When an elderly, scholarly person passes away, a rare book is lost forever. There are historical stories and Torah insights we will never have a chance to hear again, at least in this world.
My uncle, Rabbi Irving Goldman, zt”l, passed away recently. He was born in Detroit in 1920 and knew early on that he wanted to be a pulpit rabbi. He went to public school because the Detroit he grew up in did not yet have a yeshiva day school. Though he was close to his parents, two sisters and brother, he opted to go to a yeshiva in New York in 1935.
The Detroit of that time was unusual because of the fame of some of its local citizens who had a national stage.
Henry Ford penned and funded many anti-Semitic articles while Father Coughlin (the radio priest) spewed anti-Semitism over the national airwaves. Boxer Joe Louis, Detroit’s Brown Bomber, struck blows for people of color while Jews around the country idolized Detroit Tigers slugger Hank Greenberg.
The Lone Ranger, Green Hornet and Sergeant Preston of the Yukon became heroic figures to a national audience from the top floor of Detroit radio station WXYZ. The programs that originated from Detroit for decades featured an ensemble of actors including several from the local Jewish community. Also from the local Jewish community, the Purple Gang left its mark and operated mainly from the wrong side of the law.
After World War II, my uncle married and became spiritual leader of a shul in New Orleans. On a visit to Detroit in August 1951, he took me to my first-ever night game. I don’t remember who won the game between the Yankees and Tigers, but I do remember we sat on the first base side of the lower deck.
It was late in the game when Joe DiMaggio came out of the dugout to pinch hit. My uncle, who was sitting to my right and who’d seen Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Hank Greenberg on the same field, turned to me and said, “Now, you can say you saw the great DiMaggio hit. He’s retiring this year.”
I watched intently and expected DiMaggio to hit a home run. Instead, he popped up to shortstop Neil Berry, an obscure backup infielder.
Fast forward to July 1977. It was the eve of the All-Star Game, which was played that year at Yankee Stadium. Since I headed a national baseball publication at the time, I was in a small circle of media types allowed access to DiMaggio at a George Steinbrenner-hosted party at the Plaza Hotel.
“I saw you pinch-hit in a night game in Detroit in August, 1951,” I told DiMaggio as we were introduced. “Couldn’t be,” DiMag said a bit skeptically. “You look too young to have seen me play.”
“Yes, I was young, but my uncle took me to the game and you popped up to Neil Berry,” I earnestly told the dapper Hall of Famer, neatly attired in an expensive blue suit, white shirt and red tie. “Neil Berry!” DiMaggio exclaimed before smiling, probably thinking no one would remember Neil Berry.
The word on DiMaggio was that he could be cold, aloof, selfish and downright unfriendly. But I felt we bonded somewhat, at least enough to where I was comfortable enough to ask for an autograph. He complied, and I’m looking at it now on my dugout wall as I write these words.
I ran into DiMaggio again a couple of years later on the baseball beat and he opened the conversation by saying, “I remember you. Your uncle took you to see me pop up to Neil Berry.”
My uncle became rabbi of a shul in South Bend in the early 1950’s. The move meant his wife, son and daughter would be closer to the family in Detroit and Chicago’s kosher shopping. Rabbi Goldman saw a lot of potential in one of the South Bend boys and spent a lot of time convincing his parents to allow their son to attend yeshiva in Detroit.
The youngster went on to star in the yeshiva world and affected his family in South Bend. In time, the family was instrumental in bringing a yeshiva to South Bend. So you could say that all those now working in Torah-type jobs in South Bend are there because of my uncle.
But the yeshiva wasn’t there as the 1950’s ended and the Goldmans opted to move to Chicago. My uncle accepted an opportunity to go into a catering business and my cousins were able to attend day school.
On my first visit to Chicago, in 1963, my uncle took me to see my first National League game and my first game in Wrigley Field. It was the Cubs of Ernie Banks against the Dodgers of Sandy Koufax. Koufax mowed them down on his way to his first great year (25-5,1.88 ERA)
On subsequent visits to Chicago and Wrigley Field in the 60’s, I saw two more games featuring the great Hank Aaron and Willie Mays. The Atlanta Braves downed the Cubs on Aaron’s home run and two years later the San Francisco Giants beat the Cubs on a Mays home run.
The Cubs lost most of the time in the 60’s and lost the Goldmans in the 70’s. Rabbi and Mrs. Goldman made aliyah and took up residence in Jerusalem. Their children were married and also left Chicago. Son Simcha, a rabbi and psychologist, settled in Los Angeles and daughter Judy married a Chicagoan who became a neurosurgeon and took a position in Detroit.
Diagnosed with a disease that couldn’t be cured but had to be endured, Rabbi Goldman returned to Detroit with his wife and moved in with their daughter and son-in-law. Between medical appointments, my uncle busied himself with learning, following current events and the Tigers.
In his final weeks, my uncle did without the pain-killers as much as possible so he could focus more on learning daily with his son-in-law, Dr. Phil Friedman. Phil is one of the three Friedman brothers who sponsored the new Mishna Berura Yomi website (www.mishnaberurayomis.org). You’ve probably seen the ad for it in The Jewish Press.
My uncle had a great laugh and the last time I heard it we were talking baseball, discussing the long-term mega-contracts players get today and how agents really run the game. I told him the story of how negotiations used to be and how Ralph Kiner, who led the league in home runs, came to negotiate a new one-year contract with Pittsburgh executive Branch Rickey.
“Listen here, Kiner,” Rickey bellowed, “we [the Pirates] came in last place with you and we could come in last place without you. This is all you’re getting, so you better sign it.”
Now every time I hear some of the great names of those Hall of Famers, I think about my uncle. If there is a Hall of Fame for great Jews, I’d like to nominate Irving Goldman for induction.
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, who is president of the Detroit area’s Agudah shul, may be reached in his dugout at firstname.lastname@example.org.