I have to admit: four out of my five sons are seriously depressed. I’m not sure if it’s a genetically inherited disease or disorder but my brother, father and maternal grandfather suffered from the malady too.
I’ve named it Depressive Baseball Disorder – and it is a pervasive illness that strikes anywhere between April and September of every year. The degree of impairment is directly related to the Cincinnati Reds win/loss record – exacerbated by the amount of errors accrued and team injuries sustained.
All kidding aside, if you are a diehard Reds fan, you probably aren’t in a good mood. But alas, I unearthed some interesting historical tidbits to offer as a diversion to the present paltry win/loss statistics – many gleaned from a new book by Bob Wechsler entitled “The Jewish Baseball Card Book” and a guided tour of the Red’s Hall of Fame Museum by executive director Rick Walls and chief curator Chris Eckes.
I remember my little brother Steve collecting baseball cards in 1957 – when they were first issued. He meticulously sorted each player’s card by team and each team had a separate stack tightly secured by a rubber band. And he also vigilantly hoarded the powdery pink piece of bubble gum enclosed in each pack – no matter how much I pestered him for a piece. In junior high school, his attention switched to shenanigans like stealing beer from our neighbor’s garage. So, one day, I remember my mom throwing the whole collection in the garbage can. My brother was not amused.
The Jewish Baseball Card Book contains 698 cards – depicting the 169 Jewish major-league players through 2016. Forty-two players appeared in a major league game from 2000 to 2016, among them Kevin Youkilis, whose dad and uncle were raised right around the corner from me in Bond Hill.
After the war, when paper was less scare, the first modern and massive set of Topps baseball cards came along in 1952. It was the brainchild of a Jewish employee of Topps named Sy Berger – who is considered the father of the modern baseball card.
“We had a little-off-the-wall guy named Moishe doing the paintings of the players a mile a minute,” noted Berger. Moishe is believed to be artist Maurice Blumenfeld. He didn’t last long because by 1957 players were depicted by colored photos – a format that ensues today.
Publisher of “The Jewish Baseball Card Book,” Martin Abramowitz, made the following observation: “It has long been recognized that for much of the 20th Century, baseball was a window and a doorway into America for immigrant Jewish families – a way of becoming American.
“No matter if they were black-hatted ultra-observant rabbis or totally secular Jews, they could still engage passionately and on both sides of that critical question, ‘Who was our greatest player – Greenberg or Koufax?’”
Lipman Pike was the first Jewish baseball superstar and had a distinctive mark in Reds’ history according to Ryan Whirty, writing in Cincinnati City Beat in 2014. “Lip” Pike, notes Whirty, arrived in Cincinnati in early 1877 amid a fair amount of hype. During that time, Pike was perhaps the Reds’ first great power hitter and was named the Reds’ captain at the start of 1877. His stay with the Reds was brief, but notable.
Playing center field, Pike was the first Reds player to hit a home-field, out-of-the-park home run.
Born in New York City and raised in Brooklyn, Pike’s family were Jews of Dutch origin. Just one week after his bar mitzvah, he appeared in his first recorded game, according to Wechsler. Even though it was an amateur game, Pike was one of the first players to be acknowledged as a professional and accepted $20 for his services.
Power hitter Pike signed on as captain of the lackluster Cincinnati Reds in 1877. His heroics were not enough, however to keep Cincinnati from finishing last in the league for the second consecutive year. Interesting enough, when Pike was released by Cincinnati for Providence, he beat his old team nine to three.
“Pike was one of the few sons of Israel who ever drifted to the business of ball playing. He was a handsome fellow when he was here, and the way he used to hit that ball was responsible for many a scene of enthusiasm at the old avenue grounds,” according to The Sporting News in 1923. “Pike was one of the greatest sluggers who ever batted for Cincinnati.”
When his baseball career ended, Lip Pike ran a successful haberdashery in Brooklyn and his business became a meeting place for local baseball enthusiasts. He died of heart disease on October 10, 1893, in Brooklyn at the age of 48 and was elected to the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in Netanya, Israel, in 1985.
There are a lot more Jewish men who were and are involved in the game – not just as players and owners, but as announcers like Harry Hartman a relative of Bob Wechsler’s wife, Hope, who is a Cincinnati native.
Check out Wechsler’s book. It’s a wealth of information on Jews and baseball and worth passing down as a great gift for those Cincinnati Reds fans who, at this juncture, could use a little shot of enthusiasm.