league career ended in 1968. In 400 relief appearances and 16 starts over an 11-year span, Sherry’s career numbers were 53-44 with a 3.67 ERA with the Dodgers, Tigers, Astros, and California Angels.
The Sherry brothers were the last pair of Jewish brothers to play major league baseball. Earlier Jewish brothers were Jacob and Lipman Pike, Erskine and Sam Mayer, Harry and Lou Rosenberg, Andy and Syd Cohen, and Harry and Ike Danning.
The 1968 baseball season was especially memorable because it was the last time a pitcher won 30 games and because it saw the end of Mickey Mantle’s playing career. Twenty-four-year-old Detroit Tigers pitcher Denny McLain had already notched his 30th victory of the season when he faced off against the New York Yankees on September 19, 1968.
The Tigers had already clinched the pennant and only 9,063 fans paid their way into Tiger Stadium on that bleak Thursday afternoon in Detroit. It was the eighth inning and the Tigers had a comfortable 6-1 lead. It was Mantle’s last time up at bat in Detroit, and McLain, who grew up with Mantle as his favorite player, decided to give the Yankee superstar a retirement gift.
Tigers all-star catcher Bill Freehan had the day off, and backup catcher Jim Price was behind the plate. McLain called time and motioned to Price to come to the mound.
“Let’s see if Mantle could hit one out,” McLain whispered to Price. “He needs one more home run to set some kind of mark.” (Mantle was tied with Jimmie Foxx at 535 career home runs.)
Price countered with, “You can’t do that. It would be cheating.” McLain reasoned that the Tigers would still be ahead if Mantle homered. Price acquiesced agreed and McLain instructed him to tell Mantle to be ready. A switch-hitter, Mantle batted left-handed off the colorful Tigers right-hander.
McLain put a slow fastball right down the pike and Mantle took it for a called strike. Price told Mantle to get ready for another one. Mantle asked, “Are you sure?” Price said, “Yes, I am.” But Mantle wasn’t and let another easy pitch go by for strike two. Mantle then dug in and managed a foul ball on another easy pitch.
With the umpire keeping quiet, Mantle put his hand over the plate belt high, showing McLain where he wanted the next pitch. McLain got the message and delivered, and Mantle smacked it into the right field seats. As he rounded third base, Mantle took off his hat and smiled at McLain – who would go on to win his 31st game of the season.
McLain was the toast of the baseball world that year and into the off-season. He was a pilot and often flew, and even picked up several musical gigs, playing the organ as well as he could pitch. He was as comfortable on stage in Las Vegas as he was on a pitching mound.
Of course, I didn’t know it 50 years ago, but five years after McLain won his 31st game of the season, he would give me a check for my first baseball-related writing job. But that’s another story for another time.